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.