Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Iceland - it's not all pickled herrings and dodgy geysers

A few weeks ago, I had to write a little news item for Bird Watching about the death of Magnus Magnusson, as he was once a highly successful president of the RSPB.
It obviously mentioned the job that made him a household name in Britain – stern but kindly question-master on Mastermind – as well as his role as a historical broadcaster and author.
I didn’t, sadly, have any room (or remit) to talk about his work as a translator, so let’s put that right here.
I can’t quite remember when I first came across Njal’s Saga, but I do know it had a big impact on me. Written some time in 13th century Iceland by an unknown author, it’s about events taking place on the island round about 1000AD, telling the story of a 50-year blood-feud. Now considered the greatest of the Icelandic ‘family sagas’. I suppose it could be thought of as a sort of proto-historical novel, as many of the events depicted in it can be shown to have taken place, even if the detail and colour that makes it so entertaining could be the invention of the writer.
Anyway, the Penguin Classics text is translated by Magnus Magnusson, and a fine job he did. As an Icelander brought up in Scotland, he could hardly have been better placed to work on a tale whose action takes in both countries. He also added an excellent introduction that makes it by far the best version I’ve read.
Of course, he was working with excellent source material. The sagas have a very distinctive style. Their authors certainly believed in the old “show, don’t tell” maxim, as characters are generally introduced with the briefest of descriptions, and the reader is then left to infer everything else about them by their subsequent actions. There are no internal dialogues, no soul-searching monologues. And yet, by any standards, let alone those of medieval literature, these are incredibly complex characters. None, except the thoroughly malevolent Mord Valgardsson, are really good or evil. Instead they’re just ordinary people with ordinary strengths and weaknesses, caught up in events that frequently take on a momentum of their own.
An all too believable moment, for example, is when Flosi and his followers, driven to the gruesome slaughter of Njal’s family by burning them alive, realise they have let Njal’s son-in-law, the Hebridean Viking Kari, escape. Far from putting a stop to the vendetta, they have merely widened it further, and they know it immediately. All they can do is go home and wait for the storm to engulf them too.
The style is ultra-laconic, something that is used to introduce considerable humour as well as to point up the strong, silent ideal that these Vikings were so fond of. And it’s beautifully paced, with the murderous feud flaring and fading again and again, until finally resolving itself after the coming of Christianity.
I can’t recommend it highly enough – other sagas, such as Egil’s, are well worth reading too (after all, it features a psychopathic, hard-drinking poet as its title character - certain parties should be grateful he's not around to take part in the modern day 'Poetry Wars' ), but for me, this is Icelandic literature’s, and Magnus Magnusson’s finest moment.
Here’s an online version. I can’t vouch for it, but it can’t go far wrong.

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