Friday, 28 May 2010

Saga: A Novel of Medieval Iceland

By: Jeff Janoda

Pros: engaging, intricate plotlines, lots of political intrigue

Cons: the names are confusing for the first few chapters

A lot of medieval literature tends to be boring. The way of writing was not a style we normally appreciate today. While there's often a lot of action, there's little character development and too much description. Now, part of the problem is that a lot of medieval literature was meant to be recited rather than read (thinking specifically of earlier stuff, of which the Icelandic Sagas, that Saga: A Novel of Medieval Iceland was based on, were a part of). I haven't read any Icelandic Sagas, so this observation is drawn from having read Beowulf and numerous other primary sources from various periods that we refer to as the Middle Ages.

Jeff Janoda took these sagas and turned them into living stories. Reading his prose felt like listening to a storyteller. He has just enough description to give you a sense of place and people, religion and culture. His characters develop throughout the novel, some becoming more naive, others growing up fast. There's a lot of political intrigue, and just enough action to keep you reading.

The story is about the various feuds begun when Thorolf cuts the hay from both his meadow and that of his neighbour, Ulfar. When Ulfar tries to get satisfaction for this theft, he's forced to change allegiance, an act that spirals into a cold war for land and influence.

One of the most fascinating things about the story is the idea that with so much interbreeding, blood feuds are simply not practical. So most legal affairs are dealt with at the yearly Thing, where the Gothi, clan leaders, pass judgement. Of course, once some of the Gothi start taking matters into their own hands, blood feud becomes a real possibility.

The only complaint I had about the book (and it would have been impossible to get rid of) was the number of names that started with a 'T'. Thorbrand, Thorgils, Thorleif and Thorolf are all major characters introduced in the first few chapters. The author provides a glossary of names, but I never looked at it, choosing to flip back to earlier passages to help get the names straight.

This is an excellent novel and if you have any interest in Iceland, medieval or otherwise, I highly recommend it.

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