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The Sagas

"The general reader," says a frank critic, "hates the very name of a Saga." The general reader, in that case, is to be pitied, and, if possible, converted. But, just as Pascal admits that the sceptic can only become religious by living as if he WERE religious--by stupefying himself, as Pascal plainly puts it, with holy water--so it is to be feared that there is but a single way of winning over the general reader to the Sagas. Preaching and example, as in this brief essay, will not avail with him. He must take Pascal's advice, and live for an hour or two as if he were a lover of Sagas. He must, in brief, give that old literature a fair chance. He has now his opportunity: Mr. William Morris and Mr. Eirikr Magnusson are publishing a series of cheap translations--cheap only in coin of the realm--a Saga Library. If a general reader tries the first tale in the first volume, story of "Howard the Halt,"--if he tries it honestly, and still can make no way with it, then let him take comfort in the doctrine of Invincible Ignorance. Let him go back to his favourite literature of gossiping reminiscence, or of realistic novels. We have all, probably, a drop of the Northmen's blood in us, but in that general reader the blood is dormant.

What is a Saga? It is neither quite a piece of history nor wholly a romance. It is a very old story of things and adventures that really happened, but happened so long ago, and in times so superstitious, that marvels and miracles found their way into the legend. The best Sagas are those of Iceland, and those, in translations, are the finest reading that the natural man can desire. If you want true pictures of life and character, which are always the same at bottom, or true pictures of manners, which are always changing, and of strange customs and lost beliefs, in the Sagas they are to be found. Or if you like tales of enterprise, of fighting by land and sea, fighting with men and beasts, with storms and ghosts and fiends, the Sagas are full of this entertainment.

The stories of which we are speaking were first told in Iceland, perhaps from 950 to 1100 B.C. When Norway and Sweden were still heathen, a thousand years ago, they were possessed by families of noble birth, owning no master, and often at war with each other, when the men were not sailing the seas, to rob and kill in Scotland, England, France, Italy, and away east as far as Constantinople, or farther. Though they were wild sea robbers and warriors, they were sturdy farmers, great shipbuilders; every man of them, however wealthy, could be his own carpenter, smith, shipwright, and ploughman. They forged their own good short swords, hammered their own armour, ploughed their own fields. In short, they lived like Odysseus, the hero of Homer, and were equally skilled in the arts of war and peace. They were mighty lawyers, too, and had a most curious and minute system of laws on all subjects--land, marriage, murder, trade, and so forth. These laws were not written, though the people had a kind of letters called runes. But they did not use them much for documents, but merely for carving a name on a sword- blade, or a tombstone, or on great gold rings such as they wore on their arms. Thus the laws existed in the memory and judgment of the oldest and wisest and most righteous men of the country. The most important was the law of murder. If one man slew another, he was not tried by a jury, but any relation of the dead killed him "at sight," wherever he found him. Even in an Earl's hall, Kari struck the head off one of his friend Njal's Burners, and the head bounded on the board, among the trenchers of meat and the cups of mead or ale. But it was possible, if the relations of a slain man consented, for the slayer to pay his price--every man was valued at so much--and then revenge was not taken. But, as a rule, one revenge called for another. Say Hrut slew Hrap, then Atli slew Hrut, and Gisli slew Atli, and Kari slew Gisli, and so on till perhaps two whole families were extinct and there was peace. The gods were not offended by manslaughter openly done, but were angry with treachery, cowardice, meanness, theft, perjury, and every kind of shabbiness.

