Need excitement? How about some Viking reading?

This year marks some nine hundred years since Leif Erikson, Scandinavian explorer, landed on the shores of Canada.  While October 9 is not in itself particularly significant, it is as good a day as any to recall that the Norse were the first Europeans to discover and explore North America.  Since the Norse and their literature have been a field of interest for me for about a decade now, I offer you some recommendations for reading on this day.

The Saga of Erik the Red and Saga of Greenlanders:

The edition of this I would particularly recommend is the Sagas of Icelanders as compiled by Penguin.  It is a large and fairly well constructed volume that contains plenty of stories from the Icelandic family sagas.  These stories are told in fairly simple language and are easily read aloud.  Many of the sagas contained within offer some of the best tropes of medieval literature while still at least at one time having been believed to be true, such as Egil's Saga and the Saga of the People of Laxardal.  Others are humorous legal episodes, like the Saga of the Confederates, or have all the hallmarks of frontier justice Americans should find familiar, such as Gisli's Saga.  That said, other editions do exist for the Vinland sagas.

Of particular relevance to Leif Erikson are the two sagas that form the basis of the Viking claim upon Vinland.  Both Erik the Red and Greenlanders recount more or less the same tale, but with different focuses and certain discrepancies.  Both have Christian ethics and moral dilemmas for a people who until only recently had worshiped Othin and Thor un-ironically.  Both also detail the various voyages to Vinland, Erik the Red's Saga detailing more about his own family, like Leif Erikson, both before and during the voyages to Vinland, while in Greenlanders, more detail goes to the other voyages conducted.  For better or worse, I could not really recommend one over the other, so it is therefore fortunate that neither one is particularly long, and both have enough to offer individually to be worth reading.

The Seven Viking Romances:

Contrasting with the relatively realistic and grounded family-focused Sagas of the Icelanders, this collection of "romances" is composed of seven legendary sagas.  Magical dwarves, the direct presence of Norse gods, shapeshifters, and giants are common in these stories.  As a rule, legendary sagas are not quite as dramatic and revenge-driven as the family sagas.  In many ways, they are more in line with typical medieval European romances such as stories about King Arthur or Charlemagne.  As such, the heroes and stakes are bigger.  For example, Arrow Odd starts off as a chieftain's son and eventually becomes the king of all of Russia.  The romances also distinguish themselves with being a bit more lighthearted and having instances of bawdy humor, even if Gautrek's saga uses its lighter moments to sandwich the considerably darker tale of King Vikar.

Njal's Saga:

Njal's Saga is a little odd in that it pretty much crosses into more territory than any other saga I have read.  There is some magic as well, and references to real kings, landholders, and queens who make appearances in other sagas.  In a few ways it is almost like a crossover for such individuals familiar to us from Laxardal, Egil's Saga, Gisli's Saga, Eyrbyggja, and others.  This rather long epic primarily concerns, as many sagas do, two farmers and their families: Gunnar and Njal.  As with many good sagas, the primary conflict involves something very real for people even today: legal disputes — sometimes over inheritances, at others over homicides, sometimes both.  Njal is recruited by his friend Gunnar to assist with such an issue early in the story due to his vast legal knowledge and his ability to give good advice and work loopholes in the system.  While for a time all goes well for both men and their homes, little incidents build into open conflicts that fire up and wind down in succession until a final battle.  This story has no shortage of twists, betrayals, and Machiavellian plotting.

Orkneyinga Saga:

The Orkneys are those islands just north of Scotland, and for hundreds of years, they were lorded over by Norse men.  The story is related in the more or less historical Saga of the Earls of Orkney.  There are plenty of betrayal and intrigue throughout, especially in the part that covers Earl Thorfinn Sigurdsson, but of particular note in this saga is the large cast of Christian Vikings.  To name the two most prominent, there are St. Magnus the Martyr and Earl Rognvald Kolsson, a crusader.  Being about feudal lords, this saga has a greater emphasis on succession crises and wars than the more numerous revenge-focused sagas.

Other Viking-related books I can recommend include three somewhat famous novels: E.R. Eddison's Styrbiorn the Strong, H.R. Haggard's Saga of Eric Brighteyes, and Poul Anderson's Broken Sword.  Poul Anderson and H.R. Haggard are better discussed at DMR Books' website, but the debt fiction owes to E.R. Eddison is difficult to overestimate.  History authors of note here would include Marc Morris, David Howarth, and Max Adams.  Jesse Byock's translation of the Prose Edda offers an easy-to-read introduction to Viking religion while Lee M. Hollander's the Poetic Edda is more committed.  Lastly, "The Rune-Sword of Jotunheimin" in Renegade Swords from DMR Books makes for an excellent pulp tale that gets everything important about Vikings in a breezy action read.

Image: Jamie McCaffrey via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0 (cropped).

If you experience technical problems, please write to