It all depends on your sense of humour

Last year I spent a wonderful few days in Iceland. I've yet to meet anyone who has been there who has not loved it. It's a wonderfully friendly place to stay, great scenery, a quirky sense of humour, some great food (though we avoided the smoked puffin - I prefer my puffins a la Skomer), and books....lots and lots of books in just about every European language. They even have a wonderful tradition of giving books on Christmas Eve and then spending the night reading - the reason behind Iceland's annual Jolabokaflod. As though that wasn't enough, there was also the joy of the Northern Lights.
No puffins were harmed in the writing of this blog-post
So when I read a blog-post about Penguin's Comic Sagas and Tales from Iceland featuring a character called Odd, it felt like a must-read. I'm glad I read it, but it certainly was an "Odd" read. Comprising five sagas: The saga of the sworn brothers, Olkofri's saga, The saga of the Confederates, ...of Havard of Isafjord, and ...of Ref the Sly; and four tales - Hreidar's tale, The tale of Thorleif, the Earl's poet, The tale of Thorstein Shiver, and The tale of Sarcastic Halli; the stories date from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, though some include Kings Harald Hardrada and Harold Godwinson, so dating the original sources back to just before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. There's even the odd mention of King Canute and his son, and Sweyn Forkbeard, traditionally the founder of Swansea (though Swansea sadly doesn't get a mention).

The translations are shared between eight translators and, perhaps as a result of this, are rather variable, with some stories flowing much more easily than others. I particularly enjoyed the work of George Clark and Judith Jesch,

Edited by Vidar Hreinsson, who's based at Reykjavik Academy, there's a very helpful introduction, along with notes, maps, a glossary, and lots of information about the history and the story-telling of the period. Some of the sagas are purely fictional works (occasionally incorporating a few famous names), while others probably have their roots in fact.

Good things about this book - the sweep of it was breath-taking - the sheer mileage that the Vikings covered had never been as clear to me as when reading these tales. Moving effortlessly between Iceland, Denmark and Norway, they also ran regular trading missions to Greenland, Ireland, and Scotland, had relationships with Baltic countries, and traded with the Lapps in the far north of modern day Norway and Sweden. They traded in a huge variety of commodities, and I was struck by this very different side to the Norse-men. They were superb traders and travellers, with an administrative and judicial structure - these weren't just the rabid rapers and pillagers of every Briton's nightmare. Set against this though there was a blood-thirsty streak....

As a teenager I had (what in my opinion at the time was) the world's best ever computer, a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. You may have needed to load games using a cassette player, it did take forever, it was virtually impossible to link to the internet, and the "dead man's fingers" of the rubber keyboard did feel distinctly odd, but it was great fun. I learned some elementary programming on there, and played my first computer games, amongst which was Valhalla - a game set in Viking days. I can now remember very little about it except that there was a character called Mary, who would pop up from time to time and punch you! I think whoever created Mary must have read Comic Sagas and Tales from Iceland, as that is just the sort of book this is. 

Characters do seem to lead quite normal lives (by Viking standards) and then just decide to chop off someone's head because they're standing at an odd angle. The humour is strange too - a character having his buttocks chopped off is jolly good fun, while losing an arm is no big deal. It's very much the Monty Python school of hard knocks; and a bit of an acquired taste (it certainly didn't get me chortling away).

These are peculiar, other-worldly tales, and yet...they're very recognisably part of the heritage of any country that has Viking blood in its veins. They were also an influence on writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien was the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford (he translated Beowulf before writing Lord of the Rings, though it was never published in his life-time). The background to Lord of the Rings is clear in these sagas, even though they are made of very different stuff:- the emphasis on family, and the history of a family within its environment, the under-dog triumphing over the more likely winner, the travels and travails of its heroes, and the occasional feisty heroine; all these are part of Comic sagas and tales of Iceland.

They were very different from my usual reading fare, and I didn't enjoy them as much as, for example, Beowulf, but this, I suspect, was largely down to the nature of the stories themselves, and a distinctively different sense of humour. For another dip into old Icelandic (or for that matter Norse) literature, I'd be tempted to look at some of the more serious sagas with a stronger emphasis on narrative rather than just character-led writing. Worth dipping into, this is a look at a completely different world, that is very alien from our own, yet oddly familiar.


Popular Posts