Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Einar Kárason's Skáld

In May I had lunch with the Icelandic novelist Einar Kárason. His uncle introduced us, knowing we both had published books about the 13th-century Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson, mine nonfiction (Song of the Vikings) and Einar's fiction (Skáld).

I'd heard about Einar's book. You won't like it, my Icelandic friends had warned. His Snorri is not your Snorri. Snorri Sturluson is not the main character in Skáld, but much in the shadow of his nephew, Sturla Thordarson. If you've read Song of the Vikings, you'll know I never much cared for that nephew.

Sturla wrote part of Sturlunga Saga and The Saga of King Hakon, our only direct sources of information about Snorri's life. As I wrote in Song of the Vikings, "In neither book does Snorri come off well; no one knows what grudge the nephew held to portray his uncle so poorly. Unhelpfully, Sturla’s two sagas also contradict each other."

It's the mark of a great novelist that he or she can change your mind. Having now read Einar's Skáld, I feel quite differently about Sturla. Think of what Hilary Mantel did for Thomas Cromwell's reputation in Wolf Hall. Einar Kárason's Skáld does the same for Sturla Thordarson.

I'm not ready to call Sturla a better writer than Snorri Sturluson. And I still feel Sturla (and Einar) portrayed Snorri poorly. But now I understand why Sturla wrote the way he did. I understand the conflicts he was dealing with, the encroachments of the world, the desires and threats, the yearning for peace and quiet and an unending supply of parchment, the loves and hates and little acts of friendship that motivated him, his ambition, his ego, his inadequacies, his grudge. In Skáld, Snorri's nephew becomes real.

It's fiction. Don't forget that. Einar, as a novelist, has a license I did not when writing Song of the Vikings. Einar can--and does--stretch the facts, make leaps of interpretation, draw conclusions that don't hold up to scholarly investigation. It's fiction.

And yet…

The Saturday after our lunch date, I heard Einar give a lecture. I could not follow all of it--I understand written Icelandic much better than spoken. But Einar also gave me a copy of an article he had written in Skirnir, the journal of the Icelandic Literary Society.

He was arguing that Sturla Thordarson also wrote Njal's Saga, the best of the Icelandic sagas, widely acknowledged a masterpiece of world literature, the first saga I had read and the one that (along with Snorri's Edda) had inspired me to devote my life to Icelandic literature.

In Skirnir, Einar goes to great pains to point out that other people have had this idea before him. Other scholars have pointed out the many similarities between Njal's Saga and those in Sturlunga Saga: similarities in names, in the way characters are introduced, in whole scenes (the burning of Njal, the burning of Flugumyri). To these Einar added similarities in style, in pacing and structure, and most of all, in voice.

Lecturing, Einar is very dramatic. His expressions are exaggerated, his gestures wide. He stamps back and forth before the podium in his motorcycle boots. He runs his fingers through his long, graying hair. He's a big man. His voice booms. Writing in the journal Skirnir, he borrows some of that bombast.

In Skáld, he is very subtle. The story builds slowly, told through many different voices. It's not a long book. But no one knows better than a novelist that by making it real, by bringing Sturla Thordarson to life as the author of all these works, Einar has made his case.

Once you have fully imagined Sturla engaged in composing Njal's Saga--by reading Einar Kárason's Skáld--it's hard to go back to thinking it's only a theory.

Skáld, I'm sorry to say, is currently available only in Icelandic. You can order it from the publisher, Forlagid, here:

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

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