The best, the ones people usually mean when they say "the Icelandic sagas," are the Family Sagas. "The glory of the sagas is indisputable," they are "some sort of miracle," scholars gush. "In no other literature is there such a sense of the beauty of human conduct." Others praise the sagas' "earnest straightforward manner," their crisp dialogue and "simple, lucid sentence structure," their individualistic characters, their gift for drama, their complex structure, "the illusion of reality which they create," and their sophisticated use of "the same devices that we are accustomed to from modern suspense fiction." The Family Sagas are "a great world treasure," comparable to "Homer, Shakespeare, Socrates, and those few others who live at the very heart of human literary endeavor."
The Bishops' Sagas, on the other hand, have been dismissed by one expert as "backwards, stilted in style, and schlocky in hagiographical excess." No one gushes over the Saga of Bishop Pall. Few people, other than specialists, even read it--there's no English translation.
But that doesn't mean there aren't treasures to be found in it. The Saga of Bishop Pall is the only text to mention Margret the Adroit, the best ivory carver in all of Iceland, and the artist at the center of my book Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them.
Another fascinating woman introduced in this saga is Herdis, the wife of Bishop Pall. Technically, Pall should have divorced her when he became bishop of Skalholt in southern Iceland in 1195. Church reformers had preached against clerical marriage for hundreds of years. The Lateran Councils of 1123 and 1139 officially banned it. If previously married, upon consecration a priest must eject his wife and children from his home and take a vow of celibacy: The church should be his only bride.
At the same time, Herdis continued to manage the family estate at Skard, which "stayed in good shape while she lived," says the saga, "for of all women she was the most zealous, both concerning her own work and that of other people, as experience well shows."
One day soon after Easter in 1207, the saga says, Herdis went to Skard to check on the farm there. With her went her son Ketil and daughter Halla, leaving Loft and his sister Thora at Skalholt. While she was there, the glacial river flooded. The ford across the Thjorsa became impassable.
Determined to return to Skalholt on the day arranged, Herdis hired a ferry. Ketil, then 16, and a priest named Bjorn crossed first, carrying over the riding gear and leading the horses, forcing them to swim behind the boat. One horse--Herdis's own--broke free of its rein and was swept down the river. Herdis did not respect the omen.
"When the news came to Bishop Pall's ears, suddenly, in the middle of the night," the saga says, "it seemed to everyone that God had nearly given him more than he could bear. He could not eat, he could not sleep, until the bodies were buried, though he tried to cheer up everyone else as much as he could."
The pathos of this description--"in the middle of the night ... he tried to cheer up everyone else"--suggests to some scholars that Loft, Pall's son, the one left at home, was the author of the saga. His brother Ketil died in 1215, about 22, but Loft lived to old age, entering a monastery late in life and dying in 1261, about 70 years old.
"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/02/briefly-noted-the-blue-guitar (scroll down)
"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29): http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21662487-bones-contention
"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29): http://www.startribune.com/review-ivory-vikings-by-nancy-marie-brown-the-mystery-of-the-lewis-chessmen/323230441/