Sagafic/sagacraft contest

As those who’ve been hanging out here during my Thief Eyes writing journey know, this book is ultimately a work of Icelandic saga fanfic, inspired by Njal’s Saga, which caught my attention from the very first page, when Hrútur, asked to comment on the beauty of his niece Hallgerður, responds with words to the effect of, “Yes the girl is beautiful, and men enough will suffer for her, but I do not know how the eyes of a thief have come into our family.”

So, with Thief Eyes due out the end of this month, it seemed appropriate to hold a saga-inspired fanfic contest. 🙂

At one point during Thief Eyes, the protagonist, Haley, finds herself trapped in a place where the echoes of Iceland’s sagas and history whisper around her. She hears Hrútur’s words, and she hears whispers out of other Icelandic sagas as well. These are some of the other things she hears:

  • “Three shells in return for my poem.”
  • “I have spun twelve ells of wool. You have killed a man. A fine morning’s work for us both.”
  • “I already must grieve for my brother. Is it not enough for you that I set a bowl of porridge before his killer?”
  • “My father gone, my brother gone, only this price upon my head remains.”
  • “Take me abroad with you, for it is not Iceland that I love.”
  • “Though I loved him best, I treated him worst.”

So here’s the contest:

Using one of the above lines as a prompt, write a fic of up to 1000 words or so. Alternately, write any other word-based thing of up to 1000 words, or create a drawing/art/craft thing if your imaginings run in non-word-based directions.

Your fic (or other creation) need not be based on or related to the sagas, so long as it’s inspired by one of the above prompts–though of course if you have read the sagas, you’re welcome to use them.

If you have a blog, post the results there with a link back to this page, and drop a comment here linking to your blog post in turn. If you don’t have a blog, post the results as a comment here instead. (Facebook and jacketflap users, please come over to the original livejournal post to comment to be sure I don’t miss you.)

Deadline is April 18, midnight of whatever time zone you’re in. Spread the word!

I’ll chose two of my favorites to win a copy of Thief Eyes. (I keep wanting to say here, “The entries I love best will not be treated worst.” :-))

Assuming I have my author copies in hand by then, I’ll do my best to get copies to the winners on or before Thief Eyes’ April 27 release date. If you’ve already received a copy of Thief Eyes, I won’t send you another, but you’re still encouraged to create something for the fun of it.

Have fun! I look forward to seeing what some of these lines that have been echoing through my brain the past few years transform into when they have a chance to echo through yours. 🙂

ETA: The contest is now closed, but I’m leaving the prompts up. Feel free to still play with them–and let me know if you do!

Tattúínárdœla saga

This. Is Awesome: Tattúínárdœla saga: If Star Wars Were an Icelandic Saga.

Víga-Óbívan commends Leia to the care of a local goði and Lúkr to a man whom he believes to be Anakinn’s brother, but who is probably a disguised Óðinn. Déor speaks of the son of “Anacan” as having been raised by “Owen,” which may suggest that this interpretation is correct, but if this is in fact the name of the god, it is unclear why the form should lack the initial glide of Anglo-Saxon (unless this part of the story originated in the Danelaw; for full discussion of this and other problems of the text in Deor see Nashat 2010).


Back in Tattúínárdalr, Paðéma gives birth to twins, Lúkr and Leia, before dying from her grief at having betrayed her husband. One of the most memorable lines in the saga is given to her on her deathbed: Þá mælti Paðéma: “Þeim var ek verst er ek unna mest.” (Then Padmé said: “I was worst to the man that I loved most.”)

And in, just, all matter of other geeky ways.

(Ari? From Thief Eyes? Would love this.)

(Via nolly, who made me very happy with it.)

Saga geekery

So french_teacher pointed me to the proceedings of a conference on the sagas, and in skimming them, I came across this fascinating side note in a paper by one Torfi H. Tulinius, describing Hallgerður and Gunnar’s marriage: Hrútr calls it a “girndarráð” (87: “decision based on lust”) and this seems to be the opinion of the author of the saga.

