cover image Wayward Heroes

Wayward Heroes

Halldor Laxness, trans. from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton. Archipelago, $20 trade paper (472p) ISBN 978-0-914671-09-1

Two sworn brothers wage a quixotic battle against their time and place in Nobel-winner Laxness’s rich, impressive novel. The time is roughly 1,000 years ago, the place is Iceland, and the brothers are Porgeir Hávarsson, whose father is murdered in a neighborly spat, and Pormóður Bessason, a gifted young poet, or skald, bound to serve an older widow named Kolbrún. Raised on “tales of the prowess of champions of yore,” Porgeir intends to become a hero himself. Soon after he meets Pormóður, who only wants to write lyrical narrative poems in praise of such men, the two go “freeloading” throughout the district of Vestfirdir, “calling particularly... on better-off farmers holding feasts,” beating up Christian clerics, and avenging the death of Porgeir’s father. But this boisterous idyll must end; Kolbrún intends to exercise her hold on Pormóður, despite his love for a wealthy farmer’s daughter, while Porgeir joins a Viking band of mercenaries, going on campaigns in England and France. Drawing on historical events, including King Olaf’s reign in Norway and the burning of Chartres Cathedral, Laxness revises and renews the bloody sagas of Icelandic tradition, producing not just a spectacular historical novel but one of coal-dark humor and psychological depth. The old-fashioned violence Porgeir and Pormóður admire is rendered in all its futility and cruelty, and readers will find that these honorable but deluded heroes become objects of pity. (Nov.)