Sagas and Scarcity: A first-time reader on the frontier


Over the past few months, as a kind of preparation for NCS Iceland, and also just for fun, I’ve read, in translation, maybe 14 sagas (or 12 family sagas+ Harald’s Saga and the Volsung Saga) and a fair chunk of the Poetic Edda. I’ve read all the great ones: Njal, Egil, Grettir, Laxdæla, and a swelling list of deeper cuts. Apart from Njal and the Poetic Edda, which I read in 1989 or 1990 (!), during a Freshman great books course, I’m coming to this material as an absolute novice, with no knowledge of the scholarship and virtually none, I’m sad to say, of the language.

Sagas can’t be read by the bushel without a few notes. While I’ve long since given up on keeping one Thorstein separate from the others, I can still, as I did above, flag features particular to particular sagas. You might notice, for example, the “many prose metaphors, especially about weather” and “talking wounds, diagnosed with onions.”

Talking wounds, in a sequence where someone ends up terribly wounded for showing insufficient compassion:

Then one of the Trondheim yeomen came into the barn as Thormond and the woman spoke together. He was curious to learn about the king’s men. Many of them were sorely wounded, and from those wounds to the innards or the head issued that terrible sound that comes from such deep cuts to the flesh.

(103, Martin Regal trans., Penguin Comic Tales and Tales from Iceland)

There’s a lot, maybe too much, to mention for a medievalist new to this material. There’s nothing like this in the chivalric literature of England and France, whose knights, as most of us know, do nothing but eat, pray, love, and fight.

Just one thing, today, when I’m stewing with a virus on my couch: compared to texts from Western, continental Europe, Icelandic sagas describe a society that’s just plain poor. Iceland is not resource rich, not in people, and not in goods. It seems cut off from the main trade routes of medieval Europe, with its trade being, primarily, cloth in exchange for Norwegian lumber. In Iceland, 60 men is an army; 15 men fighting is a battle worth memory; killings happen over what seem to be petty annoyances, or at least petty annoyances to us, the sleek and comfortable: beatings from porridge ladles, borrowed horses, insults–particularly sexual insults. Or fights are over resources: grazing land, decent grassland for making hay, and especially, meat from beached whales.

Also notable, and perhaps related to the poverty, is the lack of division of labor, perhaps notable to me only because I’ve been reading The German Ideology during my breaks (and, on this, “Division of labor only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labor appears” (159, Marx Engels Reader: applicable here, or not?). Warriors are also poets are also farmers (expected to bail hay alongside their slaves) are also porridge cooks are also assassins (often minimally honoring the law when they wake up their victims just before they, uh, bury the hatchet) are also shepherds are also driftwood-gatherers are also craftsmen, able to repair a boat or smelt a silver sow as an insult or to measure the beams of a church to try to match a king’s great architecture. A few, but not many, know how to make a weapon.

The generalized character extends to gender relations. Certainly, the sagas are as sexist as any medieval literature, and often worse. But it’s impossible to imagine a woman in the sagas as retiring as Chrétien’s Enide or as nervous and inept as Lady Bisclavret. If Enide were a Thordis, she would have denounced her husband before his men, and Eric would have stormed out in shame to fight and, probably, die; if Lady Bisclavret were an Aud, she’d have divorced her husband and had her 4 brothers track him down as a witch. In the sagas, so far as I know them, women goad their men into vengeance (as you know from reading, say, Volsung/Nibelungenlied: the precise opposite of the Melibean queen as intercessor!), often fight alongside them, join expeditions to the new world, and often make their own decisions about who to marry and, especially, who to divorce.

I might expect that frontier literature of any sort has the same features (those who know this stuff can chime in below), although the difference here, at least for Iceland, is that Iceland’s only human “natives” were a few Irish monks who scattered (if they were lucky) when the Norse first showed up.

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