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The Sagas of Icelanders

Field-Tested by Mike Sacks

in Greenwood, Mississippi

Last summer, I did something that I have wanted to do ever since I fell in love with Charlie Patton and Son House, and other practitioners of the early blues. I drove with a friend through the deep south in a rented, air-conditioned Chevrolet TrailBlazer, listening to pre-World World II blues on our expensive Sirius radio system, while never leaving the car, except to enter upscale hotels. Just like in the olden days!

One afternoon in Greenwood, Mississippi, just before my friend and I were about to hit the rural areas to go ‘jukin',’ otherwise known as ‘eating at fancy restaurants,’ I sat down to begin reading a book that I'm still reading almost one year later: The Sagas of Icelanders. Collectively, the sagas were written by various 13th- and 14th-century authors, including one (my favorite) named Egil. I don't know how to pronounce his name exactly, but I imagine that, in his native tongue, it sounds soft and pliant, and most pleasurable to the ears: the opposite of Björk's music.

There are a few reasons I love this book, but here's the main reason: all of the stories feature incredibly violent, yet poetic adventurers. Why does this appeal to me? I'm not sure. But I'd like for you to read the following excerpt and tell me that it doesn't appeal to you, too:

They stopped to rest, and Egil spoke his verse: ‘The thruster of spear-burners/Seems to back off from my force/The ill-fated wealth-snatcher/Fears my fierce onslaught./The spear-dewed stave falters/And fails to strike./He who asks for doom is sent/Roaming by old bald-head.’

Egil then struck Ljot above the knee, chopping off his leg. Ljot dropped dead on the spot.

Would Robert Pinsky or T.S. Eliot do that? Stop to recite a line of poetry, just before cutting off a friend's leg? I doubt it. Maybe Ezra Pound, but not Pinsky or Eliot.

As I've mentioned, I still haven't finished all of the sagas (the collection is close to 1,000 pages), but starting them that late afternoon while sitting on the veranda of the Hotel Alluvian in Greenwood, with the chirping of the spring peepers filling the torpid air, and with me safely distanced from the cold and brutality of that long-ago Icelandic era, was one of the happiest memories from that trip. To read about exciting adventures while on your own adventure is as close to summertime bliss as I can imagine.

I recommend that you delve into the sagas on your own this summer, enjoying the violence, the humor, the dreams, and the romances experienced by the men (and women) who lived in that frozen, magical world nearly ten centuries ago. These characters aren't so different from you and me. Not counting, of course, the chopping off of body parts and the chasing after sea monsters.

I'd now close this entry with a line of verse, but alas, the times have changed for the worse.

So Just Keep On Readin’! (tm)

Mike Sacks has written for the Believer, Esquire, GQ, the New Yorker, Radar, Salon, Time, and Vanity Fair. His work can be found at his website.

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