Having a word for (roughly) “a decision based on lust” strikes me as rather useful.

I dug up the original passage:

Hrútur mælti: “Veit eg að svo mun vera að ykkur er báðum girndarráð. Hættið þið og mestu til hversu fer.”

Lee M. Hollander translates this as: Hrút said: “Yes, I realize that both of you are foolishly in love. To be sure, It is you two who risk the most [if you take such a leap into the dark].

“Foolishly in love” versus “making a decision based on lust.” They’re not unrelated, yet the shadings are very different. (hildigunnur? What’s your take on nearest English meaning?)

Robert Cook goes with something between the two: “I see that you’re both eager for this match, and you’re the ones who take the greatest risk as to how it works out.”

How one translates Hrútur’s statement affects, a little, how one sees Hallgerður and Gunnar’s relationship, of course, which makes this interesting to me. (So does how much one trusts Hrútur, something I’ve been thinking about given that he’s the one who says Hallgerður has the eyes of a thief.) Whether they loved each other, were merely in lust, were in lust and came to love each other, or were in it all for the money and the status is a question I went around with while writing Thief Eyes. (It’s not one I claim to answer at all definitively, given how much else I changed to get to the story I told–based on my own limited knowledge, I think one can argue for all these things.)

Oh, and so of course before posting this I had to go look up Dasent, who already bowdlerizes the entire cause of Hrútur’s marital problems in his translation. Dasent goes with: Hrut says, “I know that you have both set your hearts on this match; and, besides, ye two are those who run the most risk as to how it turns out.”

“Set your hearts on.” Uh huh. Sure.

Does anything depend on it?

One interesting thing about the bowstring incident in Njal’s Saga is how differently men and women tend to react to it:

At this moment Thorbrand Thorleiksson leaped up on the roof and cut through Gunnar’s bow string … By this time Gunnar had wounded eight men and killed two. Then he received two wounds, and everyone said he flinched at neither wounds nor death.

He spoke to Hallgerd: ‘Give me two locks of your hair, and you and your mother twist them into a bowstring for me.’

‘Does anything depend on it?’ she said.

‘My life depends on it,’ he said, ‘for they’ll never be able to get me so long as I can use my bow.’

‘Then I’ll recall,’ she said, ‘the slap you gave me, and I don’t care whether you hold out for a long time or a short time.’

‘Everyone has some mark of distinction,’ said Gunnar, ‘and I won’t ask you again.’

I first noticed in Iceland that when I asked about Hallgerður, men tended to have very quick responses: “She was a bitch.” “She was a bad, bad woman.” Women tended to hesitate, think more, and then say things like, “She was a strong woman.” “Women aren’t like they were in the sagas now.”

When I came home, I noticed similar reactions among American men and women to the story. When I tell it (and one of the hazards of my having written worked on Thief Eyes is that I pretty much will talk about Hallgerður and the sagas to anyone who stands still too long), the men tend to sort of give a low whistle, or take a step back, or say words to the effect of “that’s harsh,” or in some other way express, pretty quickly and instinctively, that same sense that Hallgerður was a bitch.

But from the women I tell this story too? There’s a wider range of reactions, but under them all, I’m beginning to understand that there’s an undercurrent of admiration.

When I tell the story here, I don’t, of course, give the whole chain of events that led to that slap–Hallgerður sounds a little more of a victim when the passage above is given in isolation. But even so, the other day I finally articulated one of the things that makes Hallgerður’s action seem so … I want to say transgressive, though maybe that’s too strong a word. Radical, certainly.

It’s that women are trained, from an early age, not to say no, never to put their needs ahead of others, and to always be available when others need them. So when Hallgerður says no, at the very moment when someone needs her most–it is transgressive. She crosses a line we’re trained, from an early age, not to cross even when far less than someone’s life is at stake. We’re taught not to cross it even when someone’s discomfort is at stake.

