Volume II of William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon’s Saga Library (published in 1892) includes both Eyrbyggja saga (here called The Story of the Ere-dwellers) and Heiðarvíga saga (here called The Story of the Heath-slayings). But Heiðarvíga—an offshoot of Eyrbyggja—exists only in fragmented form and has been relegated to addendum status (as Appendix B), and Eyrbyggja, the longer and better known, claims most of Morris and Magnússon’s attention.(1)
Both sagas, however, are rich in character and incident, and both are made more accessible through supplementary material provided by the translators: a thorough, well-informed Preface (giving dates and background material), a reprinting from Guðbrandur Vigfússon’s 1864 “Chronological List,” two appendices (the one containing added information about Snorri the Priest, the other The Story of the Heath-slayings), a section called Notes (forty-two pages, giving historical and cultural context to the sagas and explaining lapses in the texts); nine pages of genealogies, and a three-part index on Persons, Places, and Subject-matter, followed by two lists: Poetical Periphrasis and Periphrasis Proper—altogether an impressive scholarly achievement and one that J. M. Simpson correctly assumes “few publishers of translations would encourage today” (369).
Morris and Magnússon’s Story of the Ere-dwellers was the first complete English translation to be made of the saga, as well as the first English translation to come directly from Old Icelandic. Nonetheless, the saga was already known in England and recognized for its descriptions of early Icelandic life—thanks to Grímur Jónsson Thorkelín’s 1787 Latin translation and to Sir Walter Scott’s 1814 “Abstract of the Eyrbyggja-Saga.” In Scott’s words, there are no “records of Icelandic history and literature . . . more interesting than the Eyrbyggja-Saga” (517).
By the time Morris and Magnússon began their translation (likely in the early 1870’s), English readers were ready for a full translation—none more so than Robert Louis Stevenson, who received his copy of Saga Library II in Samoa and wrote to Morris in 1892. “Master,” he begins and continues on to say:
A plea from a place so distant should have some weight, and from a heart so grateful should have some address. I have been long in your debt, Master, and I did not think it could be so much increased as you have now increased it. I was long in your debt and deep in your debt for many poems that I shall never forget, and for Sigurd before all, and now you have plunged me beyond payment by the Saga Library.” (236)
High praise for sure! Yet both sagas are notoriously difficult reads—Heiðarvíga because of its antiquated style and because so much of the manuscript is missing, and Eyrbyggja because of peculiarities in its structure. Instead of following the lineal progression typical of other sagas, Eyrbyggja saga jumps back and forth between various ongoing plots, making synopsis all but impossible.(2) To add to the problem, there is an exceptionally large number of characters for the reader to keep in mind, characters who move in and out of the narrative and who, like Snorri the Priest, are motivated by intricate relationships and mixed loyalties. Snorri comes from the Thorsnessings, but his foster brothers are the sons of Thorbrand (a Swanfirth man). Snorri’s strongest rivalry is Arnkel, from the race of Thorolf Halt-foot. His wife, Asdis, is the daughter of Stir, one of the Kiallekings, and his sister is illicitly and shamefully involved with a Broadwick man and bears this man a son.
Though Morris and Magnússon believe Snorri is the saga’s “real central figure” (xii), accounts of Snorri fail to create a continuous storyline. The saga becomes, then, not so much a story about Snorri the Priest as one in which Snorri figures repeatedly. Other characters—individuals who play less persistent roles—are more likely to gain our interest or our sympathy: the short-lived, fair-dealing Arnkel or Biorn, the Champion of the Broadwickers, or those two imperfect but fascinating personalities who make a showing in both living and revenant states, the villainous Thorolf Halt-foot, who continues to plague the region after his death, and the strong-willed but fair-dealing Thorgunna, who rises up “naked” to prepare a meal for those transporting her corpse.(3)
One way of coming to terms with the saga’s unwieldiness (and its lack of a primary character) is to look at Eyrbyggja saga as a series of clustered episodes involving regional families. This is the approach Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards take in the introduction to their 1972 translation, an approach consistent with Morris and Magnússon’s statement that the narrative is essentially centered “in groups of actors” instead of “single persons” (xii).
Others look for recurring patterns or themes, as Bernadine McCreesh does in her essay on Conversion in Eyrbyggja saga or as Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards do by separating the lineal progression of history from social interaction. Still others—Lee M. Hollander among them—find structure in the interlacing of narrative strands, an interlacing that Hollander feels is both artistic and intentional. His system is not a precise or perfect solution. (McCreesh calls it both “ingenious” and “far-fetched.”) Nonetheless, Hollander’s grouping of narrative strands offers a better means of grasping the saga as a whole than other approaches do.
According to Hollander, interlacing in Eyrbyggja begins shortly after the start of the saga, at the point where Geirrid (daughter of Thorolf Halt-foot and sister of Arnkel) enters the story and is accused of witchcraft. This action Hollander labels A. In most sagas, revenge, or intentions of revenge, would follow immediately; but what comes instead is what Hollander calls B, a section covering the murder of Snorri’s brother-in-law (Thorbiorn) by Geirrid’s son (Thorarin) and Thorarin’s hopes of avoiding Snorri’s vengeance for this death. In Hollander’s words, “we are tense with wonder how this can be done against such a powerful opponent” (224). But again we are left hanging and return to action A, where Arnkel and Thorarin deal with Katla, the true worker of malevolent witchcraft. It is only after Katla and her son, Odd, are dead that we return to B and learn that Thorarin is leaving the country to escape financial ruin from a law suit. “In other words,” writes Hollander, “just as in Skaldic verse sentences, here two actions are skillfully interwoven (A B A B) in this considerable segment of the saga” (224).
