It has been nearly a quarter-century century since UCLA's Professor Jesse Byock completed this book (the copyright date is 1982; Amazon's date of 1993 for the paperback edition is for that format only). It marks an attempt to reverse a long-prevailing view of a whole body of literature, the Sagas of the Icelanders. It is not easy reading; but it repays the effort it takes. It has been well received; there is even a Japanese translation of the book, along with Byock's later "Medieval Iceland."
I had been reading sagas in translation since the late 1960s, and on reading this book I had the distinct feeling that I had never quite understood them properly. Almost as if, say, I hadn't grasped the function of a jury in stylized accounts of trials, like "Perry Mason." Or, more exactly, like missing the functions of lawyers. Byock is credited with a major breakthrough in making clear the essential role of the "advocate" in feud and resolution narratives.
"Sagas of the Icelanders" is a category which is not identical to the larger group of Icelandic Sagas. They were all written in Old Icelandic / Old Norse, in a similar style, but the latter designation includes a wide range of topics, including the Kings of Norway, and a variety of heroes from the Migration Age, like Sigurd the Volsung, and Hrolf Kraki and the Skjoldung Dynasty of Denmark. (The Siegfried of the "Nibelungenlied" and Hrothulf the Scylding in "Beowulf," respectively; Byock has, in fact, translated "The Saga of the Volsungs," for the University of California Press and Penguin Classics, and "The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki," for Penguin Classics.)
When I was taking Icelandic Literature (in translation) at UCLA a decade before this book appeared, the reigning orthodoxy was to take the medieval sagas written in Iceland *about* Icelanders as primarily literary creations. They were fictions about events centuries before they were composed, to be enjoyed, certainly, but to be treated as sophisticated fictions. These works, written in a remarkably lean prose studded with poems of great complexity, give an immediate impression of gritty realism; farmers worry about hay supplies for the winter, large landowners maneuver to acquire more property, and minute details of legal procedure form turning points in lives.
There is nothing like them in the rest of medieval European literature; whereas the Legendary sagas, and various obviously foreign materials (the *Riddara,* or chivalric, Sagas), are built up of stories of kings and warriors, or even knights on horseback (not a natural part of the Icelandic imagination). But from short works like "Hrafnkels Saga," to the massive "Brennu-Njals Saga" ("The Story of Burnt Njal"), the Sagas of the Icelanders were to be approached as books of fiction, albeit fiction set in real landscapes, and with some historical personages in the cast of characters.
This was a marked reaction to the one-time view of them as something more like naïve reportage of actual events; and it acknowledged their sophistication as narratives, and the highly artistic nature of their seemingly artless prose. But it tended to block their use as evidence of Icelandic life in the Middle Ages; and to forestall attempts to interpret the sagas as self-representations of Icelandic experiences, aimed at ordinary people, instead of the product of elite literary culture, and reflecting foreign influences, albeit in a subtle manner. Never mind evidence that the expensive medieval manuscripts were regarded as treasures to be read aloud to ordinary, isolated, farming households, to entertain guests, or during the long winters. (Actually, the idea of a serialized reading of "Njal's Saga," as a kind of radio soap opera, suggests that the periodic scandals and adventures were a good part of its original appeal.)
Jesse Byock has taken a leading position in the rehabilitation of the sagas as historical evidence; not that he regards them as literally true -- although he has produced evidence for a startling level of accuracy in some overlooked or misunderstood details in some of them. Instead, he has tried to take them seriously as reflections of the stresses and social patterns of life on the island between the time of settlement (after 870 to around 930) and the late Middle Ages (before, say, the mid-fourteenth century, when some non-saga historical texts may have been redacted.
"Feud in the Icelandic Saga" is an enormously impressive analysis of the recurring patterns of dispute, arbitration, and resolution or non-resolution, in the saga-literature. He does not take individual sagas as true-to-life accounts of specific events. Instead, he shows that the recurring patterns correspond to the expected stresses of life in a subsistence economy, unable to support a fully-developed state, and that the "purely literary" patterns are the sort of thing that medieval Icelanders would have recognized as both probable and instructive.
Byock has returned to these issues many times since, in articles and books. "Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power" (1988), also from the University of California Press, was more recently joined by "Viking Age Iceland" (2001), from Penguin. The two books return to some of the saga narratives analyzed in "Feud," this time from broader perspectives that include the degradation of the Icelandic ecosystem in the centuries following the Settlement. (Unlike "Feud," either could probably serve as an introduction to the saga literature; but "Viking Age Iceland" is probably by far the more approachable, and deals with issues, like the role of women, for which much evidence is from outside the saga literature.)
"Feud," however, still remains an impressive accomplishment. To my mind, it makes a convincing case for treating the saga-literature as "true" representations of medieval Iceland, albeit in a sociological, rather than a naively historical 'just-as-it-happened," sense. And even for those who may want to reject the argument, the analyses of specific sagas are exceptionally clear and compelling -- at least to those of us who have puzzled over some of the stories.