Summary: Drawing heavily on Icelandic oral tradition (aka, sagas), Byock charts the course of the Norse settlement of Iceland. Beginning with initial settlement, the author charts the establishment of an egalitarian republican government amidst ongoing struggles with a fragile and occasionally hostile environment. Concluding with conquest by Norway, Byock chronicles the birth of this unique culture.
Review: Byock’s heavy use of the saga’s, which he defends in the books opening chapter, is a somewhat unusual tack for conventional historiography. Most historians tend to look askance (at best) of stories passed down through oral tradition, largely (but not exclusively) because they tend to change along with the society. As a result, oral tradition shorn of a written documentation of their changes over time tend to say a lot about contemporary society but are usually assumed to contain only nuggets of the past. That said, Byock (Professor of Old Norse and Medieval Scandinavian at UCLA) makes an engaging and knowledgeable tour guide. While the sagas form the backbone of each window into medieval Iceland, he ably reinforces each with extensive archeological, historical and anthropological data. The result is that, despite its unorthodox approach, the book’s central points are built on a solid foundation and remain largely free of unfounded speculation. For a more casual reader, the centrality of the personal accounts in the sagas make for an authoritative book that is far more engaging than one would expect.
Read-a-likes: For those fascinated by Iceland but looking for a quicker read, Arnaldur Indridason’s mysteries are easily the most popular recent import. The strong writing and unique setting has pulled the author’s Inspector Erlendur novels towards the head of the pack among the throng of recent Scandinavian thrillers flooding the US market. The more literary works of another Icelandic author, Olaf Olafsson, have not garnered as much attention, but are worth checking out as well. For more on the medieval Norse settlement of Iceland and Greenland, Jared Diamond’s Collapse includes an interesting anthropological examination of the successes/failures of the two colonies. For more on the medieval Norse, The World of the Vikings by Richard Hall and Cultural Atlas of the Viking World by Colleen Batey are worth a look. For a fictional take on Vikings, check out Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales or the works of Robert Low. For those interested in learning more about the sagas, check out the eVideo Nordic Sagas available through My Media Mall.
Availability: This title is not currently part of the Lake Bluff Public Library’s collection, but can be obtained via Interlibrary Loan.