This week I’ve been reading The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue.
In all honesty it would be stretching it to call this book a classic, there’s too much of the narrative given over to big warrior men mincing about and reciting poetry. “Tell mediocre poem, get extravagant reward” is about the shape of it. I was probably expecting too much sophistication of a poem from the 10th century and it’s certainly an interesting record of early Icelandic culture, so in this review I’ll focus on that.
The Saga was written down between about 1270 and 1300, but comes from an oral tradition and so would have been circulating much earlier. The action – the hero Gunnlaug on a quest to become worthy of the favour of his intended, Helga the Fair, in spite of his nemesis Hrafn – is set between 990 and 1010, in Iceland and across Scandinavia.
The world of the Saga is based on honour and prestige. It’s the archetypal shame culture; people are judged, and rewarded, by their acts, and conscience or guilt plays no role in their decision making. (See Erich Auerbach’s seminal Mimesis for a proper analysis of this. I’d recommend reading and comparing the first chapter ‘Odysseus’ Scar’ with the final chapter ‘The Brown Stocking’.) The poem-telling episodes show this clearly:
Gunnlaug recited the poem, which was a well-constructed flokk. As a reward, the earl gave him a broad axe, decorated all over with silver inlay, and invited Gunnlaug to stay with him.
The honour that Gunnlaug, a nobleman of good repute across Iceland, confers on the earl is obviously more than equal to the value of the silver axe. At points in the Saga this verges on the silly (for modern readers), as when Gunnlaug publicly outs his arch-nemesis Hrafn for only speaking a flokk to the King when he should have honoured him by speaking a drapa. To flip this around (hot take alert) it shows how much more people nowadays value material goods than they ever did: aren’t NFTs really nothing more than bragging rights?
Linguistically 10th century Iceland is also interesting. The original settlers in Iceland were a Norwegian separatist movement. In about 874, rejecting the monarchy, Ingólfur Arnarsson and others sailed from Norway and formed a republic on the barren rock that was Iceland. This is why Icelandic is such an interesting language to philologists – it’s a very unusual example of a language that diverged with a single starting culture and without any outside influences. Contrast this with the development of Old English from the 11th century – viking raiders made frequent visits to the North East coast, and after the Conquest the French-and-Latin-speaking Normans relegated most speakers of Old English to the peasantry, creating a triglossial society in the process – and you see how much easier it would be to track linguistic changes across time in Icelandic. Put simply, all that separates modern Norse and modern Icelandic is 1000 years and 1,500 miles of stormy seas.
The Saga also shows us the nomadic, yet tightly knit, structure of Icelandic culture.
Now at the Althing that summer, Hrafn the Poet met his kinsman Skafti the Lawspeaker.
Once the 10,000 or so founding travellers landed in Iceland they didn’t stay together, but broke off into smaller groups. Because they were all originally from the same band of travellers, they met regularly; these smaller groups would join together once a year at the Althing, a kind of partliament, to socialise, resolve disputes and, importantly, to speak the laws. There was a small group who knew all the laws of the Icelandic people off by heart, and each they would recite a third of them at the Althing. Thus every three years everyone would hear all the laws. If a law needed changing a group of elders from different groups would decide among themselves.
The Saga has a difference cadence to modern narratives. Rather than humans driving the plot forward, account must be taken for the natural movement of the year; whole summers, or winters, pass when nothing happens.
Now we return to Gunnlaug, who left Sweden for England in the same summer as Hrafn went back to Iceland. He received valuable gifts from King Olaf when he left. Kind Ethelred gave Gunnlaug a very warm welcome. He stayed with the King all winter, and was thought well of.
The key characters, Gunnlaug, Hrafn and Helga, are too far apart, and presumably the weather too bad, for anything meaningful to happen between them, so the narrative pauses, waiting for the changing of the seasons.
That’s been it, see you next time.
PS This is the third in my series of reviews and reflections on the Penguin Little Black Classics series. Each week I read a new one and post my thoughts on this blog. For the full list of posts, please click here.