Historical fiction, if it is to succeed in transporting the reader to a distant era, must impart a sense of verisimilitude in the events it depicts. Even more difficult is the re-creation of the literary style of a past era. The crowning achievement is, of course, the creation of a truly great novel. The Happy Warriors, by the great Icelandic novelist Halldór Laxness, succeeds on all three counts.
First published in Icelandic as Gerpla in 1952, The Happy Warriors is written in a strict Saga style. It is the story of two ‘oath-brothers’, Thorgeir Havarsson and Thormod Coalbrowsskald, and their quest to re-create the glory of the warriors of old. In the changing world of 11th century Europe they are both out of date and in over their heads, for the majesty and power of the old pagan ways has been supplanted by the strange cult of Josa mac Dé: Christianity. After a few Icelandic misadventures they split up, Thormod the poet becomes distracted by woman's wiles and domesticity while Thorgeir, the would-be heroic champion, ends up in England and France, in the service of Olaf the Stout (later to become King/Saint Olaf.) Disenchanted with the European ways of warfare, Thorgeir returns to Iceland and meets an ignoble end. After much brooding, Thormod leaves his wife and children to undertake a quest of vengeance for the death of Thorgeir. Traveling to the far northern reaches of Greenland, living with the Inuits and enduring much suffering and hardship, he fails in his mission. Crippled and bitter, Thormod makes it back to Iceland and then, finally, to Norway. He meets Olaf on the eve of the Battle of Stiklestad. Thormod finally comes to the realization that his dreams of heroism and glory have led to only death and destruction.
This is a book full of strange and terrible things, sprinkled with archaic words and obscure references. A familiarity with the Sagas and that era (c.1000-1030) would be a definite aid in comprehension (as would some annotation!) While I feel certain that the stylized language in the book must be absolutely brilliant in the original Icelandic, Laxness' literary mastery still manages to come through in the English translation. The language is powerful and direct, its archaic aspect only adding to the story. In a departure from the Sagas, Laxness introduces some social criticism, starting subtly and building steadily. By the final scene, which culminates in a moving climax, Laxness' message is felt all the stronger for its prior restraint.
After comparing this to the other Laxness novels available in English, I am glad that I read this book last; I wouldn't have appreciated it nearly as much without reading the others. Anyone interested in the spread of Christianity in Northern Europe during this time will find a wealth of material here, played out in front of a vivid backdrop of actual historical events.
I was eager to read The Happy Warriors for a number of reasons. It is one of the few English translations of Laxness that I had not yet read. Published in 1952, it was part of the body of literature for which Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. And the fact that it covers some of the same ground as several saga stories (Saga of the Sworn Brothers, Saga of Saint Olaf) made me anticipate it even more. Copies are few and hard to come by (and are far too expensive), so I was pleased to receive my copy via inter-library loan. Thank you, Vanderbilt University Library.
Contrary to its name, The Happy Warriors is a dark tragicomedy. At a very young age our first hero, Thorgeir, witnesses the murder of his father and vows to avenge him. Using the old warrior stories as his instruction guide, Thorgeir fashions some crude armor and weapons from materials at hand, and sets off to fulfill his destiny.
We next meet Thormod, a skald, or poet who—also at a very young age—is seduced by an old witch in retaliation for a poem he wrote about her. Thormod encounters Thorgeir and is impressed by his singular warrior attire. As he comes to know him he is likewise impressed by Thorgeir’s single-mindedness and determination, while Thorgeir is impressed by Thormod’s gift with words. Thormod vows to compose a lay, or heroic poem, about Thorgeir once he commits a great deed. The two become “sworn brothers,” or perhaps alter-egos. In typical saga fashion, our heroes/antiheroes fight, lust, seek revenge, compose lays, go raiding for treasure, seduce women, seek kings to fight for, and write more lays. Thorgeir and Thormod pass much of their lives apart, but their destinies are intertwined. After lots of bloody action, the psychological drama heats up when Thorgeir is killed, and his head is returned to Thormod.
After many adventures, Thormod had found an idyllic life with a loving wife and daughter. The most affecting part of the story is when Thormod’s wife, Thordis, comes to realize that he will never again be content until he has avenged Thorgeir’s death, and has immortalized him in a poem. She knows that he loves her too much to leave her. “I am so burdened with Thormod’s grief that I would give all to release him from me,” says Thordis. She sacrifices herself by committing adultery with their slave so that Thormod will be free. And, after months of talking with Thorgeir’s salted head, Thormod sets out on his journey, leaving his life, happiness, and sanity behind him. He must search for the king worthy to bestow his heroic lay upon: the lay written to honor Thorgeir.
Laxness does some very interesting things with this story. He shows the consequences of pursuing youthful idealism without ever sacrificing it to maturity. His characters demonstrate the futility of being driven by obsession, the senselessness of war and violence, the results of ruling with nothing but power and ulterior motives.
Laxness’ retelling has many details which portray how ludicrous the heroes’ actions are, what misfits they are, and how incapable they are of seeing themselves as others perceive them. This telling is heavy with sarcasm. There are light moments too: the crazy Vikings go to fight the French King, and learn some unpalatable news. In order to fight, plunder, and obtain riches they must first bathe, delouse themselves, and—insult to injury--get baptized!
Part of the appeal of the ancient sagas is that they are bare-bones tales: much of the charm is in what isn’t said. As Laxness delves into the sagas to bring forth a modern version, his story lacks the simplicity and the droll, laconic dialog that I have come to love in the “originals.” And, this translation has an awkward, old-fashioned feel to it. But there are always those “Laxness moments”—as when Thordis, Thormod, and the slave have an oblique discussion about a crowing rooster: this is simply masterful writing.
Few authors can match the singular talents of Halldór Laxness. But truly the same can be still be said of Snorri Sturluson and the anonymous saga writers—900 years later.