Wayward Heroes


Translated from by

Published: November 1, 2016





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Book Description

First published in 1952, Halldór Laxness’s Wayward Heroes offers an unlikely representation of modern literature. A reworking of medieval Icelandic sagas, the novel is set against the backdrop of the medieval Norse world, complete with Viking raids, battles enshrined in skaldic lays, saints’ cults, clashes between secular and spiritual authorities, journeys to faraway lands and abodes of trolls, and legitimate claimants versus pretenders to thrones. Laxness exploits such medieval tropes to criticize the global militarism and belligerent national posturing rampant in the postwar buildup to the Cold War. He satirizes the spirit of the old sagas, especially through the novel’s main characters, the sworn brothers Þormóður Bessason and Þorgeir Hávarsson, warriors who blindly pursue ideals that lead to the imposition of power through violent means. The two see the world around them only through a veil of heroic illusion: kings are fit either to be praised in poetry or toppled from their thrones, other men only to kill or be killed, women only to be mythic fantasies. Replete with irony, absurdity, and pathos, the novel more than anything takes on the character of tragedy, as the sworn brothers’s quest to live out their ideals inevitably leaves them empty-handed and ruined.


Archipelago Books thanks the Carl Lesnor Family Foundation for their generous support of this title.

A welcome, major contribution to modern Nordic literature in translation and a pleasure to read.

Kirkus, Starred Review

Brilliant, bleak, uproariously funny, and still alarmingly prescient, Wayward Heroes belongs in the pantheon of the antiwar novel alongside such touchstones as Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22....

Wayward Heroes, with its despotic kings, hypocrite Christians, and bloodthirsty mercenaries, is not merely a medieval epic ... but a trenchant critique of that timeless avaricious urge we have grown regrettably accustomed to calling 'market forces.' ... Laxness looked from the ancient literature of his homeland to the novelties and cataclysms of the modern world around him, only to discover how little had changes in a thousand years.

Justin Taylor, Harper's Magazine

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.

Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

Laxness is a beacon in twentieth-century literature, a writer of splendid originality, wit, and feeling.

Alice Munro

Laxness brought the Icelandic novel out from the sagas' shadow…to read Laxness is also to understand why he haunts Iceland—he writes the unearthly prose of a poet cased in the perfection of a shell of plot, wit, and clarity.

The Guardian

Taken in context of the twentieth century, Wayward Heroes, published three years before [Laxness] won the Nobel, becomes an allegory of US–Soviet relations during a Cold War that was then at its zenith...That the allegory comes through is a remarkable feat of both authorship and translation. Wayward Heroes brims with foreign names, Icelandic glyphs, and esoteric references that might otherwise distance readers from the story, but Roughton doesn’t allow any of it to get in the way: The beauty of Laxness’ gray, severe novel is rendered into the breed of elegant English that one might find in translations of The Iliad or Beowulf. It’s this excellent translation that allows Wayward Heroes to find relevance with contemporary readers and ring true — politically and socially — as it did in 1955 and medieval Iceland. The naivety of youthful arrogance, the irredeemable quest for glory through bloodshed and senseless violence, the power games of relationships, are all a testament to the magic and sadness of Laxness’ storytelling abilities.

Taylor Kang, The Culture Trip

The qualities of the sagas pervade his writing, and particularly a kind of humor – oblique, stylized and childlike – that can be found in no other contemporary writer.

The Atlantic Monthly

Laxness habitually combines the magical and the mundane, writing with grace and a quiet humor that takes awhile to notice but, once detected, feels ever present…[A]ll his narratives…have a strange and mesmerizing power, moving almost imperceptibly at first, then with glacial force.

Richard Rayner, LA Times

Yet the delicacy crafting so much of the telling of this conflated and overlapping saga-pair testifies to the admiration the experimental author possessed, in his maturity, for the images and the vocabulary he sought to transform from a rural and hidebound form of expression into a living language for today’s ideas, places, and politics. While he removed any word not traceable to the 11th century, this novel speaks to us today. Wayward Heroes, for all its tangled itinerary, endures in this long-awaited translation as a cautionary tale for all who flock around despots or who applaud the cries of die-hards.

John L. Murphy Pop Matters

One quality that makes Laxness’s novels so morally uplifting is their air of tender but urgent gratitude. While his tone can vary widely from book to book…the reader consistently feels that the books are conceived in a spirit of homage; they are some of the world’s most substantial thank-you notes.

Brad Leithauser, The New York Review of Books

One of the world’s most unusual, skilled and visionary novelists.

Jane Smiley

This translation completely supersedes the Katherine John translation from the Danish...Roughton also chose to preserve the literary device of changing from past to present tense at dramatic events—a device found in the sagas—that Laxness had featured but was lost in the John translation. It gives the narrative an added dimension, as if it was being delivered orally (as the Sagas were originally presented) rather than as a dispassionate history. While reading it in the new translation, I also got a better sense of the sarcastic veneer that Laxness gave to the story...Roughton also supplies the reader with helpful end-notes about some of the more obscure points in the story.

Laxness in Translation

Laxness is a poet who writes at the edge of the pages, a visionary who allows us a plot: He takes a Tolstoyan overview, he weaves in a Waugh-like humor: it is not possible to be unimpressed.

Daily Telegraph

Enduring... no matter which decade you happen to be reading in.

Bits & Books

The novel’s timeless themes – the egotistical cruelty inherent in so-called heroic ideals, the dangers of violent, unloving masculinity, and the willingness of Church and Establishment to make cynical use of such “wayward heroes”, are still worth reiterating... [in] Philip Roughton’s accomplished translation.

Carolyne Larrington, The Times Literary Supplement

An impressive translation of eleventh-century diction steeped with kennings, Wayward Heroes is a journey in its own right.

K.T. Billey, Harvard Review

Excellent translation by Philip Houghton of Halldor Laxness' epic. This retells two sagas and related tales from medieval Iceland in a revisionist and dour manner that fits into this author's long career of taking down various idols. Appearing perhaps as he began, finally, to doubt his Stalinism, it embeds critiques of blind loyalty to vicious deeds and murderous exploits. The Catholic Church and the feudal codes get the brunt of the attack, but its ideological resonance suits the last century well for him and his audience. That will expand with this long-awaited edition, and for all its doom-laden pages, it demands thought and attention. Gloomy like its landscape, but a corrective to certain "Vikings" pop-culture representations recently widely praised. One of Laxness' best novels.

New York Journal of Books

Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955. Read Laxness’ speech at the Nobel Banquet from the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1955.

The New York Review of Books published an article on him, entitled “Laxness the Great.”

NPR discusses Laxness’ novel, Independent People.

The Halldór Laxness Museum website.

Laxness In Translation blog.

Halldór Laxness’ The Happy Warriors is included in The Guardian’s list of the top 10 modern medieval tales.

Read an excerpt of Wayward Heroes over at Asymptote.

Download the reading guide for Wayward Heroes.

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