A Bookish Saga

On my first trip to Iceland, I naively bragged that I had read all the sagas. My listener was too polite to do more than quirk an eyebrow. Of course, I had not read all the sagas. I had read that giant paperback Penguin Classics Deluxe collection, The Sagas of Icelanders, plus The Saga of Burnt Njál. At the time, I didn’t know that more was possible.

For English speakers outside of academia, the ten sagas and assorted short stories of the Penguin compilation remains definitive. But there is another.

The Complete Sagas of Icelanders was produced by Leifur Eiriksson Publishing, founded for the purpose as a labor of love by Icelandic scholars based in Reykjavik’s 105. From their own website:

LIKE SO MANY VENTURES in Icelandic literature, the background to this publication is full of wild idealism and flagrant disregard for apparently insurmountable obstacles.

This sentence embodies everything that I love about Iceland.

This wild, flagrant project resulted in the first English translation of the entire corpus Icelandic sagas and 49 short stories connected with them. Thirty translators (all native English speakers and writers themselves) worked to a standardized style guide that ensured the same English words were used for critical Icelandic terms. The resulting English documents were then checked by medieval scholars for accuracy, and edited for literary quality and consistency of English style. The resulting sagas are presented in readable modern English that yet retains a distinctively Icelandic flavor conveying some of the character of the original.

The Penguin collection is an excerpt from this compilation, which I would have known had I read the introduction to my Penguin book more carefully. But I didn’t, and so I only learned about the real complete collection of sagas when I attended the annual Taste of Iceland literary event in Seattle last fall.

The first year was a talk on Icelandic literary culture given by Eliza Reid, cofounder of the Iceland Writers Retreat (and now First Lady of Iceland) that I attended in 2014. Last year, Guðmundur Andri Thorsson spoke on “Paper Vikings: Past and Present,” followed by a panel discussion with Örnolfur Thorsson and Dr. Gísli Sigurðssonn on Icelandic literature, with a focus on the sagas. Or at least, that was the part I was most interested in.

The Penguin collection sat next to a beautiful boxed set of blue hardbacks on the table in front of Örnolfur Thorsson, who worked on both. The seeds of covetousness sprouted in my heart that night. I went straight to Amazon, where the books started at “$650 Used- Acceptable” and went up to “$2,099 Used – Like New.”

On the publisher’s website the books were available for $299. Much better. But books are heavy, so shipping was $57. I thought to myself, “I’m going to Iceland again next year, I’ll just buy them in a bookstore in Reykjavik when I get there.”

Fast forward a few months. Suddenly, I remember how expensive books are in Iceland. Then I remember Icelanders don’t need translations of the sagas. I would have to visit the publisher directly. I look up the address of the publisher on Google maps and discover it’s on a residential street. I can’t just show up at someone’s house.

The day before we left for Iceland, I emailed the publisher to ask if I can buy the books online and pick them up in person when I arrive in Reykjavik in order to save the cost of shipping. A man named Jóhann replied that the books could be delivered to my guesthouse in Reykjavik where I could pay in person.

Arrangements were made. At 5 p.m. the next Monday, I sat anxiously in the kitchen of my guesthouse (appropriately named Grettir) awaiting a package. The phone rang at 5:20. Jóhann had found parking nearby. I ran out to the parking lot, where I received my beautiful box of books. Jóhann then handed me a hardback of Icelandic Poetry, explaining “because I was a little late.”

I’ve shopped for books in Iceland. I know a paperback Laxness with US$16.95 printed on the back goes for 2.990 kr. The poetry book probably would cost as much as the $60 shipping fee I was trying to avoid. But I got a free hardback for a 20-minute wait on a free delivery of books.

When you’re a tourist, it’s always a challenge to meet people. It’s easy to meet other travelers, but often the only locals you meet are service providers. One of the things I loved in my early trips to Iceland was how happy the Icelanders were to meet foreigners and talk about Iceland. These days Iceland is so swamped with tourists, you can’t blame locals from hiding from us. Even the people checking you into your hotel or selling museum tickets are as likely to be Polish as Icelandic.

That brief interaction when a man went out of his way to help a foreigner obtain Icelandic books was like my early Icelandic experiences.

I fell in love with Iceland on my very first day in Reykjavik in 2012 when a gift shop worker sniffed, “We are a very literary people,” in response to my surprise over a 300-year-old autobiography (still in print). My purchase of the Complete Sagas of Icelanders stoked the fire.

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