The Family Cliff: Moderns, Read More Sagas!

I’m going to Iceland next week and staying there until the end of the month. To prepare, I read 38 sagas, histories, and assorted tales, all in translation into modern English.1 Some of these are very long (Njal); some are very, very short (The Story-Wise Icelander). A great many more still need to be read, including, especially, the saints’ sagas, some of which are very odd.

But none until last night’s subway reading, none until King Gautrek, featured a suicide cliff:

There’s a precipice called Gillings Bluff near the farm, and we call its peak Family Cliff. The fall is so steep, no creature on earth could ever survive it. It’s called Family Cliff because we use it to cut down the size of our family whenever something extraordinary happens. In this way our elders are allowed to die without delay, and suffer no illness, and go straight to Odin, while their children are spared all the trouble and expense of having to take care of them. Every member of our family is free to use this facility offered by this cliff, so there’s no need for any of us to live in famine or poverty, or put up with any other misfortunes that might befall us. (King Gautrek 141, from Seven Viking Romances, translated Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards)

I’ve already said what I need to about sagas and scarcity, here, though you might supplement that with Adam Roberts talking about frustration and violence here. But you might also think again about how often ignorant moderns disparagingly call something “medieval.”

Let them continue to do so, but let them have something more concrete in mind: not some vague sense of religious tyranny, not some sense that wealth concentration is particularly “feudal,” but rather let them picture this FAMILY CLIFF, which, why not, may be the perfect image of NEOLIBERALISM.

Or, it would be, if it were privatized and offered to the family as a LOW-COST FREE CHOICE.

But then we wouldn’t be in the Middle Ages, would we?

(for more on bad medieval metaphors, David Perry here and me here and here)


1 They are:

  1. Laxdaela Saga
  2. King Harald’s Saga
  3. Orkneyinga Saga
  4. Hen-Thorir
  5. The Vapnfjord Men
  6. Thridrandi whom the Goddesses Slew
  7. Hrolf Kraki
  8. The Prose Edda (selections: Gylfaginning and selections from Skáldskaparmál)
  9. great chunks of the Elder Edda
  10. Saga of the Sworn Brothers
  11. Olkofri’s Saga
  12. The Saga of the Confederates
  13. Gisli Sursson’s Saga
  14. Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent’s Tongue
  15. The Saga of Havard of Isafjord
  16. The Saga of Ref the Sly
  17. Hreidar’s Tale
  18. The Tale of Thorleif, the Earl’s Poet
  19. The Tale of Thorstein Shiver
  20. Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck
  21. The Tale of Halldor Snorrason II
  22. The Tale of Audun from the West Fjords
  23. The Tale of the Story-Wise Icelander
  24. The Tale of Sarcastic Halli
  25. The Saga of Grettir the Strong
  26. Eyrbyggja Saga
  27. The Saga of the Volsungs
  28. Egil’s Saga
  29. Njal’s Saga
  30. Saga of the Greenlanders
  31. Erik the Red’s Saga
  32. Arrow Odd
  33. Thorstein Mansion-Might
  34. Helgi Thorisson
  35. Saga of the People of Vatnsdal
  36. Saga of the People of Laxardal
  37. Bolli Bollason’s Tale
  38. Saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi