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The Sagas of Icelanders (1997)

by Örnólfur Thorsson (Editor), (anonymous) (Author)

Other authors: Kartina C. Attwood (Translator), George Clark (Translator), Ruth C. Ellison (Translator), Terry Gunnell (Translator), Viðar Hreinsson (General editor)7 more, Robert Kellogg (Introduction), Keneva Kunz (Translator), Anthony Maxwell (Translator), Martin S. Regal (Translator), Bernard Scudder (Translator), Jane Smiley (Preface), Andrew Wawn (Translator)

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1,962145,759 (4.18)31
The Kenandic sagas are amongst some of the most remarkable Nordic contributions to world literature. This selection of sagas and short tales is prefaced by an introductory essay by Robert Kellogg, explaining their literary and social context.

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» See also 31 mentions

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This review is based on a partial reading of the first saga, Egil's Saga, and an overall assessment of the book's presentation and formatting. It was reviewed for the Go Review That Book! group.


The sagas of Icelanders may not be that well known to North American audiences, or at least not on the same level as the more general Norse myths. This weighty collection from Penguin Classics contains several of the most important ones, as well as introductions and explanatory material about the translation. Each "verse" of a saga is numbered, and the verses are somewhat short, making it easy to read a few at a time. This is a book that requires concentration and sustained reading in small doses over a long period. It is also important to keep reading it regularly; if you drop the book for a while, it may be difficult to keep track of who everybody is. The book itself is lovely, a handsome paperback with deckle edging, and will certainly look impressive on your shelves until the right moment is found to start reading it.
  rabbitprincess | Feb 12, 2017 |
The Sagas of Icelanders is an expansive collection of Icelandic family sagas and stories. Most of them were written from the 13th and 14th century. Iceland and Greenland were settled a few centuries earlier and the sagas cover the stories of that settlement. With all the interest in Vikings and the success of the TV series, it was fun to go back to some of the original stories of the real Viking adventures.

There are several sagas. Their society is very different from the feudal society of the rest of Europe. It is more egalitarian. Without kings, most of their government takes place at the Althings when people gather to make decisions and settle grievances. There are legal battles, confiscation courts and outlawry. Honor plays a big role, requiring revenge sometimes even when folks would rather not bother.

The women have more agency there than in the rest of Europe as well. They are consulted before marriage and able to reject suitors they do not like. They own property and even, occasionally, lead their own expeditions and captain their own ships. Perhaps because their husbands may be gone for a year or more on trading voyages, they gained power from the need to manage and safeguard their family estates and farms.

With all the patronymic, it can be confusing to keep track of who is who, except there are all the wonderful nicknames. I would love to know how Filth-Eyjolf and Eystein Fart got their names. There is Alf the Wealthy, Asbjorn the Fleshy, Asgeir Audunarson Scatter-brain, Atli the Squinter, Ketil Flat-Nose and so many more.

Most of the stories are about this, that, or the other person getting in a snit, killing someone, then getting killed in return, though some are pretty clever at escaping. Ref the Sly even built a cabin with walls filled with water piped from a stream to automatically put out fires by pulling shims to open the flow, a sprinkler system created around 1050.

I loved The Sagas of Icelanders. It’s a huge book of more than 750 pages so I read it over many weeks a little bit at a time. This is easy because even the longest sagas are broken up into short stories of a page or two.

I love the matter of fact writing and the quick, naturalistic characterization of the people. This person was a scold, that one was lazy, this one thought too highly of himself. They just said it. See how easily and plainly this situation is set up.

“There was a man named Thorbjorn who was rich, overbearing, a great fighter and a trouble-maker. He had lived in every quarter of the country, but the chieftains and the public had expelled him from each district in turn because of his unfairness and his manslaughters. He had not paid compensation for any man he had killed. His wife was named Rannveig; she was stupid and domineering. It was generally felt that Thorbjorn would have committed fewer outrages if she had not driven him on. Now Thorbjorn bought land at Saudafell mountain. Many of those who knew his reputation beforehand were apprehensive about his coming.”

With such plain narratives filled with action, The Sagas of Icelanders is full of adventures and heroics. It also includes the sagas of Eirek the Red and Leif Eireksson who settled, for a time, in Vinland on the coast of Canada. While these are the sagas of the people of Iceland and Greenland, they travel to Sweden, Norway, Ireland, England, Denmark, Russia, and Rome and even Constantinople, traveling all around Europe trading and raiding.

http://tonstantweaderreviews.wordpress.com/2016/11/05/the-sagas-of-icelanders-ed... ( )
2 vote Tonstant.Weader | Nov 5, 2016 |
It is interesting to read The Sagas of the Icelanders as they recall stories of important people that have shaped Iceland. The two sagas I particularly like — Saga of Erik the Red and Greenland saga — are recollections of how the Vikings were the first Europeans to discover the American continent 400 years before Columbus. ( )
  YoCottin | Sep 29, 2016 |
Advanced literature for its age and an amazing picture of a hard, hard lifestyle.
Read Egils Saga & Saga of Laxardal (to p. 270) - Jul 2005 ( )
  mbmackay | Dec 1, 2015 |
While this volume does not contain *all* of the Icelandic sagas, it does provide the reader with a ready reference of a large selection of the Icelandic sagas. ( )
  KaraAgnarsdottir | Feb 5, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Thorsson, ÖrnólfurEditorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
(anonymous)Authormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Attwood, Kartina C.Translatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Clark, GeorgeTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ellison, Ruth C.Translatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gunnell, TerryTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hreinsson, ViðarGeneral editorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kellogg, RobertIntroductionsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kunz, KenevaTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Maxwell, AnthonyTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Regal, Martin S.Translatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Scudder, BernardTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Smiley, JanePrefacesecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Wawn, AndrewTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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The prose literature of medieval Iceland is a great world treasure – elaborate, various, strange, profound, and as eternally current as any of the other great literary treasures – the Homeric epics, Dante's Divine Comedy, the works of William Shakespeare or of any modern writer you could name. (Preface by Jane Smiley)
The later Middle Ages in Europe were a time of striking innovation in literature. (Introduction by Robert Kellogg)
Egil's Saga is acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of the genre, a magnificently wrought portrait of poet, warrior and farmer Egil Skallagrimsson, loosely contained within the framework of the family saga, but with an unusual twist - the feud that Egil and his forebears wage is with the kings of Norway.
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"The sagas and tales in this book are reprinted from the Complete sagas of Icelanders I-V, published 1997 by Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, Iceland, with minor alterations"--P. [lviii].
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The prose literature of medieval Iceland is a great world treasure - elaborate, various, strange, profound, and as eternally current as any of the other great literary treasures - the Homeric epics, Dante's Divine Comedy, the works of William Shakespeare or of any modern writer you could name. Mysteries surround these stories - how were they composed and by whom? what were the motives of the authors? Why were they written in prose when the currency of medieval literature was poetry? How did their contemporaries understand them - did they even read them, or did they hear them read aloud? But the questions fall away as we read the sagas and tales themselves. They are written with such immediacy and forthrightness and they concern such basic human dilemmas that for the most part they are readily accessible and seductive. Reading one creates the appetite for another and another. In the present volume, Penguin has drawn upon the newly translated and edited Complete Sagas of Icelanders to offer the English-speaking reader a rich selection of Icelandic prose. Long and short, complex and simple, fantastic and realistic - there is a taste of everything here, an abundant introduction to a world a thousand years separated from ours, both intensely familiar and intensely strange.
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