Reviewed by David Maclaine
Scholars have suggested the anonymous author of The Saga of the People of Laxardal might well have been a woman. Certainly few tales of the age are as centered on strong female figures, beginning with that great pioneer of Iceland’s Western Quarter, Unn the Deep-Minded. Her story begins the saga, and many of the characters are her descendents and collateral relatives. Chief among these is her great-great-great-grand-niece Gudrun, whose four marriages dominate the saga: “She was the most beautiful woman ever to have grown up in Iceland, and no less clever than she was good-looking.” Other hints of authorship with a proto-feminist ring include the woman nicknamed Breeches Aud, divorced by her husband for wearing men’s clothes, who then pulled on those same frowned-upon breeches before riding off with her sword to take revenge on her ex. There’s also Unn’s great-great-great-granddaughter Thorbjorg “a good-looking, heavy-set woman.” More conventionally romantic is the tale of Thorbjorg’s grandmother Melkora, a slave who turns out to be the daughter of an Irish king. I think it’s safe to call this the best women’s novel of the thirteenth century.
The male characters include such charmingly nicknamed figures as Thorbjorn the Pock-marked, Killer Hrapp, Thord Bellower, Thorkell the Bald, and Asgeir Scatter-brain, and they’re not a lot more impressive than the names suggest, although Olaf the Peacock fares pretty well in getting Norway’s Queen Gunnhild to back his quest to find a royal grand-dad in Ireland. His voyages are by no means the only ones to far-flung lands by characters in The Saga of the People of Laxardal, but the heart of this epic tale is in the feuds that spring up between members of the extended family as they contend for their heritage in the lands around Iceland’s great western fjord. (13th century, 145 pages in Jane Smiley's The Sagas of Icelanders)More about The Saga of the People of Laxardal at Powell's Books or Amazon.com, or read online at the Icelandic Saga Database. This saga is also included in The Sagas of Icelanders, edited by Jane Smiley