The Icelandic Sagas are more than stories about a heroic age of kings, of trolls and witches, and magical phenomenon unseen by our modern eyes. They offer a complex resource of what early settlers of the island deemed important to their heritage. Since the thirteenth century, scholars have attempted to understand the departure from the oral tradition of storytelling to the more advanced written tradition, attempting in the main, to identify whether or not the sagas were altered with the corresponding advent of Christianity. By the time of the Renaissance, the sagas had become a focus for criticism from learned men of Scandinavia and Denmark. Skepticism towards the written sagas only increased by the end of the eighteenth century. Modern scholars are still stumped by the question of the sagas’ authenticity after the use of letters was introduced in the twelfth century. The question still remains today: how much of the sagas are preserved in their original preliterate wording and content, and can scholars rely on the sagas as historical records?
Before examining the history of the sagas’ narrative format, and the consequential critical historiography in the following centuries later, it is necessary to define the roots and the raison d’être of the Icelandic sagas. The sagas are essentially Viking stories depicting the lives of the early settlers who immigrated to Iceland from Norway sometime in the ninth century, most likely around the year AD874. At this time, Vikings were still enjoying their golden age of prosperity in Northern Europe whilst Christianity and Paganism were in the throes of war for religious supremacy. The island at this time consisted only of a few rural and widely spread out farmsteads with no towns or villages. By the year 1100, about 4,500 farmers lived in Iceland, the majority of the population. Dark, bitterly cold and dull conditions welcomed the early arrivals from Norway, leading W.A. Craigie to conclude that:
“It was a source of pride to recall and recount the names and exploits of the famous men to whom they were related; and an immense quantity of old lore, reaching back into early prehistoric times, was thus carried out to Iceland, and preserved there after it had been forgotten in the place of its origin.”
The sagas had other purposes as well. They provided medieval Icelanders an understand of the world of violence by offering tales about romantic heroes worthy of any Arthurian legend. Popular themes in the sagas included wealth and prestige (such as in the Bandamanna Saga); obligations to others; magical creatures including giants and trolls; the gods of old; genealogical history; societal and familial inter-feuding; tales of distant Norwegian kings and courageous heroes (such as Sigurd the Volsung); and epic travel tales to faraway places like Vinland, as told in the Grœnlendinga Saga. The sagas also provided a binding cultural experience for the few medieval settlers, while also serving as educational and moral guidelines in the new environment. Just as films offer an escape from the trials of our world today, the sagas provided joy and escapism for the listeners and were often recited at weddings, games, and celebratory feasts. Perhaps most significant, the people of the day considered them to be valid histories, therefore worthy of handing down orally from generation to generation. This would later become extremely important for scholars hoping to distinguish between factual history and cultural/personally embroidered fictitious elements.
Between the ninth and eleventh centuries, the sagas were composed orally (this is often referred to as the Saga Age). Poets would string together scenes to speak aloud to eager listeners, just as actors portray different scenes in a play. The word saga translates as ‘something said’, an indication in itself of the long standing oral tradition in Icelandic folklore. There is a personal voice in the narrations, evidenced by the storytellers’ subjective references to local people and regional events. Naming specific natural disasters, for example, created familiarity for listeners, associating them to well-known cultural episodes or to their own eyewitness experiences. As such, the sagas were a private social event within different communities in Iceland. They were a way of preserving a settlement’s own unique cultural past. Stephen P. Leonard views them as a way of ‘ensuring that an awareness of the intimate social cohesion required of a small society was effectively passed on to the next generation’.
However, due to the localised content of the sagas, they became somewhat biased, culturally specific, and highly personalised through collective social memory, which would only faintly remain intact in the written form several centuries later. The facts became less important than the interpretation of them. Although now considered possibly inaccurate as historical records, the sagas serve as an indication as to what sort of values were most important in the medieval Icelandic societies. As historian Barbara Allen recognised, the oral tradition was a selective characterisation of the past, rather than a generalised historical record: in oral epic poetry, the settings for the stories may be the clash of armies and the working out of national destinies, but the focus is always on the individual hero and his exploits.
The emphasis on the mythical and mysterious seemingly ancient past gave the sagas a certain archaic allure. It was as if the sagas were the last remaining relics of a dying age, cast down by generations of storytellers who dedicated themselves to memorising the tales of their forefathers. It was this fascination that kept the stories alive, until finally they were permanently preserved by a generation with ink and parchment. This, consequently, was the point at which the sagas became depersonalised and generalised. The use of letters was introduced to Iceland through the medieval monasteries at some point during the twelfth century. This was evident through the writings of western Icelanders including Snorri Sturluson (AD1179–1241), and Ari Thorgilsson (AD1067–1148). The latter was the author of the Íslendingabók, an account of the history of the island’s settlement. These men did not shun the sagas, but instead fully embraced them as a celebratory piece of heritage, and soon set to work writing them down.
