A Novel of Medieval Iceland

This retelling of the ancient Saga of the People of Eyri is a modern classic. Absolutely gripping and compulsively readable, Booklist said this book, “does what good historical fiction is supposed to do: put a face on history that is recognizable to all.” And medieval expert Tom Shippey, writing for the Times Literary Supplement said, “Sagas look like novels superficially, in their size and layout and plain language, but making their narratives into novels is a trick which has proved beyond most who have tried it. Janoda’s Saga provides a model of how to do it: pick out the hidden currents, imagine how they would seem to peripheral characters, and as with all historical novels, load the narrative with period detail drawn from the scholars. No better saga adaptation has been yet written.”

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The Rockaway Irregular

by Stuart W. Mirsky


Readers of this column will know that I don’t usually review books here, though I once discussed a book I’d read as part of making a larger political point (which is what this column is usually about). Some will also know that I’m an historical novelist of sorts, having published one such tale, some years back, and being busy working on another. My completed novel is about the Norse visits to our shores roughly a thousand years ago and, as such, is grounded in the old Norse saga literature I’ve always loved. Which brings me to my review.

Not long ago someone e-mailed me information about a new historical novel that’s based, as mine was, on the old sagas. Not too keen on re-immersing myself in the Norse world (as it works against my current project), I wasn’t going to bother with it. But something about the novel’s description caught my eye. It was presented as a modern rendering of the Eyrbyggja Saga. I just couldn’t resist seeing how the author had handled that since I faced a similar challenge when I wrote my own viking novel. I ordered it from amazon (couldn’t find it in any of the local bookstores) and waited more than a month for my copy to arrive. When it finally came, I plunged right in. I wasn’t disappointed.

Jeff Janoda has written a fine piece of fiction, with this, his first novel. Saga: A Novel of Medieval Iceland (published by Academy Chicago Press) is moving and powerful and as true as anyone can ever hope to come to the feel and spirit of the old sagas. Of course, I approached the book with some preconceptions and personal prejudices of my own. Indeed, I wouldn’t have handled the material as Janoda did, preferring to hew a closer line to the original saga voice. But Janoda won me over. While writing with a markedly modern sensibility and retaining the modern novelistic conventions, many of which stray far afield from the old saga techniques, Janoda brilliantly managed to evoke the older saga form.

Here is the story of Arnkel Thorolfsson’s feud with the famed Snorri Thorgrimsson, also known in the sagas as Snorri the Priest, a sly Icelandic chieftain who appears in so many of the great sagas (Njal’s Saga, Laxdaela Saga). This particular tale, from Eyrbyggja Saga, is only one of several interwoven plots found there. But Janoda has astutely teased it out and put flesh on the bare saga bones, creating a rich and compelling modern novel of real human beings contending with one another in a harsh and unforgiving land. In the process he has recreated that world in all the rich detail and grim coloration that is only limned in the traditional sagas.

The beauty of what he’s done is seen within the first few pages as we enter the mind and heart of Ulfar Freedman, the freed slave of a local farmer who ekes out his livelihood on a holding adjacent to Arnkel Thorolfsson’s land and to the land held by Arnkel’s brutal and vindictive father, Thorolf Lamefoot. In the sagas we’re often given things from the point of view of the great men, the chiefs (called godhis) and their kinsmen and retainers. But Janoda’s book, seen initially through the eyes of Ulfar Freedman, gives us these great ones as they may really have been, overbearing, harsh and heedless of the lesser folk around them.

Arnkel godhi has his chieftainship as the result of a deal in which his father, Thorolf, sold Ulfar land as part of a broader arrangement to buy Arnkel his position (chieftainships could be bought and sold in old Iceland). But Arnkel, who is not only proud and fierce but a good deal cleverer than his father, sees that this came at a very great cost, the break-up and diminution of Thorolf’s land holdings, thus impairing Arnkel’s future inheritance. Arnkel is not prepared to pay such a price, even for the chieftainship, and wants his full inheritance back.

In fact, Arnkel’s father actually gained his formerly vast landholdings by killing Arnkel’s grandfather in a duel, after brutalizing and abandoning Arnkel’s mother, the old man’s proud and arrogant daughter Gudrid, who, for her part, also desperately wants her father’s lands back and wishes only ill on Thorolf, her former husband and tormentor.


