“Eric Brighteyes” is a romance founded on the Icelandic Sagas. “What is a saga?” “Is it a fable or a true story?” The answer is not altogether simple. For such sagas as those of Burnt Njal and Grettir the Strong partake both of truth and fiction: historians dispute as to the proportions. This was the manner of the saga’s growth: In the early days of the Iceland community — that republic of aristocrats — say, between the dates 900 and 1100 of our era, a quarrel would arise between two great families. As in the case of the Njal Saga, its cause, probably, was the ill doings of some noble woman. This quarrel would lead to manslaughter. Then blood called for blood, and a vendetta was set on foot that ended only with the death by violence of a majority of the actors in the drama and of large numbers of their adherents. In the course of the feud, men of heroic strength and mould would come to the front and perform deeds worthy of the iron age which bore them. Women also would help to fashion the tale, for good or ill, according to their natural gifts and characters. At last the tragedy was covered up by death and time, leaving only a few dinted shields and haunted cairns to tell of those who had played its leading parts.
But its fame lived on in the minds of men. From generation to generation skalds wandered through the winter snows, much as Homer may have wandered in his day across the Grecian vales and mountains, to find a welcome at every stead, because of the old-time story they had to tell. Here, night after night, they would sit in the ingle and while away the weariness of the dayless dark with histories of the times when men carried their lives in their hands, and thought them well lost if there might be a song in the ears of folk to come. To alter the tale was one of the greatest of crimes: the skald must repeat it as it came to him; but by degrees undoubtedly the sagas did suffer alteration. The facts remained the same indeed, but around them gathered a mist of miraculous occurrences and legends. To take a single instance: the account of the burning of Bergthorsknoll in the Njal Saga is not only a piece of descriptive writing that for vivid, simple force and insight is scarcely to be matched out of Homer and the Bible, it is also obviously true. We feel as we read, that no man could have invented that story, though some great skald threw it into shape. That the tale is true, the writer of “Eric” can testify, for, saga in hand, he has followed every act of the drama on its very site. There he who digs beneath the surface of the lonely mound that looks across plain and sea to Westman Isles may still find traces of the burning, and see what appears to be the black sand with which the hands of Bergthora and her women strewed the earthen floor some nine hundred years ago, and even the greasy and clotted remains of the whey that they threw upon the flame to quench it. He may discover the places where Fosi drew up his men, where Skarphedinn died, singing while his legs were burnt from off him, where Kari leapt from the flaming ruin, and the dell in which he laid down to rest — at every step, in short, the truth of the narrative becomes more obvious. And yet the tale has been added to, for, unless we may believe that some human beings are gifted with second sight, we cannot accept as true the prophetic vision that came to Runolf, Thorstein’s son; or that of Njal who, on the evening of the onslaught, like Theoclymenus in the Odyssey, saw the whole board and the meats upon it “one gore of blood.”
Thus, in the Norse romance now offered to the reader, the tale of Eric and his deeds would be true; but the dream of Asmund, the witchcraft of Swanhild, the incident of the speaking head, and the visions of Eric and Skallagrim, would owe their origin to the imagination of successive generations of skalds; and, finally, in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, the story would have been written down with all its supernatural additions.
The tendency of the human mind — and more especially of the Norse mind — is to supply uncommon and extraordinary reasons for actions and facts that are to be amply accounted for by the working of natural forces. Swanhild would have needed no “familiar” to instruct her in her evil schemes; Eric would have wanted no love-draught to bring about his overthrow. Our common experience of mankind as it is, in opposition to mankind as we fable it to be, is sufficient to teach us that the passion of one and the human weakness of the other would suffice to these ends. The natural magic, the beauty and inherent power of such a woman as Swanhild, are things more forceful than any spell magicians have invented, or any demon they are supposed to have summoned to their aid. But no saga would be complete without the intervention of such extraneous forces: the need of them was always felt, in order to throw up the acts of heroes and heroines, and to invest their persons with an added importance. Even Homer felt this need, and did not scruple to introduce not only second sight, but gods and goddesses, and to bring their supernatural agency to bear directly on the personages of his chant, and that far more freely than any Norse sagaman. A word may be added in explanation of the appearances of “familiars” in the shapes of animals, an instance of which will be found in this story. It was believed in Iceland, as now by the Finns and Eskimo, that the passions and desires of sorcerers took visible form in such creatures as wolves or rats. These were called “sendings,” and there are many allusions to them in the Sagas.
Another peculiarity that may be briefly alluded to as eminently characteristic of the Sagas is their fatefulness. As we read we seem to hear the voice of Doom speaking continually. “Things will happen as they are fated”: that is the keynote of them all. The Norse mind had little belief in free will, less even than we have today. Men and women were born with certain characters and tendencies, given to them in order that their lives should run in appointed channels, and their acts bring about an appointed end. They do not these things of their own desire, though their desires prompt them to the deeds: they do them because they must. The Norns, as they name Fate, have mapped out their path long and long ago; their feet are set therein, and they must tread it to the end. Such was the conclusion of our Scandinavian ancestors — a belief forced upon them by their intense realisation of the futility of human hopes and schemings, of the terror and the tragedy of life, the vanity of its desires, and the untravelled gloom or sleep, dreamless or dreamfull, which lies beyond its end.
Though the Sagas are entrancing, both as examples of literature of which there is but little in the world and because of their living interest, they are scarcely known to the English-speaking public. This is easy to account for: it is hard to persuade the nineteenth century world to interest itself in people who lived and events that happened a thousand years ago. Moreover, the Sagas are undoubtedly difficult reading. The archaic nature of the work, even in a translation; the multitude of its actors; the Norse sagaman’s habit of interweaving endless side-plots, and the persistence with which he introduces the genealogy and adventures of the ancestors of every unimportant character, are none of them to the taste of the modern reader.
“Eric Brighteyes” therefore, is clipped of these peculiarities, and, to some extent, is cast in the form of the romance of our own day, archaisms being avoided as much as possible. The author will be gratified should he succeed in exciting interest in the troubled lives of our Norse forefathers, and still more so if his difficult experiment brings readers to the Sagas — to the prose epics of our own race. Too ample, too prolix, too crowded with detail, they cannot indeed vie in art with the epics of Greece; but in their pictures of life, simple and heroic, they fall beneath no literature in the world, save the Iliad and the Odyssey alone.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55