Sunday, October 17, 2021

Fortnightly Book, October 17

 October is a good month for reading ghost stories, and this year I am reading a lot of Scandinavian literature, so let's combine the two, and that means Eyrbyggja Saga, a thirteenth-century saga famous for its ghosts, draugs, hauntings, omens, visits from drowned men, burial places that kill every bird that lands on them, and corpses rising from the grave, as well as all the ordinary good Icelandic saga tropes: vikings, berserkers, roving gangs of bandits, complicated family feuds arising from extremely trivial origins, enthusiastic love for the law as such, lots of law-breaking nonetheless, lawsuits over property, and elaborate genealogies. In addition, we get both the Christianization of Iceland and the discovery of Greenland. Truly, if there is a saga of sagas, it is the Eyrbyggja Saga, the saga that has almost everything and anything that is saga-like.

The saga's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach has not always resulted in devotees, and there is a long history of comparing it very unfavorably to more tightly plotted and less sensationalistic sagas. But it has occasionally had fans, and its fictionalizations have probably contributed more to the popular idea of medieval Scandinavia than almost anything else. Modern interest in the saga largely began with the Scots; Sir Walter Scott read it enthusiastically, and contributed an "Abstract of the Erbyggia-Saga" to a work called Illustrations of Northern Antiquities. (The Abstract has a reputation for a mix of insightfulness and looseness in telling the story.) Some people have suggested that he got the idea for his own historical fictions from the saga's free interweaving of historical and imaginative elements. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a short story called "The Waif Woman" based on some events in the saga; Stevenson doesn't seem to have found a way to get it into a shape he regarded as fully satisfactory, so it was only published posthumously. Both of these highlight the uncanny aspects of the saga, and I will also be reading both of them.

The saga itself I will be reading in the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards.