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Roy Jacobsen on the Backbone of Nordic Literature: the Sagas of Iceland

A couple of years ago Iceland was chosen as ”Schwerpunkt” at Frankfurt Book Fair, where a new German translation of The Icelandic Saga was to be presented. In that connection, two colleagues and I were each asked to make a slogan—a caption to put on the poster. I rattled off the following: The Icelandic saga is the backbone of Nordic literature.

This is probably why Professor Jørgensen decided on the current title. Defend your assertion, Roy!

I shall start by telling a little tale—a so-called þáttr—about Audun from the Western Fjords, an undoubted masterpiece that I have no aspirations of doing justice. The story starts with poor young Audun mortgaging the croft he has inherited from his father—leaving his mother as a deposit—in order to finance a journey; it is clear that he sees no future in the tufts of grass he has grown up among. He has three years in which to redeem the mortgage; his old mother will face slavery if he doesn’t meet the deadline.

The ship that Audun sails with stops at Greenland on the way. There someone has just captured a polar bear, which Audun acquires an overwhelming fascination for.  He just has to have this bear, so he buys it, spending all his travel cash in one go. A pretty odious investment, it has to be said, a risky venture of Jack and the Beanstalk proportions.

The ship arrives in Norway and docks in Tunsberg harbour. There King Hardradi, hearing word of the bear, summons Audun and asks him if he will sell him the creature. “No,” says Audun.

“If I give you twice as much as you paid for it?” asks the king.  “This is a ‘gersemi mikil'”—a precious treasure, as he puts it.

That offer too (a net gain of a hundred percent) Audun turns down.

“Then will you give it to me?” the king asks.

“No,” says Audun. (The author says nothing about the atmosphere, but the reader has no difficulty sensing it.)

“What are you going to do with it then?” the king asks.

“I’m going to give it to King Svein of Denmark,” Audun says—that is to say Svein Ulfsson—and the atmosphere gets even more awkward, because at this time Denmark and Norway were at war. In spite of this (and also for undisclosed reasons), Audun is allowed to continue his journey south with the animal, on the condition that he promises to pay Harald a visit on his way home to tell how things went in Denmark.

Audun promises.

Maybe the king does this because he is taken aback or charmed by Audun’s cheek. Or maybe there is a sort of Schadenfreude involved; the king hopes or is convinced that Audun will not survive his absurd mission. A convoluted revenge motive: he will get what’s coming to him.

Or perhaps he does it to find out more about his opposite number on the throne down south, giving Audun the involuntary role of sounding board, guinea pig, and spy. Or perhaps it is all these motives combined, as well as several more. The same applies to Audun’s motives, which the story also passes over in silence. All three main characters in the story, Audun and the two kings, are characterized only by what they do and what they say, although this does not mean that we see them any less clearly. This is showing, not telling; it is realism at its best—paradoxically, in the context of a fairytale motif.

But then, that is how sagas are: paradoxical, ambiguous, classical, modern.

That is how sagas are: paradoxical, ambiguous, classical, modern.

Audun manages to get to Denmark (by way of a subplot that I won’t spend time on here, although it is interesting in itself) and on a visit to the court presents King Svein with the bear, the precious creature and still Audun’s only bargaining chip. He also tells of his meeting with Svein’s enemy, King Harald of Norway.

Svein is perplexed by what he hears. It clearly doesn’t accord with his expectations of the Norwegian king that Audun was allowed to continue on his journey with his treasure. Perhaps he smells a rat. Perhaps. Again, perhaps—it is not expressed, but we sense it.

However, Audun gets his reward, for all gifts are to be reciprocated. He is invited to take his place in the royal retinue. But he irritates this king, too, by declining the offer, saying that he would rather set out on a pilgrimage to Rome. (So far there has been no mention of Christian faith.)

What we initially thought was the tale of a hungry pauper’s journey to find happiness has now undergone two sudden twists. Audun is engaged in a reverse sort of trade, giving away instead of acquiring, and reckoning on receiving through giving. He turns down what is offered to him, either because he is short-sighted, or a charlatan, or a sly fox who is intimately acquainted with all the rituals of gift-giving; or because he is a good person. In the world of sagas, people are not one-dimensional; there is hardly any form of typecasting here.

King Svein also lets Audun have his way. He equips him for his journey south. And it is a long journey, to put it mildly. However, Audun makes it to Rome and back to the court of King Svein, but in such a terrible state—hungry, exhausted and hairless—that he hesitates to meet the king out of shame. He has probably contracted typhus.

However, they do meet, and King Svein, as shocked by the man’s appearance as he is impressed by his stamina, wants to reward him as well as console him. Once again he is offered a place in the royal retinue, a great honor.