This was the state of affairs in Norway when a king arose, Harold Fair-Hair, who tried to bring all these proud people under him, and to make them pay taxes and live more regularly and quietly. They revolted at this, and when they were too weak to defy the king they set sail and fled to Iceland. There in the lonely north, between the snow and fire, the hot-water springs, the volcano of Hecla, the great rivers full of salmon that rush down such falls as Golden Foot, there they lived their old-fashioned life, cruising as pirates and merchants, taking foreign service at Mickle Garth, or in England or Egypt, filling the world with the sound of their swords and the sky with the smoke of their burnings. For they feared neither God nor man nor ghost, and were no less cruel than brave; the best of soldiers, laughing at death and torture, like the Zulus, who are a kind of black Vikings of Africa. On some of them "Bersark's gang" would fall--that is, they would become in a way mad, slaying all and sundry, biting their shields, and possessed with a furious strength beyond that of men, which left them as weak as children when it passed away. These Bersarks were outlaws, all men's enemies, and to kill them was reckoned a great adventure, and a good deed. The women were worthy of the men--bold, quarrelsome, revengeful. Some were loyal, like Bergthora, who foresaw how all her sons and her husband were to be burned; but who would not leave them, and perished in the burning without a cry. Some were as brave as Howard's wife, who enabled her husband, old and childless, to overthrow the wealthy bully, the slayer of his only son. Some were treacherous, as Halgerda the Fair. Three husbands she had, and was the death of every man of them. Her last lord was Gunnar of Lithend, the bravest and most peaceful of men. Once she did a mean thing, and he slapped her face. She never forgave him. At last enemies besieged him in his house. The doors were locked--all was quiet within. One of the enemies climbed up to a window slit, and Gunnar thrust him through with his lance. "Is Gunnar at home?" said the besiegers. "I know not--but his lance is," said the wounded man, and died with that last jest on his lips. For long Gunnar kept them at bay with his arrows, but at last one of them cut the arrow string. "Twist me a string with thy hair," he said to his wife, Halgerda, whose yellow hair was very long and beautiful. "Is it a matter of thy life or death?" she asked. "Ay," he said. "Then I remember that blow thou gavest me, and I will see thy death." So Gunnar died, overcome by numbers, and they killed Samr, his hound, but not before Samr had killed a man.

So they lived always with sword or axe in hand--so they lived, and fought, and died.

Then Christianity was brought to them from Norway by Thangbrand, and if any man said he did not believe a word of it, Thangbrand had the schoolboy argument, "Will you fight?" So they fought a duel on a holm or island, that nobody might interfere--holm-gang they called it--and Thangbrand usually killed his man. In Norway, Saint Olaf did the like, killing and torturing those who held by the old gods-- Thor, Odin, and Freya, and the rest. So, partly by force and partly because they were somewhat tired of bloodshed, horsefights, and the rest, they received the word of the white Christ and were baptised, and lived by written law, and did not avenge themselves by their own hands.

They were Christians now, but they did not forget the old times, the old feuds and fightings and Bersarks, and dealings with ghosts, and with dead bodies that arose and wrought horrible things, haunting houses and strangling men. The Icelandic ghosts were able-bodied, well "materialised," and Grettir and Olaf Howard's son fought them with strength of arm and edge of steel. TRUE stories of the ancient days were told at the fireside in the endless winter nights by story tellers or Scalds. It was thought a sin for any one to alter these old stories, but as generations passed more and more wonderful matters came into the legend. It was believed that the dead Gunnar, the famed archer, sang within his cairn or "Howe," the mound wherein he was buried, and his famous bill or cutting spear was said to have been made by magic, and to sing in the night before the wounding of men and the waking of war. People were thought to be "second- sighted"--that is, to have prophetic vision. The night when Njal's house was burned his wife saw all the meat on the table "one gore of blood," just as in Homer the prophet Theoclymenus beheld blood falling in gouts from the walls, before the slaying of the Wooers. The Valkyries, the Choosers of the slain, and the Norns who wove the fates of men at a ghastly loom were seen by living eyes. In the graves where treasures were hoarded the Barrowwights dwelt, ghosts that were sentinels over the gold: witchwives changed themselves into wolves and other monstrous animals, and for many weeks the heroes Signy and Sinfjotli ran wild in the guise of wolves.

