Borges And The Vikings

In the few succinct pages of ‘The Scandinavian Destiny’, Borges’ makes much of the brevity and realism of Icelandic sagas, concluding, “In the twelfth century, the Icelanders discovered the novel–the art of Flaubert, the Norman–and this discovery is as secret and sterile, for the economy of the world, as their discovery of America.” In the Eyrbyggja Saga, among the name listings and place namings in the early chapters, some fine examples of ‘brevity and realism’ stand out:

“He came out to Iceland some years after his mother and spent his first winter there with her. Thorolf thought the land which his mother had taken not nearly extensive enough, so he challenged Ulfar the Champion to single combat for the land he owned, Ulfar being old and childless. Ulfar chose to die rather than let himself be bullied by Thorolf, and they fought a duel at Alftafjord. Ulfar was killed and Thorolf wounded in the leg, so he walked with a limp for the rest of his life and got the nickname Twist-Foot. Thorolf took over the land that had belonged to Ulfar and set up house at Hvamm in Thorsardale. He was a very harsh man.”

Such is law in the young colony. That last line is a masterstroke of understatement. What more need be said to establish what sort of a man is Twist-Foot? Here’s another:

“That same autumn Thorstein went to Hoskuld Island to fetch provisions. One evening in the autumn as Thorstein’s shepherd was tending sheep north of Helga Fell, he saw the whole north side of the mountain opened up, with great fires burning inside it and the noise of feasting and clamour over the ale-horns. As he strained to catch particular words, he was able to make out that Thorstein Cod-Biter and his crew were being welcomed into the mountain, and that Thorstein was being invited to sit in the place of honour opposite his father.

“That evening the shepherd told Thorstein’s wife Thora about this apparition. She was deeply disturbed by it and said it could be a foreboding of something very sinister. In the morning some men brought news from Hoskuld Island that Thorstein Cod-Biter had been drowned on a fishing trip. People thought it a bitter loss.

“Thora kept the farm and took on an overseer called Hallvard to help her to run it. She had a son by him, called Mar.”

Where was Hallvard when Cod-biter drowned? Who put him up to it? Enough has been said so that the questions need not even be written. That is the fine art of brevity we find in the modern realism that Borges speaks of. It’s the simple but difficult technique of telling without explaining that is the art of the Story.

What of Borges’ argument that Scandinavians travelled and colonised extraordinarily far and wide (Russia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, France, North Africa, America) but left barely a trace of themselves on the world’s history and culture? The English have long been a mongrel people. A melting pot of Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings and French. This is amply reflected in their magnificently flexible, illogical, ambiguous, idiomatic, badly spelt and ever changing language, not only including words from each of the languages of those peoples, but including multiple words and phrases for saying the same thing. Consider how English speak of animals and meat. The conquering Normans overlaid French words on Anglo-Saxon, but even then the result is not according to a consistent rule: cow becomes beef, sheep becomes either lamb or mutton (one to two), while chicken remains chicken. English speakers find Chinese difficult but it is only because its tones and consonants don’t exist in English, and because of the different writing system. Chinese is much much easier grammatically. All meats, for example, are simply the same word as the animal with the word for meat added to the end: cow-meat, sheep-meat, chicken-meat, etc. With the British empire having had the broadest extent of any empire in history it includes words and expressions from every corner of the globe. Although not entirely conquered, much of England was once a Viking colony, and it was soon after conquered by the descendants of another Viking colony, the Normans. In this sense, at least in part, the Vikings eventually colonised North America, and finally, after a thousand years, colonised the other side of the world, Australia. (In Argentina Borges’s father was half English and they spoke English in the home.) It’s hard not to see something of the tone of the Icelandic sagas in Australia’s frontier wars. Australia has had many waves of immigration since the British one, such that it’s becoming less a British colony and more a colony of the world. Despite the increasing diversity of cultural influences on English, and in Australia, over thousands and hundreds of years, if you go out to a Newcastle pub on Friday night, on either side of the world, you’ll still run into Thorolf Twistfoot.

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