I can sort of see Hallgerður’s contemporary counterpart telling her friends over coffee after the battle was long over how she really never wanted to give up her hair, how she really ought to have divorced that bastard Gunnar years ago and now she was stuck with him forever, but given the situation, what choice did she have? And all her friends would sigh with her and offer comfort and reassure her that of course she had no choice. And then they’d go on to complain to each other about men in general, and how there was just nothing to be done about them.

Not Hallgerður. By the time we get to the bowstring incident in Njal’s Saga, I think very few readers would say they like her, exactly. To say she was a difficult woman is an understatement. But when she says no at that moment when she’s most expected to act for others, not herself … it’s horrifying, yes … but it’s also daring, and compelling, and so for many of us there’s that admiration, too.

This is fascinating to me. I think I need to keep thinking about it.

Saga community

So last week, lnhammer and I dropped in on dancinghorse‘s Camp Lipizzan, where sartorias, coraa, metteharrison, rachelmanija, and tcastleb were happily riding and critiquing together for the week. Somehow discussion turned to the sagas, then drifted away to other more fannish things, then drifted back to the sagas. Along the way someone said, hey, wouldn’t it be cool to have a saga fan community? And we all agreed it would.

So feel free to come play over at the new sagafans community. Serious and not-so-serious conversation (as well as fanfic) all encouraged!

Njála neepery

Just stumbled upon this bit of (not uncommon) sentiment about Hallgerður–from the 1922 Literature of the World, by William Lee Richardson, Jesse M. Owen, but expressing a sentiment that can still be found echoed in college papers online today:

It does not surprise us that when Gunnar, her husband, infinitely her superior in every way, is hard beset and seeks her aid, she refuses to lift a finger, but answers in a cold, contemptuous way and calmly sees him die. Very different is that loyal wife of Njal in the same saga. She is offered her freedom, but she elects to be burned to death with her husband. “I was given away to Njal young,” said Bergthora, “and I have promised him this, that we should both share the same fate.”

Referring to Hallgerður’s refusing Gunnar two locks of her hair for his bowstring, of course. Posted mostly because it occurs to me that Hallgerður might have a few sharp words to share about the notion that choosing to quietly burn to death beside your husband makes you a good person (not to mention about the blithe assumption that Gunnar is her superior).

And now I’m thinking that in some alternate history somewhere, Bergþóra does not burn by her husband’s side, but puts all her energy into getting out of her burning house–and into getting her grandson, who chooses to burn with her and Njál, out with her. With bonus points if she goes on to help seek vengeance for her husband and sons’ deaths.

And this is why we need Njála fandom. Because I totally want to read about that Berþóra. 🙂

(ETA: Alternately, maybe Bergþóra tries to get herself and her grandson out, and fails, and only afterwards do men start telling versions of the story in which she chose her death, rather than risked her life …)

Sunday revisions

Continuing my first revision pass through the manuscript of TE, trying to cut some things and make others make more sense. What are you all doing this Sunday afternoon?

As always midway through a revision pass, many things I once liked are making me frown (this will change again as I get toward the end), but this bit is still making me smile:


I missed the weight of his arm on my shoulders, but I didn’t say so. I gripped the flashlight tightly as the tunnels whispered on. “Take me abroad with you, for it is not Iceland that I love, love, love.”

“Of course he didn’t take her with him.” Ari scowled. I couldn’t tell whether he was angry at me or at himself. “He went abroad, and flirted with the pretty Norwegian girls, and so she married his best friend while he was away. And then both men died. A tragedy, just like in Shakespeare.”

… More water dripped in the distance. “What happened to the woman? Did she die, too?”

Ari shook his head … “Nah, she remarried and lived to a ripe old age.”

What kind of a romance was that? A bit of mist drifted past the beam of my light. “Didn’t take her long to get over him, did it?”

“What makes you think she got over him? It’s not that simple.”

But it was simple: either you loved someone or you didn’t. Yet as if to mock me, the air around us whispered, in the same woman’s voice, “Though I loved him best I treated him worst.” Ari laughed, a pained sound.


