The Rockaway Irregular
Readers of this column will know that I don’t usually review books here, though I once discussed a book I’d read as part of making a larger political point (which is what this column is usually about). Some will also know that I’m an historical novelist of sorts, having published one such tale, some years back, and being busy working on another. My completed novel is about the Norse visits to our shores roughly a thousand years ago and, as such, is grounded in the old Norse saga literature I’ve always loved. Which brings me to my review.
Not long ago someone e-mailed me information about a new historical novel that’s based, as mine was, on the old sagas. Not too keen on re-immersing myself in the Norse world (as it works against my current project), I wasn’t going to bother with it. But something about the novel’s description caught my eye. It was presented as a modern rendering of the Eyrbyggja Saga. I just couldn’t resist seeing how the author had handled that since I faced a similar challenge when I wrote my own viking novel. I ordered it from amazon (couldn’t find it in any of the local bookstores) and waited more than a month for my copy to arrive. When it finally came, I plunged right in. I wasn’t disappointed.
Saga: A Novel of Medieval Iceland (published by Academy Chicago Press) is moving and powerful and as true as anyone can ever hope to come to the feel and spirit of the old sagas. Of course, I approached the book with some preconceptions and personal prejudices of my own. Indeed, I wouldn’t have handled the material as Janoda did, preferring to hew a closer line to the original saga voice. But Janoda won me over. While writing with a markedly modern sensibility and retaining the modern novelistic conventions, many of which stray far afield from the old saga techniques, Janoda brilliantly managed to evoke the older saga form. Here is the story of Arnkel Thorolfsson’s feud with the famed Snorri Thorgrimsson, also known in the sagas as Snorri the Priest, a sly Icelandic chieftain. This particular tale, from Eyrbyggja Saga, is only one of several interwoven plots found there. But Janoda has astutely teased it out and put flesh on the bare saga bones, creating a rich and compelling modern novel of real human beings contending with one another in a harsh and unforgiving land. In the process he has recreated that world in all the rich detail and grim coloration.
The beauty of what he’s done is seen within the first few pages as we enter the mind and heart of Ulfar Freedman, the freed slave of a local farmer who ekes out his livelihood on a holding adjacent to Arnkel Thorolfsson’s land and to the land held by Arnkel’s brutal and vindictive father, Thorolf Lamefoot. In the sagas we’re often given things from the point of view of the great men, the chiefs (called godhis) and their kinsmen and retainers. But Janoda’s book, seen initially through the eyes of Ulfar Freedman, gives us these great ones as they may really have been, overbearing, harsh and heedless of the lesser folk around them.
Arnkel godhi has his chieftainship as the result of a deal in which his father, Thorolf, sold Ulfar land as part of a broader arrangement to buy Arnkel his position (chieftainships could be bought and sold in old Iceland). But Arnkel, who is not only proud and fierce but a good deal cleverer than his father, sees that this came at a very great cost, the break-up and diminution of Thorolf’s land holdings, thus impairing Arnkel’s future inheritance. Arnkel is not prepared to pay such a price. In fact, Arnkel’s father actually gained his formerly vast landholdings by killing Arnkel’s grandfather in a duel, after brutalizing and abandoning Arnkel’s mother, the old man’s proud and arrogant daughter Gudrid, who, for her part, also desperately wants her father’s lands back and wishes only ill on Thorolf, her former husband and tormentor. Thus the hapless and gentle Ulfar finds himself an unwitting pawn in a struggle that pits Arnkel against his father, and both of them against Ulfar’s own former master, Thorbrand and his six sons. Though neighbors of Arnkel godhi, the Thorbrandssons have aligned themselves with the famous Snorri of Helgafell, in hopes of counterbalancing Arnkel’s growing strength in their district. But old Thorbrand, Ulfar’s former master, also has designs on Ulfar’s farm since, under Icelandic law, it reverts to him if Ulfar dies without an heir. But Ulfar has found himself a wife and has thus inadvertently set in motion the wheels that will finally grind him into dust between these harsh men.
The story unfolds with much greater focus and depth than is found in the original sagas and this is part of its genius. Janoda has found what may very well be the true story of human struggle, in its endless complexity, that lies beneath what is merely a brief sub-plot in the original Eyrbyggja Saga. There the story is tersely told and it’s not always clear who has done what to whom. Or why. But Janoda has fleshed out the tale with real people including Auln, Ulfar’s betrayed wife, and Halla, the arrogant daughter of Arnkel who has inherited the domineering personality of her grandmother Gudrid but who can’t help desiring Thorbrand’s youngest son, Illugi, despite this. The complex game plays itself out as these people struggle and strive for primacy over one another, destroying lives and hope for those around them in the process. The original sagas are wonderfully rich in the fascinating and moving stories they have to tell and it’s Janoda’s great strength that he has found that rich vein of human greed, folly and striving which lies buried deep within the best of them. Here he has dug out the ore and refined it to purest narrative gold. If you like sagas and the novels that derive from them, this is one of the best.