Jesse L. Byock
About Jesse L. Byock
An Interview with Jesse L. Byock
More About Jesse L. Byock
Jesse Byock is a professor of Icelandic and Old Norse studies at UCLA. He is the translator of The Saga of the Volsungs and The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki for Penguin Classics.
As contemporary Europeans, what can we learn from the sagas?
The sagas take us back to the roots of European society. In a simpler social setting, they give us the opportunity to get to know and then follow the lives of often everyday characters from the Viking Age. In so doing they allow us to explore choices they made. Often we get to see, in an intimate and detailed way, options for social action that our society has forgone or ignored. The sagas, written in the middle ages themselves are an almost unbelievable window into a functioning yet otherwise lost world.
How did you originally become interested in Iceland, particularly Viking Age Iceland?
Oh, here I can tell you easily. Years ago I found in small book store, a Penguin copy of Njal’s Saga. I read, it and was enthralled by the extraordinary world that opened before my eyes. The characters themselves and the problems that they faced where so life-like. I was amazed, because I instantly recognized the issues, if not always the responses from my own life. As a result I felt myself plunged into a functioning Viking Age world, already a thousand years old but one which I sensed that I understood. The sagas are amazing that way, they not only let you see, but because of the particpatory way they are told, they almost let you take part in the action. Previously I had attended law school, and what struck me was the way that Icelandic society solved problems, dealt with issues such as jury consensus and outlawry, and worked through compromise.
A while later I decided to stop in Iceland for a week on the way from the states to Europe, but a year later I was still in Iceland up on the northern fjords working on sheep farms. I just never got back on the airplane for the trip to Europe. The far north Atlantic and how one lives there is a subject that, even years later, I still find fascinating, and writing Viking Age Iceland let me work out my understanding of not only issues such as the operation of blood feud and honour, but also what one ate in the far north and how buildings were constructed.
Do you have a favourite Saga?
I have three favorite sagas. All are written in Iceland but the subject matter is rather different. The first two, the Saga of the Volsungs and the Saga of the King Hrolf Kraki are stories known throughout the Viking World. The third, Grettir’s Saga is a take that was know principally by Icelanders.
The first, the Saga of the Volsungs is the story of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer and his treasure, the Rhinegold. Volsung Saga has everything: valkyries, dwarves, Odin, Attila the Hun, and a ring of power. I first read it when I was twelve and at the time did not even realized it was an Icelandic saga. The Volsung story is the one that Wagner, Tolkein and many others relied on, and, to my mind, the original Norse tale is in many ways the best. I like to tell episodes from it on camping trips.
My second favorite is the Saga of the King Hrolf Kraki . This, too, is one of the great mythic-legendary sagas about ancient heroes and warrior queens of Denmark and Sweden. Like the Saga of the Volsungs , it was told throughout the Viking world. There is something so elemental and vital about it that it remains my favorite. Woven into the tale are all kinds of strange and captivating episodes, including the story of the elven maiden. It is not some modern author inventing fantasy but an ancient story. Hrolf’s Saga is also the Norse variant of the Beowulf story, and gives a whole other side to that epic. Besides, it is just so much fun to read. That is why I translated it.
About Iceland and Icelanders, my favorite saga is Grettir’s Saga. It is a tale of a larger-than-life character that just did not fit into society whether in Iceland or Norway. Grettir the Strong is Iceland’s most famous outlaw.
What saga teaches us most about life in Viking age Iceland?
That’s easy. It is The Saga of Weapon’s Fjord (Vápnfirðinga saga) A wonderful (if I dare use that word) story of blood feud in Iceland’s east fjords. It is a tale of honor and deceit, greed and generosity, that slowly unfolds withing the context of the functioning Viking Age society. I wrote a chapter called “Friendship, Blood Feud and Power.” about it in Viking Age Iceland. The saga is about two young chieftains who grow up as inseparable friends, but then begin to quarrel over power. One increasingly becomes a man without moderation, and the saga is a study in what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in early Icelandic society. The story takes the reader deep into the world of medieval Iceland.
We’re all familiar with the term Viking, but are we misconceived in our picture of Vikings as being blood-thirsty and violent?
