Things the sagas taught me …

… don’t steal a horse unless you’re a really good poet. Good poetry is the only thing that will keep it from going badly for you if the owner finds you.

Am reading the Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue (Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu) and enjoying it more than Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi.

Interesting to watch how I feel about the extensive genealogies that often proceed the introduction of new characters change as I keep reading. At first it was: “Okay, another genealogy, skim skim skim skim skim.” Then, later: “Ah, a long list of names, I’ll just settle on into the saga as I read them, and hey, some of these names are kind of amusing, too.” But more and more it’s becoming, “Oh, hey, I know these people,” with the sense that I can immediately place this saga in the context of other sagas I’ve read, because the scene has been properly set. Which must be closer to how the original audience for the sagas heard them, and part of why those genealogies were there in the first place.

I also love the way the sagas sometimes break the folklore tropes I think I know from other traditions.

Early on in this saga, Þorsteinn tells his wife, Jofrid, that if she gives birth to a daughter, the child must be set out to die, because he’s hoping to avoid the consequences of a dream about men dying on account of that daughter. His wife instead tells her shepherd to take the child away.

Uh, oh, I think. I’ve heard this story. This is the start of some Greek tragedy. It’s the start of any number of tragedies.

So the shepherd brings the child to Þorsteinn’s sister Þorgerður, who has it raised by some of her tenants.

Time passes.

A long time, I think, right? Like just long enough for the child to become an adult and cause trouble, right? I know this story.

Well, no, actually only six years. At which point Þorgerður says to Þorsteinn when he’s visiting one day, See that girl over there?

Yeah, Þorsteinn says, Your daughter has clearly inherited our family’s good looks.

Your daughter, actually, Þorgerður tells him.

Wait, I think, you’re going to have all the tragedy kick in when the girl is only six? That’s harsh.

Huh, Þorsteinn says (more or less). Guess you and my wife have pulled one over on me. Well, what happens will happen. I’ll just take my daughter home with me, then. What did you say her name was again?

Wait, what?

(Sound of folklore trope shattering.)

I’m sure there’ll still be tragedy–we still have Þorsteinn’s prophetic dream to contend with. But it will have nothing at all to do with Þorsteinn’s attempt to kill the child, which everyone quickly forgets.

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