Wayward heroes


They came from over the North Sea, and took whatever they could get, and taxed us mercilessly for a long time after. But the noble English fought back, swords gleaming, until the dastardly invaders fled back to Europe from whence they came. Except it wasn’t really like that. Not last Wednesday, and not in this book, either:


Halldór Laxness’ Wayward Heroes are Vikings. It is about time we heard things from their point of view in English, but Laxness does not paint them in a very flattering light. Philip Roughton’s award-winning translation of his book is my first foray into Icelandic literature, and it turns the sagas of the Vikings upside down. In more ways than one – these characters are far more wayward than heroes. The women seem rather more noble and powerful than the men:


But even they get their new lovers to kill their old ones. This is a violent world, and Laxness does not flinch from the violence, but neither does he extol it. He clearly loves the old tales and knows them inside out, but he makes his reader question how glorious those days really were.


Laxness was awarded the literature Nobel for his work in 1952, including this very reworking of the Viking sagas, which must have read very differently in a Cold War context. After 65 years, the wait to read this book in English is finally over.

The image of King Cnut and Edmund Ironside locked in battle is from Bob Jones’ rather splendid blog post about Viking raids on Anglo-Saxon London.

Translator, editor, writer, reader

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Posted in books, history, translation
5 comments on “Wayward heroes
  1. tomdawkes says:


    If you like detective novels, try Arnaldur Indriðason’s series about the Reykjavík detective
    Erlendur Sveinsson. Several of these have been translated into English and there are numerous entries at https://kansalliskirjasto.finna.fi/Search/Results?limit=0&lookfor=Indriðason&type=AllFields&filter%5B%5D=author_facet%3A%22Arnaldur+Indriðason%22 for Finnish and other language versions.

    Best wishes

    Tom Dawkes

  2. janeishly says:

    The concept is interesting, but writing in the present tense always makes me uneasy when it’s extended over a book length work!

  3. […] translated by Meg Matich, draws on the bold tradition of the sagas, but, like his compatriot Laxness, brings them right up to date. Black Sea is in memory of fellow poet Jónas Þorbjarnarson, who […]

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