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Feud in the Icelandic Saga [Paperback]

Jesse L. Byock
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

19 Mar 1993
Feud stands at the core of the Old Icelandic sagas. Jesse Byock shows how the dominant concern of medieval Icelandic society--the channeling of violence into accepted patterns of feud and the regulation of conflict--is reflected in the narrative of the family sagas and the Sturlunga saga compilation. This comprehensive study of narrative structure demonstrates that the sagas are complex expressions of medieval social thought.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 314 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; New Ed edition (19 Mar 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520082591
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520082595
  • Product Dimensions: 20.6 x 13.7 x 1.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,353,838 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"Byock's scholarly ambitions are boldly imaginative and on the cutting edge of the human sciences."--"Journal of American Folklore

About the Author

Jesse Byock is Professor of Old Norse and Scandinavian Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of Medieval Iceland (California, 1988) and translator of The Saga of the Volsungs (California, 1990).

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
It has been nearly a quarter-century century since Professor Jesse Byock of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) 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 the old television show "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; something fundamental to the system, not just a recurring plot device.

"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, more comprehensive, 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.
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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ian Myles Slater on: Finding a New Path in Familiar Places 8 Jan 2005
By Ian M. Slater - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For a deeper understanding of Iceland 18 Oct 2011
By Deborah Verlen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Feud in the Icelandic Saga states in the introduction "It is impossible to understand the old Icelandic sagas without comprehending the function of feud in medieval Iceland." Byock, the author, takes this premise and concentrates on feud in the family sagas and in the Sturlunga saga compilation and proceeds to show us how invasive his premise is in the context of Iceland's social, governmental and judicial structures.

If you enjoy the Icelandic sagas as literature, you will find this academic study fascinating in how the Sagas have impacted the country's social foundations. You'll see how taking violence and channeling it into the sagas created a social structure which allowed a balance of power between families, warring factions, and the society as a whole.

This is a book of literary criticism, but don't let the academic tone of it turn you off. If you are a Saga reader, your appreciation of the tales will increase with the knowledge and the depth that Byock creates.
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting book, good price and somewhat fast delivery 30 Dec 2012
By Toth Erik - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I would like to rate the whole experience positively, because I was pretty satisfied with the order. The Item arrived on time and it was in really good condition as mentioned by the seller. I would also like to thank the seller and amazon for shipping it really early, because it arrived in a short time, despite not being bought via amazon.
I would recommend this book to all people that are interested in feuding (especially Icelandic) and the seller is worth your trust.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Informative & Enjoyable Read! Recommended! 3 May 2002
By "paceleader" - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Byock has done it again! This is "a must" for any person who has any kind of interest in the sagas of Iceland, in Vikings, or in medieval Europe. Highly informative, yet a pleasure to read! Bravo!
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