These and many other marvels crept into the Sagas, and made the listeners feel a shudder of cold beside the great fire that burned in the centre of the skali or hall where the chief sat, giving meat and drink to all who came, where the women span and the Saga man told the tales of long ago. Finally, at the end of the middle ages, these Sagas were written down in Icelandic, and in Latin occasionally, and many of them have been translated into English.

Unluckily, these translations have hitherto been expensive to buy, and were not always to be had easily. For the wise world, which reads newspapers all day and half the night, does not care much for books, still less for good books, least of all for old books. You can make no money out of reading Sagas: they have nothing to say about stocks and shares, nor about Prime Ministers and politics. Nor will they amuse a man, if nothing amuses him but accounts of races and murders, or gossip about Mrs. Nokes's new novel, Mrs. Stokes's new dresses, or Lady Jones's diamonds. The Sagas only tell how brave men--of our own blood very likely--lived, and loved, and fought, and voyaged, and died, before there was much reading or writing, when they sailed without steam, travelled without railways, and warred hand-to-hand, not with hidden dynamite and sunk torpedoes. But, for stories of gallant life and honest purpose, the Sagas are among the best in the world.

Of Sagas in English one of the best is the "Volsunga," the story of the Niflungs and Volsungs. This book, thanks to Mr. William Morris, can be bought for a shilling. It is a strange tale in which gods have their parts, the tale of that oldest Treasure Hunt, the Hunt for the gold of the dwarf Andvari. This was guarded by the serpent, Fafnir, who had once been a man, and who was killed by the hero Sigurd. But Andvari had cursed the gold, because his enemies robbed him of it to the very last ring, and had no pity. Then the brave Sigurd was involved in the evil luck. He it was who rode through the fire, and woke the fair enchanted Brynhild, the Shield-maiden. And she loved him, and he her, with all their hearts, always to the death. But by ill fate she was married to another man, Sigurd's chief friend, and Sigurd to another woman. And the women fell to jealousy and quarrelling as women will, and they dragged the friends into the feud, and one manslaying after another befell, till that great murder of men in the Hall of Atli, the King. The curse came on one and all of them--a curse of blood, and of evil loves, and of witchwork destroying good and bad, all fearless, and all fallen in one red ruin.

The "Volsunga Saga" has this unique and unparalleled interest, that it gives the spectacle of the highest epic genius, struggling out of savagery into complete and free and conscious humanity. It is a mark of the savage intellect not to discriminate abruptly between man and the lower animals. In the tales of the lower peoples, the characters are just as often beasts as men and women. Now, in the earlier and wilder parts of the "Volsunga Saga," otters and dragons play human parts. Signy and his son, and the mother of their enemy, put on the skins of wolves, become wolves, and pass through hideous adventures. The story reeks with blood, and ravins with lust of blood. But when Sigurd arrives at full years of manhood, the barbarism yields place, the Saga becomes human and conscious.

These legends deal little with love. But in the "Volsunga Saga" the permanent interest is the true and deathless love of Sigurd and Brynhild: their separation by magic arts, the revival of their passion too late, the man's resigned and heroic acquiescence, the fiercer passion of the woman, who will neither bear her fate nor accept her bliss at the price of honour and her plighted word.

The situation, the nodus, is neither ancient merely nor modern merely, but of all time. Sigurd, having at last discovered the net in which he was trapped, was content to make the best of marriage and of friendship. Brynhild was not. "The hearts of women are the hearts of wolves," says the ancient Sanskrit commentary on the Rig Veda. But the she-wolf's heart broke, like a woman's, when she had caused Sigurd's slaying. Both man and woman face life, as they conceive it, with eyes perfectly clear.

