The question posed in the title is a serious one, especially to a person newly embarking upon reading the sagas. Even with a rudimentary idea of their culture and the background of the era, it can be a daunting task. After all, the complete collection of Icelandic Sagas is only five volumes long (and would make an excellent gift for anyone interested in Icelandic Sagas, for the record!) and just picking a random place to begin may not be the best strategy. When I started to read a small collection of Sagas last year, it jumped in with Egil’s Saga which was a long, but interesting read. And then it hit me with two more long sagas that dragged on far longer than I wanted them to. The problem was the sagas were long and I hadn’t developed a proper appreciation for them yet. I think the key is to begin with a few shorter sagas, to get a feel for the flavor of the writing and the culture, before tackling the longer ones.
One of the best finds I came across was a podcast called Saga Thing, which puts the sagas of the Icelanders on trial. They record episodes covering Icelandic history and briefs on relevant pieces of their culture, but the big thing they do is go through a Saga and discuss the parts of it (which can take 1-3 episodes) and then pass judgments on the Saga itself, looking at these categories:
- Best Bloodshed – Just what it sounds like. The battle or death that was most memorable, and the Sagas can have some brutal and bloody ones.
- Body Count – They do their best to tally up how many people died over the course of the Saga, which isn’t always easy because it doesn’t always give a good count.
- Best Nickname – This is one of the highlights of the Sagas, because there are some very interesting names bestowed upon people. Don’t believe me? How about these for some names:
- Thorir Goat-thigh
- Halfdan the Open-Handed-but-Stingy-with-Meat
- Thorgrima Witch-Face
- Thorir Wood-Leg
- Notable Witticisms – The best one-liners in the Saga, usually best enjoyed when told in the context of when they occur.
- Outlaw – They decide upon one man or woman from the Saga to outlaw from the island, usually going to the obvious villain that appears in the Saga.
- Thingmen – For this, I will share the full description used on their website for this:
We’ve cast ourselves in the role of Icelandic goðar [chieftains]. As such, we’re each recognized as the most respected leading men in our imaginary districts. Though we’re not exactly nobles or lords according to the traditional lord-retainer model of medieval Europe (see episode 1), we do have formal personal alliances with free men and landholding farmers. These are our thingmen. They follow us to the thing [assembly] and support our causes with their wit, wisdom, and (if it comes to it) their ability to wield a weapon well.
Near the end of each episode, we’ll both pick a thingman. By the time we’ve finished reviewing each of the Sagas of the Icelanders we’ll each have a group of pretty imposing figures. The question, in the end, will be this: Who has the best group of thingmen?
At the end of this incarnation of the podcast, we’ll head to the Althing with our respective thingmen. With so much pride on the line we wonder:
Who will emerge victorious?
And truly, these categories not only make the podcast interesting to listen to, they are mostly a good measuring stick for a way to read and enjoy the Sagas. Taking the time to note fun and unusual nicknames, vote out a villain and draft an impressive Thingman, to track the memorable scenes of bloodshed and witty commentary that occurs…all of those things capture the essence of what you will find in most Sagas and help a reader to interact with the text. So not only could I recommend listening to Saga Thing’s podcast after you read that respective Saga, I would also urge a reader to try and come up with their own nominations while reading.
But the question still remains: where to begin? What one Saga stands out as a good entry point? It came about halfway through my own reading of the collection of Sagas I own, and it is also the very first one that Saga Thing covered: Hrafnkel’s Saga. What makes this one good is that it is short in length (on Saga Thing they actually measure other sagas in relation to Hrafnkel, such as “this saga is 7.1 Hrafnkel Sagas”), it has a relatively small cast of main characters and a low body count but it also contains a memorable narrative with some clear candidates for most of the categories. It is like stepping into the shallow part of a pool before diving into the deep end, and would allow you to get a feel for Saga Literature before committing to a longer immersion.
And when you do get immersed, you’ll find that the Sagas make for some really fun and entertaining reads!