Our period, the middle ages, never ceases to interest the general public. There is a constant stream of media dedicated to the period: videogames based on Dante, endless bad medieval movies, television series, discoveries of the original Old Norse texts for Star Wars, and of course the vast majority of fantasy fiction has either heroic quasi-knights or pseudo-Viking marauders. This is great news for medievalists, or at least it ought to be, as such intense interest indicates that our period is perpetually relevant, and therefore worthy of funding…right? When combined for our era’s tendency for genre-blending, this fascination with the period has given me an idea: a Western set during the Settlement Period of Iceland.
A quick glance at the Wikipedia tells us that the Western is characterised by I) ‘the conquest of the wilderness and the subordination of nature in the name of civilization.’ The society in Western literature is II) ‘organised around codes of honour and personal or private justice (such as the feud)’; it features III) little social order except the immediate family or neighbours. Often Westerns have IV) a semi-nomadic fighter as the central protagonist, often with a dark past.
All this is a perfect description of Settlement Period Iceland. If we take each of these one by one:
I) The settlement of Iceland begins in the second half of the 9th century, and will gradually cover the whole of the island. By the 930s, most of the island is settled; in 930 a general assembly is formed from the pre-existing systems erected in the districts. During this period the colonisers pushed back the forests and covered Iceland with pasture for horses, sheep and the like. While an Icelandic Western would lack encounters with bears and cougars -features of the American West- as Iceland has no megafauna, this could be remedied with some Norse myth. Throw in a troll or an ogre lurking in the foothills, and we have dangerous monsters for pioneers to encounter. Or witches.
II) Icelandic civilisation was practically built on the feud. Brennu-Njáls saga is probably the most famous saga involving the familial feud. It shows the terrible tragedies resulting from the need to avenge slights and against honour and how a single feud may cripple families for generation. Attempts by some of Iceland’s greatest minds to stem the flow of blood with weregild or mediation fail, and the cycle continues on and on. It is beautiful and tragic and awful- and a sequence of perfect, ready-made plots.
III) A theme in some Westerns features the society gradually building order out of chaos. The HBO show Deadwood famously expands the mining camp with each succeeding season, and would serve as an admiral model for our theoretical production. As settlement spread across Iceland, a sense of community was gradually built surrounding the Þing. A sort of communal parliament, presided over by a lawspeaker, the Þing sought to restrain the bloodshed of feuds as well as negotiate marriages and inheritance disputes- the matters of government. As Iceland became further and further settled, these communal law structures became under greater stress, eventually leading to the creation of the Alþing in 930, as mentioned above.
Family and neighbours are far more important, particularly early on. If one has been insulted, one gathers one’s friends and allies amongst the neighbours and seeks revenge. Familial ties, old friendships, guests and those to whom you have previously given hospitality are the foundation of early Icelandic society. The complications and humanity of these relationships are among the more interesting facets of the sagas, and would make for spectacular television.
IV) Ah, wandering fighters. Offering hospitality to guests is a fundamental feature of early Norse culture, and the mysterious travel-stained wanderer is a core feature of many tales. Usually the grey-cloaked figure wandering the land turns out to be Odin in one of his many disguises, but there are dozens of less godly outlaw figures and mysterious soothsayers scattered throughout the literature.
The only regular feature of many Westerns we are lacking is an indigenous people to subjugate, as Iceland was uninhabited. Personally finding that sort of thing distasteful anyway, I’m grateful, but it does mean that themes of cultural conflict could be lacking. To this potential criticism, I offer two responses. First, Deadwood featured almost no Native American plotlines, and was all the stronger for it. Instead the writers concentrated their energies on some of the themes mentioned above, notably the increasing civilization of the mining camp. Second, many of the Icelanders brought ‘wives’ from Ireland and it would not at all be difficult to add a Celtic element as an undercurrent to the show. There are similarities between the two cultures, yet many children would be brought up primarily by the Irish mother and this could generate friction. Indeed, it does in at least one saga of which I am aware.
There need be no fear of weak women in our Settlement-era Western, either. The women of the Old Norse sagas were fierce, and depicting them as such would in no way be anachronistic. There are cross-dressing women who go adventuring, spurned wives who knife their husbands, witches, fierce matriarchs who rule their families with iron fists. This is leaving aside the women of myth, such as Valkyries. While cowering women awaiting rescue are a trope of Western as well as Norse storytelling, the gun (sword-)slinging fighter fits in just as smoothly. This is a topic about which I intend to go into detail in the future; watch this space.
Let us imagine the ‘Seven Guest-Warriors’, about seven exiles from Norway seeking a place to settle coming to the aid of their beleaguered host when his neighbours are unfairly roused against him. The ongoing television show Reykjavík, watching the outlaw settlers from Norway slowly carve farms and civilisation from the long winter. Gestir, about a mysterious warrior clad in grey who bears an ornate cross and refuses to give sacrifice to Thor for his safe voyage to Iceland. Let us imagine two warriors, settling a dispute between them, bearded and scarred, slowly drawing swords as they step into the ring…