Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Novelizations of the Icelandic Sagas

To demonstrate how easy it is to share your a-ha ideas, I thought I'd share one of mine.

When the first Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movie came out, I realized that I hadn't read the trilogy since I was a teenager. I wondered whether I would still enjoy the novels as much now that I was middle-aged. The answer, incidentally, is that I did enjoy them but in a completely different way than I did back then, and I am glad I took the time to revisit them.

Since I enjoyed the trilogy, I thought I`d try reading The Simarillion again as well. I had hated this as a teenager. It was not written in a style I had any experience with, and I just found the narrative terse and lacking in any characters I felt I could care about because they had so little detail. Dialogue was offered only when necessary, and inner thoughts and emotions virtually missing in action.

In the ensuing years, however, I became an avid student of the Icelandic Sagas and that made all the difference in my ability to appreciate the story. On rereading The Simarillion I saw at once that it is written in the same style as the sagas, which I'm sure Tolkien did on purpose. Here is one description of the saga style:

The literary style of the Sagas was unique until this century when it was re-invented by modern authors. The Icelandic Sagas only contain straight conversation and descriptions of events, people and places. Nowhere is there added what any person in them is thinking, the acts or the words speak for themselves. Usually the Icelandic Sagas are terse and their sparse use of prose makes them an unique cultural heritage.

Some people may not be aware of this, but the entire story of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is contained within The Simarillion. That version is written in saga style and occupies just 3 pages of the book. Think about that. You can take stories written in the saga style and translate them from 3 pages into the modern novel style and end up with three large novels. As I was reading this section of the book, I looked over at my bookshelf that has dozens of books filled with sagas and suddenly had an a-ha moment.

Has anyone novelized the Icelandic Sagas? I've never found any evidence of it. Why haven't they? Some of the most beautiful and enduring stories ever written are in the sagas. There is a reason they are still read today, almost a millenium after being written and despite our lack of familiarity with the style.

Just as an example, consider Njal's Saga. This saga has at least three major story arcs that pass through some of the most important events in Icelandic history. It covers the conversion of the entire country to Christianity as well as establishing the Fifth Court of Iceland, describes what the Allthing (the first European parliament) was like, and describes how the rule of law was imposed in a land of seemingly-anarchic Vikings. It has real characters with extremely different ways of living life, some of which support each other and some of which come into stark and deadly conflict in a wild land. Each of the three story arcs is good for at least a novel and more likely a trilogy. That means between 3 and 9 books just from a single saga.

I think that to really exploit the novelization of the sagas would require a publisher willing to hire a whole cadre of writers to take up the challenge and to produce it as a series. But even if you are just one writer who likes the concept and thinks that you would really like to write a novel that was based on one of the sagas, feel free to take this idea and run with it. If you do, perhaps you can remember to list me on your thank you page if you have one. If not, no big deal. Good luck to you.


Anonymous said...

Your post was written a long time ago, but I just stumbled upon it. I've also wondered why Icelandic sagas haven't been more widely novelized (clearly they have, to an extent, with LoTR being the prime example, but you know what I mean).

I would particularly like to see something like George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire cycle, but set in the Icelandic or broader Viking world, and adopting his approach to the supernatural elements of the story -- i.e., most people accept it as religion or superstition, few take it seriously, but some of it surprisingly exists (and in a Norse cycle, these supernatural elements would be borrowed from Norse mythology). Why George R. R. Martin, specifically? His dark and gritty (even cynical) depiction of the world, and his nuanced and conflicted characters, seem a perfect fit. (I certainly wouldn't want any characters from, say, Njal's Saga, to be Disneyfied...few of the important characters were merely good or evil. It was each character's unique mix of positive traits and flaws that made him or her so compelling.)

Alas, I don't have Mr. Martin's ear. And my previous attempts at fiction writing have been crude disappointments (not to say I won't try again...).

Have you considered giving it a whirl?

Bruce Atherton said...

Yes, I got some distance into writing two stories. One was about the initial exodus to Iceland because Harald Fairhair broke the frith by demanding that he become King over everyone in a country that only had Earls that took personal pledges of allegiance at the time.

The other was about an amazing woman named Unn the Deep Minded (Aud in some sagas) whose husband became King of Ireland and whose son was a King in Scotland. After both died she managed to flee to Iceland, not just with her life but with all her wealth, by conning those who had murdered her son and wanted either to force marriage on her so they could make a claim to the kingship, or to see her dead so no one else could mount a challenge.

I find it quite difficult to get all the way through a writing exercise longer than a short story, though, so neither of these is finished. You'll find another blog post I wrote that explains why that is.

If you are interested in the period and don't care if the story is completely fictionalized rather than being based on the sagas (which contain at least a grain of truth), the new Vikings series is amazingly accurate for a television show and contains exactly that acceptance of the supernatural you are talking about. Odin makes an appearance in the first episode, for example.