Northerns and Westerns

For Professor Vésteinn Ólason, expert on sagas and friend.

Everybody knows what a Western is, but nobody knows what a “Northern” is. The reason is simple: the word is my own invention! By “Northerns” I simply mean “the Icelandic sagas”, implying that they are the Westerns of the North. I will elaborate upon this implication later; I want to start by explicating the expression “the Icelandic sagas”.

The Icelandic sagas may not be a household expression for my readers, so I will explain what they are all about. The English word “saga” is actually of Icelandic/Old Norse origin and simply means “a story” in Icelandic/Old Norse. It is derived from the verb “segja”, i.e., “to say”. The reason that the word got its current meaning in English is that the Icelandic sagas were dramatic tales, sometimes with a mystical twist. They were about the deeds of the Icelanders in the Viking age, ca. 870-1030 AD. Unknown scribes wrote them down three to four centuries later, probably basing their writings on orally transmitted stories.

These sagas differ very clearly from other medieval stories in Europe by being rather amoral and not very Christian in their behavior; they have a secular or even a heathen twist. Also, the characters are not either entirely good or bad in contrast to the characters of other European medieval stories. They are complex, living human beings with warts and all, and not the empty symbols of medieval romances. I often say that just like Dante, the saga writers create three-dimensional humans out of two-dimensional medieval stuff.

The sagas have been likened to both the Homeric epic and the Greek tragedies. The Homeric bit is the fact they are about heroic, barbaric warriors, their relentless fights, and their code of honour. The tragedy part is the fact that these stories usually describe a terrible fate, which strikes reasonably good men. They are written in a sparse prose and are usually very realistic; some scholars maintain that they anticipate the realistic novels of the nineteenth century. They certainly do anticipate Hemingway’s way of writing; for all we know he might have been influenced by these old Icelandic books. His “less is more” use of understatement reeks of the sagas, and so is the way he focuses on the lonely, but manly hero.

The main protagonist of Hemingway’s short story, “The Killers”, could have been a hero of the sagas. He is a gangster who knows that there are contract killers on his track. Nevertheless, he resigns; he waits for his fate in a run-down hotel, even though he can escape. He reminds me of one of the characters in The Saga of Gísli. That person has been warned not to go to a certain fjord because his enemies are waiting to ambush him there. He answers, “Now all the rivers are falling into the fjord”, implying he cannot change his fate. He then rides to the fjord and is duly killed, just like the old Swede in Hemingway’s story (is it by chance that Hemingway’s protagonist is Nordic? Could it be that he is alluding to these Nordic stories?).

Hemingway himself was in many ways like an Icelandic poet of the Viking age. Just like them he was a man of action, the quintessential tough guy who nevertheless could hint at something tender and romantic in his writing. In an analogous fashion, some of the tough Icelandic Viking-poets could make poems where they hint at a vulnerable and caring part of their personalities (not a great consolation for their numerous victims!).

As I said earlier, we do not know with certainty whether Hemingway was influenced by the sagas. But Dashiell Hammett certainly was. The Icelandic film director Fridrik Fridriksson told me that Hammett’s widow, the well-known playwright Lillian Hellman, said that one of Hammett’s crime novels was based on a certain saga (unfortunately, he neither knew which saga nor crime novel Hellman was referring to). The director also told me that he had met some old scriptwriters in Hollywood who said that they had been influenced by the sagas in many a Western script. So the Northerns (the sagas) took part in creating the Westerns!

In actual fact, the kinship between the Northerns and the Westerns is pretty obvious. Both are set in a settler’s society where most people live on isolated farms (Iceland was uninhabited until the late ninth century, the period 870-930 AD is called “the age of the settlers”). Neither the Wild West nor medieval Iceland had any state authority to speak of; every man had to fend for himself. Despite this, whatever authorities there were, they had enough strength to outlaw certain culprits.

