Icelandic Sagas — Njal’s Saga

I’m reading an Icelandic saga, Njal’s Saga, at the moment. I love it. From it I’ve seen the writing style that best appeals to me. There’s no description of scenery. Characters are described so we know what they look like and something about their basic personalities. When the saga will not follow the adventures of a character any more, the saga says, “And Hrothjoxvellids is now out of this saga.” There were times with the Schneebeli Brothers Go to Church I wanted to do just that. “And Katarina is now out of this novel.” But, we don’t do that any more.

There are hundreds of characters with strange unpronounceable names, like Thojostolf. In the saga, as in Garrison Keillors’ “Powdermilk Biscuit Flour Hour,” the men are all good looking and brave and the women are, I forgot. In fact, women in the saga are pretty devious and complicated so far. I haven’t met a good one yet, but some of the men are pretty nasty, too.

The saga doesn’t tell anyone what to feel. Death comes like a drink of water and the main problem it causes is that someone has to pay compensation. “He gave Thjolswulfson 200 pieces of silver and Thjolswulfson was happy.” This is for the death of Tjolswulfson’s son (names are being invented at this moment because it’s just fun to make up fake Icelandic names). No one is wrangling in existential angst over anything. The big problems are flour, dried fish and money.

There are witches — so far the one witch has been a man and his powers are very cool. He’s able to protect a runaway axe murderer by using fog and darkness to bewilder the axe murderer’s pursuers, causing them to lose their weapons and horses.

The fact that I like this style of writing isn’t going to help me sell novels because, you know what? I write this way. I’m actually stunned. Everything the modern reader would complain about in the sagas was imputed to my prose in my erstwhile workshop. “Too many characters with unfamiliar names.” “Not enough description. I need to see where they are and what it looks like.” “Too much dialogue.”

My philosophy as a novelist (I do have one) is that the people in my stories are familiar with their world. I should write about it from their perspective; it’s a place they know — are they going to belabor that for the benefit of someone else? Since they’re not, why would I? I don’t. To me it interferes with the sense of immediacy I try to create. This is probably one reason I’m the bestselling writer I am today. 🙂

The sagas have no plot. They are told in episodes. I LOVE that. I first met that in college, reading Homer and Medieval verse romances. I didn’t like it then. I wanted the smoothness of Thomas Hardy’s atmospheric novels in which I could walk the roads of Sussex with Tess or Jude. I met it again in the 1980s reading The Water Margin, a 14th century Chinese novel about a group of outlaws who overthrow a corrupt emperor, and I discovered that the episodic structure kept me interested, intrigued. By then I knew that most of the time I — and most other people — do not walk through the world with the intense consciousness of the world that modern fiction requires and I know that my life has taken place in, is remembered in, episodes.

The sagas seem, to me, to be completely realistic. Here’s the description of a marriage, “They got along well all summer.” There — three months of a relationship in six words. Isn’t that how we all remember things like that in our own lives? “In fall they began having problems again and Hallgerd asked to go back to her father during the Althing.”

None of this:

“As time passed, Hallgerd felt increasingly alienated from Hrut. Everything he did, even the most charming of his mannerisms, started to get on her nerves. If he brought her tea, it was always the wrong kind or it was cold. If he reached for her in the night, her skin broke out in a sweat and goosebumps covered her arms.” OK, I can see that this kind of description has certain captivating elements, but so what? What HAPPENS? OH! She asks to go back to her father during the Althing. Not, “That night she made Hrut his favorite dinner of dried cod, milk gravy and turnips. She even brought out some dried berries from summer, berries that reminded her of that glorious day above the cove when they had found the wild bushes covered with fruit. They’d picked berries all afternoon and later lay together on the heath, their bodies spent from the wild love-making inspired by the warmth of the day and the splendid view of the fjord. At dinner, her heart sore with regret and longing for home, she begged Hrut to allow her to visit her father during the Althing.”


The sagas focus on action and when someone goes after someone else with an axe, things get descriptive. “He cut through Glum’s shoulder bone and blood poured into Glum’s lungs. Still, before he died, Glum was able, with his short sword, to loosen Thojostolf’s hold on his axe and stab him through the belly. Thojostolf died. And that was the end of Thojostolf.” We’re glad. We’re sorry about Glum, but glad that Thojostolf is dead because he was a really bad man and stupid. Of course, now Hallgerd’s father will have to pay restitution to Glum’s family for the loss of their son, but it’ll only be a few hundred yards of cloth…


12 thoughts on “Icelandic Sagas — Njal’s Saga

    • They used to teach Beowulf but teachers have a way of making this into “literature” and killing the joy of “And THEN….” But maybe kids just hate anything that comes down to them from “sckul”

  1. I’m with you on this. I’ve never conquered the whole plot thing. I write, then I’m finished. But publishers — and readers — are so demanding. Jeez. They want everything tied up in a bow. You can’t just ditch the character when he or she has served a purpose. No, you have to create some kind of acceptable reason, something that fits the internal logic of your story. UNLIKE real life where there IS NO LOGIC.

    • As I learned in the (grotesque) workshop, it’s all about the “craft.” How fucking precious can it get? I’d really RATHER gather my “people” around the fire at night under a big tree and tell the damned story.

    • It doesn’t get prettier than this:

      She sees arise
      a second time
      earth from ocean,
      beauteously green;
      waterfalls descending,
      eagle flying over,
      she from mountains
      captures fish.

  2. “the people in my stories are familiar with their world. I should write about it from their perspective; it’s a place they know — are they going to belabor that for the benefit of someone else? Since they’re not, why would I? I don’t. To me it interferes with the sense of immediacy I try to create. This is probably one reason I’m the bestselling writer I am today.”
    I see… I feel I must say that you’re right – it probably is.
    Because you can’t possibly NOT know that readers generally don’t want to have to work that hard, Martha. And those with refined brains like yours (in terms of reading) – even they might not want to have to do all the work themselves.
    Just my opinion, and worth roughly a pinch of shit …
    I enjoy your non-fiction; it’s classy and it’s comprehensible. But I’m far too lazy (even if I could still read books, which I can’t) to see myself as “someone else” …

    • You’re right about many readers, like the one who didn’t like my style because it wasn’t like Henry James’. For me slogging through all that extraneous crap is work. Ultimately, I think, it comes down to personal taste. I think a bigger reason I’m the best-selling author I am today is what I write about. It may be a fatal combination. 😉 I’m OK with it. I sold myself long enough, I think.

    • What’s interesting, too, is that in my fiction I don’t write so that the reader identifies with a character, though a reader might. I feel that fiction is a window — since I write historical fiction — onto the past. I think that’s a thing, too. Many people read fiction to escape from themselves for a while in the persona of a character.

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