I admire two things in particular about the literary art of The Saga of Þórður kakali. Firstly, the author of *The Great Saga of Þórður kakali was highly skilled with the technique of interlacement. The interlaced structure of the saga is fractal, with the author using it to depict simultaneous action within scenes at the smallest scale and to interweave the saga’s main plot with several subplots on a grand scale. The effect of this is that the narrative appears to orbit around the titular character, Þórður kakali, and invites the reader to draw comparisons with other characters. Secondly, the saga is also replete with intertextual references to then-contemporary literature (chiefly The Saga of King Sverre of Norway) which enables the author to “show” the audience a lot about the character of Þórður in particular without actually having to “tell” them much.
Published today at Punctum Books, an English translation and the Icelandic Text of The Saga of Þórður kakali. Translated by D.M. While, this book is available in print and digital open access at punctumbooks.com.
The Old Icelandic text The Saga of Þórður kakali survives today as part of the fourteenth-century compilation The Saga of the Sturlungar. In extant form, The Saga of Þórður kakali is a biography of Þórður kakali Sighvatsson (c.1210–56) – chieftain, royal retainer, and sheriff – and covers the periods 1242–50 and 1254–56, providing an interesting view of power politics and political culture from the periphery of medieval Europe, challenging dominant historiographical narratives derived from the sources produced at the center.
Hitherto, only one English translation of The Saga of the Sturlungar (and thus The Saga of Þórður kakali) has ever been produced. This translation was carried out by Julia McGrew and R. George Thomas (published in two volumes, 1970–74). Nevertheless, even with the invaluable assistance of the eminent Icelandic scholar Sigurður Nordal – who provided English translations of the trickier passages of text – McGrew and Thomas’s translation turned out to be “defective and unreliable” (in the words of Oren Falk).
Published translations are cultural levelers insofar as they open up texts to broader audiences – members of the interested wider public – who may not have the means or time to learn the original language merely to study a single primary source or read a lone literary classic. While McGrew and Thomas’s translation of The Saga of Þórður kakali is more or less serviceable if used with extreme caution (i.e., by native English speakers with fluency in Icelandic), the importance of competent translations should not be forgotten, especially for the reader without Icelandic language skills: poor translations can offend, confuse, and mislead users of the target language.
The present edition of The Saga of Þórður kakali offers a new and accessible translation of the text by D.M. White, produced directly from the Icelandic with which it is printed side by side.
D.M. White (b. 1994) received his BA and MA from the University of Birmingham before starting his PhD in the Department of Scandinavian Studies at University College London in 2017. His PhD thesis is on the origins of The Saga of Þórður kakali, and is the first attempt to provide a comprehensive picture of this thirteenth-century Icelandic saga’s beginnings. He has previously published an English translation of The Tale of Geirmundur heljarskinn, another text – like The Saga of Þórður kakali – from the fourteenth-century compilation The Saga of the Sturlungar.
Punctum Books is a sparkling diamond open access press with no author-facing fees. In order to survive, we depend on our readers to support our operation. If you want to support the open access mission of punctum books, please consider subscribing to our press.