Book Review: Njal’s Saga translated and edited by Robert Cook

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Interesting, engaging and informative, Njal’s Saga was excellent reading.  Engrossing and dramatic, I will be reading this again in the future. 4.5 / 5

Summary (from back of book)

“You will be paid for like any other free man…You will be paid for in blood.”  Written in the late thirteenth century, Njal’s Saga is the most popular and powerful of all the great Icelandic Family Sagas –  a compelling chronicle of a fifty-year blood feud.  Blending dark dreams, strange prophecies, sexual slander, violent conflict and fragile traces, it is at once heroic and deeply human.  Throughout, memorable characters struggle with their passions, including Gunnar of Hlidarendi, a great warrior with an aversion to killing, the complex and villainous Mord Valgardsson, and the wise and prescient Njal.  But as they search for honour, they remain dominated by perennial man-made problems: failed marriages, divided loyalties, the law’s inability to curb human instincts, and ultimately the terrible consequences when decent men and women are swept up in a tide of violence beyond their control.

The text for this modern translation has been taken from the acclaimed Complete Sagas of the Icelanders, published by Leifur Eiriksson.  This edition includes an introduction, chronology, index of characters, plot summary, family trees, explanatory notes, maps and suggestions for further reading.

Favourite Quote

‘What I don’t know,’ said Gunnar, ‘is whether I am less manly than other men because killing troubles me more than it does them.’

(Njal’s Saga, translated and edited by Robert Cook, pg 93)

Review

This is the first book I’ve read that focuses on the great Icelandic family sagas and I found it to be a thoroughly interesting and engaging read.  It took a little while to get into the style of how it was written but that is to be expected when the original text is so old.  Neither did I read it quickly; I read it over the course of about a month, dipping into it only when I felt I had the time to read and absorb what I read.  This, of course, was through choice.

Njal’s Saga offers a glimpse of life in Iceland a millennia ago (although the story was written down in the thirteenth century, it originates several hundred years prior to this).  Like Homer’s The Iliad, not only is this story an epic, it is full of historical facts and events, which are attested to in other records made a round the same time.  Religion, law, home, society, marriages, friendships, travel, violence…so many topics are covered within the narrative.

The story centres around two men, Njal and Gunnar, and their families.  Both are formidable in their way; Njal is considered to be one of the wisest men in Iceland and Gunnar is a warrior, almost without equal, but who was loathe to get into fights because he could see it would only lead to more trouble.  The two were great friends, though their friendship is put under a mighty strain, thanks to the efforts of kith and kin.

Because at the time this was written ancestry and lineage were so important, there are quite extensive lists in places of who is related to who.  These passages reminded me of the genealogies found in the old testament.  However, they are important to the story so that you can see where people’s allegiances lie, and why they might pick one side over another in an argument.

Some of the names mentioned in the text were fantastic and evocative and are worth recalling here.  There was Ragnor Shaggy-breeches,  Bjorn Gold-Bearer,  Hrafn the Foolish, Eirik Blood-axe, Ulf the Unwashed, Sigurd Swine-head…and many, many more.

I loved the end matter included in this book.  There was so much of it and it all added to the richness of the story.  Some parts, such as the family trees, were a necessity in order to keep up with the story, whilst the glossary and notes explained terms, phrases and sayings one might not understand.  One such term whose explanation I found interesting was that of “unborn”, which was found at the end of the name of Uni the Unborn, meaning he was born via Caesarean.

I found the portrayal of women in the story amusing, for many of them were feisty and fierce and extraordinarily troublesome.  If there was trouble – and there was always trouble – it was the women who were stirring it on many occasions.  The men would work with the law to patch up some quarrel or grievance while the women would ignore the settlements, hell-bent on settling the scores themselves.  The following quote perfectly captures the character of one of these women, Hallgerd, wife of Gunnar:

“Gunnar got ready to ride to the Thing, and before he left he spoke to Hallgerd: ‘Behave yourself while I’m away and don’t show your bad temper where my friends are concerned.’

‘The trolls take your friends,’ she said.”

One slight negative was the repetitiveness of the witness testimony, which at times seemed lengthy and hard-going and slowed my reading considerably.  On the one hand I understand why it was there but on the other it did test my patience to hear the same thing again and again, albeit briefly.

I learnt so much from reading this book, and won’t hesitate to pick it up again.  I’m now looking forward to reading more from the great Icelandic family sagas.

Rating

4.5 / 5

 


Sammi Loves Books Reading Challenge 2019 – I’ve chosen this book for challenge #8 in the list: A book you would class as an educational read.

