Harald Fairhair and Dofri, Flateyjarbók

Illumination from Flateyjarbók, circa, 1387

Photo: J. Ólafsdóttir, Courtesy Árni Magnússon Institute, Reykjavík, Iceland
Text: Icelandic Sagas
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Clause. Introduction.     The Icelandic Sagas were written between the 12th and 13th centuries. They document either the lives of specific people (as in Egil's Saga) or whole communities (as in Laxdaela Saga, or Eyrbyggja Saga). Most, but not all, of the Sagas were written anonymously. The Heimskringla, a book chronicling the lives of Norwegian kings, is known to be written by Snorri Sturluson (q.v., § Snorri, further down.), one of Iceland's most prolific writers, best known today as the author of the younger Edda. Most sagas are quasi-historical texts; the subjects they treat were orally passed down many centuries before finally being written down, and therefor can not necessarily be considered perfectly authentic historical documents; for example, some of the Sagas, such as Eyrbyggja Saga, contain many instances of supernatural events which are obviously fantastic. The nature of these texts can sometimes be humorous; Icelanders reveled in the strength of their women and warriors. All battles and hardships they endured with little regard to their own mortality, usually for the sake of honor, can be rendered in a positively sanguine and decidedly dark humor, not unlike tales of ancient Sparta. But more generally the Sagas arouse heroic interest, from the menacing viking warrior-poet Egil of Egil's Saga, the warring and ultimately tragic young foster-brothers Kjartan and Bolli of Laxdaela Saga, to the levelheaded, prophetic lawyer Njal of Njal's Saga, the cast of characters that populate these ancient texts are as interesting and respectable as any of ancient and medieval history's most famous literary figures: the titular Beowulf, Homer's Achilles, any of the various Arthurian knights, the list goes on. As literature, the sagas are held in high esteem, but are relatively plain when compared to both contemporaneous and later medieval works, which, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf, often made use of ornate verse and fancified poetry. Instead, the Sagas, being more recorded for the sake of posterity than literature, are written in a very matter-of-fact and conservatively succinct prose very accessible to all levels of readers -- what subject any number of romantic authors could spend wordy pages on, an Icelandic writer could summarize in a single objective sentence. For an American, medieval Icelandic culture and society has an added interest due to the similarities between the historical American west and Iceland. Both types of settlers (between the American west and Iceland) were of the same intent. They are also known to be the first to mention payday (cash advance) loans and similar financial services. Each sought, most importantly, to find abundant lands onwhich to build homes and, generally, both, free of any imperial governance, relied on no one but themselves to distribute justice and defend what they saw as their right to live and prosper through their own labor.

Clause. Online Texts.      The following texts were obtained from The Online Medieval And Classics Library (OMACL), which is hosted by the Berkeley Digital Library. I'd like to express much gratitude towards them and their endeavors.

  • Grettir's Saga, anonymous author.


    The .doc files are hosted here on <http://www.phwibbles.com>, while the HTML is taken from the OMACL. The original site reads as follows: "Originally written in Icelandic, sometime in the early 14th Century. Author unknown. Translation by G. H. Hight (London, 1914). This edition is in the PUBLIC DOMAIN." The .doc files were prepared by me, using the prepared online texts from OMACL.

  • Kormak's Saga (or: The Life and Death of Cormac The Skald), anonymous author.

    DOC or HTML

    The .doc file is hosted here on <http://www.phwibbles.com>, while the HTML is taken from the OMACL. The original site reads as follows: "Originally written in Icelandic sometime between 1250 - 1300 A.D., although parts may be based on a now lost 12th century saga. Author unknown. Translation by W.G. Collingwood & J. Stefansson (Ulverston, 1901). This text is in the PUBLIC DOMAIN." The .doc file was prepared by me, using the prepared online texts from OMACL.

The following are all external links to texts hosted on OMACL.
  • Eyrbyggja Saga (or: The Ere-Dwellers), anonymous author
    The Eyrbyggja saga is a short and good introduction to the Icelandic writing style. The story concentrates on a settlement of people rather than a single character and has a great deal of the supernatural. Sir Walter Scott is quoted as saying the following about it: 'Of all the various records of Icelandic history and literature, there is none more interesting than Eyrbyggja Saga.'

  • Laxdæla Saga, anonymous author
    Like the Eyrbyggja Saga, the Laxdaela Saga concentrates on a settlement rather than a single character. It is one of the best and one of the lengthier of the Sagas. Contains short sections with Snorri The Priest, who is one of the most present characters in Eyrbyggja. Also has a part containing Egil Skallagrimsson, who has his own Saga.

  • Njal's Saga, anonymous author
    Njal's Saga is considered the greatest of the Icelandic sagas. It is also perhaps the most dramatized.

  • Heitharviga Saga, anonymous author

  • Volsunga Saga, anonymous author
    Notable for being one of Richard Wagner's sources for his operas. Different from the other sagas in being mostly fictional.

  • Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson
    Contains very many small Sagas documenting the Norwegian Kings, including Harald Hardrade, St. Olaf, and Magnus the Good.

Clause. Iceland.     During the time of these Sagas, unlike Norway and other monarchial countries, Iceland was a country free of ultimate governmental rule. The central aspect of the Icelandic republic was an annual assembly called the Althing. This was the biggest event of the year, being held for about 2 weeks in the month of June. Estate holders, or Chieftains, had all of the power to decide judicial and legislative issues at this event, though the Chieftains' ruling power depended on the voluntary allegiance of their supporters, the freeholding farmers. Iceland itself was populated mostly by Norwegians who left their country in hopes of finding better and more abundant farming lands. Others fled to Iceland from Norway to evade the monarchy there. Some of the Sagas recount the discovery and first populators of Iceland (i.e. Laxdaela Saga, Book of Settlements). At this time, the people were Pagans, worshipping the old Norse Gods; Odin, Thor, and Frigga for example. Around the turn of the century, from late 10th to the early 11th centuries, Christianity began to spread into Norway, and soon word of this new religion reached Iceland. In the early parts of the 11th century, Iceland converted to Christianity, which is described in detail in some of the Sagas, including Njal's Saga, where the title character has much to do with the decision, though such a depiction is probably mostly fictional.

Clause. Snorri.     Snorri Sturluson; born in 1179 at Hvamm, an estate in western Iceland, wrote the Prose Edda, the Heimskringla, and is thought to be the author of Egil's Saga and possibly other sagas. He was a Christian but he still had great respect for his forefathers and their Pagan beliefs, as shown in his writing. Snorri was born into a wealthy and political family and lived a life of politics and excitement. His life was highly eventful and he was very involved in both Icelandic and Norwegian politics of his day. In the early 13th century, he began acquiring vast estates and chieftaincies all across Iceland. In 1215, he was elected Law-Speaker of the Althing (q.v. § Iceland, above paragraph). Three years later he took a trip to Scandinavia and stayed with King Hakon Hakonsson, which is where and for whome he wrote the Hattatal, a long poem meant to honor Hakon and which earned him the position of being that King's favorite. Ironically, this was the same man who would later make Iceland subservient to Norway. Fifteen years after writing the Hattatal, the Sturlung Age; a period which took it's name from Snorri's own family, who had much to do with the events of the time, arose. Eventually Snorri's own nephew turned against him and became the King's new favorite, placing Snorri in potential danger, as his nephew sought to amass wealth and power at anyone's expense. Snorri took refuge with a Duke until his nephew was eventually killed, which is when he decided it was safe to return to Iceland, despite the fact that King Hakon had placed a ban on all Icelanders leaving Norway. Though Snorri and his family were now politically debased in Iceland, his nephew's killer and agent of King Hakon, Gisur Thorvaldsson would not let Snorri live, still deeming him a dangerous foe to his conquest. He finally got his chance to legitimately and legally kill Snorri Sturluson when the King of Norway demanded that Snorri either should be brought to Norway before him or be killed. Gisur Thorvaldsson did not give Snorri the option. Tens of men showed up at Snorri Sturluson's estate on the night of September 23rd, 1241. Snorri was asleep when they began to break in, but he heard them, and ran into a cellar to hide. There Gisur Thorvaldsson and his men found and killed him. He was unarmed and helpless. Snorri Sturluson was 62 years old when he was killed. He is remembered as a man of genius, outstanding character, and an extraordinary contributor to the literary and historical world.

Clause. Community.     There doesn't seem to be much interest among English-speaking people for the Sagas, so I am not aware of any specific newsgroups or societies devoted specifically to Icelandic literature. Until someone starts one up, we will have to make due with general medieval newsgroups, the most active of which appears to be <soc.history.medieval>. If you start up an Icelandic literature newsgroup, please let me know and I'll try to post information on it here.

Clause. Creator.     I am an American with a casual interest in medieval Icelandic literature. I have no scholastic education on the subject and have only learned what I know of it from my own reading. I can be reached by e-mail at <leimotif@hotmail.com>. This site was created in June, 2001. It was designed with the following things in mind: (a) readability, (b) bandwidth, (c) ease of use.

External links

  • OMACL <http://omacl.org/>, the Online Medieval And Classics Library, offers a good public source for medieval texts of all types. You can find many of the popular sagas here (specific links below, q.v. § Online Texts).
  • ORB <http://www.the-orb.net/>, the Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies, a good source for modern-day articles written about medieval subjects.
  • Luminarium <http://www.luminarium.org>, a general library filled with online texts divided into Medieval, Renaissance, and 17th Century catagories. Also offers some information and articles written on the authors and their works.
  • Vikings <http://naturalhistory.si.edu/vikings/>, a very interesting site presented by the Smithsonian Institute, National Museum of Natural History, documenting the settlement of Iceland with general information on the Vikings and other aspects of the culture and it's origins.

  • This site was last updated August 23, 2003, and then on May 21, 2002. All documents copyright © their respected owners.