Once more, Audun declines, an action no less insulting than the last time he was here. He must return to Iceland, he says, as soon as he is well again, to redeem his mother and his inheritance. The deadline is approaching and he hasn’t got a penny to his name.

The king thinks this is noble, in spite of insult number two, and equips Audun again, this time with a whole ship, a purse of silver and finally also with a gold bracelet. The latter is in case, as Svein says, his ship should be wrecked on the brutal and rugged coast of Iceland and Audun should lose everything. Then, if he can make it ashore alive, at least he will have a bracelet on his arm that he can sell.

Audun sets sail in his own ship and arrives in Norway, where he meets his spurned friend King Harald Hardradi. The king wonders how his enemy King Svein had rewarded Audun for the polar bear. And Audun lists everything he has received.

King Harald nods at every item, saying for each one “That’s what I would have given you for the bear” until Audun mentions the purse of silver. Then, clearly fed up, the king says: “That was very generous. I wouldn’t have done that.”

Audun answers something like this: “Yes, you would, for you gave me so much more. You let me keep my life and the bear, and you could have taken them both from me.” The implication is that you are more generous than King Svein, and a better person. . . .

So, he gives King Harald the bracelet he has received from King Svein, his emergency provision, his last resource, in thanks for his life and his bear, because all gifts must be reciprocated. . . .

And he travels on, now equipped with another set of gifts given him by King Harald. He reaches Iceland’s shore without mishap, in time for the deadline. A trade journey using a polar bear as currency is brought to a happy conclusion.

One may ask oneself whether this is an Icelandic form of underdog literature, as one can with many of these short tales—something that illustrates the superior intelligence of the cunning inhabitants of this young, new land, measured against the pinnacles of power and intellect in the old one. One may ask whether this is a story about the little man against the powerful—a successful piece of class struggle. Or is it an example of vox populi—the wise king who listens to the voice of the people and becomes wiser still? Is it a story about trade and commerce and the intricate structures of debt and reciprocation, the significance of gifts at all levels in the hierarchy, about mental intelligence gathering through a diplomatic envoy between two warring princes? Or is it an exemplum with a miraculous Rome motif at its center?

Again, we must answer that it is all this, and much more. It is saga.

In the world of sagas, people are not one-dimensional; there is hardly any form of typecasting.

If we turn to Vladimir Propp’s formal definition of the folk tale, perhaps we can find something of use. Propp proposes 31 modules for how a folk tale is constructed: “the hero leaves home,” “the hero is put to the test,” “the opponent is introduced,” “the hero solves the task,” “the hero gains his reward, a woman, money, a kingdom etc.

According to Propp, by combining these modules—morphemes or units of action—one can construct not just any Russian folk tale, but any folk tale, including the Norwegian folk tale The Cat on the Dovre-Mountain as we know it from Asbjørnsen and Moe’s collection, which, oddly enough, is probably modeled precisely on the story of Audun and his bear.

The folk tale is a cross-cultural exercise, according to Propp’s postulate, founded on formalities, rather in the manner of the grammar that Noam Chomsky defined  as universal. His model precipitated the work of some of the most prominent structuralists of the age, like Claude Levi-Strauss and Roman Jakobson.

I am not going to evaluate Propp here, but only ask whether the tale about Audun from the Western Fjords fulfils the formal requirements of a folk tale. The answer is both yes and no—and, of these answers, no is undoubtedly the most interesting and the most striking.

The story of Audun diverges from formal literature—folklore, the folk tale—on a number of significant points. In the first place, there are two and a half, if not an improvised set of dramaturgical turning points. While it follows the rule of three, the story operates just as smoothly with a rule of five or six, again apparently based on the intuition of the author, as if he was in possession of a sub-conscious golden ratio for painting a work of art with words.

The tale also has what one might call an epiphany: the sudden clarifying turnaround in the action that by later analysts was thought to define the short story, not the folk tale. Something suddenly happens that lifts the story out of the course it has been moving in until now and onto a new level. It occurs with King Harald’s line: “I wouldn’t have done that.” And Audun gives him the gold bracelet he has received from Harald’s worst enemy. These events are so full of both irony and realism that they break every mold in Propp’s relatively rigid system.

To put it another way: Audun is no Ash Lad or Numskull Jack, but a living and, we could say, a seeking and intelligent person in a realistic setting. That too constitutes a boundary between art and folklore. We are dealing with a hero who not only plays the world with his (often hidden) talents, forming it according to his own wishes and conquering it, but a hero who is both subject and object, contingent on the moods, laws and customs of existence, an integrated and complexly responsive figure in a larger whole, rather than a controller of the world. Parenthetically, I would just like to mention that the intricacies of the system of gift-giving, which I have only dealt with superficially here, are described with great insight by William Ian Miller in a study he has called “Audun and the Polar Bear.”