The magic and the supernatural wiles are accidental, the human heart is essential and eternal. There is no scene like this in the epics of Greece. This is a passion that Homer did not dwell upon. In the Iliad and Odyssey the repentance of Helen is facile; she takes life easily. Clytemnestra is not brought on the stage to speak for herself. In this respect the epic of the North, without the charm and the delightfulness of the Southern epic, excels it; in this and in a certain bare veracity, but in nothing else. We cannot put the Germanic legend on the level of the Greek, for variety, for many- sided wisdom, for changing beauty of a thousand colours. But in this one passion of love the "Volsunga Saga" excels the Iliad.

The Greek and the Northern stories are alike in one thing. Fate is all-powerful over gods and men. Odin cannot save Balder; nor Thetis, Achilles; nor Zeus, Sarpedon. But in the Sagas fate is more constantly present to the mind. Much is thought of being "lucky," or "unlucky." Howard's "good luck" is to be read in his face by the wise, even when, to the common gaze, he seems a half-paralytic dotard, dying of grief and age.

Fate and evil luck dog the heroes of the Sagas. They seldom "end well," as people say,--unless, when a brave man lies down to die on the bed he has strewn of the bodies of his foes, you call THAT ending well. So died Grettir the Strong. Even from a boy he was strong and passionate, short of temper, quick of stroke, but loyal, brave, and always unlucky. His worst luck began after he slew Glam. This Glam was a wicked heathen herdsman, who would not fast on Christmas Eve. So on the hills his dead body was found, swollen as great as an ox, and as blue as death.

What killed him they did not know. But he haunted the farmhouse, riding the roof, kicking the sides with his heels, killing cattle and destroying all things. Then Grettir came that way, and he slept in the hall. At night the dead Glam came in, and Grettir arose, and to it they went, struggling and dashing the furniture to bits. Glam even dragged Grettir to the door, that he might slay him under the sky, and for all his force Grettir yielded ground. Then on the very threshold he suddenly gave way when Glam was pulling hardest, and they fell, Glam undermost. Then Grettir drew the short sword, "Kari's loom," that he had taken from a haunted grave, and stabbed the dead thing that had lived again. But, as Glam lay a-dying in the second death, the moon fell on his awful eyes, and Grettir saw the horror of them, and from that hour he could not endure to be in the dark, and he never dared to go alone. This was his death, for he had an evil companion who betrayed him to his enemies; but when they set on Grettir, though he was tired and sick of a wound, many died with him. No man died like Grettir the Strong, nor slew so many in his death.

Besides those Sagas, there is the best of all, but the longest, "Njala" (pronounced "Nyoula"), the story of Burnt Njal. That is too long to sketch here, but it tells how, through the hard hearts and jealousy of women, ruin came at last on the gentle Gunnar, and the reckless Skarphedin of the axe, "The Ogress of War," and how Njal, the wisest, the most peaceful, the most righteous of men, was burned with all his house, and how that evil deed was avenged on the Burners of Kari.

The site of Njal's house is yet to be seen, after these nine hundred years, and the little glen where Kari hid when he leaped through the smoke and the flame that made his sword-blade blue. Yes, the very black sand that Bergthora and her maids threw on the fire lies there yet, and remnants of the whey they cast on the flames, when water failed them. They were still there beneath the earth when an English traveller dug up some of the ground last year, and it is said that an American gentleman found a gold ring in the house of Njal. The story of him and of his brave sons, and of his slaves, and of his kindred, and of Queens and Kings of Norway, and of the coming of the white Christ, are all in the "Njala." That and the other Sagas would bear being shortened for general readers; once they were all that the people had by way of books, and they liked them long. But, shortened or not, they are brave books for men, for the world is a place of battle still, and life is war. These old heroes knew it, and did not shirk it, but fought it out, and left honourable names and a glory that widens year by year. For the story of Njal and Gunnar and Skarphedin was told by Captain Speedy to the guards of Theodore, King of Abyssinia. They liked it well; and with queer altered names and changes of the tale, that Saga will be told in Abyssinia, and thence carried all through Africa where white men have never wandered. So wide, so long-enduring a renown could be given by a nameless Sagaman.


Andrew Lang

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