Bjorn discovered [his brother Helgi and their sisters] had changed their faith and thought it very weak-minded of them to have renounced the old belief of their forefathers, so he didn't fancy the place and refused to make his home there.
Or: historical fiction, medieval Icelandic style. Eyrbyggja Saga ('the saga of the people of Eyr') is an anonymous thirteenth-century prose epic positioned somewhere between what we think of as myth and history. It is a semi-fantastical take on the early history of Iceland (9th-11th centuries) - that is, from the first Viking settlements to the coming of Christianity - filtered through the intertwined stories of several generations of settlers and their families, as they feud, farm, marry and litigate their way to a new configuration of the community.
As we might expect, there's quite a bit of suitably brutal battling to be found. Engagements in the Saga's pages are small-scale and short-lived. They are generally between rival families and their allies; the community was not numerous, it seems, and conflicts tend to have the tenor of either personality clashes, vengeance, or land-ownership disputes. But they always recounted with a bloody, concise clarity. Lines like "Thorarin made for Thorbjorn and with a sword-cut split his head right down to the jaw" are the norm. There are few elaborate similes or expressions of emotion here; even when one character breaks out the poetry to retell his deeds, the weight of the language lies in alliteration and the imagery is kept simple:
Slander forced me
to defend my fame.
Ravens feasted then,
fattened by the spear's lust:
busy, the blade rang
battering my helm;
like surf at my side.
For all this, the Saga certainly isn't short of a certain deadpan, macho humour:
There was cheese and curds for supper. Snorri the Priest thought his namesake was not doing justice to the cheese, and asked why [Snorri Thorbrandsson] was eating so slowly. [...] Snorri the Priest felt his throat and found an arrow sticking right through at the base of the tongue. He got a pair of pincers and pulled it out, after which Snorri Thorbrandsson could take his food again.
Its author, whether through antiquarian enthusiasm or a taste for aetiology, or both, seems to have taken considerable pains to give his tale the ring of authenticity, as well as of steel. The text is peppered with references to landmarks and ruins that would have been visible to his audience. Sometimes this is to 'explain' - in terms of his Saga's action - how these places got their names, usually of the formulation "X crossed the river here; it has been called X's ford ever since." In other cases, the author uses the landscape to illuminate, or to re-imagine, the social and religious practices of his protagonists:
The circle where the court used to sentence people to be sacrificed can still be seen, with Thor's Stone inside it on which the victims' backs were broken, and you can still see the blood on the stone.
This was, after all, in many senses a vanished world to both author and audience. It is hard to say how much, if at all, the customs described resemble reality. Iceland had adopted Christianity centuries before the saga's composition (in the year 1000), and in parts of the Saga the Pagan past is clearly equated with superstition and magic. But such was perhaps to spice up the story as much as to condemn any genuine pre-Christian beliefs; the tone is certainly not of a sermon, and there is no sense that only Christians can be law-abiding and wise. In other parts, the old ways are presented neutrally, as when Thorolf lays claim to some land by carrying fire along its boundaries; in still others, Christian and Pagan practices exist side-by-side, and both are equally valued by the community (and efficacious in story terms), as when a harmful ghost must be appeased.
Furthermore, for all that the narrative trajectory is Iceland's development from the early, violent (Pagan) times to later, more civilised (Christian) ones, the battles being fought are not ideological but personal, and recourse to legal - rather than violent - redress is an option from an early stage. This is a fledgling society changing over time and working out a modus vivendi day-by-day, not one consciously engaged in a moral and philosophical war with its past. Still, there's something appealingly incongruous about legalese entering this epic world:
The winter passed and in the spring Arnkel started a manslaughter action against all who had taken part in the attack on Vigfus, with the exception of Snorri the Priest. But Snorri brought a counter-action for attempted manslaughter on his own behalf, and another action for the wounding of Mar [...] Both sides came to the Thor's Ness Assembly with a large following, but all the Kjalleklings supported Arnkel, and they had the stronger force. Arnkel pleaded the case forcefully, but when judgement was about to be passed, peacemakers intervened, and thanks to their plea the whole issue was referred to arbitration.
Being a multi-generational story, the Saga does not have the clearest structure; keeping track of characters, in particular, is tricky, and few emerge with more than the most broad-brush traits. This doesn't stop some of them from being wonderfully vivid, though; here's Thorolf, dying of anger when he loses an argument with Arnkel:
Thorolf went back home in a rage [...] It was evening when he reached home, and he sat down on the high-seat without uttering a word to anybody. He ate nothing all evening and stayed in his seat when the rest of the household went to bed. In the morning, when they got up, Thorolf was still sitting there, dead.
So cross is Thorolf, indeed, that he doesn't even calm down once he's dead:
As the summer wore on, it became clear that Thorolf wasn't lying quiet, for after sunset no one out of doors was left in peace. [...] The shepherd at Hvamm often came running home with Thorolf after him. One day that autumn neither sheep nor shepherd came back to the farm, and next morning, when a search was made for him, the shepherd was found dead not far from Thorolf's grave, his corpse coal-black, and every bone in his body broken.
(There are also plenty of splendid epithets, from Flat-Nose, Fine-Hair, Twist-Foot, and Sleet-Nose's-daughter to the slightly more surreal likes of Thorgrima Witch-Face, Aud the Deep-Minded - both women - and Thorstein Cod-Biter...)
Of course, psychological realism is hardly the point. Nevertheless, one character does stand out - the ambiguous, ruthless, intelligent and largely amoral Snorri the Priest (it's never really clear where he gets the nickname from), a sort of medieval Icelandic Al Swearengen:
[He] was usually even-tempered, and it was hard to tell whether he was pleased or not. He was a very shrewd man with unusual foresight, a long memory, and a taste for vengeance.
Roles for women are very limited; they tend to be marginal magic-workers (some evil, some not) or paragons of hospitality:
About this time Geirrid, sister of Geirrod of Eyr, came to Iceland, and Geirrod granted her land at Borgardale, west of Alfta Fjord. She built a hall right across the main road, and every traveller was expected to pass through it. In the hall stood a table always laden with food which all were welcome to share, and for this people thought her the finest of women.
The most interesting and active of the latter group is one Thorgunna, "a massive woman, tall, broad-built, and getting very stout" with "beautiful chestnut hair", who lists her interests as weaving and, more heartily, hay-making - waiflike fragility clearly not being a virtue for Icelandic ladies. She is formidable and unfailingly upright in her behaviour (in both Christian and Pagan terms), middle-aged but "a woman who still had a lot of life in her".
Even in death, she remains a stickler for proprieties. Well, some of them. When the people transporting her body for burial are refused proper treatment as guests at a farm, she takes matters into her own (presumably not entirely incorporeal) hands:
When they came to the larder, there was a tall woman, stark naked, not a stitch of clothing on her, getting a meal ready. The people of the household were too scared when they saw her to come anywhere near. [...] When she had finished doing what she wanted in the larder, she carried the food into the living-room, laid the table, and served the meal.
"Before we part, you may end up very sorry that you didn't treat us more hospitably," said the corpse-bearers.