Sagas and history – Iceland

‘Saga Land’ was not what I was expecting – but then, the collaboration between broadcaster, Richard Fidler, and Kari Gislason, a writer and academic born in Iceland starts with multiple but different needs to investigate Icelandic history. So really, you could expect something unexpected.

Kári was born Iceland – the product of an affair, hidden by his father. In the spirit of his mother, he has travelled beyond Iceland to Australia (with her) but also discovered an impulsion to study Icelandic literature at university, rather than the law studies he first engaged in. 

‘Saga Land’ moves between the observations of journalist, Vidler, recollections of Gislason and the Icelandic sagas they wish to share.   

There are many different themes which flow through ‘Saga Land’ – providing an insight to the culture of Iceland. Honour, conflict, violence and family heritage are strong elements of the tales.

“Each character is responding to a situation in which violence seems necessary and ceaseless. And somehow, the saga… prompts us to see the strangeness of the characters’ behaviour in the light of their desires, their complexity as human beings.”

The different perspectives of Kari, a native of Iceland, and Vidler, an Australian journalist, provide an interesting balance. Kari’s investigations, as a returned Icelander, reveal a personal insight as he revisits his childhood home – though being half-Icelandic and in search of is heritage. Vidler provides journalistic structure, while being genuinely interested in Kari’s Icelandic heritage and, personally engaged.

What a great and inspiring learning experience for all (readers included). So it doesn’t really matter what I was first expecting when I picked up this book – it has given me a view of history, family heritage and culture perspectives I would have missed, had I not opened this book.

N.B. Another tale readers might enjoy is by Hannah Kent, Burial Rites – also set in Iceland, investigating the last women to be executed for murder in Iceland (an amazing literary debut for a young Australian author). Previously reviewed.

There is also a podcast you can visit, where Richard Vidler and Kari Gislason discuss the journey to create Saga Land if you want to hear from the authors.

Does Saga Land make you want to investigate your family heritage/culture?

Note – loved this as an audiobook/physical book combination. Especially when read by the co-authors, with authentic pronunciations of Icelandic names. (A bit like ‘reading’ Burial Rites by Hanna Kent)

4 thoughts on “Sagas and history – Iceland

  1. Linda, I loved this also. The audiobook is read by both authors. I, also, was expecting a different type of book – more on the sagas and less on the personal story – but enjoyed it as it came. The contrast of the two authors was about being an insider and an outsider in Iceland, as well as the comparison you have made. I had heard the radio discussion before reading, but after the book I was very interested in following up Kari’s creative writing (haven’t managed that yet). It didn’t leave me with a desire to investigate my own family – Irish on all sides – as I know a fair bit about that. I do have a weakness for Irish fiction, though. Loved Milkman by Anna Burns recently, especially as it was an Irish narrator. – Marita Thomson

  2. Thanks, Marita. I too have been dipping in and out of the audio and text versions, and love the personal narrations of Vidler and Gislason.

    Interesting too, as Iceland is the flavour of the moment for tourists, it seems.

    Personally, I love sagas, folktales and all insights to cultural histories – which Saga Land covers in spades! And yes, Milkman is on the ‘to read’ list.

  3. Linda, I loved this book. I bought the ebook after listening to Fidler’s podcasts. Then I found a $10 hardcopy and bought that as I wanted to put it on my bookshelf (and also lend it to friends) 🙂

    I read it before travelling to Iceland in June last year. It was a great trip. We drove the ring road around the island in 10 days. I loved the Viking history and the language and tried to pronounce a few Icelandic words. The Decode database of Icelandic people is amazing. At a farmstay, I asked the owner if she was descended from Snorri Sturlason, the famous lawmaker and writer (Kari’s ancestor). She typed it into the app and sure enough, she was – 25 generations ago! She was unaware she was a descendant until she used the app.

    We loved Iceland and when we were leaving I knew I wanted to return. By chance, we are going again this year in June with a different group of friends, seeing different things, doing different walks and catching a ferry to Grimsey Island off the north coast so that we can cross the Arctic Circle. We’ll visit Reykholt, Snorri’s former residence (only the stone thermal pool remains from the 13th century). Iceland is a fascinating place and I recommend visiting!

    Lindy Hathaway

  4. Books open the world! Lindy, what an amazing story. How clever that an Australian TL could instruct a local Icelander about her heritage! I wonder what you’ll come across next visit?

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