Saturday, October 30, 2021

Eyrbyggja Saga


Opening Passage:

There was a great chieftain in Norway called Ketil Flat-Nose, the son of Bjorn Buna, son of Grim, one of the leading men in Sogn. Ketil was married to Yngvild, the daughter of Ketil Wether, a chieftain in Romerike. Their sons were Bjorn and Helgi, and their daughters Aud the Deep-Minded, Thorunn Hyrna, and Jorunn Wisdom-Slope. Bjorn Ketilsson was brought up east in Jamtaland by Earl Kjallak, a wise man and very highly thought of. Earl Khallak had a son called Bjorn, too, as well as a daughter, Gjaflaug. (p. 25)

Summary: As one would expect from its title (The Saga of the People of Eyr), the Eyrbyggja Saga is an ensemble story, recounting several generations of a handful of households in the area around Eyr, Thor's Ness, and Alftafjord, south of Breida Fjord on the western shores of Iceland. As Sir Walter Scott summarizes it, "They contain the history of a particular territory of the Island of Iceland, lying around the promontory called Sn√¶fells, from its first settlement by emigrants from Norway: and the chronicle details, at great length, the feuds which took place among the families by whom the land was occupied, the advances which they made towards a more regular state of society, their habits, their superstitions, and their domestic laws and customs." While this accurate, I suspect that the author is less interested in sociology than telling family legends, and I'm quite sure that Scott knew this, as well, and is deliberately playing down the sensationalism of the tale so that he can later spring it on those reading his abstract.

Three families play a particularly notable role in the tale. Thorolf Mostur-Beard, Bjorn the Easterner, and Geirrod each come to Iceland early in the tale, and indeed in the history of Iceland (Ingolf Arnarson, the saga tells us, had only discovered Iceland ten years earlier); Bjorn fled Norway to the Hebrides because was outlawed, and Thorolf had to leave for Iceland because he helped Bjorn at one point and the king found out about it. Thorolf is a very devout follower of Thor, and he establishes a large temple to Thor at a place that came to be known as Thor's Ness.  He also consecrates the mountain of Helga Fell to Thor. Bjorn eventually makes it to Iceland, at what came to be called Bjorn's Haven. Geirrod and a few other settlers settle at Eyr. Things are well for a while, but after Thorolf Mostur-Beard dies, Thorolf's family and Bjorn's family have a very large and bloody falling out. Helga Fell was consecrated to Thor, so was a common meeting-place, and the Thorsnessings had the rule that nobody could relieve themselves on the holy ground of the mountain. The Kjalleklings, as Bjorn's family comes to be called (after Bjorn's son Kjallek), eventually get tired of this and start doing so, anyway, which leads to bloodshed, because in general people do not like other people using their sacred ground as a latrine. The immediate problem gets solved the true Icelandic way, by a combination of fighting and lawsuits, but the sentiments never die and the incident starts the ball rolling on an extended series of recurring feuds among the three families.

The tale is necessarily very episodic, but it is given some unity by the character of Snorri the Priest, who is Thorolf Mostur-Beard's great-grandson. Snorri is born in Chapter 12 and dies in Chapter 64, the last chapter in my edition. Snorri the Priest (called so because he gets Helga Fell and the custody of the temple of Thor) is ruthless and cunning. He is also very aggressive, but in a curious way; while, like any Icelander of the time, he his capable of fighting, he is not a warrior by temperament. He usually prefers outmaneuvering people rather than directly confronting them. Because of this some of the most interesting part of the story is his feud with Arnkel, a descendant of Geirrod. Arnkel is an excellent warrior. He also has an uncanny knack for always getting the better end of every lawsuit. In a society in which all problems are solved either by brawl or by court, the combination of the two is practically a superpower, so there is a fascination to seeing these two talented men compete for who will be the foremost man in the area. The competition is often very reluctant; they both learn quickly that they want to avoid confronting each other, because, while Arnkel always comes off a little better than Snorri, it always comes at a serious cost to them both. However, being prominent men, it is impossible for them to avoid it, because they keep being dragged into other people's feuds. Snorri's ruthlessness will eventually win out. leading to the death of the admirable Arnkel, and he will consolidate his position as the most important man in the area. But as such he will eventually be the major player in the Christianization of the area, which will bring him his most formidable challenge yet: outmaneuvering not the living but the dead. 

Snorri the Priest is often described as having an 'ambiguous' or 'ambivalent' character, but I don't think this is quite right; his character is not ambiguous at all. He is the sort of person whom we describe as 'wanting it all' and being willing to do whatever it takes to get it. Arnkel is without any doubt the more admirable person, a Hector to Snorri's Achilles. But after Arnkel's death, Snorri does in a sense have it all, and his cunning and willingness to do whatever it takes play an indispensable role in the consolidation of civilization in the area. The 'ambiguity' or 'ambivalence' lies not in Snorri's character but in the fact that the very same characteristics in one situation are heroic and in another situation are not. The Iceland of the day needed both its Arnkels and its Snorris. The sage is usually accused of not being as neatly structured as other great Icelandic sagas, but I think there's more structure to it than is usually seen, because I think the author the sage marks this point by the fact that both Arnkel and Snorri are seen to be crucial by their ability to deal with the dead.

