Bringing Norse Sagas to a Contemporary Audience

Guest Post by Stuart W. Mirsky

Modern film and streaming services have conditioned us to expect nonstop action in our stories, and I’m as addicted to that as anyone. That’s why, when I set out to write my historical novel about the Norse in North America (a fictionalized account of some wayward Greenlanders trying to put down roots in North America), I decided to try to cut a path midway between evoking an authentic Norse saga (the source of our knowledge of the Norse visits here) and a more contemporary tale with enough fast-paced action to keep today’s readers in their seats. The King of Vinland’s Saga (Xlibris, 2020) had to work on both fronts. Nonstop action wasn’t going to be enough.

So the novel had to be populated by real folk with problems that demanded more of them than just cutting through the next swash and buckle that got in their way. In fact, this is one of the attractions of the Icelandic Family sagas, which document the early years of Iceland’s settlement by Norsemen fleeing a tyrannical king back home. In the sagas, there are Vikings, of course, but mainly they are farmers and traders with real personal issues. The old sagas give us human beings not so different from ourselves who yet manage to do the great things that thrill and captivate. I wanted the novel I would write to be a multi-leveled tale like these.

Getting it done turned out to be a tougher road than I’d expected but not as bad as feared. What would become my nearly 500-page novel took about 108 days in all, stretched over a two-year period, given my day job. For inspiration, I turned to the original sagas but also to the great literary adventure tales of the 19th and 20th centuries, including other saga-type novels (like H. Rider Haggard’s Eric Brighteyes, E. R. Eddison’s Styrbjorn the Strong, and more contemporary saga pastiches like the sci-fi and fantasy writer Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword and Hrolf Kraki’s Saga). Nor were Viking tales all I looked to. There was Eiji Yoshikawa’s Japanese epic, Musashi, Polish writer Henryk Sinkeivicz’s With Fire and Sword, James Clavell’s Shogun, and that most magnificent of all historicals, Hope Muntz’s The Golden Warrior. It was Clavell’s Shogun, set in pre-Meiji era Japan, that had initially inspired me to try my hand at a historical tale, but Muntz’s great novel of the fall of England to the Norman Duke, William the Conqueror, reminded me of my past love for the saga world. 

But rather than retell one of the actual sagas, I decided to make up one of my own, and so I concocted a tale that would, I thought, have deserved a major saga of its own, had it really happened—but which might well have failed to survive out of plain bad luck. So I created a saga that might-have-been yet with enough modern spin to make it work, I hoped, for today’s readers. For inspiration, I turned to the two very brief sagas we have that record the Vikings’ actual excursions to North America, Eirik the Red’s Saga and the slightly more perfunctory Tale of the Greenlanders. Both are short on detail, with many gaps and discrepancies between them. But recent discoveries, in particular this year’s dating of the remains at the Norse archeological dig on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, putting that site’s occupancy at around 1021 AD, lend veracity to the record as these two sagas preserved it. It also puts the period of the Norse presence on par with the time I chose for my novel.

I faced several hurdles when I began, and not just in getting the geography and timeframe right. I had to get the people right too, especially since I’d decided to make it up rather than crib an older story from the extant saga record. My biggest challenge would prove to be portraying contact between natives and newcomers since the two brief sagas are very thin on that score—not surprisingly because of the language gap that would have impeded easy communication between the two peoples. The saga writers who set these stories down from their oral originals, moreover, weren’t sensitive to the language gap any more than to the cadences of everyday speech. In fact, saga dialogue is often formal and stylized, rife with proverbs and repetitive phrases. Reading the real sagas, one makes allowances—but would modern readers do that?

Having decided to write my tale of the Norse in America based on the actual saga record, I wanted it to read like the real thing, a real saga that had somehow survived the vicissitudes of time intact. And so I decided to use the saga voice to evoke the era, though I cheated a bit here and there to lighten the load for readers.

It was a challenge, but the story poured out of me when I finally sat down to write it, thanks to the previous decade I’d spent immersed in sagas and other historical adventure tales. I’d already worked out in detail the events which would take my heroes from their precarious homesteads on the frozen coast of Norse Greenland across the narrow sea to the Canadian coast and down to “Vinland.” What would have occurred between the Greenlanders and the astonished natives who meet them there would drive the rest of the tale. How they would communicate with one another would be the least of my problems, for their interactions, of which we have only limited knowledge from the two brief sagas themselves, would take my characters through to the tale’s end—already foreordained since we know the Norse did not survive on American shores and Europeans would not return until almost five hundred years later.

I wrote The King of Vinland’s Saga to be the saga that never was but which should have been, a tale of what might have occurred if the Norse had made a serious effort to put down roots on our shores and their tale had survived in the oral traditions of Iceland long enough to have been recorded by some anonymous sagaman. Of course, it did not and we are, I have always felt, the poorer for it. But the absence of such a saga doesn’t mean the effort was not made—or couldn’t have been.

Stuart W. Mirsky is the author of several books including The King of Vinland’s Saga: A Novel of Vikings and Indians in Pre-Columbian North America and A Raft on the River (a novelized memoir, completed in 2006, telling the true story of a young girl’s coming of age and survival in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II). A retired bureaucrat, Mirsky last served as Assistant Commissioner for Operations in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene until stepping down in 2002 to write full time. He is also the author of two philosophical works, Choice and Action (2016) and Value and Representation: Three Essays Exploring the Implications of a Pragmatic Epistemology for Moral Thought (2019). For over a decade, he penned a bi-weekly column for a local newspaper, covering current affairs and cultural matters, as well as writing opinion pieces for wider distribution. He has also authored scholarly articles in the Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics (“Moral Ideas and Religious Beliefs“), and via the scholarly website Academia.edu (“Logic, Language and Life“). He is a father of three and grandfather of nine and currently lives in New York City with his wife and life partner, Brenda. Visit him at https://stuartwmirsky.com/

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