The Icelandic Sagas

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Every year during the holidays I begin rereading the Icelandic Saga’s. Jane Smiley’s translations (along with others in this version) seem appropriate and since I do not know the language, her works have opened my eyes to this ancient world view better than most earlier translations I read as a child. Magnus Magnusson’s translations are keener, and thereby more brutal, but need a little more knowledge of the rhythms of the land and peoples.

The first of many Saga’s is Egil Skallagrim’s which is something like a must in my reflections, since it above many of the others incarnates the obstinancy and anti-authoritarian spirit of my own upbringing and stance. If there was a Batman or Superman before such superheroes were invented, we have Egil – who is no superhero, but a man living in a brutal world of elemental justice and indifference; yet, a man who discovers his own truth and ways within this brutal order of things. Above all it’s his sense of justice, not some high-minded sense of social justice, but that of an inner voice or guide to his own sense of ethical notions that shapes the pattern of his life, the force of his mind and spirit. I guess I’ll always be a rotgut believer and defender of the poor, the innocent, and the disenfranchised and expulsed, who seem forever to be cast down and out of our supposed financial paradises due to bad luck, bad choices, or just plain indifference within our social systems due to disease, finances, corruption or whatever…. As Smiley says:

“Egil’s enemies are motivated by treachery, self-interest and malice, and he confronts them as his forebears did, with the family traits of obstinacy, ruthlessness, animal strength and an instinctive inability to accept authority. To his friend and advocate Arinbjorn in Norway, however, and to others whose favour he wins, Egil shows loyalty and unswerving devotion, and he heroically adheres to a brutal but not entirely unappealing sense of justice.”

When one wants to discover the roots of American noir and the hard-boiled world view one could do no better than to return to the realism and stark impersonalism of the Sagas. The Sagas, although showing forth the various underpinnings of the life of men in these northern climes, it is the drama of the land, sky, and sea that is not only the backdrop but the main character of all these tales. What Lovecraft saw as metaphysical horror, the Scandinavians just took in stride as the way of things in the natural world of which humans were just one among other brutal things to be dealt with through struggle and confrontation as part of the agon of existence. In some ways civilization, which is a defense system against the brutality of existence, has become itself the very epitome of the natural brutal order which in our time seems to be no longer a defense against nature, but the very monstrous beast that is destroying its children. One could do no better than returning to the harsh worlds of the ancestral realms of these brutal Vikings to learn how to survive the coming ruins of civilization.  In fact the heroic today is simply this: to join neither the brutality of society nor that of the elements, but to stand in-between within the integrity of one’s own sense of elemental justice and integrity.

4 thoughts on “The Icelandic Sagas

  1. Thanks, this was nice to read. Icelandic history is kind of unique in the sense that they could read and write long ago, even the working classes and the poor. So unlike European history where you tend to just get the perspectives of the upper class, with Icelanders you can get a feel for what it was like to be a fisherman, for example. Not long ago I read a tale about the women who once did so much fishing themselves. Women began leading those fleets because they were so much better at predicting the weather and bringing everyone home alive. It was very interesting. Our kid has always been fascinated with Iceland so she just went and spent a few weeks there.

    Liked by 1 person

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