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A Novel of Medieval Iceland
By Jeff Janoda
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2005 Jeff Janoda
All rights reserved.
The Taking of the Hay
Three riders picked their way in file up the narrow mountain trail. The pitch of the land would have killed them if they had slipped, but the horses were sure footed and canny, and each man knew the saddle. On their left, far below, was Swan's fjord, a deep rift driven straight into the mountain to let in the sea. Thousands of the white seabirds swam the ink blue water. Others flew about, a cloud of white specks circling like flakes of dust in sunlight.
The men came to Vadils Head, a small plateau dotted with the stone cairns of the dead, the highest point on the vast ridge of the mountain spur that fell steeply to form the eastern side of the fjord. Ragged, treacherous sheep paths scarred the slope, but no man could live there. The side facing north to the open ocean was sheer cliff. From it, the beaches on the narrow coastal plain below could be spied out for ten miles or more to the east and west. The men yearned for the good fat of whale, and it was in summer that the creatures most often stranded on the beaches of the Island, driven to madness by the Gods so that men could feast. But there was nothing except the Earth. The youngest of them bent down and idly rattled the iron ring bolt driven into the rock at the cliff's edge. The other two frowned darkly at him, shaking their heads. The shades of the men who had been hanged there would not like his mockery.
Two of the riders were brothers, called Thorleif and Illugi. The other was Ulfar, the Freedman. He would always carry that name, as a man who had been released from slavery by his master Thorbrand, the father of the two men with him. Ulfar's son would be a bondi, a free man, like the two brothers, but never Ulfar himself. He would always be the man who had once been a slave.
He could accept that. It was the Law.
If only he had sons.
He had not come to the high place to find whales.
Ulfar found a spot away from the other graves, back from the cliff. The sons of Thorbrand left him in peace, although they had come as witnesses to the burial. He tried to place the stones quickly, without thinking on what he did. The infant was wrapped many times in wool, but he had still sensed the round flesh of the malformed arms and legs through the folds as he cradled it on the long ride up the mountain. It had filled him with dread and despair. Auln, his wife, had begged him not to curse the elves when he buried their child and so he held his tongue and lay the offering of smoked fish near the cairn. He peered over his shoulder at the brothers to be sure they could not see him. They were strong men. Even in the idle moments of waiting for Ulfar, they stood testing their courage at the very edge of the cliff, Illugi the younger with his toes hanging in air. They would have thought him sentimental and weak to let tears fall onto the ground over a child too young to have been given a name. Ulfar covered his face with one hand as the pain wracked him for a time. Then he put it away forever, and went to join them at the cliff's edge.
He stayed one step back. The wind blew hard, and one blast could knock a man over.
There was nothing, nothing but black sand and pounding surf and wind.
The stark beauty of his land struck him then, there above the clouds, banishing for a moment all sadness. Towards the interior of the island were the white mountains, home of the God Under the Earth. Below was the sea, giver of life, laid out before his eyes as if he were Thor himself. Between them ran the thin line of green lands on which alone men could live. His soul struggled with it, forcing the wrenched agony of his despair into the rise of song.
A Face of the Sky God above
Face of the Sea God below
Stone and ice and water pressed between,
and man, the withered stem, springs from the crevice.
The others nodded, but said nothing.
They mounted, and rode for a while until they were out of sight and sound of the ghosts that haunted the cliff top.
On a vast slab of stone with a good view, they sat side by side to pass a bag of curd back and forth. Their eyes roamed the land, while the two brothers spoke idly of the weather.
Across the fjord was a gentler land, rolling green hills of rough pasture, and a solitary wonder standing out from the landscape; a forest of birch trees growing thickly near a shallow cliff, each trunk strong enough to cut for house frames, rare treasures in a land stripped to rock by men and sheep. The forest was called the Crowness. It belonged to the old viking, Thorolf Lamefoot.
Ulfar swallowed nervously at the thought of Thorolf. The man was his neighbor and the troll on his doorstep, the bane of his life. He winced at the memory of his booming voice, his vast angry face, and his drunken accusations. So he moved his eyes from the man's forest, to banish the beast's spirit from his heart.
Far to the northeast, on the flat coastal lands beyond the reach of the fjord, grew a solitary hill, surrounded by mist. That was Helgafell, the holy mountain, the farm of Snorri gothi, chieftain to the sons of Thorbrand, and many other men.
