Published in 1952, Halldór Laxness’s Wayward Heroes can safely be said to be quite unlike any other work of modern literature. It is based on medieval Icelandic sagas—primarily the Saga of the Fosterbrothers and Snorri Sturluson’s treatment of the Norwegian saint-king Olaf Haraldsson— and is written in the style and language of those sagas. This reworking of Iceland’s ancient tales, set against a 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, legitimate claimants and pretenders to thrones, was written during the post-WWII buildup to the Cold War, and Laxness uses it as a vehicle for a critique of global militarism and belligerent national posturing that was as rampant then as now. This he does purposefully, though indirectly, by satirizing the spirit of the old sagas, represented especially in 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 covering their eyes: kings are fit either to be praised in poetry or toppled from their thrones, other men only to kill or be killed by, while women are more mythic than real— they are the shieldmaidens of old lore, wearing swan dress and “fixing men’s fates.” Replete with irony, absurdity, and pathos, the novel takes on more of a character of tragedy than anything else, as the sworn brothers’ 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.