I also mentioned the short story: There is, or at least there was, a widespread orthodoxy that Boccaccio invented the short story, as it appears in his masterpiece The Decameron, written in the middle of the 14th century. But Boccaccio was not just a latecomer; he didn’t have an epiphany either, as we find it in Audun’s tale, and in so many of the other short Norse tales (þættir). We don’t find the realistic subject matter either, the ambiguity and the irony. Boccaccio is not tainted by reality, but by idyll. There is more material than structure; there is telling rather than showing, pure explanations. And everywhere we hear: “they were so happy that words cannot describe it.”  So this is an author that time and time again trumpets his own inadequacy, which may be historically interesting, but as literature too often becomes no more than prattle.

So why has Boccaccio been credited with inventing the short story?

I have my own explanation: because the definition arose without knowledge of Audun and his brothers and sisters in the world of saga.

This þáttr is the first short story, to the extent that we are conscious of a first. In which case, the author of Audun’s tale is the inventor of the short story, and he invented it, let’s say the 4th March 1219, because this is a chance occurrence that strikes a writer very rarely in a lifelong career. And the inventor’s name is Snorri Sturlason.

It is not me but Gudny Jonsson that proposes this idea, in the preface to the fifth volume of Íslenzk Fornrit (Sagas of the Western Fjords). Saga researchers never tire of searching for authors, but I can never entirely rid myself of Roland Barthes’s dictum that “everything is already always written,” in other words, the notion that any story of creation requires a mother and a father, as well as their mothers and fathers, in addition to a chance occurrence, and this to a greater extent in the saga, with its oral tradition, than in any other literature.

In any case, Audun’s tale is certainly a short story, as Chekhov, Borges and Hemingway shaped them, to mention two authors who acknowledged their debt to saga literature. And it is also unmistakably saga.

What about the other formats and genres that we find between two covers in literature today, in contemporary literature? I will deal with that question very summarily.

So why has Boccaccio been credited with inventing the short story? I have my own explanation: because the definition arose without knowledge of Audun and his brothers and sisters in the world of saga.

The novel—can we slip the saga into modern novel theory?

Definitively. You need only compare Njáls saga and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the family chronicle as intricate historical drama. And having mentioned Garcia Marquez, let me also quote my friend and colleague Einar Már Gudmundsson, who says: All good realism is magical. A reverse definition. The object is the definition. In other words, according to Einar and myself, magic realism also has the saga as its great-grandparents.

If you need a crime novel, you can read Gisli Surson’s saga, which is even a crime novel with an unknown perpetrator, and with a refreshing absence of didactic clarification at the end. Gisli’s saga is perspicacious and complex literature, and a love story into the bargain, concerning the couple Gisli and Aud who love one another in good and, especially, in bad times and who, oddly enough for a saga, are childless. In sagas you usually have children—that is why they are called family sagas. So that genre designation is not precise enough either. The saga never tires of resisting definition.

And what are we to say of the genealogical novel, of the collective novel, for that matter, with its shifting perspective? Well, there is Eyrbyggja saga, Ljosvetninga saga, Vatnsdøla saga and Laxdøla saga, the latter often called the women’s saga because of all the strong and enigmatic women in it. If it had seen the light of day in a more politically correct age, it would probably have been called Gudrun Osviversdottir’s saga.

And the short novel that Axel Sandemose thought he had invented in novels like Klabautarmann and The Tar Dealer? The compressed, half-marathon novel or the extended novella? We find that in Hrafnkel’s saga, in Valla Ljot’s saga, in Hen-Thorir’s saga, in Gunnlaug’s saga. . . .

And for a courtroom drama, there’s Bandamanna saga, which, incidentally, is the closest we get to chamber theater. It was here that Borges found the scene that he used as an example of the perfectly structured narrative of a murder.

We have the poet biographies: Egil Skallagrimsson, Hallfred Vandrædiskald, Kormak as well as the already mentioned Gisli. . . .

As for the bildungsroman, there’s Egils saga again, about Egil from Borgarfjord, the hot-headed poet and other-wordly wild man, an introvert berserk who ritually insulted kings, bit out the throats of his enemies, and wrote a poem, Sonatorrek, in memory of his son, thereby achieving his eternal place on the top floor of the Tower of Poetry. Not to mention Grettir, another poet and wild man. And let me in that connection call attention to his saga as a brilliant portrait of a criminal, who doesn’t render Jean Genet and Truman Capote superfluous—far from it. Just a little less lonely.

All these works can be called novels, variants of novels—while also being unmistakably sagas.

