Viking Women of the Sagas, with Lisa Hannett
Updated: Oct 3
Earlier this year, I read Viking Women: Life and Lore by Lisa Hannett. It is easily in my top three reads for 2023, and it was Hannett’s stunningly crafted narrative, which sits alongside her evaluation of women in the sagas, that resonated with me.
Viking Women illuminates some of my favourite female saga characters such as Breeches-Aud and Unn the Deep-minded (also known as Aud in some sources). But, for people first approaching the sagas, it might be difficult to know where to start. As Hannett acknowledges, we often view the sagas as, “Long genealogies of characters who appear for a page or two before they leave the narrative altogether!” In reading Viking Women, however, each woman leaves a heavy imprint as Hannett weaves her words into a tale of life, fate, love, and influence.
Before we dive deeper into the sagas, let’s first get to know Canadian-Australian writer, Lisa Hannett. She has a Ph.D. in Old Norse-Icelandic literature and is an Associate Professor in Creative Writing at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia. Hannett is also an award-winning writer of short speculative fiction instilled with a Norse myth and legend influence. With this considerable experience and knowledge behind her, I set out to ask Hannett why the sagas are still important, and how readers should approach them if they are just starting out.
If someone is new to the sagas, which would you recommend starting with?
Hannett’s recommendations are fantastic. First, Laxdæla saga with its, “Complicated love triangle… and many strong and fascinating women” is a great place to start. Though Hannett acknowledges it takes a while for the story to progress, especially if you’re used to fast-paced modern novels. Sagas are stories that take time, often laced with seemingly inconsequential details. If you bear with it, you will be rewarded.
Her second suggestion is Grettis saga (The Saga of Grettir the Strong). “He is a terrible child, a jerk for most of his adult life, but then gets himself into sticky situations with a zombie-like ghost and an unfortunate incident with fire, and he ends up being quite a sympathetic character in the end. This saga has more magic, ghosts and Viking-like antics than Laxdæla saga, so it’s quite fun.”
And the final one? Njáls saga (The Saga of Burnt Njall). This is one of my (Megan) favourites as well because of the enduring strength and stoicism of the main female characters. Hannett says, "Out of all the sagas, this has the most linear plot that reads most like a modern novel (with the occasional long and boring chapter about early medieval laws in Iceland) and it has the most (wonderfully) tragic storyline. Highly recommended if you want to meet a large cast of compelling characters who will ultimately break your heart.”
Who is your favourite character from Viking Women: Life and Lore?
“Oh, gosh, this is like asking who my favourite child is…”
Hannett states Unn as a long-time favourite, “She’s the first amazing woman I ever met in the sagas (she appears very early on in Laxdæla saga) and she is the brave and incredible grandmother who sails to Iceland with a crew of twenty and claims one-fifth of the island for herself…” In Viking Women, you can feel Hannett’s love for the character as she paints her as a woman to be revered.
But, as Hannett says earlier, choosing just one is so incredibly difficult. As she wrote about each of them, she, “Grew to love them like favourites for various reasons: Breeches-Aud for standing up for herself; Bera for surviving so many lost babies and doing the best she could with the children who lived; Thorgerd brák for loving Egil so deeply; Hallgerd for being such a brat, really, but with good reason; Gudrun for being so complicated… I’m in awe of each of them, really.” She describes and refers to these women as if they are wandering around, accessible to us as easily as one might pick up a phone and call. Each character is so deeply developed it’s as if Hannett knows them all, heard their tales from the women’s own lips; just as they wanted them told.
Do you think it's necessary for a woman to live a long life to be worthy of being the subject of a saga?
When I asked this question, I observed by the time we get to each woman’s story, they are often aged and looking back. Hannett replies, “I think you’ve touched on something important here: perhaps these women have had more opportunities to do fascinating things since they’ve lived long enough to do so, but ultimately what makes them worth writing about in the sagas is how fierce they are, how bold or brave or unconventional…. They stand out for doing what others won’t (or can’t).”
