They knew how to die in the old Icelandic sagas. In Grettir’s Saga a man called Atli Asmundarson gets a spear through the stomach. He looks down in surprise, and then – in the middle of a 10th-century wilderness – remarks: “Oh, I see broad-bladed spears are in fashion this year.” Then he falls down dead.
Conduct counts for everything in this patch of the medieval world, because most things – death especially – are fated. Always informing how events and behaviour unfold is the tale of Ragnarok, that final battle between gods and monsters in which the gods, who for all time have been preparing for the final confrontation, are doomed to be defeated. In the end they and all who fight beside them will fall to the monsters of fire and ice.
Yet everything in Heaven and Middle Earth works to postpone the destined moment. In Valhalla, the hall of the slain, dead battle-heroes fight all day and carouse all night, rehearsing for the last engagement. And while we ourselves may not be heroic, we all play some part in shaping – or rather delaying – what is to come. One of the most terrifying portents of Ragnarok is the launching of Naglfar (Nailship), an ocean-going vessel constructed from the nails of dead men, in which sail many of the most terrifying foes of Thor and Odin. “So it is worth warning,” says the story, “if a man dies with unshorn nails, he increases greatly the material for Naglfar, which gods and men would like to be slow in the building.”
The constraints of fate work in comparatively mundane ways, too. The sagas are full of men (and sometimes women) telling one another about a narrow range of options: “There are now two choices, and neither is good.” What is revealed in the choice made at such a moment is the quality called drengskapr, usually translated as courage. Drengskapr is not just a kind of laconic bravery display but what one authority, Peter Foote, glosses as “the highest standards of fair play, touched by a certain magnanimity and even graciousness of mind.” Some of the most wonderful-cum-ridiculous moments of modern heroism reverberate right back to the saga-world: “I am just going outside, and may be some time.” Captain Oates knew all about drengskapr.
Much of this behaviour can seem entirely familiar to New Zealanders. We are talking about island nations, I suppose, settled by men and women with independent minds who nevertheless live under the circumstances – among which are simply the fierce physical facts of the world: oceans and weather and an earthcrust that steams and shakes and rumbles. In Iceland, under the spell of predestined event, an honour society developed (“Cattle die, kinsmen die. The one thing that does not die is each man’s reputation.”), along with an oddly meticulous respect for facts. The sagas themselves can be astonishingly scholarly, which is no doubt why one branch of saga-literature is known as lygisogur (lying sagas). Lygisogur tend to be crammed with fantastical adventures in improbable locations, and their epilogues (like this one from Gongu-Hrolf’s Saga) often indicate their authors’ embarrassment at such a lack of moderation:
Now even if there are discrepancies between this story and others dealing with the same events, such as names and other details, it’s still most likely that those who composed this narrative must have had something to go on, either old poems or the record of learned men. There are certainly very few stories about ancient people, maybe none, which one would swear to be the literal truth, because most of them have been more or less exaggerated. It’s best not to cast aspersions or call the stories of learned men lies, unless one can tell the stories more plausibly and in a more elegant way. I’d like to thank those who’ve listened and enjoyed the story, and since those who don’t like it won’t ever be satisfied, let them enjoy their own misery.
There must have been plenty of discontented listeners in early audiences who complained vociferously about extravagant enchantments and excitements; for the classical sagas – unlike the legends and myths which lie behind them – were a form of history, and in that spirit they present reported and verifiable events, never seeking to interpret or improve. And while saga characters have complex temperaments, we can read their motives from action and dialogue without the promptings of an opinionated, intervening author.
The sagas can sound abrupt and awkward, stubborn and plain, very like that great English fatalist and master of the heroic ordinary, Thomas Hardy. The voices of their people are unloquacious, more like Sir Edmund Hillary knocking the bastard off than a grandiloquent speech from Tolkien. Indeed, the standard saga hero would get on very well in a Speights advertisement or a Brian Turner poem.
An aesthetic appreciation of conduct is usual enough in fiction. It is one of the charms of Jane Austen. It is more surprising when we discover the same source of interest in a Quentin Tarantino movie or an Icelandic saga. Of course, much of our primary world is composed of gestures, but in books the important gestures are made of words, and they hang in the air long after the voice that utters them has gone: “Now there are two choices, and neither is good.” Meantime, we keep on trimming our nails, and choosing our words with care.
Bill Manhire’s Collected Poems appeared in 2001. He is Director of the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington.