Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Why Icelandic sagas are like Richard Stark's Parker

The Icelandic sagas remind me a bit of Richard Stark's Parker. Their characters talk no more than they need to (except when reciting poetry),  they engage in minimal introspection, and their heroes know how to get the job done.  And Egil's Saga has its title character wreaking single-handed havoc on an opponent's stronghold in way that may remind readers of what Parker, Grofield, and company do to the island casino in The Handle.

I read Egil's Saga in a translation by the late Bernard Scudder, the much respected translator of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Arnaldur Indriðason, and the bracing informality of his version makes it lot more readable than one might suspect from the witty aura of airbrushed sword-and-sorcery fantasy balderdash that surrounds the idea of Vikings. Two favorite examples:
"As he grew up, it soon became clear he would turn out very ugly and resemble his father ... " (and that's the hero of the story.)
and
"Helga replied, ‘Even though you are so stupid that you cannot look after yourself, I will bring it about that this duel never takes place.’"
That's another thing about the sagas: the protagonists are men, but the women could inherit property, talk tough, and kick ass in a way I'm not sure was common in other 13th-century European literature.  Maybe that brisk directness is a feature of the original Old Norse, but if that's the case, Scudder wisely highlights it. No wifty swords and sorcery here.

And you want stories that cross borders? Egil's Saga is set in Iceland, Norway, England, Scotland, Lapland, Finland, around the Baltic Sea, and Eastern Europe, with additional mentions of journeys to France and Ireland (the Vikings founded Dublin and other Irish cities, after all.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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6 Comments:

Blogger RT said...

You make me "homesick" -- I lived in Iceland for a year-and-a-half in the early 80s. If you have not been there, you must include it on your list of "bucket list" destinations. You will not regret it . . . . unless you go in the dead of winter (with the emphasis on "dead").

August 08, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I'd like both to see the Aurora Borealis up that way and also to experience a day that lasts all night. And I do know a person or two whom I could visit.

One thing I did not mention in this post is the sagas as chronicles of Iceland's history. A poignant note in Egil's Saga is the matter-of-fact mention in one of the final chapters that the action was happening around the time Iceland was beginning to fill up. This would be around the year 1000, so that makes sense.

August 08, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

I remember being impressed by the Northern Lights, and that was in sub-freezing temperature after a long evening spent with Jack Daniels -- so I cannot verify the source of my impressions: lights or Jack?

August 08, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Iceland beginning to "fill up" is a very funny notion. When you visit, you will understand why it is funny.

August 08, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The notion is amusing to me even as I read it. It's like the American West filling up. The sagas are full of folks fleeing Norway and founding great farms that stretch al the way form this river to that valley. Wouldn't take long for an island to full up that way.

But the notion of Iceland as an area where a man could live surrounded by vast space is till alive, to at least it was in 2008, when I heard Arnaldur speak at Bouchercon. If I remember right, he talked about his protagonist and maybe himself as well as being unaccustomed to the idea of living among other people in a city.

August 08, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Not that he was morose or anti-social, as this photo of him and me attests.

August 08, 2014  

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