book Culture

Saga Land

Saga Land

Saga Land: the island of stories at the edge of the world
Richard Fidler and Kári Gíslason, 2018, HarperCollins

I tried reading Lord of the Rings as a teenager and have only seen the battles and fury feet in clips of the films. I can see how clever it is, but Game of Thrones does not appeal. I don’t like this type of fantasy. I prefer the real world even when reading the most implausible and far-fetched crime, mystery or thriller. (see the post on Ragnar Jónasson. I like place-based stories.

Furthermore, I do understand the vital importance the sagas hold for Icelanders. There is so much power invested in the history, the people and the places they contain. The themes are universal but the overwrought drama and style, and the sheer blood-thirstiness, is very specific and not to my taste.

Saga Land helps convey the sincere cultural attachment to the sagas through the perspective of two very enthusiatic outsiders – or are they? At one level this book is in pursuit of a family as memoir – but through a lost father (and found family) and through a millenium of generations to one of Iceland’s most famous story-tellers. The authors’ outsider status (they are Australian) and their sense of identity both rooted in serious academic research makes their pursuit, and the sagas themselves, more accessible.

The story of the sagas record-keeping, and near-loss, is fascinating and extraordinary that the timeline ends at about 1270. That’s hundreds of years before both Chaucer and Shakespeare. Although remoteness is a cultural characteristic of Iceland, internally and internationally, the stories of the sagas involve frequent voyages involving exploration of what became North America, settlement in Greenland, contacts with the Ireland and Scotland, even Constantinople and, most of all, the dominant power of Denmark. It’s first millennium globalisation. As counterpoint, Iceland’s population feel to 32,000 due to smallpox at some point. (I need to find this quote.)

By no means is it all about a mystical past, one writer’s father and wider (discovered) family is central to the pursuit as are researching and teaching in the regional capital of Ísafjörður. Multi-dimensional tensions about “moving away” and returning are explored. Making Iceland a world stage, it includes the story of the Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer chess tournament and the Regean-Gorbachev Reykjavik summit. Both of these include details I had long forgotten.

Ísafjörður is one of the places we should have visited this year (and will next year). The book Saga Land has provided a good background to Iceland, both modern and down through the ages.

We will get to Iceland again!

As a footnote to the Covid-19 lockdown which postpone our visit to Iceland in 2020, I had ordered the book before lockdown to be delivered to my local Waterstone shop. I had an email to say it was in the store but, of course, the store was closed. I then had an email saying the order had been cancelled and that I should re-order it. I did, to be have it delivered to home. I was then informed it was out of print (not out of stock). Months later, when the store re-opened, I had an email that it was ready to collect from the store. So, it had been there all along – in virus-free packaging.

By Angus Willson

Angus Willson is editor of this site and author of this blogpost.

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