In a long cast list of male players, the women referred to in the sagas were mentioned because they were deemed “Noteworthy” and it makes Hannett wonder, “how many other women’s stories weren’t recorded, and how incredible they might have been…”
So, whilst being older might not have been an essential ingredient, it certainly went someway to providing the time to become exceptional enough to be recorded in the sagas.
Why do you think the sagas are so enduring?
When asked this question, Hannett answered so eloquently, “Most classic literature becomes ‘classic’ because there’s something timeless about the stories – and the sagas are no different in this. Even though the format of storytelling isn’t necessarily one we conform to anymore (we don’t perform these tales by the fire, we don’t spend as much time describing a character’s ancestry as we do their own achievements, we don’t begin new storylines in the final act, and so on) the sagas are all about things we still value, things we still wonder about, things that pluck at our heartstrings. These are stories about people with hopes and dreams, people who want to have children, people who yearn to be special, and to be remembered for their deeds. They are motivated as we still are – by love, greed, passion, revenge, loyalty to friends and family – but how they deal with these motivations is endlessly fascinating (and often involves blood feuds, brutal vengeance, and literally fatal mistakes…) These people are also living at a time of great discovery, so these fraught interactions happen against a backdrop of exploration, seafaring, and settlement of new lands. High drama, high adventure, and high stakes – and yet still recognisable, still human. It’s this contrast, I think, that makes them endure.”
Of course, I could not resist asking what Hannett was working on next. After enjoying Viking Women, I had to know when her next book was being published. Thankfully, Hannett is currently working on her next title, Viking Women: Myth and Magic, to be published by Thames & Hudson in 2025, and I cannot wait! I’ll be pre-ordering it as soon as it’s made available.
Hannett’s next Viking Women, “Moves beyond the confines of our ordinary world to retell stories of extraordinary women from Old Norse myths, legends, sagas and poems, whose natural and supernatural abilities were sources of inspiration, reverence and worship in the Viking Age.” As with Life and Lore, each chapter will look at one or more characters (this time primarily from Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda and legendary sagas Völsunga saga and Ragnars saga loðbrók). “This book will take readers on a journey throughout the nine realms of Norse cosmology and explore a broad range of powerful women: mortals and immortals, goddesses and humans with supernatural abilities, young giants and old women, warriors and weavers, ghosts and magnificent queens. Unlike the women in my first book, who are remarkable regular people, the women in this book will wow readers with their skills, cunning, magic, bravery, wickedness, and numinous qualities.”
If, like me, you might find it difficult to wait until 2025, you can start working your way through Hannett’s fiction titles. For readers who love a strong female character with, “Myth-infused settings and events” start with The Fortunate Isles. “These densely wrought, boundlessly inventive stories form, in their totality, a singularly strange mosaic novel of sorts - ever twisting and writhing like a storm-charged ocean. Yet they are never out of the meticulous control of Lisa Hannett's masterly storytelling.” For more, “Whimsical… and dark short stories” you can pick up Hannett’s last collection, Songs for Dark Seasons, which one reader described, “Takes the reader on an unnerving journey to places, and into lives, that gleam and shimmer with beauty and horror, desire and sorrow.”
Finally, I needed to know if Hannett had access to a time machine, where or when in the Viking world would she travel to? Her answer? To sail on a Viking Age ship, “Like Unn and Freydis did, out in the middle of the sea with no land in sight, the sail billowing overhead, the ropes and timbers creaking as we rise and fall with the swells, hoping to reach new shores… But in reality, I think that would be so terrifying! To be at the mercy of the sea, adrift in an open vessel, with no means of navigation, and no guarantee you’ll ever arrive at your destination ¾ and, even if you do, it might not be at all how you imagined… Terrifying. Still, a part of me would love to be magically transported there, just for a little while, then magically returned to my nice, safe, warm house here in the present.” Honestly, I too have dreamed the same dream and the potential of being swallowed up by enormous waves terrifies me too. In our modern world of safety precautions and fear of death, it is a step too far into the unknown.
Yet, it fascinates me and if the Viking world captivates you, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Hannett’s Viking Women: Life and Lore, which I describe as, “Stunning… and compelling. A fantastic combination of years of detailed research and exciting and imaginative narratives. An absolute triumph for the subject area.”
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