Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The True Story of the Novel (5): The Sagas of Icelanders



It's hard to know quite where to begin with a discussion of the Icelandic sagas. Why do people go on about them so much? Why are they so important? Are they so important? What makes them so different from other examples of medieval prose literature?

I suppose, from my own point of view, the main reason they need to be talked about here is because they so perfectly exemplify the aetiology of prose fiction I'm proposing: that it represents a fairly straightforward evolution from other pre-existing narrative genres.

Gabriel Turville-Peter's classic book The Origins of Icelandic Literature (1953) gives a very clear account of how the early chronicles of the settlement of Iceland, the Landnámabók (c.11th-13th century) and the genealogical treatise Íslendingabók by Ari Þorgilsson (1067–1148) - also known as "Ari the Wise" - provided much of the raw material on which the sagas are based. They were also much influenced by Saint's Lives, by the historical materials about the Norwegian kings also available to the early settlers, as well as the large body of summaries of Greek, Roman and Old Germanic literature compiled by the indefatigable early Icelandic scribes.

The sheer isolation of Icelandic society means that one can study the effects of all these blended materials as a kind of scientific case study in literary development. It's not that anyone could ever neatly explain away so unusual a phenomenon as the Icelandic family sagas (or Íslendingasögur, "Sagas of Icelanders") - with their unique blend of oral history and poetic creativity - but it is interesting to observe the parallels with (say) the origins of the Japanese monogatari or the Arthurian prose vulgate tradition.

In essence, then, the medieval Icelanders tried to summarise and copy all the literary materials available to them - from Homer's Iliad to the more recent stories of Tristan and Iseult or Sigurd the Volsung - and at some point in the process someone invented a break-off genre of more locally based stories, set in the farms and fields around about (though sometimes they range much further afield in time and space - as far, in fact, as America in the west and Constantinople in the East).



Snorri Sturluson: Prose Edda (1666)


Nobody knows if there was just one genius who originated the form, though it is true that Egil's Saga is sometimes attributed to the well-known historian Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241), author of Heimskringla and the - so-called - Prose Edda, a kind of encyclopedia of traditional Norse mythology and commentary on the very complicated ancient poems known as the Elder Edda. Besides that, however, no single author can be identified with any of the many surviving sagas, though internal evidence certainly suggests a number of different authors for the different stories.

It's also true to say that an exclusive focus on this particular type of saga falsifies the immense variety of prose literature available to medieval Icelandic readers.
Norse sagas are generally classified as:
the Kings' sagas (Konungasögur),
Icelanders' sagas (Íslendinga sögur),
Short tales of Icelanders (Íslendingaþættir),
Contemporary sagas (Samtíðarsögur or Samtímasögur),
Legendary sagas (Fornaldarsögur),
Chivalric sagas (Riddarasögur),
Sagas of the Greenlanders (Grænlendingasögur),
Saints' sagas (Heilagra manna sögur)
and Bishops' sagas (Biskupa sögur).
- Wikipedia: Entry on "Sagas"

Of all these genres, it's really only the Sagas of Icelanders and the Short Tales of Icelanders which are of central interest to contemporary readers. The first substantial critical treatment of any of them in English was written by Sir Walter Scott in the early nineteenth century, after he'd stumbled across an (abridged) Latin translation of Laxdæla saga. The culmination of all the vast amounts of scholarly attention they've received since then must surely be the five-volume edition of the complete corpus of family sagas (together with selected short tales) published in Iceland by the appropriately named "Leifur Eiriksson" [Leif Ericson] Publishing in 1997:


Vidar Hreinsson et al., ed.: The Complete Sagas of Icelanders (1997)


The Complete Sagas of Icelanders (including 49 Stories). General Editor: Viðar Hreinsson, Editorial Team: Robert Cook, Terry Gunnell, Keneva Kunz & Bernard Scudder. Introduction by Robert Kellogg. 5 vols. Viking Age Classics. Iceland: Leifur Eiriksson Publishing Ltd., 1997.
  1. Vinland / Warriors and Poets
    • Forewords
      • By the President of Iceland
      • By the Icelandic Minister of Education, Culture and Science
      • By the Former Director of the Manuscript Institute of Iceland
      • Preface
      • Credits
      • Publisher's Acknowledgments
      • Introduction
    • Vinland and Greenland
      1. Eirik the Red's Saga
      2. The Saga of the Greenlanders
    • Warriors and Poets
      1. Egil's Saga
      2. Kormak's Saga
      3. The Saga of Hallfred the Troublesome Poet
      4. The Saga of Bjorn, Champion of the Hitardal People
      5. The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue
    • Tales of Poets
      1. The Tale of Arnor, the Poet of Earls
      2. Einar Skulason's Tale
      3. The Tale of Mani the Poet
      4. The Tale of Ottar the Black
      5. The Tale of Sarcastic Halli
      6. Stuf's Tale
      7. The Tale of Thorarin Short-Cloak
      8. The Tale of Thorleif, the Earl's Poet
    • Anecdotes
      1. The Tale of Audun from the West Fjords
      2. The Tale of Brand the Generous
      3. Hreidar's Tale
      4. The Tale of the Story-Wise Icelander
      5. Ivar Ingimundarson's Tale
      6. Thorarin Nefjolfsson's Tale
      7. The Tale of Thorstein from the East Fjords
      8. The Tale of Thorstein the Curious
      9. The Tale of Thorstein Shiver
      10. The Tale of Thorvard Crow's-Beak

