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Gisli Sursson's Saga and the Saga of the People of Eyri (Penguin Classics) [Paperback]

Martin S. Regal , Judy Quinn
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

25 Sep 2003 Penguin Classics
These sagas recount fierce feuds in which honour is fought for, sacrifice is demanded, and blood is shed. The fate of the characters at the centre of each saga, however, is very different. Gisli is a traditional Viking-age hero who is determined to exact revenge at any cost and whose death is tragic when it comes. In contrast his nephew, Snorri, represents a new generation and acts to strengthen the new social order. Taken together these sagas reveal the richness and variety of the saga tradition.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (25 Sep 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140447725
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140447729
  • Product Dimensions: 20 x 12.8 x 1.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 117,652 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

About the Author

Edited by Vesteinn Olason (Arni Magnusson Institute at the University of Iceland) and translated by Martin S Regal (University of Iceland) and Judy Quinn (Newnham College, Cambridge)

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This story begins at the time when King Hakon, foster-son of King Athelstan of England,1 ruled Norway and was near the end of his days. Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
My favoured translation of Gisli's Saga is NOT this Penguin one, but the older one by George Johnston, published by Dent Everyman's Library and later by Toronto Press, now probably out of print but easy to get hold of 2nd hand on Amazon and I'd warmly recommend it. I love the Johnston translation, as he's a sensitive translator but it may not everyone's cup of tea as it's stylistically close to the original Old Norse, and faithfully reflects the frequent transition from present to past tense. One or two people have voiced criticism of this, not realising it reflects the original. But once you get used to it, it is much more satisfying than the more modern Penguin translations.
It also has a very beautiful line illustration on the front by the renowned graphic artist Eric Fraser, much more evocative than the illuminated manuscript illustration of the Penguin series. You can find this version by typing 'Gisli's saga' into search instead of 'Gisli Sursson's saga'

But I'm putting a review of Gisli's saga here (1) because the Penguin is the translation which comes up first on the search, and which most people are likely to buy, and (2) because the product information has nothing beyond four lines of general & rather misleading blurb. I'd warmly recommend this wonderful saga to anyone.

Gisli's saga is one of the shortest of the greatest Icelandic Family Sagas, and I find it particularly haunting. To quote one academic: "The saga is notoriously rich in ambiguities and ... critics continued to find new wrinkles in its psycho-sexual dynamic, new clues in its unsolved murder mystery, and new niceties in its puzzlelike construction". PLEASE NOTE THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS, though enjoyment of the saga genre need not be affected by that.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A pair of great stories! 15 Aug 2006
By Jordan M. Poss - Published on
This volume from Penguin Classics contains two Icelandic sagas, Gisli Sursson's Saga and The Saga of the People of Eyri. The stories form a nice set, since the events of the first lead to the events of the second (though not in the style of a modern sequel).

The Icelandic sagas are some of my favorite stories for the simple reason that they waste no time in setting up the action and bringing it to an end, and are almost invariably exciting. They are spare, fast-moving stories that, at the same time, manage to be incredibly complex. In the case of both of these stories, rivals, intrigue, and betrayal play major roles throughout.

Gisli Sursson's Saga: Gisli Sursson belongs to the first generations of Iceland's inhabitants. Iceland was undiscovered and uncolonized until the 9th century, when the ever-wandering Vikings found it and began to populate it. Gisli Sursson, in avenging the death of his brother, is declared to have been outside the protection of the law in his manner of vengeance and outlawed. Bork, a distant relative, takes up the chase, hiring bounty hunters to help track Gisli down. Gisli survives--through many, many outbreaks of violence--thirteen years in the wilderness. Along the way he is sheltered in a valley guarded by a giant, encounters ghosts (which have corporeal substance in Icelandic lore and have to be "killed" again), and, with the help of his wife, seems only one step ahead of Bork's men. The final showdown between him and his pursuers on a jagged mountaintop is a thrilling climax more exciting than many modern novels I've read.

The Saga of the People of Eyri: Not as compelling as Gisli's story, but still endlessly fascinating, this saga deals with a locality rather than a specific person, though the saga gives a lot of attention to Snorri the Godi, who was young boy at the time of Gisli's death and witnessed his own mother attempting to kill Bork. Snorri, as a godi, is heavily involved in the politics and legal confusions of the era, and does his share of killing and cheating death. Like I and another reviewer have said, The Saga of the People of Eyri isn't as fulfilling as Gisli Sursson's Saga (though it does have plenty of excitement) and a bit anticlimactic, but it's still good reading because it ties in to another saga available from Penguin, The Saga of Grettir the Strong, which is every bit as good as Gisli Sursson's.

