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So why should a peerage genealogist be interested in the Orkneys? Because Turf-Einar, created first earl ("jarl," actually) by Harald Fairhair, was a brother of Hrolf the Ganger, first "duke" of Normandy, both being sons of Rognvald, jarl of More. Various of the Orkney earls also were related by blood or marriage to the rulers of Norway and Denmark and to the Scottish earls of Moray. Because the saga was originally an oral history, it deals in varicolored language and vivid detail and powerful oration -- most of which the translators have managed to preserve in their prose rendition.
If you have any interest at all in the northern lands and in the heroic deeds and blood feuds of an earlier, less gentle time, this volume will hold your attention (but don't forget to take notes).
The saga tells of a 200-year stretch of time when the Orkneys -- islands off the northern tip of Scotland -- owed their allegiance to the Kings of Norway. For the Viking marauders who ravaged Europe, the Orkneys were a friendly refueling stop on the inbound and outbound voyages. The earls ruled not only the islands, but large chunks of the Scottish mainland and most of the Hebrides as well. So widespread were their lands that they were frequently forced into power-sharing arrangements with their kinsmen, which then turned into power struggles to the death. The best instance of this is between the co-earls and cousins (Saint) Magnus Erlendsson and Hakon Paulsson.
It was common in those days, if one had a disagreement, to wait until one's enemy was in his cups; then pile dry rushes against the doors and set them alight. Men, women, and children escaping the flames were hacked to death by waiting swordsmen. This happened not once, but several times in the ORKNEYINGA SAGA. And yet, there is also poetry, craft, and a strange beauty in this book which make it more than a Grand Guignol with Vikings. Here, on the bleak northern edges of civilization, the novel was born while our Western European ancestors were quaking in their boots.
At first, reading an Icelandic saga is like reading a Russian novel: There are all those long names that are so similar to one another. The anonymous author of the sagas couldn't help it: These were their real names.
Today, the men and deeds set forth in the saga are very much a part of the everyday life of the Orkneys. It is, therefore, the one book that you must absolutely read before visiting this remote and fascinating part of Scotland.
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