“Nothing but harm and misfortune result when killers and skalds come together.” True enough, as Nobel Prize–winning author Laxness’ long-forgotten 1952 novel elaborates.
As Norse kings go, Olaf the Stout merits his name. The “sworn brothers” Þorgeir Hávarsson and Þormóður Bessason are another matter. The former had watched impassively, after all, as his father was slaughtered in epically gruesome fashion: “Jöður Klængsson dismounted, and, like a true Norseman, hewed frantically at the man with his ax where he lay fallen, spattering blood and brains everywhere.” Yet, having seen blood and gore firsthand, Þorgeir likes the possibilities for renown that follow, and so he sets out to carve out a hero’s name for himself, shunning farm work—he objects to it by saying that since his mother never ordered him to feed the pigs, it was his privilege to “slay with a sword.” A hero needs a bard, and there’s where sworn brother Þormóður comes in. Alas, the two are less than successful as a Quixote/Panza team; they’re a little dim at times, a little luckless at others, and the people they meet—especially the women—are better grounded in the world as it is and see right through them. Laxness’ novel follows the better-known Independent People by a couple of decades, and while it can be read with much pleasure without context, a couple of things from modern real life play into its medieval setting, one being Laxness’ Catholic worldview and the other his mistrust of alliances of the kind that the Cold War was forcing on Iceland, as well as of politics generally; as a minor character notes, “We have had plenty of kings in Norway, but the only ones that proved of any use to us were those that we sacrificed for good harvests and peace.” The result is a cynical, tongue-in-cheek reimagination of the Old Norse sagas on which the novel is firmly based, its heroes men with plenty of foibles.
A welcome, major contribution to modern Nordic literature in translation and a pleasure to read.