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A Book that Changed her Life

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

Here Sigrid writes of the book which had the greatest influence on her in childhood, and in fact helped shape her epic writing in the years to come.

All the books in my grandfather’s shelves were bound in a kind of leather with marbled paper. The large, medium and small volumes all looked as uninviting as each other. But in my teens, I was an inveterate bookworm and the old farm offered such an abundance of nooks and crannies that one could slip away with an exciting book, safe from the interference of the adults in the long, hot summer days and bright, pink-skied summer evenings with the lovely smell of hay and cows and the air alive with the music of grasshoppers. There was the old barn and the gazebo in the garden behind the house and the field where the girls had bleached linen in the old days before Vollan Gård became a forced labour facility for vagrant and frivolous girls from Trondheim, under supervision of my devout grandfather. With all this, I gave myself to investigating his bookshelves. Volumes of collections of sermons, volumes of Misjonstidende bound together, volumes of short stories of a particularly clear moral bent.

“I wonder if this is something more to your taste, Sigrid”, the clerk Mr Mork said. The little volume he pulled out from under a pile of minutes seemed as black and untrustworthy as the rest of the home library. I might have looked rather confused when I read on the title page “Njål’s Saga”, as he chuckled: “Just give it a try, my girl, and we will see if you are grown up enough to get something out of it”.

A manuscript of the Icelandic Njål's Saga

With such a challenge, there could obviously be no question of giving up, even if reading the saga about Njål was a bit of a battle in the beginning. But that did not last long. Well hidden in the little thickets beyond the southern meadow, I was soon so immersed in the story about old times in Iceland that I forgot that they had called and driven off to take my grandmother to town for shopping and visits. I had no desire other than to be allowed to be left in peace with this book that presented such a new and wonderfully real world. I read about the sons of Njål who fell at their enemies’ ambush in the riverbed: Skarphedin slides down the frozen Markafljot, someone throws a shield at him to make him stumble but he leaps over it as he drives his axe into the head of the nearest man and like a bird in flight, he slides further on. I had to set the book down and bury my face in the grass. I saw it so clearly it was painful: Skarphedin, with black hair and pale face, beautiful eyes and foul mouth; reckless and unpredictable, valiant and filled with some vague grudge against life. Of course, a little girl was not in a position to comprehend the author’s mastery in the old saga with his depictions of an unhappy marriage and complex characters. But the little girl in the summer-scented thickets, was trembling slightly with those feelings that make grown women bind their fate to talented misfits and neurotics.

As an archaeologist’s daughter and companion, I was not entirely a stranger to the world of the sagas. I knew my country’s history rather well and I was the curator of “Papa’s Museum”. I had seen and held in my hands tools and accessories of Vikings from an early age. It was easy to think of the latter as necklaces resting uneasily on the breast of the beautiful but wicked Hallgjerd or of Njål’s stubborn and faithful wife, and the rusty swords as new; sharpened and flecked with congealed blood and with a hilt warmed by Skarphedin’s hand.

When we returned home after the vacation in Trondheim, my father allowed me to read to him aloud some of the sagas. It was the last winter he lived and he could not leave his room. Just days before he died, I was reading for him from Håvard Isfjording’s Saga. Perhaps this is why for many years following, I refused to believe that Håvard’s Saga was one of the best.

Regardless of the fact that in one way or another I myself was able to read the sagas at a young age, I now think that these stories from medieval Iceland could happily be read in this country and America, too; to a far greater extent than they have till now. The idea that may frighten readers off the sagas – that they are mere folklore, boring affairs for everyone except the intelligentsia – is entirely mistaken. The understanding of the romantic is based on the idea that the old literature and folk music were ever an expression for something they called the soul of the people [folkesjelen]. In distant ages past there was a compulsion to create, taken to be the driving force of the poets. It rose like a sunbeam radiating across all races and peoples, before separating into tongues of fire and descending upon individual poets. German academics (who by the way have contributed an excellent body of work within Nordic philology) lovingly nursed the theory that Icelandic literature was an interpreter for the soul of the Nordic people’s soul. The most charitable academics assumed that the Germans belonged in this category, but they most definitely did not. The Germanic tribes which came from somewhere in Asia were not identical to the Nordic peoples. Some tribes settled in Central Europe and assimilated with Celtic and Slavic tribes. Some dwelled in the Baltic and North Atlantic coastal areas and became the seafaring Nordic nations.

There is a the sense that the sagas could not have arisen anywhere else other than in a society of free men who passionately clung to the earth they cultivated at the same time that precisely the very poverty of this ground forced them to travel across all of Europe as merchants, Vikings, and finally as pilgrims and students, in essence they were forged by the Nordic spirit. But whether they were Germanic, Nordic or Norwegian, the old Icelandic literature is Icelandic indeed, and the sagas are works of individual authors. Some of them were well educated men while also being great artists, as was Snorre Sturlason, the most famous of them all. Others were gifted writers who could give their works the wild pathos of tragedy, black humour or charm, given their depictions of great or captivating characters. Others again were of much inferior quality. Many of the family traditions and legends from villages about powerful and noteworthy men from the olden days were transposed into the sagas. But orally transmitted folk legends operate with types, not with portraits of tragedies and conflicts of a strenuously individualistic and complex mind. Skarphedin, ever manic and finally on the verge of a nervous breakdown from which only death saves him; the love story in the Laksdøla Saga – Kjartan’s passion for Gudrun and his chivalrous tenderness for the young lady he married in order to torment Gudrun who had married his cousin – the subtly implied impression that this cousin is ever the second best of the two but who nevertheless has a perseverance in love and hate that makes him stronger than the good-looking Kjartan – and the story of Hørd Grimkjellson, so handsome and valiant but with a secret flaw in his nature that sealed his fate, in that he ends up as chief over all Iceland’s dregs; not as a leader but himself lead by his wretched men. All this wracking psychology and irreversible tragedy is surely not found in saga stories of old men’s and women’s hearths. Nor the subtle humour and cynical take on affection and vanity that falls into its own traps as in the Bandamanna Saga about conspirators that makes for such pleasurable reading.

The Icelandic sagas were created at the intersection of a people living under their particular conditions of life with a stream of culture which for a while was common throughout all of Europe. The old Germanic culture was completely illiterate – so illiterate that for centuries the Germanic tribes had had an alphabet of letters loaned from Greek and Latin, but they never managed to develop their runic script into a coherent one that could be used for writing history or stories. The runes were used for scratching spells on gravestones, weapons and jewellery and the whoever who mastered them was a wizard.

All this changed when the Northern European peoples took up Christianity. The young men who wanted to enter the priesthood of the new faith had to learn to use the Catholic Church’s liturgical books. They travelled to England, Italy, Germany or France for education. After studying in Paris, the scholarly Sæmund of Odde founded on his farm back home in Iceland the celebrated school where Snorre Sturlason received his education. Lots of other young men who were not considering priesthood also looked to these church, cathedral or (later) monastic schools. In this first period, they naturally wrote in Latin. (The oldest Norwegian historical accounts as also the well-known old Danish chronicle were written in Latin.) But it was well for the Nordic lands that they were Christianised when they were, just as throughout all of Christian Europe vernacular literature suddenly sprang up. The Icelanders already had a living memory of its people’s past at the time Iceland was colonised by strong-willed Norwegian men who had left their own land because they would not obey a king’s laws that replaced their own – expressions of their own concepts of justice and equity. This is what the seafaring northerners had done from time immemorial. Thus, they made use of what they had learned at their Latin school to put down on parchment the old songs about the Nordic gods and heroes, academic theses and the sagas. This included everything from reliable history of the Nordic countries and more or less poetic stories about their ancestors, to entirely romantic and fantastical stories using the common European themes of Merlin, Tristan and Isolde and the like.

