Recommendation: It’s lovely but not a must-read and I think you could get a better appreciation of the sagas elsewhere
Where to read: I don’ goofed and borrowed this in mid-summer – bad idea, read it in winter
Read with: Mead and Island Songs
In brief: Part travelogue, part retelling and part cultural exploration, it’s an exploration of Iceland, friendship, belonging and family.
While a lot of my reading choices are fairly undirected and whimsical, there are occasions where a clear theme emerges in my selections. Last year it was the Middle East and Israel, largely because I was frustrated by my own ignorance of the topic. Lately, it seems my wandering fancies have turned to the far north. Perhaps the Australian summer just has me fantasising about the Northern Lights and hygge.
Saga Land is, from what I can tell, the companion book to a radio series Fidler and Gíslason recorded while travelling around Iceland together but you wouldn’t necessarily notice – there’s not really a sense that you’re missing essential context by not having the radio show. It’s also a very easy read. Clocking in at almost 500 pages, admittedly of generously spaced and sized font, it feels more like 350.
My quibble is that Saga Land is telling two stories, both of which would be better told in stand-alone volumes. The first is a fascinating personal story and a beautiful set of vignettes and anecdotes of contemporary Iceland. The second is a collection of the Icelandic sagas retold and contextualised. As it stands, the latter feels very undone. This may be because my introduction to the sagas was the Völsunga Saga and the Nibelungenlied (German, I know) and this is more about the smaller scale family sagas. The problem is that the ones they do include are so well told you end up wishing Gíslason could tell them all.
What does come across clearly and compellingly is their deep affection for Iceland, in all its beauty and extremes, its community and its parochialism and its history. If you want something easy and faintly nostalgic, this might just be the book for you.
PS. At $40 in hardback, it’s not worth buying and lugging it about would be a straight up pain in the backside – I would definitely advise borrowing this one from a local library or getting the ebook (and I never say that).