The notes are minimal, which is not a problem, and the introductions and a few appendices may help acquaint beginners with Icelandic and Norse culture and the world of the sagas.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in medieval Europe, Iceland, Norse culture, mythology, or to anyone just looking for an quick but exciting story to read at night.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Let's Hear It for the Old Gods! 20 Sep 2008
By Giordano Bruno - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
These two sagas would hardly be my first choice to introduce anyone to the great Icelandic "literature" of the medieval era. Other sagas - Burnt Njal, for instance - have more unity and more character development, and can rightly be considered 'works of art'. Gisli Sursson's Saga is, more typically, a kind of historical DNA, or what Richard Dawkins has called a "meme" - a unit of cultural memory. For most of Iceland's isolated and impoverished history, an Icelander's most valuable possessions were his DNA and his genealogy. That DNA is as valuable as iridium to geneticists today, and almost all of the sagas begin with a chapter or two of genealogy. Gisli's Saga begins with a slew of names, nearly all of them variants of Thor - very dry reading for anyone seeking a good adventure story. If you persist, however, Gisli's Saga becomes just that, a rip-roaring tale of outlawry and a heroic last stand; transpose it to Japan and it would make a fabulous samurai film. The themes of conflict of loyalties are very well depicted in Gisli, once the family links have been established.

Written by a different scribe at a different time, the Saga of the People of Eyri narrates some of the same events and depicts some of the same folk as Gisli Sursson's Saga. It's a sprawling and convoluted history of the settlers of one region of Iceland, more a necklace of short tales than a proto-novella like some of the most readable sagas. Broken apart, several of the short tales would make excellent literary material, but the whole Saga of Eyri is less than the sum of its parts as literature.

The literary genius of the Icelandic sagas is 'ex post facto' anyway; their deepest interest is historical. These two sagas fit well together as historical source material about the transition in Iceland and all Scandinavia from the old religion of Thor and Odin to the new beliefs of Christianity. All of the existing sagas were put in their surviving forms by Christian writers many generations after the events described, but the writers of these two sagas seem to have been less enthralled by the new faith than the majority of later scribes. The accounts of the old faith - customs of worship, sacrifice, sanctity, 'values' - are remarkably ample and impartial here, while the arrival and 'hostile takeover' of the new faith gets hardly more than a 'fait accompli' announcement. I get a subtle feeling of reluctance from both of these sagas - reluctance to surrender the old values and the codes of behavior they justified. Gisli, never a Christian, and Snorri the Godi, nominally a Christian, are the most prominent characters in the two sagas, and they live by the same 'viking' code to the bloody end. It's quite interesting, also, to notice that superstition, witchcraft, prophetic dreams, and especially appearances of ghosts become far more frequent and frightful in the Saga of the People of Eyri AFTER the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of Iceland.

Martin Regal and Judy Quinn have done a fine job of translating these sagas into more sprightly and idiomatic English than some of the other translators in the Penguin series. They've shown a knack of retaining some of the gristle of Old Icelandic. What do you suppose "elf-frighteners" refers to? The willful deposit of "elf-frighteners" on the sacred grounds of one family's temple by men of another family leads to a multi-generational feud. You'll have to read The saga of the people of Eyri to learn the earthy truth.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Two sagas worth reading 21 May 2010
By Christopher R. Travers - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I bought this for the Saga of Gisli Sursson, simply because I had already read the Saga of the People of Eyre (Eyrbyggja Saga (Penguin Classics)).

Both these stories center around politics and law in the Icelandic republic. I found both to be informative regarding Icelandic society, religion, and history (the Eyrbyggja Saga includes a description of a pagan temple which does not suggest a back projection of Christian church designs, for example). The stories are good stories but additionally provide a sort of quasi-historical record.

In some respects, these are some of the best studied sagas in the tradition. They have been the subject of many works including A Piece of Horse Liver: Myth, Ritual and Folklore in Old Icelandic Sources, Viking Age Iceland (Penguin History), and Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power. However they aren't to be read as novels.

If you are looking for suspenseful stories, there are better sagas out there (Seven Viking Romances (Penguin Classics) and The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (Penguin Classics) come to mind), but if you are looking for important sagas with perhaps a bit less literary value, these are key ones to read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great introduction to the sagas 4 Jan 2014
By John Wilson - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is a great introduction to the Icelandic Sagas. Very readable, and a fascinating window into a people, a culture, and a legal system that is very, very different from anything in the modern day.
3 of 12 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars One out of two 16 Mar 2006
By Thewsson - Published on
There are two sagas in this volume, but only the first (Gisli Sursson's Saga) is worth reading. It's a very interesting story, nothing high-brow, just a simple action thriller about a man who lives as a fugitive for thirteen years, making many harrowing escapes before finally falling valiantly in the end (and not without taking a few others with him!). The second one (The Saga of the People of Eyri), however, is a bit of a disappointment. Not only are there way too many characters to keep track of, but each subplot builds up in excellent drama, only to be resolved in a paragraph by someone paying a fine or something. Disappointing. And boring. The first (Gisli) is stll pretty good, though.
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