The best books on the Icelandic and Norse sagas

William Ian Miller Author Of Hrafnkel or the Ambiguities: Hard Cases, Hard Choices
By William Ian Miller

Who am I?

Purely by accident I stumbled on to a 1961 Penguin translation of Njáls saga and it was a transformative moment in my life. I signed up for Old Norse the next term, and never looked back. The sagas were incomparably intelligent in matters of psychology and politics and interpersonal interaction. And then told with such wit. How could the utter miracle of the fluorescence of so much pure genius on a volcanic island in the middle of nowhere not grab you? And what confluence of friendly stars would allow me to spend a life teaching and writing about them in a law school no less, paid as if I were a real lawyer? 

I wrote...

Hrafnkel or the Ambiguities: Hard Cases, Hard Choices

By William Ian Miller,

Book cover of Hrafnkel or the Ambiguities: Hard Cases, Hard Choices

What is my book about?

A close reading of one of the best known of the Icelandic sagas, showing its moral, political, and psychological sophistication. The saga deals with finely layered irony of who can justifiably hit whom for what, It does this with cool nuance, also taking on matters of torture and pain-infliction as a means of generating fellow-feeling. How does one measure pain and humiliation so as to get even, to get back to equal? They come up with ingenious ways of handling the issue of ‘getting even’. This book flies in the face of all the previous critical literature which, with very few exceptions, imposes simplistic readings on this very subtle saga. A translation of the saga is provided.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Epic and Romance: Essays on Medieval Literature

Why did I love this book?

This book, from a fin de siècle Scotsman, is a classic of literature in its own right. It contains a perfectly brilliant reading of the sagas as well as other works of medieval literature. It has never been surpassed and is perhaps unsurpassable. Every sentence is an elegant gem, with one nonobvious insight after another. He just nails it. Ker reminds you that literary criticism need not be pretentious and badly written as it so often is. Treat yourself. 

By W. P. (William Paton) Ker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Epic and Romance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Unlike some other reproductions of classic texts (1) We have not used OCR(Optical Character Recognition), as this leads to bad quality books with introduced typos. (2) In books where there are images such as portraits, maps, sketches etc We have endeavoured to keep the quality of these images, so they represent accurately the original artefact. Although occasionally there may be certain imperfections with these old texts, we feel they deserve to be made available for future generations to enjoy.

Njal's Saga

By Magnus and Palsson (translator),

Book cover of Njal's Saga

Why did I love this book?

This is by all estimation the greatest of the sagas. I would even claim that its excellence allows it to be fairly mentioned in the same breath as the Iliad, Don Quixote, and the tragedies of Shakespeare. It is quite complex and I would suggest, if I am allowed to, my Why is Your Axe Bloody? (2014) as a guide. But the present Penguin translation is a travesty and should be avoided. The best English translation available is the older Penguin translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson (1961) and still available from various used booksellers online. Their translation is as good as a translation can get. Hrafnkels saga is a perfect entry to the sagas because it is short and compact and prepares one for the complexity of Njáls saga

By Magnus and Palsson (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Njal's Saga as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Magnusson, Magnus and Palsson, Hermann [transl.]. Njal's Saga. Translated with an introduction by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1966. 11 cm x 18 cm. 378, (6) pages. Original Softcover. Very good condition with some minor signs of external wear. From the library of swiss - american - irish poet Chuck Kruger. [Penguin Classics]. Contains the following chapters: Introduction; Note on the Translation; Njal's Saga; Genealogical Tables; Glossary of Proper Names; Note on the Chronology; Maps.

Book cover of The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180–1280)

Why did I love this book?

This is from the master of saga studies of the past half-century. His knowledge of Old Norse literature is unsurpassed. He takes you through how the miracle of the sagas came about. Moreover, he writes well. His prose is clear and elegant. I also wish to steer readers to a perfect gem of an article Andersson wrote that actually manages to say something quite new about the more than a century-old fight in saga studies as to whether the sagas owe their excellence to an oral culture or to a written one: “Sea Traffic in the Sagas: Quantitative Reflections” in The Creation of Medieval Northern Europe: Essays in Honor of Sverre Bagge, edited by Leidulf Melve and Sigbjørn Sønnesyn (Oslo: Dreyer, 2012), 156–75.

By Theodore M. Andersson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180–1280) as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this book, Theodore M. Andersson, a leading scholar of the Norse sagas, introduces readers to the development of the Icelandic sagas between 1180 and 1280, a crucial period that witnessed a gradual shift of emphasis from tales of adventure and personal distinction to the analysis of political and historical propositions. Beginning with the first full-length sagas and culminating in the acknowledged masterpiece Njals saga, Andersson emphasizes a historical perspective, establishing a chronology for seventeen of the most important sagas and showing how they evolve thematically and stylistically over the century under study.

Revisiting the long-standing debate about the oral…

Book cover of From Gang Leader to the Lord's Anointed: Kingship in Sverris Saga and Hakonar Saga Hakonarsonar (The Viking Collection, Studies in Northern Civilization, Vol 8)

Why did I love this book?

An excellent account of this supremely intelligent Machiavellian rogue and wit of a Norwegian king by the eminent Norwegian historian and namesake Sverre Bagge. King Sverrir’s saga was written by an Icelander with the king looking over his shoulder and apparently dictating portions of it. Nothing quite captures a medieval insurgency any better than this saga when read through the lens of Bagge’s astute commentary. 

Book cover of Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film

Why did I love this book?

Clover’s book is a cult classic, but Clover is also one of the leading saga scholars of the past half-century and as she notes her insights into and reads of these horror films owes an incalculable debt to her knowledge of the sagas. 

I cannot refrain from recommending an article by Heather O'Donoghue--"What has Baldr to do with Lamech?" The lethal shot of a blind man in Old Norse myth and Jewish exegetical traditions Medium Aevum 72 (2003, 82-107). I loved it when I first read it. It is wonderfully learned and for those who are equally captivated by the Norse world and the tough world of the Hebrew Bible, the piece is a perfect example of penetrating scholarship and insight.

By Carol J. Clover,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Men, Women, and Chain Saws as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From its first publication in 1992, Men, Women, and Chain Saws has offered a groundbreaking perspective on the creativity and influence of horror cinema since the mid-1970s. Investigating the popularity of the low-budget tradition, Carol Clover looks in particular at slasher, occult, and rape-revenge films. Although such movies have been traditionally understood as offering only sadistic pleasures to their mostly male audiences, Clover demonstrates that they align spectators not with the male tormentor, but with the females tormented--notably the slasher movie's "final girls"--as they endure fear and degradation before rising to save themselves. The lesson was not lost on the…

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