Thus the hapless and gentle Ulfar finds himself an unwitting pawn in a struggle that pits Arnkel against his father, and both of them against Ulfar’s own former master, Thorbrand and his six sons. Though neighbors of Arnkel godhi, the Thorbrandssons have aligned themselves with the famous Snorri of Helgafell, in hopes of counterbalancing Arnkel’s growing strength in their district. But old Thorbrand, Ulfar’s former master, also has designs on Ulfar’s farm since, under Icelandic law, it reverts to him if Ulfar dies without an heir. But Ulfar has found himself a wife and has thus inadvertently set in motion the wheels that will finally grind him into dust between these harsh men.

The story unfolds with much greater focus and depth than is found in the original sagas and this is part of its genius. Janoda has found what may very well be the true story of human struggle, in its endless complexity, that lies beneath what is merely a brief sub-plot in the original Eyrbyggja Saga. There the story is tersely told and it’s not always clear who has done what to whom. Or why. But Janoda has fleshed out the tale with real people including Auln, Ulfar’s betrayed wife, and Halla, the arrogant daughter of Arnkel who has inherited the domineering personality of her grandmother Gudrid but who can’t help desiring Thorbrand’s youngest son, Illugi, despite this. The complex game plays itself out as these people struggle and strive for primacy over one another, destroying lives and hope for those around them in the process.

The original sagas are wonderfully rich in the fascinating and moving stories they have to tell and it’s Janoda’s great strength that he has found that rich vein of human greed, folly and striving which lies buried deep within the best of them. Here he has dug out the ore and refined it to purest narrative gold. If you like sagas and the novels that derive from them, this is one of the best. Much as I hate to admit, I even liked it better than mine!

From Logberg-Heimskringla, international English language Icelandic newspaper

No Betrayal in Retelling of Old Saga  

by Perry Grosshans

Like one of the gothar, Jeff Janoda uses wisdom and craftiness to draw readers into the bloody feuds and intrigue of medieval Iceland.

Janoda’s new novel, Saga, deals with the feud between Snorri and Arnkel, two gothar (chieftain-priests of early Iceland) who use their influence, charisma, and cunning to sway their Thingmen (followers), and sometimes other gothar, each trying to conquer the other. At the heart of their political struggle is the struggle of restraint; the decision to resolve disputes through wealth rather than blood, and still retain honour.

Arnkel gothi tricks Ulfar Freedman into giving his lands to him and becoming his Thingman, lands which technically belong to Thorbrand, a Thingman of Snorri gothi. Thorolf Lamefoot, father of Arnkel, feeling dishonoured by his son, trades away his valuable lands to Snorri gothi to spite Arnkel, and thus the dispute quickly becomes a feud between the two gothar. When the democratic decision of the annual Thorsnes Thing doesn’t solve the problems, the feud becomes a bloody one.

Janoda writes Saga like a true Norse story, filling it with a multitude of characters. Sometimes there are so many, with such similar names, that one often needs to reread the glossary of characters in the beginning, which proves an invaluable asset. But all of the characters, be they gothar, Thingmen or women, struggle with Saga’s central theme of restraint. The novel emerges as a story with a great depth of character emotion.

Like the old sagas, there is a wealth of historical data, and Janoda’s knowledge about the life of the medieval Norse culture is sound. But Janoda doesn’t bog the reader down with useless trivia. The details of daily life and major events such as the Thorsnes Thing enrich the story.

Saga is actually based on Eyrbygga Saga (Saga of the people of Eyri), which is said to be one of the finest of the family sagas of Iceland., written down around the 13th century. Janoda explores a portion of this medieval saga (specifically chapters 30-38) and breathes into it a fiery and emotional life in its retelling.

Janoda remains fairly true to the historical events in the original Eyrbygga Saga, although he himself admits he has taken certain literary liberties to facilitate the storyline, particularly when it comes to character insights, emotions, and internal personal struggles. Those liberties are what make Saga stand out.

Those familiar with Eyrbygga Saga will notice that some of the dialogue in Janoda’s saga is very close to the original, such as when Snorri gothi presents Thorleif, the eldest son of Thorbrand, with a long-handled axe as a gesture that he is finally ready to deal with Arnkel gothi (cf. Eyrbygga Saga, chapter 37). In this way, Janoda does not just base his story on the saga, but truly embraces it. It gives Saga real weight and meaning.

Saga is definitely worth reading, both for those interested in the events of Eyrbygga Saga, and for those who just want a well-written story.

"He tells a tale of complex feud with all the fullness and detail of a modern novel"

“As focussed as Jane Austen, as macabre as Stephen King, Jeff Janoda traces out the hidden springs of power in the micro-society of an Icelandic fjord. He tells a tale of complex feud with all the fullness and detail of a modern novel, but leaves its violent and treacherous heroes as enigmatic as before. A brilliant blend of scholarship and insight.”