The second interlacing begins with an altercation between a relative of Vigfus and one of Snorri’s shepherds, the settlement of which leaves Vigfus ripe for revenge. This Hollander labels C. Next we move to a short account of Eric the Red’s travels and then hear more about Thorarin, who has left Iceland along with his brother-in-law. This brother-in-law, Vermund, acquires two troublesome berserkers during a stay in Norway (a return to B). Back in Iceland, he foists them off on his brother, Stir (action D). Rather than telling us how Stir handles the berserkers, the story returns to Vigfus and we are told about his attempt to have Snorri murdered, which leads to Vigfus’s death and to his widow seeking help from Arnkel to gain retribution (C). Now the story returns to D, with an account of how Stir rids himself of the berserkers. From this comes the pattern C B D C D.
The third and final interlacing cluster, Hollander admits, is “difficult to follow without having the saga before one” (225). It opens with action B making another showing (Snorri marrying off his sister, Thurid, the widow of Thorbiorn). The saga then moves on to encompass E (matters related to Thurid’s lover, Biorn, the Champion of the Broadwickers); F (the dealings of Thorolf Halt-foot, who dies and becomes a revenant); and G (Arnkel’s death, which results in Thorlief, a foster brother of Snorri, being exiled for three years and becoming entangled with Arnbiorn, the brother of Biorn). Now comes another installment of E (Biorn returning to Iceland and taking up with Thurid again), then another installment of G (Thorlief’s attempted murder of Anbiorn and the resulting battle), after which comes a return to E (Snorri attempting to murder Biorn and Biorn agreeing to leave Iceland). Following this are two brief chapters on emigration to Greenland and the arrival of Christianity—before we come back to F once again with more supernatural events: Thorgunna’s death and doings on the way to burial, the wonders and hauntings at Frodis-water, and further revenant malice from Thorolf Halt-foot (as well as chapters on Uspak’s escapades and Snorri’s action against him). This is followed by a final return to E, where Biorn—thought to be dead—is discovered alive and a “great chief” in an unspecified land west of Ireland (presumed by Morris and Magnússon to be North America). This last appearance of E produces B E F G E G E F E), so ending the interlacing and the action but not quite the saga. A final chapter fills in details about Snorri’s life.
The Story of the Ere-dwellers is followed by Appendix A, an accounting of Snorri’s children. After this comes The Story of the Heath-slayings, a highly engaging, highly dramatic story, not only for the heath-slayings themselves and the ruses and deceptions leading up to battle but for the way in which the saga depicts conflict—the development of conflict, its growth and bequeathment, and the ways in which conflict (seemingly put to rest) rises up again: The slayings have come to an end. Peace has been restored. Deaths are accounted for. Bardi is back in Iceland and wedded to Aud, his second wife. All seems well—but not for long. In a remarkable scene, just paragraphs before the ending, Heiðarvíga saga gives the reader a brief but effective example of friction breaking out once more. In its own underplayed way, this wicked little vignette says much about the very nature of conflict, how easy it is to set it going and how quickly it grows to the point of no return.
So it befell one morning, as [Bardi and his wife] were both together in their sleeping loft, away from other folk, that Bardi would sleep on, but she would be rousing him, and so she took a small pillow and cast it into his face as if for sport. He threw it back again from him; and so this went on sundry times. And at last he cast it at her and let his hand go with it. She was wroth thereat, and having gotten a stone she throweth it at him in turn.
Later that day, “when drinking was at an end,” Bardi announces to the room that he is leaving Aud, that he will take “masterful ways no more from her than from anyone else” (258). His decision is final. Their goods are divided, and Bardi departs in the spring.
From provocations as slight as this, saga disputes take hold, disputes triggered (in the words of Jesse L. Byock) by such ordinary matters as “landownership, insult, inheritance, dowries, hay, and beached whales” (2)—or, in the case of Bardi and Aud, a pillow fight in the loft.
Andersson, Theodore M. The Icelandic Family Saga: An Analytic Reading. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1967.
Byock, Jesse L. Feud in the Icelandic Saga. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: U of California P, 1982.
—. “Inheritance and Ambition in Eyrbyggja saga.” In Sagas of the Icelanders: A Book of Essays, edited by John Tucker, 185-205. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1989.
Fairbank, Alfred. “An Annotated List of the Manuscript Work of William Morris.” InThe Story of Kormak the Son of Ogmund, 65 and 67. London: William Morris Society, 1970.
Harris, Joseph. “The Masterbuilder Tale in Snorri’s Edda and Two Sagas.” Arkiv för nordisk filologi 91 (1976): 66-101.
Miller, William Ian. “Choosing the Avenger: Some Aspects of the Bloodfeud in Medieval Iceland and England.” Law and History Review 1, no. 2 (Autumn, 1983): 159-204.
Pálsson, Hermann and Paul Edwards. Introduction to Eyrbyggja Saga. Edited and translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Rev. ed. London: Penquin Books, 1989.
Scott, Sir Walter. “Abstract of the Eyrbyggja-saga.” In Illustrations of Northern Antiquities, edited by. M. Mallet, 475-513. Edinburgh, 1814; repr., as Northern Antiquities, 517-540. London, 1847; New York: AMS Press, 1968.
Simpson, John M. "Eyrbyggja Saga and Nineteenth Century Scholarship." Proceedings of the First Internaitonal Saga Conference, Edinburgh, 1971, edited by Peter Foote, Hermann Pálsson, and Desmond Slay, 360-394. London: The Viking Society for Northern Research, London: Viking Society, 1973, 360-94.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Vol. 7 of The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Edited by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew. New Haven and London, Yale UP, 1995.
—. “The Waif Woman.” Scribner’s Magazine, 56, no. 6 (Dec. 1914): 687-701.