The twilight world of the great Icelandic sagas can be difficult for an outsider to understand. We are so fixated on the values of the Western European mainland that it is easy for us to overlook Iceland's many contributions. The great 13th century sagas like Burnt Njal, Laxdaela, and Egil are high water marks of medieval literature -- far more sophisticated than the Arthurian fantasies circulating in Britain and France at the time.
To read and understand these sagas properly, one requires a key. And this is precisely the value of Byock's work: It places the sagas in a societal context and shows us that -- while Europe was stuck in a feudal rut -- Iceland was a unique republic in which power was distributed among many 30-50 chieftains. If a chieftain failed to be responsive, a landowner could change his allegiance to another, irrespective of his location. Because there were no standing armies in the time of the sagas, it was the responsiveness of the chieftain in assisting with disputes that was the prime determinant of his power, and not brute force.
Byock shows us how the system worked by a series of helpful extended examples taken directly from the sagas. These are by far the best parts of the book. Read this book, and you will see that at the heart of the great sagas are tales of how conflicts were resolved, sometimes over a period of many generations. Although many lives were lost, the fabric of society remained whole and relatively undisturbed because a consensus was finally reached.
I look forward to reading Byock's other Icelandic book on Feud in the Icelandic Saga.