Hello all, Kieran Shields here. I recently started working on a new idea for a book that’s very different in genre and tone from my previous efforts. But I’m not here to discuss that. Instead, I want to talk about how this new idea led me into reading some of the oldest recorded stories in European literature–where I’ve found a lot of inspiration in terms of subject and material. I’ve also stumbled upon an unexpected, but very solid, refresher course in back-to-basics fundamentals of crafting a solid narrative.
The idea for my new project was sparked by an incident in my latest mystery, A Study in Revenge, where the investigators’ search for clues takes them to a real life 19th century statue of Leif Erikson in downtown Boston. That statue commemorates the historically dubious theory that the Vikings established a major colony near Boston in 1000 A.D.
After this planted some Norse seeds in my mind, I decided to take the plunge into reading some of the old Icelandic sagas. Apart from just being flat out good reads, the thing about these sagas that surprised me most was how these stories, written in the 13th and 14th centuries, remained so relatable and modern. Now that I’m reading them, I’m sorry that I never got around to them sooner, and I wonder why they aren’t more popular and well known.
As Milan Kundera’s blurb on the book jacket says: “Although the glory of the Sagas is indisputable, their literary influence would have been much greater if they had been written in the language of one of the major nations; and we would have regarded the Sagas as an anticipation or even the foundation of the European novel.”
That’s not to say these sagas can’t be hard going sometimes. They’re often dense, sprawling narratives–hence the word ‘saga’–where it can be tough to keep the players straight. The translation I’m reading, The Sagas of Icelanders, with a nice preface by Jane Smiley, contains nine different sagas and comes in at around 725 tightly packed pages. The index contains roughly 1,300 named character names, 300 of which start with the prefix ‘Thor.’ There’s Thorberg, Thorbjorn, Thordis, Thorfinn, Thorgerd, Thorgils, Thorgrim, Thorkel, Thorleik etc., with characters sometimes sharing the same name in a story.
As a writer, it’s common practice (and common sense) to avoid names that are even slightly similar, unless necessary. As a reader, I’m always thankful when authors keep names unique and distinct. So that’s something the saga writers didn’t get right, although they can be excused since they were supposedly recording actual events. And it’s not their fault the Vikings didn’t think too far outside the box when it came to naming their kids.
But the mostly unknown authors of these sagas got it right more often than not when it comes to storytelling. The stories move along at a brisk pace, keeping mostly to the main and necessary events. There’s an emphasis on interesting characters. While the events triggering the story may be mundane, the main characters are always compelling. For the most part, they are not introspective navel-gazers, but instead reveal themselves through actions and dialogue.
Speaking of dialogue, the old Vikings seem to have especially prized a good, pithy one-liner, especially right after killing someone, or when the speaker is about the die. Growing up watching too many cheesy action films, I always thought this was a modern convention. Turns out Iceland beat Hollywood to the punch by at six hundred years.
The characters come to life because they have basic, recognizable psychological motivations that make perfect sense in their world. As I mentioned above, my latest novel was titled A Study in Revenge. I think that would have been a more suitable title for the sagas as a whole. The sagas with their frequent, long-standing family feuds, don’t just use revenge as a mere motivation for a crime, they raise revenge up to the level of a national pastime.
As is still the case in modern fiction, foreshadowing is common and predictions are almost always accurate. Maybe it’s just that ink and paper were really expensive back then, but if the author goes out of his way to show you something early in the story, chances are it will turn up in a crucial moment later on. Another phenomena familiar to a modern audience is the occasional appearance of ghosts and undead beings, who never seem to startle the characters quite much as would you would expect.
Perhaps the most unexpectedly modern element of the sages is how egalitarian the Icelandic culture was in its gender roles. Given the Viking Age setting, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of strong female characters. While social custom may sometimes prevent them from acting in overt, axe-to-the-head, Viking fashion, they often take center stage, stand out as more memorable than their male counterparts and drive much of the action.
All of this makes the sagas far more readable than I would have guessed. And if that’s not enough to pique this crowd’s curiosity, then I’ll also mention that murder, robbery, jealously, backstabbing, and revenge killings are the bread and butter of the sagas. There’s even the occasional bit of murder mystery involved. Unlike the usual killer who proudly proclaims his act, as required by law, Gisli Sursson’s Saga leaves the killer’s identity vague. That murder begins a chain of retaliations that propel the rest of the saga, with each next person who’s duty bound to avenge the slaying acting on his or her suspicions of the murderer’s identity.
Another example is in the more famous Njal’s Saga. It includes an episode that’s been called one of the earliest examples of a whodunit, where several pieces of evidence left at a crime scene end up proving an arsonist’s identity. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the villain in both cases is probably named ‘Thor something-or-other.’
It’s a common piece of advice for writers to read a lot and read a wide variety of material. Even dipping a toe into the vast pool of Icelandic sagas is a perfect example of why that advice should be heeded.