Njáls saga as a novel: four aspects of rewriting

Njáls saga as a novel: four aspects of rewriting

By Jón Karl Helgason

The Garden of Crossing Paths: The Manipulation and Rewriting of Medieval Texts, edited by M. Buzzoni and M. Bampi (Venezia: Libreria Editrice Cafoscarina, 2005)

Abstract: Inspired by Njáls saga and Laxdæla saga, the novel Fire in the Ice by American novelist Dorothy James Roberts is one of numerous modern rewritings of classical and medieval literature. With her works Roberts joined a diverse group of nineteenth and twentieth century writers who borrowed plots and themes from Iceland’s early literature in their own works. The earlier adaptations were often influenced by the nationalistic and racial concerns of the rewriters, but the tides had changed when Fire in the Ice was published in 1961. By then the sagas were celebrated as remarkable works of art, even as milestones in the history of World Literature. “The best Icelandic Sagas,” writes Roberts in her preface, “approach the finest of modern novels, and are more closely related to them than to the European literature of their time.” With this statement in mind, four important aspects of Roberts’ rewriting are explored.

Introduction: Often she was the worse for ale when she stumbled to bed in the morning watch. Now and then when a man tempted her she gave herself to him, but in this she was careful not to be headlong. […] Within a year she began to look her age. Within two years she was no longer quite slender. Within five she had passed the point at which a season of self-restraint and spare living could recoup the losses her beauty suffered. She had studied her beauty since she was old enough to learn she was female, and she knew the signs of ruin beginning to show themselves, and she grieved. But I am still able to walk past men crowding around a young girl and steal all their eyes, she thought, I am forty and I have yet to meet the woman who can be first when I am in the room.

This passage is not from the unauthorized biography of a withering Hollywood actress, even though the character in question has survived three marwood actress, even though the character in question has survived three marval Icelandic saga heroine Hallgerður Höskuldsdóttir as presented in the second half of the novel Fire in the Ice by Dorothy James Roberts. Hallgerda, as Roberts re-names her, is at that point suffering the ruin of her marriage with Gunnar of Hliðarendi “like a bewildering animal in the murk of her thoughts”. Inspired by two Icelandic Family Sagas (Íslendingasögur), Laxdæla saga and Njáls saga, the novel was published in 1961, when Roberts was fifty-eight and a well-known novelist. The daughter of a West Virginia oil producer, she had done her graduate work in medieval and Arthurian literature, specializing in the legend of Tristan and Isolde, which was the source of her most popular historical novel, The Enchanted Cup, published in 1953.

Click here to read this article from the Università Ca’ Foscari di Venezia

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