  2. Outlaws / Warriors and Poets
    • Outlaws and Nature Spirits
      1. Gisli Sursson's Saga
      2. The Saga of Grettir the Strong
      3. The Saga of Hord and the People of Holm
      4. Bard's Saga
    • Warriors and Poets
      1. Killer-Glum's Saga
      2. The Tale of Ogmund Bash
      3. The Tale of Thorvald Tasaldi
      4. The Saga of the Sworn Brothers
      5. Thormod's Tale
      6. The Tale of Thorarin the Overbearing
      7. Viglund's Saga
    • Tales of the Supernatural
      1. The Tale of the Cairn-Dweller
      2. The Tale of the Mountain-Dweller
      3. Star-Oddi's Dream
      4. The Tale of Thidrandi and Thorhall
      5. The Tale of Thorhall Knapp

  3. Epic / Champions and Rogues
    • An Epic
      1. Njal's Saga
    • Champions and Rogues
      1. The Saga of Finnbogi the Mighty
      2. The Saga of the People of Floi
      3. The Saga of the People of Kjalarnes
      4. Jokul Buason's Tale
      5. Gold-Thorir's Saga
      6. The Saga of Thord Menace
      7. The Saga of Ref the Sly
      8. The Saga of Gunnar, the Fool of Keldugnup
    • Tales of Champions and Adventures
      1. Gisl Illugason's Tale
      2. The Tale of Gold-Asa's Thord
      3. Hrafn Gudrunarson's Tale
      4. Orm Storolfsson's Tale
      5. Thorgrim Hallason's Tale

  4. Regional Feuds
    • Regional Feuds
      1. The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal
      2. The Saga of the Slayings on the Heath
      3. Valla-Ljot's Saga
      4. The Saga of the People of Svarfadardal
      5. The Saga of the People of Ljosavatn
      6. The Saga of the People of Reykjadal and of Killer-Skuta
      7. The Saga of Thorstein the White
      8. The Saga of the People of Vopnafjord
      9. The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck
      10. The Tale of Thorstein Bull's Leg
      11. The Saga of Droplaug's Sons
      12. The Saga of the People of Fljotsdal
      13. The Tale of Gunnar, the Slayer of Thidrandi
      14. Brandkrossi's Tale
      15. Thorstein Sidu-Hallsson's Saga
      16. Thorstein Sidu-Hallsson's Tale
      17. Thorstein Sidu-Hallsson's Dream
      18. Egil Sidu-Hallsson's Tale

  5. Epic / Wealth and Power
    • An Epic
      1. The Saga of the People of Laxardal
      2. Bolli Bollason's Tale
    • Wealth and Power
      1. The Saga of the People of Eyri
      2. The Tale of Halldor Snorrason I
      3. The Tale of Halldor Snorrason II
      4. Olkofri's Saga
      5. Hen-Thorir's Saga
      6. The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey's Godi
      7. The Saga of the Confederates
      8. Odd Ofeigsson's Tale
      9. The Saga of Havard of Isafjord
    • Religion and Conflict in Iceland and Greenland
      1. The Tale of Hromund the Lame
      2. The Tale of Svadi and Arnor Crone's-Nose
      3. The Tale of Thorvald the Far-Travelled
      4. The Tale of Thorsein Tent-Pitcher
      5. The Tale of the Greenlanders
    • Reference Section
      • Maps and Tables
      • Illustrations and Diagrams
      • Glossary
      • Cross-Reference Index of Characters
      • Contents of Volumes I-V




Since I'm pleased to say that I recently acquired a copy of this rather sumptuous tome, it seems useful to list its contents in this comprehensive manner as a way of signalling the wealth of material available to the saga aficionado. As well as the 45 sagas included in this collection, the editors have also inserted 49 short tales of Icelanders (marked off with italics in the table of contents above).

There are, of course, a great many other translations of individual sagas, some probably superior in literary merit to the somewhat bland and standardised version included in this complete edition (like modern editions of the Bible translated by committee).

