Saga: A Novel of Medieval Iceland
Though this first novel is saddled with an unimaginative title and a host of similarly named and motivated characters, it is a compelling narrative. The setting is the so-called Free State, a harsh land where weakness begets trouble and men struggle to fight off hunger. Before the arrival of Christianity, Iceland is haunted by ghosts, elves, and the ancient pagan gods. People there are “always negotiating, wheedling, gossiping, forever immersed in their neighbor’s business, never happy until they had all your wealth in their pocket.” The island’s most envied possession is the Crowess, a lonely stand of wood.
Besides being a teacher, Jeff Janoda is an outdoorsman who has spent ten years researching medieval Northern Europe. His writing shows it. He makes us smell the smoke, the peat, and the half-rotten beef, and feel the terrible cold. His images are distinctive. He says of a character nicknamed Lamefoot: “He threw a vast leg over the saddle and slid down onto the tub like a walrus sliding down a wet rock into the sea.” His characters baffle and incense. How can Thorolf the Viking (Lamefoot) rob his own son of his inheritance? Still, his son, Arnkel, is no innocent bystander; he sets out to recover what is his, the Crowess, by any means necessary. In the bloody feud that ensues, the weak are trampled. Chieftains, who are supposed to uphold the law and resolve disputes in a democratic assembly, are involved in the quarrel. It is a savage land, an alien landscape that Janoda describes brilliantly and unsparingly.