Orkneyinga saga

For the next two weeks, my students at UC Berkeley are reading Orkneyinga saga. One student said yesterday in class discussion, "so far there has just been generation after generation of devious behavior" (they were assigned to read through chapter 20). I laughed and said, "Well, actually, that is how the whole book is." Everyone looked at me in amazement. I told them that they were not reading this for the plot, they were not reading this to find out "who won or who done it". Rather, this saga features repetition with variation; certain circumstances are fixed, others variable, and in each generation, because of the characteristics of the players and the specific circumstances, events unfold in subtly different ways. In this sense, it is like going through different levels of any video game, even Angry Birds. There is always the same set up, but slightly different birds and slightly different arrangement of pigs to shoot.

Then I asked them, "what can we read for, when we are not reading for the plot?" We discussed a lot of ideas, and they got especially interested in two of them: the political system this work describes, in which centralized authority is still very weak and individual responsibility and freedom is very high; and the way the personalities of the characters were described in such precise and revealing details. For instance, King Harald is not described in any other way other than to say that it was well known that he spoke the least about the things that affected him the most. My students seemed to understand the psychology involved in a statement like that.

I hope this helps them delve deeply into Orkneyinga saga, read it slowly and carefully, looking out for details and nuances, and actually enjoying it.


Thank you for introducing me to literature from an area and era I know very little about.

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