The immense care taken by the editors of the "Leif Ericson" text to ensure consistency in vocabulary and (especially) names of people and places, makes it an indispensable resource for the scholar. If you don't want to invest in the complete edition, though, Penguin books have published some volumes of selections from the larger corpus:



  1. The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. From The Complete Sagas of Icelanders (including 49 Stories). Ed. Viðar Hreinsson, Robert Cook, Terry Gunnell, Keneva Kunz & Bernard Scudder. Iceland: Leifur Eiriksson Publishing Ltd., 1997. Preface by Jane Smiley. Introduction by Robert Kellogg. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001.

  2. Cook, Robert, trans. Njal’s Saga. From The Complete Sagas of Icelanders (including 49 Stories). Ed. Viðar Hreinsson, Robert Cook, Terry Gunnell, Keneva Kunz & Bernard Scudder. 1997. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001.

  3. Whaley, Diana, ed. Sagas of Warrior-Poets. From The Complete Sagas of Icelanders (including 49 Stories). Ed. Viðar Hreinsson, Robert Cook, Terry Gunnell, Keneva Kunz & Bernard Scudder. 1997. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002.



Diana Whaley, ed. Sagas of Warrior-poets (2002)


The first of these is particularly good, with a fascinating preface by American novelist Jane Smiley, author of The Greenlanders (1988). It probably contains sufficient detail for most general readers, in fact, especially when combined with the separate translation Of Njal's Saga, by common consent the most individually "epic" of the Norse sagas, issued concurrently by Penguin Classics.

For any of you interested in pursuing the subject, though, I've listed below all of the other books on the subject I've collected since I first took a class in Old Norse at Auckland University with Professor Forrest Scott some thirty years ago in (I think) 1983:



Robert Cook, trans.: Njal's Saga (2001)


  1. The Elder Edda
  2. Sagas
  3. Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241)



    The Elder Edda

  1. Hollander, Lee M., trans. The Poetic Edda. 1962. Rev. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

  2. Larrington, Carolyne, trans. The Poetic Edda. Oxford World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

  3. Magnúson, Eiríkr, & William Morris, trans. Volsunga Saga: The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs, with Certain Songs from the Elder Edda. 1870. Ed. H. Halliday Sparling. The Camelot Series. Ed. Ernest Rhys. London: Walter Scott, 1888.

  4. Morris, William, trans. Volsunga Saga: The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs. 1870. Ed. Robert W. Gutman. 1962. New York & London: Collier & Collier-Macmillan, 1971.

  5. Terry, Patricia, trans. Poems of the Vikings: The Elder Edda. Introduction by Charles Wisden. 1969. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1981.


  6. Sagas

  7. Blake, N. F. ed. The Saga of the Jomsvikings: Jómsvíkinga Saga. Nelson’s Icelandic texts, ed. Sigurður Nordal & G. Turville-Petre. London: Nelson, 1962.

  8. Dasent, George. M., trans. The Saga of Burnt Njal: From the Icelandic of Njal’s Saga. Everyman’s Library. London & New York: J. M. Dent & E. P. Dutton, n.d.

  9. Hight, George Ainslie, trans. The Saga of Grettir the Strong: A Story of the Eleventh Century. Everyman’s Library 699. 1914. London & New York: J. M. Dent & E. P. Dutton, 1929.

  10. Johnston, George, trans. The Saga of Gisli. Ed. Peter Foote. 1963. Everyman’s Library. London: Dent, 1984.

  11. Jones, Gwyn, trans. Eirik the Red and other Icelandic Sagas. The World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Pres, 1980.

  12. Pálsson, Hermann, & Magnus Magnusson, trans. The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America – Grænlendinga Saga & Eirik’s Saga. 1965. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

  13. Pálsson, Hermann, & Magnus Magnusson, trans. King Harald’s Saga: Harald Hardradi of Norway – from Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla. 1966. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

  14. Pálsson, Hermann, & Magnus Magnusson, trans. Laxdaela Saga. 1969. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

  15. Pálsson, Hermann, trans. Hrafnkel’s Saga and Other Stories. 1971. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

  16. Pálsson, Hermann, & Paul Edwards, trans. Hrolf Gautrekkson: A Viking Romance. New Saga Library 1. Edinburgh: Southgate, 1972.

  17. Pálsson, Hermann, & Paul Edwards, trans. Eyrbyggja Saga. New Saga Library 2. Edinburgh: Southgate, 1973.

  18. Pálsson, Hermann, & Paul Edwards, trans. Egil’s Saga. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

  19. Pálsson, Hermann, & Paul Edwards, trans. Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney. 1978. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

  20. Pálsson, Hermann, & Paul Edwards, trans. Seven Viking Romances. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.