To the southeast, close by Ulfar's own farm within the deep body of the fjord, was a larger house, a true great Hall, the turf of its walls and roof thick and green with marsh grass. Bolstathr farm was the home of Arnkel gothi, chieftain of the fjord. He was the son of Thorolf Lamefoot the Viking, and also a man not to be trifled with lightly. Father and son had much in common. Arnkel's plot was smaller than Ulfar's, hardly more than a single home field and a garden, but a gothi could turn his hand to other ways of making a living. Men will always disagree and feud, and someone must be there to mediate. For a price. The gothi drew men to himself, and wealth, and respect.
To the south, at the very base of the fjord, lay Swan firth. It was the best farm in the region, split by a foaming, icy river running from the glaciers, full of sea salmon in the run, and other fish year round. Flat, fertile earth covered both banks of the river. The farm belonged to Thorbrand, and his six sons.
Thorleif and Illugi were the eldest and the youngest of the six, and far enough apart in age that the hatred of brothers had never risen for each other. Thorleif had almost thirty years to him, a respectable age, but his teeth and arms were still strong. Illugi was sixteen, full of young muscle and spit.
Illugi had the sharpest eyes. He raised a hand and pointed below.
"Ulfar, isn't that Lamefoot there, in your meadow?"
They peered down at the tiny figures moving on the ridge separating the old viking's half of the land from Ulfar's.
They were taking in the hay.
The brothers looked at Ulfar. It was far away, but the old man's lurch was unmistakable, as were the stacks of hay already piled high onto Lamefoot's oxen by his slaves.
"He's past the ridge line, into your land now," said Illugi. "Think he'll go farther?"
A spike of cold fear flared in Ulfar's gut.
"I don't know," he said. He shared the meadow with Lamefoot. Each of them was owner to the hay on their half of the meadow. He swore again. All his polite words to the beast had been wasted. "Auln said he was up to something."
Thorleif and Illugi looked up with wide eyes. "Did she see that?" Illugi asked nervously. Men and women sometimes came to Auln, even though she told them that her visions came at their own time, not at her call.
Ulfar did not answer. He chewed his lip worriedly.
"That old man would scare the piss out of a stone," Illugi said. "Why does he hate you so much, Ulfar?"
"Quiet, boy," said Thorleif, knowing Ulfar's fear. "We'd best get down to the ford and across the river."
They walked the horses until the trail became safer, and then rode as quickly as they dared along the hairpins to the valley bottom.
Ulfar and Thorolf had cut the hay together two days before, as their old agreement had said they should. It was a time Ulfar dreaded all year. The fallen stalks had been left to dry in the field. The old man had grumbled with disbelief at Ulfar's prediction that no rain would fall for several days. Ulfar peered up at the thin layer of cloud, knowing that the old man had panicked, and read the sky wrong, as always. It would not rain that day, or the next, and the hay would still not be dry.
Ulfar swore, his breath coming short. He did not want to fight. What did he know of fighting?
The ford was a quarter mile up the river, just behind the brothers' plot of land. The mountain trail wound down, down toward the valley, and led eventually to the ford. They waded across the river, the water soaking them to their thighs.
A boat floated in an eddy of river current, anchored fore and aft. Two men sat in it, fishing with lines. They looked up at the men crossing the ford, and one flashed a rude sign with his fingers.
"The Fish Brothers," Thorleif growled. He cupped his hand to his mouth. "One fish of every three is ours, you sheep lovers, that's the fee for putting your lines in our river. And not the smallest, either."
The men in the boat shouted insults back, standing.
"Damn their eyes," Thorleif said to Illugi. "If father allowed it, I'd cut them up into pieces and use them for bait. They rob us every time they drop a line here."
They rode wetly up the bank and cantered hard along the shore, throwing a final shout at the Fish Brothers. A short run along the fine gravel brought them to Swan firth. The other sons of Thorbrand came from their work at the sound of their horses, spilling out of the great turf house and the barn and the smithy. They shouted loudly when Thorleif and the other two did not stop.
"Lamefoot's stealing Ulfar's hay!" Illugi shouted back at them.
The brothers dropped their forks and buckets and ran after them, although Thorbrand shouted at them to stop from the door of the house, his grey beard wagging with the force of his calls. It was not far. A half dozen households lived less than two miles apart from each other, wedged together by the pitch of the land, the mountains and ice desert pressing them to the coast.
