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Gisli Sursson's Saga and the Saga of the People of Eyri (Penguin Classics) Paperback – 25 Sep 2003
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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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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.
This is the story of Gisli Thorbjornsson (nicknamed Surson), who lived c. 930 - 978AD; his family, or kinship group, lived in Nordmore, Norway, but they become involved in a conflagrational bloodfeud and are forced to leave Norway and emigrate to Iceland. They settle in the Westfjords, (the NW peninsula of Iceland) and the three siblings (GISLI, THORKELL and THORDIS) all marry, and the three couples cohabit as neighbours.
The kinship group is the most important structure in Norse society, reflecting the strongest ties of obligation. But the family relationships are inwardly flawed, due to character differences and resentments originating in Norway, when Gisli killed one of Thorkell's friends who was rumoured to be seducing Thordis. Gisli is one of Nature's Bill payers and the one who does everything, Thorkell and Thordis are extrovert, handsome and showy.
Thorkell, lazing about one day, overhears a conversation between his own wife Asgerd and Gisli's wife Aud, revealing that Asgerd fancies the attractive VESTEIN, Aud's brother, and Gisli's oath brother.
This misfortune is pivotal for the rest of the saga and its fatal developments. Thorkell's vanity harbours a deep grudge, and though too soft to be a doer himself, his grievances are taken up by Thordis' husband, Thorgrim, a prosperous young chief. Tensions proliferate between the two households, and a year later, Vestein, coming from abroad to Gisli's house and receiving warnings from him too late, is mysteriously murdered by someone entering in the night. Mor∂, secret murder, is a very serious offence, compared to vig, a public declared slaying, because there is no easy retribution via the blood feud. But Gisli knows who the culprit is likely to be: Thorgrim, his sister Thordis' husband.
A year later, Thorgrim, too, is killed in the night in a mirror image slaying by an assailant who has entered his house in the dark, and killed him while he is sleeping with his wife.
Gisli has been forced into tragic choices to revenge the death of his oath brother Vestein, and has chosen loyalty to his wife's family before his own. He is eventually outlawed, and survives as an outlaw in Iceland during the last 14 years of his life, pursued by enemies but aided by his devoted wife Aud and fosterdaughter Gudrid. The psychological pain, isolation, squalor, and half life of outlawry are well conveyed in the saga. Gisli is afflicted by dark and constant dreams, the fires of his remaining years shown him in a dream hall, and two dream women, a good and bad, coming to him, the bad one ramming a blood stained cap on his head and drenching him in blood.
Students and saga buffs may also be interested to know that there is a novelisation, THE OUTLAW, (1924) by Maurice Henry Hewlett (see review), which has been reprinted in reproduced form and is available on Amazon; it's well worth getting. There's also an Iceland film, UTLAGINN (The Outlaw), directed by Agust Gundmundsson, in Icelandic with English subtitles, issued in DVD.
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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.
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.