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Book Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A beautifully written retelling with a seamless blending of myth and historical detail.  Modern literature at its best. 5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles’s mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.

Favourite Quote

This book is beautifully lyrical in it’s storytelling so picking one quote alone was extraordinarily difficult…I managed to narrow it down to two…

I could recognise him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet strike the earth.  I would know him in death, at the end of the world.

(The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, pg 126)

*

Chiron had said once that nations were the most foolish of mortal inventions. ‘No man is worth more than another, wherever he is from.’

(The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, pg 283)

Review

Where to begin? Let me start with this: I loved this book.  It is beautifully written, woven with emotion and poignancy.  In The Song of Achilles, we are taken on a journey to a time when gods and goddess and heroes still walked the earth, where a seamless blending of myth and history conjure a narrative so captivating and compelling that the book is impossible to put down.

The story can be divided into two: before the Trojan war and during it.  What struck me, was how in keeping with Homer’s Illiad this retelling was, and I appreciated that.

Having a life-long interest in Ancient Greece and Greek mythology, I am well acquainted with the story of The Trojan War.  And, my sympathies have always fallen on the side of the Trojans.  So, as I picked up this book, I did wonder if I would connect to a story that centred on Achilles.  My opinion of him – until I read this book – could probably be summed up in two words: “arrogant” and “blood-thirsty”.  I did not like him.  Of course, he is those things, but he is so much more complicated a character than that, one that evolves and transforms over time as the path of his destiny becomes clear.  Madeline Miller cleverly portrays this.  

All the characters were well-drawn: the cunning Odysseus; the proud, single-minded Agamemnon; the fearless Diomedes, the old, frail King Peleus.  The depiction of Thetis was terrifying; she was as cold and as dangerous as the sea that was her home.

The story can only be described as powerfully emotional and in places, it is devastating; it reduced me to tears on more than one occasion. Patroclus was the perfect narrator for Achilles’ story.  He brought balance, understanding and mortality to the tale of a half-divine killing machine.  Whereas Achilles is the perfect prince and Aristos Achaion, Best of the Greeks, Patroclus is imperfect, awkward and useless at fighting at a time when it is valued so highly.

As for the setting, the culture and landscape are brought vividly to life.  There is such a richness to the lyrical prose, it is easy to imagine the locations we visit: the palace at Phthia, Mount Pelion, Scyros, Aulis, the beach at Troy…but more than that, you can imagine being there.

Does this book transform my opinion of Achilles from villain to hero?  No, though he is perhaps less of a villain than I would have once stated.  But Patroclus…he is most certainly the hero of this retelling.

The Song of Achilles is modern literature at its best.  Highly recommended.  If you’ve yet to venture into Ancient Greek mythology or mythological retellings, this would be a good place to start.

Rating


Sammi Loves Books Reading Challenge 2019 – I’ve chosen this book for challenge #9 in the list: A book you’ve not read but one you really should have by now

Sammi Loves Books Reading Challenge 2019

I thought this would be a fun and entertaining challenge for the year ahead.

If you would like to join in, please feel free to do so.  Grab the graphic if you want to, download the PDF checklist (at the bottom of the page, optional), and if you post book reviews to a blog or website, feel free to tag your post with: Sammi Loves Books Reading Challenge 2019 so others can find what you’ve been reading for the challenge in the WordPress reader:

It’s up to you whether you complete all the challenges or just some of them. I recommend allocating only one book to each challenge, rather than using one book to complete multiple challenges, but the final choice is ultimately yours to make.

The Challenges
  1. A book you read as a child / young adult
  2. A book you would class as one of your favourites
  3. A book set in a place you’ve lived / visited
  4. A book set in a place you would like to visit
  5. A book by a favourite author that you’ve not yet read
  6. A book with a girl’s name in the title
  7. A book you would class as a classic*
  8. A book you would class as an educational read*
  9. A book you’ve not read but one you really should have by now
  10. A book you wouldn’t usually read
  11. A book you received as a gift
  12. A book that’s sat on your shelf for longer than you’d care to remember
  13. A book you’ve read before
  14. A book of poetry or short fiction
  15. A book that was recommended to you
  16. A book you didn’t finish on your previous attempt to read it
  17. A book that has been adapted for TV or film
  18. A book that promotes happiness or well-being, or one that has an uplifting message
  19. A book by an indie author
  20. A book written by an author who has the same initials as you

*How you interpret “classic” or “educational read” is up to you

If you would like to download a handy list of the challenges so that you can tick them off as you go, here’s a PDF checklist (it’s only one side of A4): sammi loves books reading challenge 2019

Wishing you lots of book fun!