The interesting thing is that these Icelandic family sagas are still very much alive. They are contemporaneous with the French and German stories of chivalry, framed by a medieval society long since disappeared. But while the tension in these knights’ tales is characterised by the morality of a specific past social setting, the passions and conflicts impelling the deeds of the sagas are universally human and the struggles about which they speak are ever found in nature. Within societies of different structures, the course of events can be very different but the driving forces are part and parcel of our common human nature.

A recurring theme in most of the sagas is the conflict between a man’s inclinations and his convictions; between his conscience and the morals of his environment. Indeed, the origin of this is not found in the Viking period. Many of the sagas were written down in Icelandic monasteries or by clerics. The Nordic peoples, and not least of all the intellectuals amongst them, took the new faith seriously. But they lived in a society of which the structure and morality were still pre-Christian. The great commandment of this pagan moral teaching was fidelity to the clan. You would think that this tightly organized blood kinship, wherein it was the first duty of the strong and rich to protect family members, where the downtrodden, the elderly and orphans were guaranteed help and sustenance within the family and where the brilliance or fame that surrounded one man cast a light over the whole tribe; you would think that all this would give each individual a feeling of security and increased joie de vivre. But this is not how it works in the sagas. Almost without exception they see this mutual dependence within the clan from the point of view of a man or woman constrained by it or forced by it into unhappy, tragic or ridiculous situations. They tell of the eternal conflict between generations: fathers and sons who dislike or are suspicious of each other. They tell of quarrels and reluctant alliances between brothers or brothers-in-law who had nothing in common besides the obligation forced upon them to stand together; of married women who feel themselves bound to the fathers and brothers of their husbands to the point that when enmity breaks out between the clan in which they were raised and the clan into which they married, their position becomes tragic. Allegiance to the clan imposes on every man the obligation to be involved in the bloody feuds which, far from being characteristic of a lawless society, were the only means by which judicial decisions could be carried out in a society which had developed instruments of legislation and judgment, but lacked the agency of law enforcement. He who won his case at the Thing had to see to it himself that the judgement was carried out and to this end he required the assistance of his entire clan. This duty would force an honourable man to do much that he knew to be unjust and which militated against his new sensibility as a Christian. Many a man suffered for his desire to avoid the obligation to participate in such remedies. The authors of the sagas often write of this struggle from the stories of the old days. A familiar motif is the dilemma that might arise in a straightforward and kindly man who is chief of his clan or town, who only wishes the law to be observed in his little kingdom and tries to help all his dependents to further their wellbeing in a peaceful manner. But then there is a brother or son or nephew; a brutal, rebellious or querulous figure causing havoc left and right across the land with acts of violence and robbery, humiliating everyone who has somehow incurred his displeasure. The good and just friend tries to speak sense to him, to convince him and warn him. But he cannot refuse his clan support, even if it grieves him to further the injustice by protecting the guilty against the innocent one involved.

Because the principal theme in the sagas is this eternal conflict between one’s conscience and environment, and as some of them are told with such amazing skill, I am of the opinion that precisely because they are set in a far distant past, they emphasise the most fundamental elements of human life, at least in our western world’s civilisation which builds upon a religious interpretation of life, pre-Christian as much as Christian. Njål’s Saga has rightly been considered the chef d-œvre among the sagas and also the richest and most varied study of all the typical saga themes. From a purely artistic point of view, the short saga Ravnkjell Frøysgode is the crowning jewel of them all. For me personally, the heartrendingly beautiful sagas about Gisle Sursson and Hørd Grimkjellson are my favourites.

Sigrid Undset, “En bok som ble et vendepunkt i mitt liv” in Sigrid Undset: Essays og Artikler [Liv Bliksrud, ed.], Vol IV, pp. 775-782. Translation: Brendan Arthur.

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