Halldór Laxness is, of course, Iceland’s greatest and best-known writer and the island’s only Nobel Laureate. I say “of course” although I only started reading him about 10 years ago. Interest in him and his works has increased in the English-speaking countries in this century with the translation of more of his works into English and the republication of others. Born in 1902, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature for several of his works to that point, which included his best-known work Independent People (1934) as well as Wayward Heroes, published in 1952. This Archipelago Books edition, a lovely and sturdy tome in excellent translation by Philip Roughton, is the first appearance of this important work in English.
Wayward Heroes is at once a tribute to and a scathing parody of the Icelandic Sagas. These were tales of the earliest settlers of Iceland (mostly Norwegians with gaelic slaves), their heroic deeds and their genealogies. They’re set around 850-900 AD, a few generations before this story takes place. Laxness’s book is the tale of two young men, Þorgeir Hávarsson (Thorgeir) and Þormóđur Bessason (Thormod), who grow up in thrall to Iceland’s heroic sagas. The two become sworn brothers, Thorgeir a warrior and Thormod his skald, one who chronicles his heroic deeds in tribute poems called lays. Together they vow to live the heroic lifestyle of their forefathers and resist the modernizing and civilizing influences around them, including farming and Christianity.
The Nordic lands, including Iceland, converted to Christianity around 1000. One of the main pressures for doing so was a Papal ban on Christian merchants trading with pagans and the otherwise unconverted. Those Nordic lands, in particular Greenland and Iceland, faced cycles of famine as well as growing European competition for their cod stocks. And the peoples of the North were also being introduced to some of the consumer goods available in “the South” and wanted to own some of that stuff themselves.
The Norsemen, of course, had a history of going out and taking what they wanted, be it land, livestock, slaves or other things. The tales of those adventures were largely what drew Thermod and Thorgeir to their chosen way of life. And at the same time made them unfit for any other kind of life.
Laxness’s great gift is in describing these characters, their actions and motivations in a clear, dry style that at once refrains from commenting on them while at the same time making clear that he finds them pitiable. We see it early on as Thorgeir’s mother Thórelfur raises her son on fanciful tales of his deceased father’s heroic deeds:
“Mistress Thórelfur’s greatest grief was that she had no weapon to give her son, apart from (his father) Farmer Hávar’s club. When Thorgeir asked why his father had no assortment of fine weapons, as great a warrior as he had been, the housewife replied that had lost his sword in a shipwreck.”
Thorgeir is sent to work on the farm of the kinsman who avenged his father’s death, but the adolescent isn’t interested in working, save for pounding on iron at the anvil. He cobbles together a cleaver and some homemade armor, and it is thus that he meets Thormod. After a short discussion Thorgeir says his only purpose in life is to find a king worthy of his service.
” ‘It seems to me,’ says Thormod, ‘that in you, Thorgeir Hávarsson, a great warrior has been born into this world. Therefore, I vow and declare that when you have done your very first deed of renown, worthy of the gift of Óđinn, I shall journey wherever you may be and deliver you a lay. Thenceforth we shall never part company …’ ” And then Laxness tosses in one of his little mock-epic comments, “… Of their conversation at that time, no more has been recorded.” The arch dialogue from these likely illiterate characters is another wry touch.
The two naturally go on to have adventures, although most of them seem to be out of a Coen Brothers movie rather than a Viking saga. Thormod is more interested in women than is Thorgeir, and himself is the subject of an epic battle between two women for his attentions. The two young men eventually acquire a couple of small boats and some ragtag followers, and they paddle around the coast raiding small farms in the fjords.
The two are finally separated when the authorities ask them to leave Iceland or face the consequences. Thormod settles down with one of his paramours, and Thorgeir boards a ship and has some actual adventures, including shipwrecks and battles on the European mainland. He’s part of a force that is baptized en masse in order to legally be able to fight for a French nobleman, and goes on to support King Olaf (later called Saint Olaf) who Christianized Norway.
Throughout, Laxness continues to let his readers peek behind the curtain, as it were, to see the sordidness, suffering and low comedy that typify the actual exploits of soldiers on the ground and sailors at sea, in every age. In the end, both come to ignoble ends, but only one of them has the wits to realize it.
If Laxness had written only this book and Independent People (which similarly satirizes Western civilization’s glorification of individual rights and the myth of the self-made man), he would have been worthy of the honors he received, indeed some of the literary world’s highest. Everyone who prizes great story-telling owes it to themselves to read Wayward Heroes and other Laxness titles.
P.S.: I found that I really enjoyed listening to Nils Økland’s somber, folksy jazz album Kjølvatn (one of my favorite releases of 2016) as I read Wayward Heroes.