Reviewed in the United States on August 3, 2013
Me and mine have been Historical re-inactors for over 31 and 37 years (plus time in by my sons)
As such we are most passionate about our hobby and devote much time to it. We travel when we are able
and visit the places and museums of our special areas of study,....in order to more absorb the experiences
of the cultures we study. So it was that we have, less than 2 weeks past, just returned from far Iceland.
We brought back with us thousands of photos, books and culinary and obsorbed knowledge, and a thirst for more.
As Viking re-inactors living in the Southern U.S. our special area of study is fairly unique in an area
where most re-inactors favor the American Civil War as their center of interest. Books on the Vikings of
Scandanavia are most difficult to find. Yet After many years of re-inacting, I have well over 130 in my personal
library. To find a new one of value is indeed to find a treasure. We returned from Iceland with several new
books for our library, but not, this one. Our pinpoint of interest is on the Norse-based Vikings, and so we have
visited the most Northern and Southern reaches of that place already. But it was the Norse with wives and servants
of Ireland who first took to the colonization of Iceland. And so we also traveled there to continue our research.
However, we did not find the number of books we had hoped to return with, and so I turned to Amazon to try and
fill in those gaps in our knowledge. That was how I came to discover this volumn on the Icelanders of the Sagas.
The book is a delight for one such as me. It makes solid use of the Sagas, and archological evidence, to tell of life
there in that forbidding place of fire and ice where natural mammals are confined to the sea and only the horses,
sheep and cows brought there by the Norsemen inhabit the raw landscape devoid of all other 4-footers.(except Artic Foxes, and seals from the sea) but their main source of protein came from the sea and the birds which rule the air over the island.
The author uses the
Sagas to portray dailey life of the Norsemen turned Icelanders. The book is broken down into easily readable chapters of all
aspects of life from the land and seattlement of it, to laws and social structure, food production and home life, trade
and transportation, art and religiion etc. etc. Stories from the sagas themselves are often quoted to both describe life
in general and specific examples of custom and personal occurances in the lives of individuals. Whenever possible the
author gives English interpretation to unfamiliar words from the Sagas, as in descriptive names of those men and women
who lived during the times of the Sagas,...'Hreda(Menace), 'Manvitsbrekku' (wisdom-slope), 'in grai'(the gray) and objects.
adjectives, and places; 'anddyri' (porch),'black' (blar), 'footboard'(fotbord) 'latrine' (kamarr), etc.
The Sagas are used to describe manners of dress as in the story of one Gisli who's wife and foster-daughter's heavy
skirts dragged on the frost as they followed him to a hiding place, only in their dragging, left a clear trail to follow
for his enemy, Eyjolfr inn grai (the gray) to follow after with his men, to find Gisli. (apparently leading to Gisli's
susequent slaying). Mention is made of women wearing fringed shawls "she had bound a shawl about her that was
decorated in black stitching with fringes at the ends" and a form of shaggy cloak (roggvarfeldr) whice was composed of
loosely woven wool cloth into which was woven tufts of long fleece wool was introduced at regular spacing, so that once
combed smooth, created a warm and water-repellent outter garment.
The author provides at the end of the book 37 pages of extensive (foot) notes, enough to delight even the most serious
of researchers plus an additional 3 pages of further reading suggestions (many/most of which already reside in my own private
reasearch library)Plus a delightfully informative Glossary of interesting terms and interpretations.
The book arrived only 2 days ago, and I've barely been able to put it down since. It is rich in information while being
easy to read by even the most inexperienced researcher/re-inactor,....it is regularly illustrated with black and white photos,
of landscapes, artifacts, re-inactor clothing etc., detailed line drawings and engravings of archeological finds.
I was delighted to discover within it detailed information and line drawings of 'Eriksstadir' the home of legendary Erik the Red,
a place we visited and got to explore and take photos of (The longhouse that we visited is an accurate recreation built within
sight of the original archeological find, near the same freshwater stream Erik and his household used to obtain their fresh water
for their everyday needs.) There are a rotation of regular costumed interpretors there who stay in persona to describe to visitors
their dailey life on the homestead,...I wasn't surprised by much, but one bit of information that was new to me. i.e. the book author
speaks of an additional sleeping area in the loft over the end (South-facing) small entrance hall, but the costumed interpretor mentions
that the loft there was used for the sleeping of virgins,...so that they might sleep safe from the attentions of amorous males...
and at West end Pantry (matbur) loft,(with an entry door on the North hill side) was used for food storage.