Both the Northerns and the Westerns tend to have an outlaw as their main protagonist; witness on the one hand the Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, on the other The Saga of Grettir the Strong (about a local Rambo-type, an ill-fated outlaw). Furthermore, a central element in both genres is the duel or showdown. The classical Western Duel under the Sun is of course a film about a duel, and a magnificent duel is the peak of The Saga of Gunnlaugur Ormstunga. Gunnlaugur Ormstunga is yet another Viking-poet, who falls violently in love (I told you they had tender sides!) with Helga the fair (who else?). Trouble is that another guy is quite taken with the lady and so the rivals meet in a duel. Gunnlaugur is victorious and his dying rival asks him for some water. Gunnlaugur brings him water in his helmet, but the rascal uses his last strength to kill him. Dying, Gunnlaugur asks, “Why did you do such a foul deed?”, and the other dying man says “Because I could not stand the thought of you enjoying the favours of Helga the fair”.

The moment of tragedy is obvious, and its kinship to old folksongs from the Wild West is, too. The famous song “Lily of the West” has a saga-like quality. A cowboy falls in love with Flora, the Lily of the West, but she cheats on him. In order to defend his honour, the cowboy slays Flora’s new lover. At the trial Flora “swears his life away” as a revenge. Actually, the sagas are full of the likes of Flora: proud, powerful and revengeful women. One of the most interesting which is Gudrún, the basic protagonist of The Saga of the Laxdaela Family. Gudrún is betrothed to a dreamboat of a Viking called Kjartan. But dreamboats are unsteady vessels: he lets her down in a big way. Heartbroken, she marries his bloodbrother Bolli and urges him to kill Kjartan as revenge. He does so out of love for Gudrún and is plagued by a bad conscience for the rest of life. After Bolli’s death she marries twice. When she is an old woman her son asks her “whom of your husband did you love most?”. She replied “I behaved the worst towards the one I loved the most”. Implied is that her forcing Bolli to kill his bloodbrother was a foul deed, not least because it hurt him (Bolli) so deeply.

Let us go back to the comparison of Westerns and Northerns. Another feature that the Cowboys and the Vikings share is that they do not speak much; if they do they speak it is in an ironic fashion — understatement is the name of the game. Gestures and looks are often more important than words. Thus in the Saga of Egill, the mimic and gestures of the great Viking-poet Egill Skallagrímsson show that he is contemplating the killing of the Anglo-Saxon king, Athelstone. Of course, the Viking does not utter a single word, he knew that talk was cheap. Compare this to Westerns like Big Country where the characters communicate with their eyes, not their tongues. Think also about Clint Eastwood’s mute characters in the Spaghetti Westerns. Further, the Northerns and the Westerns have in common the fact that a substantial part of the action takes place on horseback. In the Saga of Burnt-Njal, an isolated farm is encircled by horsemen who set the farm ablaze with burning arrows. The analogy to the classical Indian attack on the settlers’ wagons is clear.

We know why the Westerns were made. They were partly made for profit, and partly because a young nation needed to define itself. Possibly the sagas were written for the same reasons. Be that as it may, for some reason the Icelanders had a strange mania for writing during the Middle Ages. This culture was a non-visual one; it venerated the word and ignored the image. There were hardly any drawings being drawn, paintings being painted, or sculptures being carved. The Icelanders just wrote, wrote, wrote, about the Viking heroes, the Nordic kings, and the Old Norse gods.

I once heard someone say that a classical work of art is an artwork which can be “re-functioned”. This means that a classical artwork can move with the times, play different roles in different epochs. The sagas certainly have changed functions in the course of time. As I suggested, we do not know their original role; for all we know they might have been written with the didactic purpose of teaching young warriors masculine virtues. The sagas had in all probability also entertainment value; they certainly functioned as action stories for Icelandic peasants in later times. In the next to last century they also acquired a patriotic function; they were read as the remainders of the presumed golden age of medieval Iceland, when the country was an independent state (it later came under Norwegian and Danish overlordship). Later, intellectuals began to “market” the sagas as works of art, realistic proto-novels or “docudramas”. Such claims can be disputed, but not that the sagas have played all kinds of roles through the ages. These are the books for all times, the time of sowing and the time of reaping, the time of living and the time of dying, the time of reading and the time of writing.

Ladies and gentlemen! May I present to you the fabulous, fantastic, thrilling, fulfilling, sagas of the Icelanders, coming soon to a bookstore next to you!