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Laxdoela Saga
publisher: , ca. 1000-1500

translated as:
The Saga of the People of Laxardal (in 'The Sagas of Icelanders')
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 2001
translation: various

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The prose narrative, novel-like tradition of the Icelandic saga flowered in medieval Iceland between the first half of the 13th century and the middle of the 14th century. Several writers of Icelandic literature are known - Ari Thorgilsson, who wrote the history of Iceland at the beginning of the 12th century, and Snorri Sturluson, who compiled the legends and myths of the prose Edda in the middle of the 13th century. Some believe that The Saga of the People of Laxardal was written by a woman.

The action of the saga takes place at the end of the 10th century, at about the time Scandinavia was converting from worship of Norse gods to Christianity. After a preliminary explanation of why the original settlers left Norway and how they settled the valley of the Lax (Salmon) River, the story focuses on two families - that of Hoskuld, a prominent farmer with several sons, and that of Gudrun, the most beautiful woman ever born in Iceland. As a young woman, Gudrun has four dreams that predict the fate of her four marriages. Hoskuld has several sons, of whom two, Kjartan and Bolli, are the most beautiful and promising. Gudrun is a strong-minded woman - she gets rid of husband number one in favour of husband number two, but husband number two is drowned. She then falls in love with Kjartan, and when he decides to go to Norway to seek his fortune, she asks to go along, but he refuses to take her. While he is gone, Bolli asks to marry her, telling her that Kjartan has lost interest in her in favour of the Norwegian king's daughter. When Kjartan returns, wealthy and more handsome than ever, Bolli and Gudrun are already married. Jealousy, envy, spite, conflict and killings ensue. The feud spreads around the valley, with betrayal and trickery the order of the day, until at last all family representatives are satisfied with their compensation and Gudrun devotes herself to religion. One of the most famous exchanges in all of Icelandic literature happens at the very end, when Gudrun's son asks her which of her husbands she preferred. She says: "Him I treated worst was the one I loved the best." She means Kjartan, whom she goaded her husband Bolli to kill.

The writers of the Icelandic sagas were a good deal more cryptic than Murasaki Shikibu, whom I discussed last week. They specialised in the economically rendered but telling detail, and the reader has to be alert to pick up the undercurrents of the story. The contemporary audiences of the sagas were interested not only in what happened, but also who was who and who their 13th-century descendants were - the sagas worked as genealogy and geography, not only as stories. And all the saga writers were aware of what the other saga writers were writing about - the sagas had many characters in common and many formal effects in common. For example, it often happens in a saga that a character wants to do something that others think is unwise. When he proposes this
course of action, the standard reply is: "You will do as you wish in any case." There is also a customary use of understatement - toward the end of the Laxardal saga, men surround the sheep-tending hut of one of the characters. When he injures one of them with a spear thrust through a window, the other members of the ambush remark "that there must be men inside".

The Icelandic sagas were written about an armed society full of hot-headed citizens with strong propensities toward violence. The characters often make choices we might find difficult to understand. At the beginning of the Laxardal saga, one man cheats another out of his half of a catch of fish. A few days later, the cheated man comes up behind him and cuts off his head. He is in turn pursued by the first man's relatives. In spite of her third dream, which predicts the death of her third husband through killing, Gudrun goads and belittles him and promotes conflict. In part, the strangeness of the Icelandic sagas comes from their focus - most were written in a time of widespread fighting (in fact, the society the sagas depict was probably more peaceful than the sagas make it seem). The sagas relate a sequence of events without delving into the psychology of the participants - characters rarely reveal their motivation, except by an ironic sentence or two. The sagas, therefore, add up to a theory of human behaviour, but neither the characters nor the narrators discourse about that theory. The theory is simple and brutal - people do what they are fated to do, actions are quite often foolish, only the wisest manage to avoid disaster, and the best attitude is one of stoic irony.

The result is an ambience of impending doom and mischance, and the absence of free will and a sense of spiritual redemption. The characters are enslaved by their impetuosity and pride, benumbed by the repeated destruction of their relationships. When they foresee evil outcomes, their expressions of regret are muted and rueful. Not for the Norse men and women those floods of tears that Murasaki Shikibu's characters indulge in. For these Norse, life is so fleeting that they don't even have the luxury to reflect upon how fleeting it is.

For the modern reader, though, the Norse characters share with the Japanese characters unfamiliar moral standards. Gudrun is frequently called the greatest heroine of the sagas, but she does not have the moral characteristics of appealing modern heroines. She is powerful, greedy, angry, envious, treacherous, and unloving, but she is never judged for these traits. Her beauty and the grandness of her story are what elevate her to greatness. Like Shikibu's Genji, she can commit what we would call "sins" or "crimes" because she exists outside later Christian moral precepts and outside the ordinary - that is her claim to being a worthy protagonist.

- Jane Smiley, The Gurdian, 8 April 2006


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