Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 15, 2020

Saga Land (2017), by Richard Fidler and Kári Gíslason

Saga Land was just what I needed after the unedifying experience of reading Burnt Sugar.  It’s a travel book of sorts: a memoir of time spent in Iceland, where ABC radio presenter Richard Fidler went to make a program about Icelandic sagas, with his friend, university academic Kári Gíslason.  There are retellings of some of the most famous sagas, and it’s also about a search for identity because Gíslason had some personal issues to sort out.

The book was written collaboratively, chapters alternating between the two authors.  The style is relaxed and intimate, much like Fidler’s very popular program Conversations.  And although it’s published as a paperback not a coffee table book, there are colour plates which illustrate (for those of us who’ve never been to Iceland) the landscape through which they travelled.

The sagas are very bloodthirsty, more so (as you might expect)  than in Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Norsemen — a children’s book which is an amalgam of myths from Scandinavia, including the prose tales of Snorri in the books known as The Prose Edda which feature in Saga Land.  I read this with The Offspring when he was about ten, and I also tried reading them to my senior classes but they were not a success in the way that Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes were.

What is interesting about Saga Land is Fidler’s reaction to the culture of vengeance, and Gíslason’s expertise in placing these tales in context.  Viking society, despite recent scholarship to redress its reputation, was violent and much given to settling old scores that persist from generation to generation.  And although the authors make it clear that the sagas are family stories, based on real life, it all seems so long ago that the grisly bits don’t have the same impact as they might in contemporary stories about serial killers.  The inclusion of tales of magic and sorcery lends itself to the comforting notion that perhaps these acts of violence have been exaggerated over the centuries.

It’s also nice to read about a warm male friendship based on common interests, and about the satisfying conclusion to Gíslason’s quest to have his Icelandic birth acknowledged and properly registered.

Authors: Richard Fidler and Kári Gíslason
Title: Saga Land, The island of stories at the edge of the world
Cover design and illustration by Evi Oetomo and Daniel New, Oetomo Studio
Publisher: ABC Books (Harper Collins), 2018, first published 2017
ISBN: 9780733339707, pbk., 447 pages including index and acknowledgements
Source: Personal library, $29.99


  1. I heard Fidler talk about this in the Seymour Biography Lecture back in 2018. He was really interesting because he talked about this (which contains mini-biographies but as you say with an interesting relationship to reality) and about Conversations which are also biographies of sorts. He also talked about the differenced between print and radio, suggesting that radio needs to be more linear while print can go off on tangents more easily.

    I was really interested in what he had to say, but I don’t really think sagas like this are my thing.


    • If there had been more sagas and less memoir I wouldn’t have bothered…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha, Lisa, for me the opposite. I don’t seek memoirs per se, but in books like this I really enjoy memoir elements.


  2. Sounds like a wonderful alternative to bad fiction. I’m definitely very drawn to non-fiction at the moment!


  3. I’ve only recently read Beowulf. One saga will probably do me for the moment (not that I retained a lot, even as it was going along).


    • That’s interesting… what made you choose that one? I used to read the children’s version of Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo to my Year 5 &6 students (to discuss the ethics of vengeance and the initial reaction to The Other) but then I found the Seamus Heaney illustrated version of it. It was fantastic and I used both books in class so that I could show the kids the artefacts from the era. The boys liked the weapons best, of course…


      • Because it was there. In the library’s audiobook collection

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I really liked this book.


    • So did I… but it didn’t make me want to visit Iceland!


      • I’d love to visit Iceland – if only it weren’t so COLD! The landscape looks amazing BUT 12°C or so in summer? No way!!


  5. […] National.  He seemed to revel in telling some bloodthirsty tales (a feature I’d noted in his Saga Land) and there was a sense of anti-climax each time he told some anecdote and then concluded by saying […]


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