There is no less richness when it comes to the themes of saga literature. When struggling to put together this lecture, I tried to find saga themes that have relevance for us today. I ended up asking myself if there was any theme that was not represented here: the twin theme, the Robin Hood motif, the trickster, the corrupt priest, the father-son conflict (e.g. in Hávards saga), the pious criminal, the mother-daughter relationship, the daughter-father relationship (in Helga the Fair), Che Guevara, the complete rebel (in  Harðar saga og Hólmverja), Þorgeirr Hávardsson and his irrepressible friend Þormóðr in Fóstbrœðra saga, a tale of a friendship so strong and complex that it withstands everything, even in the face of death and absurdity.

Absurdity indeed. For there are not only polar bears here, there are ghosts and fear of the dark, there are ice floes floating to Greenland with a little person on, there are fish that find treasure, there are corpses that rise and do more mischief than they ever did when alive, so that they have to be re-buried, upright and upside-down. There are tales of the genius and the idiot, of the worm and the nerd and the irritating middlebrow.

There’s the wisdom of Solomon: Njál, a beardless, brilliant man hemmed in by fate, too wise for his own time and probably for any other, whose wisdom has as many fatal consequences as happy ones.

There’s hard-headed “Realpolitik”: in Harðar saga—another saga about an outlaw—where chieftail Torkel Moon is asked to mediate between the leaders of an escalating conflict between two armies and at a meeting between these two hot-heads, each trying to win him over, declares: My men and I will join forces with whichever of you holds the peace and with him will annihilate the one that doesn’t.

He means it, too. And there is peace.

The motive behind saga writing seems to be two very profound—and hardly transient—existential questions, that predicate on each other: Who are we? And where do we come from?

Which question is it Lars Saabye Christensen asks in the novel Beatles? And Hamsun in his Vagabonds trilogy, Olav Duun in The People of Juvik, Kjartan Fløgstad in Fire and Flame? And what do I do, when I’m not standing here?

The motive behind saga writing seems to be two very profound—and hardly transient—existential questions, that predicate on each other: Who are we? And where do we come from?

But we haven’t mentioned the epic. So what about Dag Solstad’s work Forsøk på å definere det uoppløselige episke element i Telemark. . .the most unreadable work ever to see the light of day in Norway in the last decade?

Now Dag Solstad doesn’t read saga literature. If he did, he would have noticed that Landnámabók, the Book of Settlements (both Hauk’s and Sturla’s versions), which could be called the great novel of the birth of a small country, has even more numerous and more thorough genealogies and name registers than Dag has,  and structured in a strikingly similar fashion. The two works are separated by a mere 800 years.

Of course, in our line of work there is no ban on reinventing the wheel, over and over again. In fact, it’s what we do for a living. And neither is there a ban on sustaining the adage that he who doesn’t know history is condemned to repeat it. This assumes the idea of historical and ideological undercurrents in culture, the collective experience, you might say; a culture’s subconscious and also the way it is structured; how to tell a story, whether it’s in a courtroom, at the bedside, on a podium or in writing.

All this is just to emphasize that those who have read sagas for a lifetime or two have a pretty restrained relationship to the adjective “innovative.”

The title of this lecture mentions Nordic literature. I have already strayed into things European, so let me finish by mentioning one of my favorite sagas, which is Svarfdøla saga. It isn’t preserved in its entirety and I still haven’t managed to identify exactly what it is about this prose that grips me more than most other writing.

But in the preface to the Íslenzk Fornrit edition, volume 9, Jónas Kristjánsson ventures some qualified speculation around the nature of leitmotifs in Germanic culture, as far back as we know them in writing—throughout the Middle Ages and onwards. He airs the notion that Shakespeare must have read Saxo, the great Danish historiographer who wrote in Latin in the 13th century, just as he must have been a keen reader of British history (not least Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae—or Bretasögur as it was called in Icelandic, because it was, of course, translated). In the latter he found both MacBeth and King Lear and many other figures and themes to turn mythical history into modern drama. In Saxo Shakespeare stumbled across a motif, which Saxo in turn had found in Svarfdøla saga, which inspired the Englishman to write “The Taming of the Shrew.”

The parallels are striking, although the saga’s love story is much more cruel and tragic than as we find it in Shakespeare’s comedy. Jónas Kristjánsson’s idea of this motif wandering from Iceland via Denmark to Stratford-upon-Avon can probably never be positively confirmed, like so much concerning the origin and nature of the sagas, but it is an idea that deserves sensible consideration and which in turn defines the saga as the integral part it is, has been, and probably will continue to be of European literature.

Is there nothing bad here then, nothing that can satisfy a critical and po-faced  contemporary view? Yes, quite a lot. But that too—and the endlessly ongoing debate about whatever and why—has contributed to keeping the saga alive down through these centuries. It’s not perfect. It’s impure. Like life itself.

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