TV review: The Viking Sagas

The high drama of the Icelandic sagas reminds us how little we have changed, Gary Day learns

May 26, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

Novelist Einar Karason sat in a cafe facing Dr Janina Ramirez (The Viking Sagas, BBC Four, Monday 16 May, 7.30pm) who was wearing a black coat and a tight-fitting grey hat. She looked like a microphone. When she took the hat off, she looked like a young Liza Minnelli.

They were the only two customers. The proprietor was nowhere to be seen. It was a portrait of Iceland in miniature: very few humans in a great deal of empty space. Einar was extolling the virtues of his native land. "We don't have any art, architecture, music, theatre, ballet or sculpture," he said, proudly.

Much more of this and the Icelandic Tourist Board would be taking out a contract on him. At least he hadn't mentioned banking. Whoops. He just did. "We Icelanders thought we were financial wizards, but we weren't." There was a mighty sound, as of several thousand hands being slapped to foreheads. Why did he have to bring that up? Couldn't he have said how we lead the world in the fight against global warming instead? If it wasn't for our volcanoes grounding planes, CO2 emissions would be much higher than they are now.

Einar's subject was the Icelandic sagas, which, with their family feuding, have some claim to be regarded as the first soap operas. But what is their significance? They are just a bunch of old stories, aren't they? Of what use is that today? We'll come to that. The early sagas were little more than family trees, intended to crush the insult that the first settlers were thieves and murderers. When these voyagers scraped up on the beach, they found a place that stretched out to the edge of the world: rocky, windy and cold. If they were not to disappear into that vastness, they needed to assert themselves against it.

The sagas were their way of doing that. On bitter nights by crackling fires, lodged in the moon-hugging mountains, they defied the emptiness with stories of heroes whose heads brushed against the stars. The geography of the island has remained largely unchanged, giving the stories a powerful contemporary resonance. A farmer described bringing his sheep down from the same hills as the characters in the stories. But the sagas were not just a way of humanising nature's prodigious solitude, they were also histories based on the lives of real people.

It was that element of realism which distinguished them from the roughly contemporary tales of courtly love. You can find the same themes of sex and death in both, but in the songs of the troubadours, instinct is sublimated; in the sagas, you get the thing itself: the fiercely gripped flesh, the thud of the axe, the spurt of blood. And there, perhaps, is the answer to those who cannot see the relevance of these old tales: they remind us how little we have changed. That, at any rate, was the actor Benedikt Erlingsson's conclusion.

The sagas also sustained the Icelanders when they had to accept Norwegian rule. It was the price they paid for peace after years of civil war. But what a peace, full of suffering, disease and starvation. The story is partly told in the Laxdaela saga, which recounts the rivalry of two brothers, Kjartan and Bolli, for the love of the same woman, Guorún. It's a complicated affair, as these things usually are.

As well as high drama there are moments of bathos. On one occasion, Kjartan barricades Guorún and Bolli into their home, denying them access to the outhouse. That action sealed his fate. Hell hath no fury like a woman denied her toilet. She goaded Bolli into killing his brother, an act that initiated a cycle of vengeance that ended only with Guorun's conversion to Christianity. Bits of the story were told in Icelandic to the accompaniment of what sounded like someone blowing into a cow's horn while someone else tapped on a pipe. Hardly the sort of thing to make Janina slap on a bowler hat and belt out Cabaret.

The sagas were apparently written by women. The clue, said Janina, lay in the attention given to costumes, jewellery and romance. But she hastened to reassure feminists that Viking women weren't only interested in going round one another's huts to gossip and swap outfits. On the contrary, they demanded that their menfolk settle their disputes by the sword rather than by law. If they didn't, they wouldn't be allowed to go raping and pillaging with their mates. On that point, Dr Heather O'Donoghue said that the Vikings brought enormous benefits to the countries they invaded. Imagine saying that about the British Empire.

The sagas were responsible for The Lord of the Rings, which is one reason to dislike them. But after this fascinating documentary I was converted. So much so that I went out and bought a copy of them.

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