Saga Land: The island of stories at the edge of the world, Richard Fidler and Kári Gíslason

I have a confession to make: I started this right after Christmas 2017 and only made it a few pages in before getting distracted and laying it aside. I read a few pages here and there over the next couple of months but didn’t commit to it. Until late June 2018 when, to my eternal embarrassment, I had to go back to the beginning so I could make an actual go of reading the whole thing.

While it took me several months to properly get into this book, I was hooked from the first page and remained so until the last. As someone with a fair interest in both history and mythology, the Icelandic Sagas hold a particular (peculiar?) place in my heart, as I imagine they do in many. There is a brutality and a lyricism to the sagas, and the characters and families and feuds they tell of, that is not found in many works in the modern era. Saga Land, I found, is possessed of the frankness and the lyricism of the Sagas, perhaps in part due to Kári’s influence, perhaps due to Richard’s; I suspect that I at least will never work it out.

The quest that Kári undertakes winds its way through almost every page of this book, and I think perhaps it isn’t until the end that both he and we find out that the answers he thought he was seeking didn’t mean as much as the answers he found and the adventures he had along the way. All the same: imagine undertaking a journey that literally takes you around the world in its pursuit, with a friend along for the ride, to find out whether you are a descendant of one of the greatest storytellers and figures in Icelandic, Scandinavian, European literary history? Beyond the journey to find the truth of his ancestry, Saga Land is also about the search for family a little closer to home: this was both difficult and wonderful to read, and I thank Mr. Gíslason for sharing his story as well of those of Iceland.

Richard’s chapters are illustrative of the draw that Iceland can exert on people that spend enough time there; the pull of that  little island to the north of Europe can be seen in the way Richard writes about it, and can be felt through the words your eyes drink in from the page. I hadn’t known before reading this book that it was possible to miss a place to which you had never been, but by the time I closed this book I missed Iceland quite dreadfully. And, Richard, if by chance you ever read this: I can’t for the life of me pronounce any of the words either, and not for lack of trying.

I enjoyed reading every page of this, and must admit to a burning desire to run straight to my local bookshop (or all of them, I wouldn’t be upset if I had to visit a few) for a copy of the Sagas, for a copy of the Prose Edda, or even the Poetic Edda. To know more of the history of Iceland and its people, who were so proud, so brutal, so artistic, so incredible that their stories still ring through the years, embellished thought they may have been.

I thoroughly, thoroughly recommend reading this book.

Categories: Nonfiction Reviews

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