Saga Land, by Richard Fidler and Kári Gíslason, gives itself a noble title for a worthy venture. A collation of selected sagas of Iceland, it is also a story of the country itself that fostered and fed this type of tale-telling, and about two friends who adventured together to discover them.
I love the stories around this book as much as the book itself. When Kári released The Promise of Iceland, he was interviewed by Richard on ABC’s Conversations. Afterwards, Richard walked Kári to the lifts, they got to talking, the lift came, and went, and the next one came, and went, and the one after that too. A friendship was struck, and years later this book was born of that.
And also, I’ve travelled to Iceland and fell in love with it, I’ve read Kári’s earlier books, I consume podcasts of Richard’s Conversations with a passion. So when I saw an ad for the book launch of Saga Land in my hometown with a talk and a signed hard copy all thrown in, I jumped at it.
It is a long, weighty tome and beautifully done. The cover is rich, and the book opens and closes with colour plates of images of Iceland. You have to page through images of the haunting, beautiful and odd Icelandic landscape before coming to even a cover page or map of the place. The writers of the chapters alternate between Richard and Kári, finding a natural rhythm, tone and particular preoccupation.
And the story of the book is not just the sagas of Iceland, it’s how they came to be, how they were told, recorded and protected, their influence over the centuries, as well as the story of two friends travelling, one learning about Iceland for the first time and the other returning home, and examining the mystery of Kári’s Icelandic ancestry. I feel like a balance is struck between types of story and pace. Despite being over 400 pages, alternating between all these different narratives creates a sense of compulsion.
I also feel like it is pitched at an appropriate level: despite being familiar with Kári’s story, and Iceland, and some of the sagas, this book feels like friends welcoming you in, maybe giving you a gentle lesson or reminder, and then holding your attention with a stark, classic story. Perhaps it helps having been at the book launch: both Kári and Richard each read a chapter, Kári a saga and Richard a more modern ghost story, lending their particular tones to my inner voice while reading.
Saga Land was a fascinating and enjoyable read, and the book itself is a delight to hold and have. It is just such a wonderful coming together of so many different types of stories over the centuries, well-balanced, and warm.