Thomas Shippey, author of J.R.R Tolkien: Author of the Century.

"This detail-rich novel is a retelling of a thirteenth-century Icelandic saga"

“This detail-rich novel is a retelling of a thirteenth-century Icelandic saga written by an unknown author. The original document arises from the colonization of Iceland by Norwegian settlers, and this particular tale unfolds before the enticed reader’s eye as an intriguing concoction of abject realism (the day-to-day livelihood as practiced by the colonizers is explained, and the physical features of the land are beautifully described) and flights of fantasy (elves are co-populates of the Iceland presented here). The storyline is essentially about land—who owns it, who disputes the ownership of it—in this hardscrabble agrarian society, where inheritance of land means everything, and honor, and necessary revenge against those who would besmirch it, are the essential tenets of life. Tribal organization and clan government are opened to contemporary viewing and appreciation. With the author’s ability to pump viability into the character, the novel does what good historical fiction is supposed to do: put a face on history that is recognizable to us all.”

Brad HooperBooklist, May 15, 2005

"Jeff Janoda proves himself to be a master storyteller as he brings tenth-century Iceland brilliantly to life"

“Jeff Janoda proves himself to be a master storyteller as he brings tenth-century Iceland brilliantly to life. SAGA is a powerful and absorbing read, rich and authentic in detail, sharply insightful, and brimming with finely rendered characters whose lives are intricately bound through the ties of loyalty, kinship, duty, and, above all, the Law.
Janoda deftly handles the complexities and harsh realities of life in the early Free State, peeling away layers of motives and shrewd cunning that drives men’s actions — be it born of wisdom, high ideals, and ethical strength; greed and a lust for power and land that leads to treachery, betrayal, and bloodshed; or a more basic need to appease the gods and dark spirits that haunt the land and even, at times, the restless wanderings of the dead. This is storytelling at its best. In short, SAGA is superb!”

Anita Gordon (writing as Kathleen Kirkwood), author of “The Heart Trilogy”

"Janoda's rendering of the physical and intellectual landscape is effortless"

This debut novel is a masterful retelling of the Icelandic Eyrbyggja Saga, originally written down around 1250. Medieval Iceland was unique in its form of government, which was based on allegiance to chieftains and adherance to law rather than on a feudal system. Saga tells the story of two rival chieftains, Snorri and Arnkel, and their quest for land and loyalty. They are “gothi,” sacerdotal rulers to whom men swear allegiance and in turn receive protection. The characters are as central to the narrative as Iceland’s wild and barren terrain; in this place and time, land is everything, and a man is nothing without it. Janoda’s rendering of the physical and intellectual landscape is effortless, belying the many years of scholarship that must have gone into this work. One hopes that this excellent piece of historical fiction will find a wider audience than its esoteric subject matter might suggest. Highly recommended.”

Wendy Bethel, Library Journal

"Janoda paints a richly textured portrait of Icelandic culture"

“If the mob bosses of The Sopranos spoke Old Norse and wore chain mail, they would feel right at home in this absorbing historical melodrama. In the harsh environs of Iceland’s Swan’s Fjord, circa 965, the inhabitants live by their wits. At the top of the heap are two rival chieftains, the intimidating warrior Arnkel and the cagey operator Snorri. Their power rests occasionally on the sword, but more fundamentally on their influence over their bands of followers, or Thingmen, whom they control through patronage, elaborate webs of favors and debts and their formal role in settling (for a fee) the many disputes that arise in Iceland’s intensely litigious society. Surrounding them—jockeying for position in a Machiavellian world of mead-hall conspiracies, double and triple crosses, surreptitious murders and poisoned gifts of honey—is a sprawling cast of characters, including Arnkel’s conscience-stricken chief henchman Thorgils, the sons of Thorbrand, battling Arnkel for their land, and honest farmer Ulfars and his wife Auln, tragically caught up in machinations they cannot fathom. In Iceland’s austere terrain, with its meager margin of agricultural subsistence, they struggle over the brute necessities of life: fish, cows, hay and, most of all, trees, which are worth their weight in gold.

Debut novelist Janoda paints a richly textured portrait of Icelandic culture, from the daily routine of farm chores to the protocols of pagan ritual sacrifice. The intricate but well-paced narrative, based on a traditional Icelandic saga, moves grimly forward, brimming with multigenerational cycles of bloodshed and vengeance set against a backdrop of ghostly apparitions and elvish malevolence that symbolize the dark, tectonic forces of human greed and rage. Despite the archaic setting, Janoda manages to imbue his characters with believable psychologies and motivations. A gripping recreation of an ancient genre”


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