Oh don’t worry, they were that too. But the world of Viking Age Iceland was the world of the Vikings at home. And Iceland is somewhat different from, say, Norway, where the concern of its kings and nobles tended to be the major issues. Iceland was a land of farmers and small scale chieftains, with no royalty. The struggle was often to stay alive and if possible to prosper in a far northern environment. The people feuded, yet worked out legal and social systems to buffer the society from the affects of all out violence. Their solutions are what I find so interesting. In many ways, they developed surprisingly proto-democratic techniques for controlling violence and sharing power. The results allowed significant room for individuals to enjoy personal freedoms. The sagas narrate struggles by individuals to maintain their rights. Here is where violence comes in, and it is this rough aspect of the Viking life that I explore in Viking Age Iceland.
You are also an archaeologist, who has arranged a successful and on-going dig in Iceland – what have you learned from this?
I have been working as an archaeologist for the past ten years, and this experience has drastically broadened my understanding of issues. In an earlier part of my career, I focused in a historical and anthropological way on the legal and social underpinnings of Icelandic society. Now I see that this was only half the story. The other half of the story is the adaption of the society to life in a far northern environment.
Just for starters remember that the Viking Age settlers to Iceland soon found themselves in a climactically hostile environment that offered little good wood for building either houses or ships and little good building stone. There was hardly any good wood for heating, yet in the face of sometimes ferocious northern winds, the Icelanders and their offspring the Greenland colony learned to build large, roomy and secure sod houses, Viking Age halls, where they lived as well as most people in other parts of Viking Age Scandinavia. In an environment that did not permit the routine growing of crops they learned to substitute many substances and to depend on their herds.
In digging down into the ground of the Mosfell Valley in western Iceland, one comes tangibly face to face with the actual period of the ninth-century settlement of Iceland. I have touched the ashes of the primeval forest that the first settlers cleared for making hay fields. It is an eery feeling digging down a thousand years. One can see in the soil layers the rapid effects of wind and water erosion, as well as volcanic activity on Iceland’s fragile sub-arctic ecology. The experience of archaeology, both my own and that of colleagues, has provided a whole other story of Viking Age life, that I have tried to tell in the new book.
Iceland has gone from being a somewhat isolated island to a destination of choice. What do you think the Vikings would have made of this?
There is a Viking Pub in Hafnarfjord, one of the harbor towns just outside of Reykjavik. You can sit there in a carved seat and pretend you are Odin setting in your high seat. I am not sure, but I think after a few beers, many Vikings would have gotten into the swing of things and been pleased.
What do you think a modern day Icelander would make of Viking Iceland? What would be most familiar and what most surprising?
Modern Icelanders easily recognize the past, because most farms and places use the same names as in the sagas. What they would find different is the change in the terrain brought on by a thousand years of human habitation on their island. The Iceland that the first settlers in the ninth-century found was heavily wooded between the shoreline and the mountains. Today one can go for miles without seeing even a small scrub birch tree. In the low-lying and relatively narrow Mosfell Valley, where we are excavating the Viking Age community, something that even surprised the Icelandic geologists on our team was the depth of soil deposited by wind and water erosion of the surrounding highlands.
Today the buildings from the Viking Age settlement period are buried under from one and a half to two metres of soil. The settlement period layer is sometimes hard to get too, but it is a goldmine for archaeologists. The erosion, which started within decades of the settlement forced the first generation of Icelanders to abandon their original farmsites moving them lower in the valley. All this, as one might imagine, is of great interest to modern Icelanders. It is history of a land and people, much the same but much different.
The biggest difference between old and modern Iceland is the growth of towns, and this also means the depopulation of the countryside. Today half of the country’s population of 285,000 lives in greater Reykjavik. Most of the farms that I worked on when I first came to Iceland are now abandoned. Part of what I have tried to capture in Viking Age Iceland is a long tradition of rural habitation with roots straight back to the Viking Age. Iceland still offers a fascinating, living tradition of physical and cultural adaptation to a harsh environment. The evidence as well as the memories are disappearing in our time. It is knowledge that, I believe, should be preserved.
Still, much remains the same, and one feels the Norse past in the often harsh winters. Today the houses are heated with thermal water pumped from the ground, a major improvement on smokey peat fires. Most every town and thorp in Iceland has its outside heated swimming pool and wonderful ‘hot pots’ small pools of thermally heated water. One sits with one’s head in the wind, sometimes icicles in your hair and in pure comfort enjoys the warmth of nature. Use of such thermal pools has not changed since Viking times. Laxdaela saga (The Saga of the Salmon River Valley) tells how Kjartan, a promising young man, and the beautiful Gudrun courted by meeting with the other young people of the district in the local hot pools at Laugar. That’s what people still do today in Reykjavik, and if one wants, one can still go to Laugar in the Broad Fjord region and enjoy the same hot pools where Kjartan and Gudrun met.
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