  21. Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241)

  22. Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Trans. Anthony Faulkes. Everyman’s Library. London: Dent, 1987.

  23. Sturlason, Snorre. Heimskringla: The Olaf Sagas. Trans. Samuel Laing. Ed. John Beveridge. Everyman’s Library 717. London & New York: J. M. Dent & E. P. Dutton, 1930.

  24. Sturlason, Snorre. Heimskringla: The Norse King Sagas. Trans. Samuel Laing. Ed. John Beveridge. Everyman’s Library 847. London & New York: J. M. Dent & E. P. Dutton, 1930.

  25. Sturlason, Snorre. Heimskringla, or The Lives of the Norse Kings. Trans. A. H. Smith & Erling Monsen. Ed. Erling Monsen. 1932. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1990.



You'll notice that a great many of the saga translations listed above were done by Hermann Pálsson of Edinburgh University, initially in collaboration with ex-UK Mastermind host (and proud Icelander) Magnus Magnusson, and subsequently with my old English Department mentor Paul Edwards. Edwards was a very amusing character, who used to hold court around a huge wooden table with flagons of wine and lively conversation for any passing colleagues or students. I benefited greatly from his encouragement and example, and it's nice to be able to commemorate him here (he died sometime in the early 1990s, I believe).

But after all this bibliographical preamble, what are the sagas actually like to read? Well, they're very deadpan, pithy, understated. A few quotes may give you the idea:
In chapter 45 of Grettis saga, Þorbjörn knocked loudly on the door at Atli's farm, then hid. When Atli went to the door, Þorbjörn rushed up holding his spear in two hands and ran Atli through. When he took the blow, Atli said, "Broad spears are in fashion these days," and fell dead.

Ha, ha - very witty! Or the off-the-cuff remark by one of the characters in Njal's saga that the health of the thralls is poor that season, after a bunch of them have been murdered by his neighbour. Or the comment by the anti-heroine Guðrún in Laxdæla saga about her behaviour throughout to the hero Kjartan:
Þá mælti Guðrún: "Þeim var eg verst er eg unni mest."

Auden translated her answer as "He that I loved the / Best, to him I was worst" in his poem "Journey to Iceland." His friend Christopher Isherwood had once remarked that the characters in the sagas reminded him a lot of the personnel at their public school, and that thought appears to be the inspiration behind a lot of Auden's early poetry, as well as - in particular - his strange revenge drama "Paid on Both Sides" (1928).

Sagas tend to be composed in short chapters, and to begin with elaborate genealogies of the (eventual) main characters - hence the designation "family sagas." If you skip over these lists of ancestors, you'll often miss the reason for a murder, or a lawsuit, or an act of revenge two hundred or so pages later. The saga authors never discuss their characters' motivations, or delve into their psychology. All the action is described with the utmost objectivity, in a kind of super-hardbitten prose with no room for fluff or sentiment.

The characters do often compose (or inspire) poems, which are frequently quoted in context, but the technical demands of Old Norse skaldic verse are so exigent, that this generally gives little clue to their "inner feelings" or softer side. On the contrary, in fact.

The fascination of the stories lies in the difficulty of understanding just why their protagonists behave as they do. The impossible and self-destructive perversity of many of their deeds is such as to seem virtually incomprehensible without the elaborate framework of family relationships and overarching doom-laden pessimism which seem to have distinguished medieval Icelanders even from other Vikings.

For a long time the sagas were assumed to be basically factual, with a few historical inconsistencies here and there caused by oral transmission. More modern research has demonstrated how carefully composed and crafted most of them are, however, and - in particular - how little reliability there is in their accounts of people and places (within a larger framework of agreed-upon knowledge provided by such texts as Landnámabók and Íslendingabók). In short, they resemble contemporary historical novels far more than the family memoirs or local histories they were once thought to be.

Are they "novels"? Not in the traditional sense of the term. They demand far more from the reader than most modern novels can afford to. A lazy reader will understand little of what goes on in even the great set-piece sagas such as Njal's Saga or Laxdaela Saga, let alone the more diffuse and thematically mixed sagas such as Eyrbyggja Saga. The matchless precision with which the great scenes and personalities within them are recreated on the page does,however, make them every bit as compelling for the dedicated reader as, say, Homer or Virgil, and it would be hard to see the whole corpus of saga literature as inferior even to that created by such "epic" novelists as Tolstoy or Faulkner.

As what we understand by a "novel" continues to expand and diversify, it becomes clearer and clearer that the Icelandic sagas, one of the most impressive bodies of prose fiction in existence, still have a lot more to teach contemporary writers than we've so far been willing to learn.



Íslendingasögur (13th century)


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