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Book Review – ‘Wayward Heroes’

waywardheroes2Title: Wayward Heroes
Author: Halldór Laxness (translated by Phillip Roughton)
Genre: Fiction (literary)
Release date: 1st November, 2016
Rating: ★★★★

This reworking of Iceland’s ancient tales, set against a backdrop of the medieval Norse world, complete with Viking raids, battles enshrined in skaldic lays, saints’ cults, clashes between secular and spiritual authorities, journeys to faraway lands and abodes of trolls, legitimate claimants and pretenders to thrones, was written during the post-WWII buildup to the Cold War, and Laxness uses it as a vehicle for a critique of global militarism and belligerent national posturing that was as rampant then as now. This he does purposefully, though indirectly, by satirizing the spirit of the old sagas, represented especially in the novel’s main characters, the sworn brothers Þormóður Bessason and Þorgeir Hávarsson, warriors who blindly pursue ideals that lead to the imposition of power through violent means.
The two see the world around them only through a veil of heroic illusion covering their eyes: kings are fit either to be praised in poetry or toppled from their thrones, other men only to kill or be killed by, while women are more mythic than real— they are the shieldmaidens of old lore, wearing swan dress and “fixing men’s fates.” Replete with irony, absurdity, and pathos, the novel takes on more of a character of tragedy than anything else, as the sworn brothers’ quest to live out their ideals inevitably leaves them empty-handed and ruined.”
(Archipelago Books)

Wayward Heroes by Halldór Laxness is part of the body of work for which Laxness was awarded the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature (coincidentally, I started reading this book on the day the most recent recipient of this award was announced, but I won’t go into detail about my opinion on that). I had a much more enjoyable time reading this than I had anticipated, and found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. My initial feelings were that this would be a good book to read, but not necessarily fun. In the end I was correct on the former and completely wrong on the latter.

Þorgeir and Þormóður (the “Þ” in their names is, I believe, pronounced like the “Th” of Thor) are the titular wayward heroes. They are born at a time when Icelandic men are moving away from the tradition of marauding and pillaging for riches, and are instead amassing riches through more peaceable means. Having been raised on stories of blood and glory, and being convinced that the attaining of glory through blood is the manly thing to do, the idea of peace is not exactly to the taste of Þorgeir:

A little farther down the road they found a farmstead, where no one was stirring yet. […] Þorgeir went to one of the windows and shouted that there were visitors outside, and that those inside were to open the door. A woman asked who went there.
“Champions and warriors,” said Þorgeir.
“So you are not men of peace?” asked the woman.
“I hope that we will never commit such a howling offense as to sue for peace with others, said Þorgeir.

Þorgeir’s tendency to become affronted at the slightest things, or to take offense for no reason was particularly funny to me. He seemed to be at the extreme end of the stereotypical Viking scale: quick to anger, not wanting to admit weakness, and would literally prefer to plunge off a cliff than ask for help.

… if Þorgeir had called out even a little loudly, Þormóður could easily have heard him. Yet on this, the old books all tell the same story: nothing could have been further from Þorgeir’s mind at that moment, hanging as he was from the cliff, than to call his sworn brother’s name only to beg him for help.

Þormóður brought a more fantastical element to the novel, as he comes into contact with Fates (or the Nordic iteration of them anyway) and trolls, has encounters with Valkyries and witches, and just generally lives a much dreamier sort of life. Of the two I probably preferred Þorgeir, but that’s mostly because he made me laugh with his ridiculousness.

It was this ridiculousness and the deadpan humour throughout that was probably my favourite thing about Wayward Heroes. I wasn’t necessarily expecting it and it gave levity to a book that I think would have been lacking without it.

Although some books state that the Norsemen had axes so sharp that they could cleave men from head to toe, the way wooden rafters are split, or cut men’s heads off and slice their limbs off their bodies without needing a chopping-block, or halve a fleeing enemy with one blow, making him fall to the ground in two parts, we believe all this to have been dreamed up by people who actually wielded blunt weapons.

I found the historical aspect of the novel very interesting. Not being overly knowledgeable on the history of Iceland and Scandinavia, I can’t really comment on it in terms of how accurately it was portrayed, or how it fits in with Laxness’s commentary on the world at the time in which he was writing, but it’s whet my appetite for more historical fiction set in that part of the world, and probably some non-fiction too.

Although the allegorical aspect of the novel might be beyond me, I can safely say that in the centuries between now and when Wayward Heroes is set, politics hasn’t become any more sensible, particularly if the current political climate is anything to go by. Laxness’s work is definitely that of the enduring sort that is relevant no matter which decade you happen to be reading in. But does this speak highly of the reach of his work, or show the lack of change in humanity? I’d like to think it’s the former, but perhaps it’s a little of both.

My only issue with the book is that coming in at 500 pages, it started to feel a little long towards the end and my interest began to wane in the parts that were more about politics and less about the two sworn brothers. I can understand why these things were included, but with so many kings/wannabe kings to keep track of, it got to be a bit of a struggle. It’s definitely one of those books that would benefit from a slow reading – maybe a couple of chapters a week rather than trying to get it all out of the way in as short a period of time as possible, which is perhaps where I went wrong with it. I’d definitely reread it, but I’d take my time with it.

I should warn you that there are lots of place names in the book that are in Icelandic; I felt like I stumbled over these a bit  in the early stages of the novel and I found them distracting and a bit jarring to read, but I became used to it in the end and I actually came to enjoy reading these wonderful place names, such as “Hrafnsfjörður” and “Sviðinsstaðir”.

Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize “for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland” (nobelprize.org). After reading Wayward Heroes I have to say that I 100% agree with the phrase “vivid epic power” and I’ll definitely be looking for more of his work.

Many thanks to Archipelago Books and NetGalley for providing me with a review copy.

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