Ulfar reined in at the rock wall by the base of his side of the high meadow. Lamefoot had always gone a stroke or two past the ridge line, but now he was halfway down the slope, his four big slaves sweating and covered in hay slack, and grinning at him. They thought themselves as good as him, because he had once been a slave. There stood Lamefoot, pretending to look at the sky.
"Thorolf!" Ulfar said loudly. "Call your slaves off! I know you think it is time, but the hay is not ready yet. It will rot in the hay barn." He would pretend that Thorolf was not stealing his hay, that he was only doing Ulfar a service.
His horse shied from his loud words, and he should have dismounted, but he was afraid, and wanted the size of the animal under him.
Lamefoot picked his teeth and looked at Ulfar. He drank from the skin in his hand, and spat a mouthful out rudely. "Looks like rain."
The old beast was drunk again, thought Ulfar. Very drunk. There would be no reason from him.
The other sons of Thorbrand began to arrive, running up breathless to see the commotion. Thorleif's hand fell on Ulfar's elbow.
"He's wearing his sword," Thorleif said quietly. "And look, his slaves have their spears and shields. See them there, lying on the ground?"
More hay was gathered.
"Lamefoot!" Ulfar shouted, his fear turning to helpless rage.
Thorolf reacted immediately. He marched down to the wall, pitching away the skin, the sword scabbard banging his thigh. Ulfar backed the pony away fearfully, and the slaves laughed at his white face.
Lamefoot pointed a finger at him from behind the wall, eyes red with anger and drink.
"Say that name again and I'll call you out and cut you down like this hay," he said, his rough voice like stones rumbling down a hillside. "I will take my fair share of this crop. Your side grows thicker."
There was silence on the hill. Lamefoot was grey haired and slow with age and his belly was a mound, but his shoulders were as wide as two men, side to side and front to back. The finger he pointed was a sausage, calloused and immense. He turned his eyes to the sons of Thorbrand, who backed away nervously.
"He meant no insult, Thorolf, and if you take him to duel we will witness that you do so with injustice." Thorleif said, his voice hard. He made himself ride forward a pace or two. "You will lose much, in land and property, paying for that killing."
Lamefoot's eyes were like embers on him, burning through the vast whiskers.
"What do you know about duels, bondi?" he said, and spat on the ground. "You have never fought one. I have."
"I know that, Thorolf," Thorleif said quietly.
"The Law says you cannot do this," Ulfar said, pleading now.
Lamefoot waved his hand toward the great turf Hall further down the fjord, where his son Arnkel gothi the chieftain lived. "There is the Law."
He turned away and spat to one side. Ulfar rode off with the sons of Thorbrand, the laughter of the slaves burning his back.
* * *
Thorgils came to Ulfarsfell the next day.
Auln watched him ride in to their farm, down the hill from Arnkel gothi's great Hall of Bolstathr, pushing through Ulfar's roiling flock of fat and healthy sheep. She boiled clothes in a pot, driving out the lice and nits and fleas, stirring the sodden mass slowly with a pole. Outside the small barn, Ulfar stood braced before the fleshing log, cleaning the fat and meat from a ram hide. He looked up and smiled when he saw his friend.
Thorgils was a short man, but strong, with shoulders like rock from a life of work. He was the chief Thingman of Arnkel the chieftain.
He came often to Ulfarsfell, riding in when his duties at Bolstathr farm allowed, and always he brought a gift. Only once, a year past, had he mentioned Arnkel, and the idea that Ulfar should consider becoming a Thingman of the gothi, instead of keeping his attachment to Thorbrand. Ulfar's shocked face had been all the answer he needed.
Still Thorgils would come. Ever since Auln had arrived, he had come, and shared their fire and food.
She felt his eyes on her.
She did not know if it was her Sight that revealed his interest, or just ordinary intuition. It did not repel her. He was reasonably handsome, with a good beard and jaw, and clear green eyes under his reddish blonde hair. She had laughed at herself once, tying her hair up as he came down the hill. It meant nothing, she had told herself. It was simply good to know that she still could draw a man's eye.
Still, she knew the dark roads lust could take a man down along.
She put away the thought of her father and his haunted eyes and the smell of drink on his breath.
This was her new life. That was the old, and she had escaped it.
There was a shadow behind Thorgils. Some kind of falsehood or deception walked with him, although he himself seemed honest. The Sight moved behind her eyes, like some other person behind her shoulder, whispering into her ear.
He nodded to her as he dismounted.
"I'm sorry for your loss, Auln," he said, his voice gentle.
