A saga at a time

My own book collection served as the nucleus of Nighthawk Books, and while the store’s collection has since multiplied by several orders of magnitude (or so it seems when I have to reshelve), every now and then somebody will buy one of my old books. That doesn’t always bring on a pang, but there are times when I inwardly sigh as I ring up a sale. That happened the other day when a customer bought one of the Icelandic sagas from the Medieval Literature section.

Actually, I had a small run on the sagas shortly after the store opened in February. Egil’s Saga flew out the door the first week in March, followed in short order by the Eyrbyggja Saga, Grettir’s Saga, the Saga of the Volsungs, and the Orkneyinga saga. They’re leaving the store, a saga at a time. Sad to see them go. So far, at least, nobody’s come in to buy the Laxdaela Saga, which shares space in my heart with Egil’s Saga.

Of all the sagas, Laxdaela comes closest to working like a conventional novel, though if you read it that way sooner or later you will fetch up against its inimitably Icelandic preoccupations. For example, some of the most intriguing episodes concern a brutal, nasty-minded farmer named Hrapp, who terrorizes his neighbors and family. Feeling death near, Hrapp orders his wife to have his body buried standing up beneath the threshold of his farmhouse:

After that Hrapp died, and all was done as he said, for Vigdis did not dare do otherwise. And as evil as he had been to deal with in his life, just so he was by a great deal more when he was dead, for he walked again a great deal after he was dead. People said that he killed most of his servants in his ghostly appearances. He caused a great deal of trouble to those who lived near, and the house of Hrappstead became deserted. Vigdis, Hrapp’s wife, betook herself west to Thorstein Swart, her brother. He took her and her goods in. And now things went as before, in that men went to find Hoskuld, and told him all the troubles that Hrapp was doing to them, and asked him to do something to put an end to this. Hoskuld said this should be done, and he went with some men to Hrappstead, and has Hrapp dug up, and taken away to a place near to which cattle were least likely to roam or men to go about. After that Hrapp’s walkings- again abated somewhat.

I love that “somewhat.”

Stephen King would have milked that anecdote for a shelf-busting novel, at least four hundred pages, throwing in the brief mention of the fact that all those who inherited Hrapp’s considerable wealth came to bad ends. He’d also have plenty of fun with the seal with uncannily human-seeming eyes that appears linked to the drowning of a family ferrying itself across a fjord to Hrapp’s old haunting grounds. But the Laxdaela author simply tosses these incidents off and gets the important task of reciting names and genealogies.

But none of that matters for anyone attuned to the singular music of the sagas, and Laxdaela gives us the  fascinating character of Gudrun, a beautiful and willful woman who falls in love with the handsome Kjartan, only to marry his foster-brother Bolli out of a mixture of confusion and spite. When Kjartan takes a wife, Gudrun pulls strings and cooks up plots that get him killed. She lives to a ripe and regretful old age, with four husbands behind her and two sons, one of them named Bolli after the man she goaded into killing his foster-brother.

I want to adapt Laxdaela as a film, just so I can see this scene:

Now Gudrun began to grow very old, and lived in such sorrow and grief as has lately been told. She was the first nun and recluse in Iceland, and by all folk it is said that Gudrun was the noblest of women of equal birth with her in this land. It is told how once upon a time Bolli came to Holyfell, for Gudrun was always very pleased when he came to see her, and how he sat by his mother for a long time, and they talked of many things.

Then Bolli said, “Will you tell me, mother, what I want very much to know? Who is the man you have loved the most?”

Gudrun answered, “Thorkell was the mightiest man and the greatest chief, but no man was more shapely or better endowed all round than Bolli. Thord, son of Ingun, was the wisest of them all, and the greatest lawyer; Thorvald I take no account of.”

Then said Bolli, “I clearly understand that what you tell me shows how each of your husbands was endowed, but you have not told me yet whom you loved the best. Now there is no need for you to keep that hidden any longer.”

Gudrun answered, “You press me hard, my son, for this, but if I must needs tell it to any one, you are the one I should first choose thereto.”

Bolli bade her do so. Then Gudrun said, “To him I was worst whom I loved best.”

“Now,” answered Bolli, “I think the whole truth is told,” and said she had done well to tell him what he so much had yearned to know.

I always imagine Gudrun staring across the waves while some great, melancholy Bernard Herrmann-esque music purls on the soundtrack. I’m pretty sure Howard Shore would be up to the task.

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