The book is a treasure of new to me, information, as the Icelandic Vikings, partly by necessity, differed from their Norse origins
in resources they had to rely on and adapt to. i.e. Iceland lacked the vast mature forests of mother Norway, (But DID have struggling but building-limited forests,...as will be mentioned and detailed further) and so housing had
to be erected using what was at hand, mostly stone, turf, and driftwood. The Lava rich soil yielded no clays to speak of
so pottery for cooking vessels and mold-making for the casting of metals, would not have been available and must needs be imported if it
was to be had, at all,...and although modern day Iceland is almost devoid of forests, 'Landamabok' speaks of Swede Gardarr Svevarsson
setting out in search of 'Snaeland' (snowland/Iceland) sailing around it to determine it Was an island and saying : "and it was wooded
from the mountains down to the sea." These original forests were primarily composed of Birch, willow and Rowan, and possible some
coniferous growths, but except in sheltered areas, the trees rarely grew taller than about 12 feet. (modern day Icelanders have a joke re.
their present lack of dense forests of old "If you ever find yourself lost in the forest of Iceland,....all you have to do, is stand up")
Another natural resource the Viking era Icelanders had in abundance was thermal pools etc. used for cooking with,(but apparently with an accompaning
sulfer smell) and to bath and wash clothes in. Soapstone to cook in and clay/potery was imported from Norway, while
the local Lava fields provided building matterials. One more note on Iceland before I conclude,....re. the lava fields, they were/ARE
totally Trecherous to attempt to cross on foot or horseback. They can stretch for Miles and merely wait for the foolish to attempt to
brave them. To try, is to invite the breaking of limbs before one has ventured upon them, even the length of one's own body. Iceland is
a forbidding place that was occupied by a determined and hard people who rarely lived past the age of 40 or so,...tho via the Sagas,
it is known that a fortuneate few lived to at least 80
(an added note which shall hopefully save me embarrassment via my more informed re-inactor cousins)
......The sagas were written, not as they played out in their proper time of the 9-11 th centuries, but written in the 12 th century;
primarily by learned scholars, who's beliefs were Christian, and no-longer the Pagan of the original characters and bards of the Viking Age,
of which they were written of. And so, tho written/recorded in the original Icelandic language,.....the written recorders were inclined to
do something the original Bards had, by oral tradition, sought strongly NOT to do. i.e. changes were made, to the originals, based on the
new religious biases. i.e. As I understand it, 'Oral Traditions' demands that memorization be precise, NEVER varing from the originals by
so much as a single word. Bards by their nature, would create their poems, songs and prose on their own special brand of code, that allowed
them to praise a man for his deeds, or comdemn him. The choice was his, and it was an unwise man who did not treat a bard with respect due
him and warm hospitality, for he might easily become a future chapter in a bard's repertoir. It appears tho that the Icelandic bards did
strive to primarily record the history of their lands and people, and so perhaps did not take personal liberties as bards in othe places.
Oral history required that the teacher pass down what they had learned and that their students learn all stories, etc. word for word,
with no variations. These students were usually youths who came to them to learn, and who had a perchance to have about them a sharp memory
ability for that was what was most needed. They were taught, word for word, and had to recite back as often as necessary until there were
no mistakes. For a story/poem/song to endure the ages, it was necessary to not entrust it's preservation to a single individual, because death
could easily take that person before they had had opportunity to pass it along,....so ideally, as many minds as possible were trained, in hopes
that the stories would survive. Down through the passing years, dispite efforts to not do so, an occassion word was apparently lost and
replaced with another, hense different sagas sometimes had small differences : " When Thorbjorn sur (sour-milk) sailed into Dyrafjorde from
Norway with his family in the year 952, the land was fully seattleed, according to the sagas. 'Landnamabok' (an Isclandic history book of the
12th century) says that Vesteinne Vegeirsson gave him half of the valley Haukadalr while 'Gisla saga Surssonar says that Thorbjorn bought the
land in Haukadalr."
And so I conclude, that the sagas were a form of bardic stories that were eventually taken from memory and put to print. Where I had always
understood them to be an accurate record of history, it appears that they were more a form of entertainment, and not to be taken to be taken as
historical fact,.(YET,...there is still the issue of 'oral history' which I am still reluctant to totally dismiss)...Regardless, the author makes clear acknowledgement of this and I still maintain the the book is a delightful addition to the
Viking library, and the author's book now has me having a Much Clearer understanding of how to read and understand the sagas (which I already
have in my library but repeated attempts to read them had been met with certain roadblocks,...I now look forward to tackling them again with renewed