H. Rider Haggard — best known for his adventure tales set in Africa, like King Solomon’s Mines and She — wrote one of, if not the first, modern English sagas in the Icelandic model. (William Morris’ House of the Wolfings was published at about the same time, from I’ve read so far it also models itself on the Icelandic saga, though it is set in earlier times.)
Haggard wrote this shortly after a visit to Iceland, and he did his best to incorporate the best of the sagas — poetic descriptions of landscapes, seascapes, and battle, clever word-play and dialogue, and above all the muscular paganism of the Viking world — while leaving out the most tedious part (long catalogs of lineages and digressions about minor characters). So this is a lot more accessible than similar works like E.R. Eddison’s Styrbiorn the strong or Poul Anderson’s Hrolf Kraki’s saga — both of which are excellent in their ways and worth reading too!
Haggard’s hero is a fairly typical type of saga hero: brave and honorable, strong and handsome, and doomed by tragic character flaws and choices. The story has a fairly simple set-up: two half-sisters both love the hero, and his choice between them causes the scorned sister to wreak a drawn-out, perfidious revenge.
Along the way Eric fights a berserker, makes powerful enemies who have him outlawed, and sets sail on a viking expedition where he joins the court of an English king. His fights against warriors, witchcraft, and the deadly forces of nature at land and sea, and eventually returns to Iceland to face his destiny.
The pacing and action are excellent, and his slightly archaic language evoke the sagas well. The plot details all feel appropriate to the genre, but are also inventive and don’t just copy the sources. The elements of magic and mysticism are also appropriate, and reminded me of the more fantastic sagas like Grettrs Saga.
I listened to a dramatic reading of this via LibriVox, and the reader’s enthusiasm for the story made it an especially good LibriVox recording, though some of the voicing, especially for the female characters, was unintentionally funny.
So the above is what I posted to Goodreads.com for my review. But what use is this book for D&D?
If you’re looking for ideas for use in a Vikings type campaign, there’s plenty of grist, of course, in terms of interesting places and events you could incorporate into a game, as well as names — Haggard does not fall into the all-too-common trap of using only stereotypical Norse names (Thorsson, Thorssonsson, etc.). A number of characters are Finnish, and have distinctively non-Norse names; others just have very usual sounding names like Ospakar and Gizur — which are actually names from the Edda and so forth. Haggard manages to pack in just about every trope you could ask for in a Viking saga: revenge killings, ‘holmgang’ duels, a wrestling match, berserkers, the Allthing, a doom-ring, chases and battles at sea, snow storms, outlawry, thralldom is inflicted, oaths are taken and broken, rune-reading, names and -nymics are bestowed, barrows robbed, a hall is nearly burnt, and on and on. It is in fact a checklist of just about every interesting plot device you find the sagas, though in many cases Haggard uses them inventively.
The magical elements of the story are confined to a few spells/potions (a love potion, a fast-acting poison, a sleep spell, and a pact with a demon that causes a shipwreck) as well as numerous visions and foretellings (the introduction dryly notes that such things would probably be interpolations by later writers/editors of the legends), the occasional appearance of a familiar or and a magic/cursed sword. An arresting event early on involves a severed head prophesying doom to the one who slew the owner, but for the most part magic is furtive, “off-screen,” and open to interpretation, so there is really nothing you couldn’t equally well steal for a game in a purely historical setting.
I found myself wondering too whether Tolkien had read this novel, or if it is a case of both Haggard and Tolkien using similar sources, because many events and characters could have walked right out of Middle Earth. (The more I read stuff like Haggard, William Morris, and the like, the less original Tolkien’s work seems to me…or rather what is distinctively Tolkien’s is less interesting than the common sources they share.)
Anyway Eric Brighteyes is well worth a look!