Dealing, of course, with Laxdæla saga, rather than Njála. But then, many of the sagas are all entwined to some extent, and while Hallgerður gets only a one line mention in Laxdæla, both the men above were her nephews. One wonders, a little, what she made of the next generation’s tragedies. Of course, if I remember my timelines right the tragedies of Njála were still playing out at that point, too, for all that Hallgerður was no longer part of that story.

So via incandragon I found mention of a series of very old-school-looking romances about vikings and navy seals and time travelers. And I thought, this could be the sort of stuff that’s so bad it’s fun, and I began looking them up.

I could just get past the covers, which involved half-naked men draped in furs and half-naked women dressed in bits of flowy silky fabric, in spite of what I know about period clothing. I could get past the plot descriptions themselves. I could almost get past the mention of “hard-bodied warriors.”

It was the mention of “fair maidens” that did me in. (As in, “swept back to an era of hard-bodied warriors and fair maidens.”)

Fair maidens in flowy silky gowns, swooning in the arms of their men. (Thinks of Hallgerður, and Guðrún, and any number of others.)

No one should be allowed to write this stuff without reading the sagas first.

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.

Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða

Right. When unsure what to read next, it’s clearly time for another Icelandic saga. 🙂

This one is Hrafnkels saga FreysgoðaThe Saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi–which gets brought up a lot when reading about the sagas. I can see why–it’s both short and very neatly constructed, a sort of textbook case of how blood feuds work in sagas. (Though for the lawsuits, not so much. We just hear “Sam prosecuted his case to the full extent of the law” and, essentially, won. Which left me going, “Wait! Where are all my twisty obscure legal details? What kind of an AlÞing is this?” But never mind that.)

So anyway, as with saga feuds in general, the story begins with small things: a powerful goði (chieftain) with a horse he’s sworn no one but him will ride; the inevitable man who rides the horse anyway; the kin of the dead men who refuse the settlement the goði offers, find themselves too weak to prosecute a case against him, and so need to get an equally powerful goði from another part of the country on their side instead. They win their case (though we never know exactly how), but treat the loser badly in turn, and so things keep escalating.

And then the saga also becomes an interesting study in how blood feuds can be short-circuited–because the whole reason the saga is short is that, when the winner of the lawsuit’s brother is killed, and he goes to his goði allies seeking support once more, those allies pretty much say nope, sorry, we’ve had enough, have enough life. So the winner of the lawsuit, with that support withdrawn, has no choice but to give up and quietly live out the rest of his life, and so the saga ends.

Though part of me keeps thinking of this as the story of a man who was overly fond of his horse. 🙂

Hrafnkel has one animal in his possession that he valued more than others. It was a dun stallion with a dark mane and tail and a dark stripe down its back, which he named Freyfaxi. He dedicated half of this horse to his friend Frey. He had such love for this stallion that he made an oath to bring about the death of any man who rode it without his position.

I’m still wondering just how one dedicates half a horse to a god. (Don’t gods generally prefer whole horses?) But the part that at once amused and sort of moved me was when the horse, having been ridden without permission, returns home to its master.

The stallion was so soaked in sweat that it was dripping off every hair. He was splattered with mud and terribly exhausted. He rolled over some nine times, and after that gave a great neigh. He then set off down the track at great speed …

When the stallion reached the door he neighed loudly. Hrafnkel told one of the women who was serving at the table she should go out, ‘because a horse neighed, and it sounded to me like the neigh of Freyfaxi.’

She went to the door and saw Freyfaxi in a very dirty state. She told Hrafnkel that Freyfaxi was outside the door, looking thoroughly filthy.

‘What should the champion want that he should have come back home?’ said Hrafnkel. ‘This does not mean anything good.’

He then went outside and saw Freyfaxi and said, ‘I don’t like the way you’ve been treated, my foster-son. But you had your wits about you when you told me of this. It will be avenged. Go to your herd.’

The combination of “my foster-son” and “it will be avenged” make it seem very much as if Hrafnkel–an otherwise difficult man at this point in the saga–were talking not to a horse, but to a beloved kinsman. Which one can read as funny or touching or both, depending.