She nodded. "Thank you, Thorgils," she said, and began to stir the pot again. He handed her a small package, wrapped in leather. "Some herrings the Fish Brothers caught by net the other day. They will speed your healing."
She took them without a word, and laid them at her feet.
He squelched through the drying mud over to Ulfar. They talked for a while about the skin, and Thorgils felt the thick mat of fleece, whistling in appreciation.
"You have always raised the strongest, finest sheep, Ulfar," Thorgils said. The freedman ducked his head, pleased. Thorgils took a turn at the skin, scraping gently with the fleshing tool, a sharpened thigh bone, Ulfar guiding him with a few words. The two men spoke for a while of the flocks, and the weather. Auln brought out a pitcher of skyr, thick fermented cow's milk thinned to liquid with whey, and the three of them drank the refreshing sourness from wooden cups, sitting on the home field wall.
"I have heard of your trouble with Thorolf," Thorgils said carefully. "He has most of the hay from your meadow. What will you do?"
"I will go to Thorbrand and ask for his help," Ulfar said. "What else is there to do? All of his sons saw what happened. They must help me."
Excerpted from Saga by Jeff Janoda. Copyright © 2005 Jeff Janoda. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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What People are Saying About This
"As focussed as Jane Austen, as macabre as Stephen King, Jeff Janoda traces out the hidden springs of power in the micro-society of an Icelandic fjord. He tells a tale of complex feud with all the fullness and detail of a modern novel, but leaves its violent and treacherous heroes as enigmatic as before. A brilliant blend of scholarship and insight."
Dr., St. Louis University, author of THE ROAD TO MIDDLE EARTH
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Norse exploration and settlement of Iceland, Greenland and ¿Vinland¿ are fascinating topics and novels based on these activities are rich with promise. I read this novel soon after reading The King of Vinland¿s Saga and was not disappointed.Though it appears to be a substantial work, due to heavy paper stock, it only encompasses roughly 350 pages. Even then, as a result of relatively large type and generous spacing, it reads more like a 250 page book and can easily be polished off in a weekend.The story revolves around a colony of Norse settlers located on the coast of Iceland. The story is rich in detail, focusing on the challenges faced by the settlers and the interpersonal relationships that exist among them. Weather and conditions are harsh, but no harsher than some of the warlike and conniving homesteaders who combine to improve their lot at the expense of what they perceive to be weaker elements of the society.All in all, this is an entertaining but not spectacular piece of work.
Pros: engaging, intricate plotlines, lots of political intrigueCons: the names are confusing for the first few chaptersA lot of medieval literature tends to be boring. The way of writing was not a style we normally appreciate today. While there's often a lot of action, there's little character development and too much description. Now, part of the problem is that a lot of medieval literature was meant to be recited rather than read (thinking specifically of earlier stuff, of which the Icelandic Sagas, that Saga: A Novel of Medieval Iceland was based on, were a part of). I haven't read any Icelandic Sagas, so this observation is drawn from having read Beowulf and numerous other primary sources from various periods that we refer to as the Middle Ages.Jeff Janoda took these sagas and turned them into living stories. Reading his prose felt like listening to a storyteller. He has just enough description to give you a sense of place and people, religion and culture. His characters develop throughout the novel, some becoming more naive, others growing up fast. There's a lot of political intrigue, and just enough action to keep you reading.The story is about the various feuds begun when Thorolf cuts the hay from both his meadow and that of his neighbour, Ulfar. When Ulfar tries to get satisfaction for this theft, he's forced to change allegiance, an act that spirals into a cold war for land and influence.One of the most fascinating things about the story is the idea that with so much interbreeding, blood feuds are simply not practical. So most legal affairs are dealt with at the yearly Thing, where the Gothi, clan leaders, pass judgement. Of course, once some of the Gothi start taking matters into their own hands, blood feud becomes a real possibility.The only complaint I had about the book (and it would have been impossible to get rid of) was the number of names that started with a 'T'. Thorbrand, Thorgils, Thorleif and Thorolf are all major characters introduced in the first few chapters. The author provides a glossary of names, but I never looked at it, choosing to flip back to earlier passages to help get the names straight.This is an excellent novel and if you have any interest in Iceland, medieval or otherwise, I highly recommend it.
