The Happy Warriors, by Halldor Laxness. Translated by Katherine John. London: Methuen, 1958. 287 pgs.
Yes, tonight’s post features another book review challenge with Professor Batty.
I was eager to read The Happy Warriors for a number of reasons. It is one of the few English translations of Laxness that I had not yet read. Published in 1952, it was part of the body of literature for which Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. And the fact that it covers some of the same ground as several saga stories (Saga of the Sworn Brothers, Saga of Saint Olaf) made me anticipate it even more. Copies are few and hard to come by (and are far too expensive), so I was pleased to receive my copy via interlibrary loan. Thank you, Vanderbilt University Library.
Contrary to its name, Happy Warriors is a dark tragicomedy. At a very young age our first hero, Thorgeir, witnesses the murder of his father and vows to avenge him. Using the old warrior stories as his instruction guide, Thorgeir fashions some crude armor and weapons from materials at hand, and sets off to fulfill his destiny.
We next meet Thormod, a skald, or poet who—also at a very young age—is seduced by an old witch in retaliation for a poem he wrote about her. Thormod encounters Thorgeir, and is impressed by his singular warrior attire. As he comes to know him he is likewise impressed by Thorgeir’s single-mindedness and determination, while Thorgeir is impressed by Thormod’s gift with words. Thormod vows to compose a lay, or heroic poem, about Thorgeir once he commits a great deed. The two become “sworn brothers,” or perhaps alter-egos.
In typical saga fashion, our heroes/antiheroes fight, lust, seek revenge, compose lays, go raiding for treasure, seduce women, seek kings to fight for, and write more lays. Thorgeir and Thormod pass much of their lives apart, but their destinies are intertwined. After lots of bloody action, the psychological drama heats up when Thorgeir is killed, and his head is returned to Thormod.
After many adventures, Thormod had found an idyllic life with a loving wife and daughter. The most affecting part of the story is when Thormod’s wife, Thordis, comes to realize that he will never again be content until he has avenged Thorgeir’s death, and has immortalized him in a poem. She knows that he loves her too much to leave her. “I am so burdened with Thormod’s grief that I would give all to release him from me,” says Thordis. She sacrifices herself by committing adultery with their slave, so that Thormod will be free. And, after months of talking with Thorgeir’s salted head, Thormod sets out on his journey, leaving his life, happiness, and sanity behind him. He must search for the king worthy to bestow his heroic lay upon: the lay written to honor Thorgeir.
Laxness does some very interesting things with this story. He shows the consequences of pursuing youthful idealism without ever sacrificing it to maturity. His characters demonstrate the futility of being driven by obsession, the senselessness of war and violence, the results of ruling with nothing but power and ulterior motives.
Laxness’ retelling has many details which portray how ludicrous the heroes’ actions are, what misfits they are, and how incapable they are of seeing themselves as others perceive them. This telling is heavy with sarcasm. There are light moments too: the crazy Vikings go to fight the French King, and learn some unpalatable news. In order to fight, plunder, and obtain riches they must first bathe, delouse themselves, and—insult to injury--get baptized!
Part of the appeal of the ancient sagas is that they are bare-bones tales: much of the charm is in what isn’t said. As Laxness delves into the sagas to bring forth a modern version, his story lacks the simplicity and the droll, laconic dialog that I have come to love in the “originals.” And, this translation has an awkward, old fashioned feel to it. But there are always those “Laxness moments”--as when Thordis, Thormod, and the slave have an oblique discussion about a crowing rooster: this is simply masterful writing.
Few authors can match the singular talents of Halldor Laxness. But truly the same can be still be said of Snorri Sturluson and the anonymous saga writers—900 years later.
Let’s see what Batty has to say about this, shall we? And, check out my revised Laxness personal ranking.