The saga depicts the time around the transition between paganism and Christianity to be one of hauntings. There are quite a few, but two particularly notable ones involve Arnkel and Snorri. Arnkel's father was named Thorolf Twist-Foot; Arnkel inherited his fighting skills from him, but unlike Arnkel, Thorolf was quite malicious. (This also contrasts with Snorri, who is ruthless and ambitious but never malicious.) Thorolf literally dies in a rage after Arnkel refuses to help him in a land dispute that Thorolf is having with Snorri. Arnkel attempts to bury him properly, but increasingly weird and disquieting things begin happening until it is clear that Thorolf's restless ghost is even more malicious than he was in life: "His ghost was so malignant that it killed people and others had to run for their lives. All those who died were later seen in his company" (p. 94). All of the farms in the area are terrorized by it, until Arnkel reburies him. This ends the matter for a while, although we will see Thorolf again, ere the end.

The most interesting haunting, though, is the tale of Thorgunna, which occurs shortly after the Conversion of Iceland to Christianity. Thorgunna is an older woman who arrives on the island; there is always something a little odd about her. She has magnificent clothes and an even more magnificent bedspread, but she works hard and does not like receiving charity; she is also not very friendly, except that she seems to take a liking to Kjartan, Snorri's nephew, who tries to avoid her. As she lays dying, she gives instructions for what to do with her magnificent things; these are not completely carried out, and in the aftermath the entire area begins to be haunted by the dead. They just show up, so uncanny it is unbearable to be in their presence, and they won't go away; there is also a weird seal that keeps breaking into the food stores. Kjartan is the only one who seems ever to have any effect. Snorri, however, solves the problem, in what is probably my favorite method of handling ghosts in all of literature: he summons them to court and convicts the ghosts of trespassing. This establishes, if one needed to know it, that Snorri is the quintessential Icelander; you can't get more Icelandic than that. In any case, Arnkel and Snorri are the two people in the tale who most definitively handle the hauntings that plague the area.

I also read Robert Louis Stevenson's short story, "The Waif Woman", which is loosely based on the Thorgunna episode. It's a great story in its own right, but I think the saga version is much better.

Sir Walter Scott's abstract of the saga, mentioned above, follows the basic outlines of the story fairly well, although he occasionally is a bit loose with the story. Scott also tends to focus much more on the parts of the story that concern magic and ghosts. In reality, the saga, like every saga, is very dry and matter-of-fact about everything, and much of what happens in the story is the ordinary feuding and suing and farming that characterized the time, which makes the uncanny parts even more striking when they happen. Nonetheless it's not really surprising. The author of the saga, whoever he was, clearly has a relish in linking events in the story to the actual local geography, as people often do, and he regularly tells us exactly where things happen, and points out to us that this rock or that feature still exists, like a tour guide. While some of the stories that meet up with locale this way are colorful family and local legends, it's not really surprising that many of the memorable stories that tie into the geography and landmarks are ghost stories. Some people talk about the saga-author's "gothic" imagination, but there is nothing really gothic about his imagination. We are exactly the same way, because it is a very human thing. Ghost stories and uncanny happenings are tied to local landmarks everywhere in the world and make up part of the geography we actually inhabit. If you really dig into the stories of your locality, you'll find some of the same kinds of things, and you can point out to people that that house is said to be haunted, that such-and-such happened over there and you can still see the rock where they say it happened. I think this is largely the way the story should be read. The saga has had no end of grief for not being a tightly-woven work of art like Njal's Saga and some of the other great literary sagas, but if you take a good walking tour of your city, or sit down with a local historian who loves the local legends and colorful history, it's not going to be tightly woven, either. But that's because in a sense it's not telling a story; it is using stories to tell a place.

Favorite Passage:

After these weird events had been going on for some time, Kjartan set off one day over to Helgafell to see his uncle Snorri and ask his advice about what should be done to put an end to them. At that time there was a priest staying at Helgafell, sent to Snorri by Gizur the White. Snorri asked the priest to go with Kjartan to Frodriver along with his son Thord the Cat and six other people. They must burn the canopy from Thorgunna's bed, said Snorri, and then summons all the dead to a door-court. After that the priest was to sing Mass, consecrate water, and hear people's confessions. They rode over to Frodriver, and on the way there they asked the neighbours to come with them.

It was Candlemas Eve when they came to Frodriver, and the fire had just been lit. Thurid had been taken with the same illness as those who had died. Kjartan went straight to the living-room and saw Thorodd and the other dead people sitting by the fire as usual.... (p. 140)

Recommendation: Recommended.


Eyrbyggja Saga, Palsson and Edwards, trs., Penguin (New York: 1989).