As a lover of the Icelandic sagas, and fiction that aims to emulate them, I awaited my copy of this novel with a burning impatience. It finally came and I plunged right in. I was not disappointed. Jeff Janoda has written a fine piece of fiction, moving and powerful and true to the feel and spirit of the old sagas. As a writer of this sort of fiction myself (well, I've written one novel along these lines, anyway), I came to this one with some preconceptions, some personal prejudices. Indeed, I would not have approached the material as Janoda did, preferring to hew a closer line to the original saga voice, myself. But Janoda won me over. While retaining the modern novelistic conventions, many of which stray far afield from the old saga techniques, Janoda brilliantly evoked the older saga form from which this novel arises. Here is the story of Arnkel Thorolfsson's feud with the famed Snorri Thorgrimsson, Snorri the Priest, the sly Icelandic chieftain who appears in so many of the great sagas (Njal's Saga, Laxdaela Saga). This particular tale is from the Eyrbyggja Saga and is only one of several interwoven plots found there. But Janoda has teased it out and put flesh on the bare saga bones, creating a rich and compelling modern novel of real human beings contending with one another in a harsh and unforgiving land. In the process he has recreated that world in all the rich detail and grim coloration that is only limned in the traditional sagas. The beauty of what he's done is seen from the start as we enter the mind and heart of Ulfar Freedman, former slave of a local farmer who ekes out his livelihood on a holding that lies adjacent to Arnkel Thorolfsson's steading and that of Arnkel's father, the brutal and vindictive Thorolf Lamefoot. In the sagas we tend to see everything from the point of view of the great men, the chiefs (called godhis) and their kinsmen and retainers. But Janoda's book, presented initially through the eyes of Ulfar, gives us these great ones as they may really have been, overbearing, harsh and altogether heedless of the lesser folk around them. Arnkel has his chieftanship as the result of a deal in which his father, Thorolf, sold Ulfar his property in order to buy Arnkel his position (chieftainships could be bought and sold in old Iceland). But Arnkel, who is not only proud and fierce but a good deal cleverer than his father, sees that his chieftainship came at a very great cost, the break-up and diminution of Thorolf's land holdings, thus impairing Arnkel's future inheritance. Arnkel is not prepared to pay such a price, even for the chieftanship, and wants his full inheritance back. In fact, Thorolf, Arnkel's father, actually gained his formerly vast landholdings by killing Arnkel's grandfather in a duel after brutalizing and abandoning Arnkel's mother, the old man's proud and arrogant daughter, Gudrid. Gudrid, for her part, desperately wants her father's lands back in their entirety, too, wishing only ill on Thorolf, her former husband and tormentor, and has raised Arnkel with these things in mind. And thus the hapless and gentle Ulfar finds himself an unwitting pawn in a struggle that pits Arnkel against his father, and father and son against Ulfar's own former master, Thorbrand and his six sons. Though neighbors of Arnkel godhi, the Thorbrandssons are aligned with the famous Snorri of Helgafell, in hopes of counterbalancing Arnkel's growing strength in their district. Old Thorbrand, Ulfar's former master, also has designs on Ulfar's farm since, under Icelandic law, it reverts to him as the former master, if Ulfar dies without an heir. But Ulfar has found himself a wife and thus inadvertently set in motion the wheels that will grind him into dust between these harsh men. The story unfolds with much greater focus and depth than is found in the original sagas and this is part of its genius. Janoda has found what may very well be the true story of human struggle, in its endless comple
I did not want this book to end. Such a sweeping vision of this harsh landscape and its people was depicted by Mr. Janoda that the reader utilizes all of their senses to soak in this epic story. The daily tastes, smells, textiles and rituals of the first inhabitants of Iceland are woven into an epic story of ambition, lust, revenge and calculated power plays. Reminiscent of The Godfather with broadswords. The author depicts a surprisingly delicate feminine insight in his strong female characters surrounded by the savagery of the time. Great Read.
Jeff Janoda's wonderfully crafted retelling of the ancient Icelandic Sagas is a perfect example of what a skilled writer can do to bring history alive. This tale of ruthless fueds between competing clans is neatly interwoven with fantastical elements like spririts and elves. The story effortlessly melds together the daily fight to survive in a harsh land, with incredible insights into the beliefs that shaped the creation of a distinct culture and society in Iceland. Whether describing human treachery or the spirit world, Janoda effortlessly holds the readers attention. This book will appeal to both lovers of history and those with an interest in how the supernatural affects human beings, particularly those who have grown weary of the cookie cutter volumes crowding bookstore shelves. Highly recommended.