Virginia Barton

Taking Icelandic sagas as a specialist topic

Catholic Herald, 12 June 1987

 

Review: Iceland Saga by Magnus Magnusson (The Bodley Head, £12.95)

 

Sharpville, Atlanta, Niagara, Fuji – evocative names of memorable places each with an identifiable aura and personality; “Landscape would have little value if the places had no names” quotes Magnus Magnusson at the beginning of this fascinating book on Iceland.

Ultima Thule, the island at the end of the world as it was referred to by the Venerable Bede in the 8th century; but the earliest Norse settlers renamed it (rather prosaically) Iceland. The baby among nations, Iceland is only 20 million years old and the discovery and settlement of it took place only 1100 years ago. At least 30 volcanoes have been active since then and the extraordinary landscape – treeless, mountainous, hot-springed – is the result of this geological upheaval.

As recently as 1963, a whole new island, Surtsey, was thrown up out of the sea and ten years later the town of Hermaey was destroyed. Against this spectacular backcloth Magnus Magnusson fills in the socio-political, botanical, religious and literary history. He has in fact created his own saga, peopled with the heroes and heroines that partake in the events and exploits he so lovingly and carefully describes.

 

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As you would expect from the chairman of Mastermind, this is a serious book, crammed with detail, but the love of his native land shines out of every chapter and carries the reader along on an adventurous voyage that is full of epic incidents. There are books that set one off on a new trail and this one sent me in pursuit of the Four Old Icelandic Sagas translated by Magnus Magnusson (with Herman PáIsson) for Penguin Classics. For Iceland is famous for its Sagas, those extraordinary thirteenth century literary masterpieces – history, story, biography and legend – which must rank as the outstanding achievement of mediaeval European literature.

The “pseudo” or legendary sagas of a hundred years later, based as they are more on myth and magic, make Wagner’s Ring seem rather tame in comparison with their majestic predecessors. The conversion and baptism of the Icelanders in 999 AD and the first bishops all figure in the sagas themselves and in this masterly unravelling of fact and fiction.

Some good photographs complement the clarity of the text and those tourists who are jaded with endless Mediterranean beaches and decide to venture further afield in pursuit of the really unusual, will find this book an invaluable companion.

Pass, Mr. Magnusson, I have nothing more to say.

 

 

 

 

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