However, these early scribes, as priests in the new ecclesiastical environment, would have understood writing in much the same way as monks scrawling Latin records for the church. They were instructed in the annalistic tradition, a highly impersonal and non-descriptive written format more attuned to historical chronicling. Thus, the sagas, once set down, lost their sense of personal narration and much of their pagan influence. An attempt was made to write them in such a way that they would be both objective and historical, rather than fictitious, dramatic or representative of individual societies. The essential difference was that the individual, the storyteller and the listener no longer mattered conceptually in this early written form.
The spoken versions of the sagas were officially lost once the vellum manuscripts took precedence as collective memory was no longer necessary to preserve the stories. Thus, the original details were often sacrificed in return. By the start of the 1300s, saga writing had come to a sudden end and for nearly two centuries they were left untouched, untold and unread. However, a new era was dawning. The advent and influence of Italian humanism and the growing antiquarian interest of the European Renaissance brought the sagas into the limelight once again. Accompanying the limelight was waves of criticism by new Scandinavian scholars who began questioning the validity of the written forms. The sagas became a major study in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, serving as references for written projects such as the Historia Norwegiæ (c. 1510). They resurfaced amid research to trace the genealogical studies of the Scandinavian and Gothic peoples with scholars finding the sagas particularly useful for mapping the general diasporic trends of the Vikings and their near-ancient predecessors. Sixteenth-century scholars in Denmark were especially intrigued by the sagas and, according to Theodore M. Andersson, considered Iceland an ‘untapped reservoir of Norse history which would serve to supplement Saxon history’. Thus, translation projects started centered in Copenhagen. They including studies by Thormodus Torfæus (AD16361719), whose work would be highly respected for its defense of the oral tradition in a pre-Christianised and pre-literate civilisation. In a world without letters, he believed, the memory had to suffice for retaining knowledge and the early Icelanders made themselves adept at remembering their ancestors through repeated recitation due to lack of a written substitute.
Swedish scholars of the Enlightenment also contributed further theories and studies of the sagas. Olof Rudbeck’s Atlantica (a controversial work spanning from AD1679 to1702) was the first to confidently propose that the sagas had originated in the oral tradition, going so far as to give a full defence of the validity of spoken history beginning with Herodotus – the father of historical practice. This was a groundbreaking contribution to the studies of Icelandic culture for it addressed an early medieval heritage which had little archaeological remains to otherwise speak for it. However, the idea of the spoken tradition in the history of the Icelandic saga began what would be an unrelenting debate for the next several centuries. The sagas themselves were no longer in question, but rather the medium of their genesis: were they verbally composed and then written, or did they come about after letters were introduced? Was there an oral tradition at all? The subsequent historiography became ever more critical in the eighteenth century. In 1755 the notorious Swiss critic Paul Henri Mallet famously wrote ‘Ces annales ne sont pas d’une grande antiquité’ arguing that the sagas came about well after the belief in Odin had ended. Mallet found numerous supporters later in the early Romantic period, including the German historian Christian Friedrich Rühs, who also believed the sagas were written in the late Middle Ages bearing no narrative evidence of a spoken past.
Historical accuracy in the stories is yet another topic for dispute. Some argue in favour of the oral tradition and collective public memory whilst others assert that historical facts could not survive for over 150 years by word of mouth. Many of the leading folklorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries considered the sagas a potential key to understanding the past, culturally if not historically, and that all myths have some shred of validity which spark the story. The Enlightenment advocated the skepticism towards the historical accuracy of the sagas. Some scholars, including Rühs, began reading the sagas as myths and fiction than as actual dependable records of the past. This later ignited the new interest in Icelandic stories during the era of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. This renewed interest in folklore, and the sagas as they were originally told in the days before ink and parchment, were focused on their literary and entertainment value rather than their historic.
As with all history, the further one gets from the source, the more difficult it is to be assured of verifiable fact. In the twenty first century, theories still differ between how much the sagas suggest an oral tradition steeped in historical accuracy against a written tradition filled with literary elements. Most likely the sagas consist of attributes from both narrative forms. The only evidence which all scholars agree upon is that the sagas were a common European creation of the Middle Ages used to showcase the cultural and social values of a civilization shrouded in a fantastic and perpetual mystery.
Image: Joanídea Sodret
Allen, Barbara, ‘The Personal Point of View in Orally Communicated History’, Western Folklore, 38, (1979), pp. 110-118.
Andersson, Theodore M., The Problem of Icelandic Saga Origins: A Historical Survey (New Haven, 1964).
Byock, Jesse L., ‘Saga Form, Oral Prehistory, and the Icelandic Social Context’, New Literary History, 16 (1984), pp. 153-173.
Chesnutt, Michael, ‘Orality in a NorseIcelandic Perspective’, Oral Tradition, 18 (2004), pp. 197-199.
Craigie, W. A., The Icelandic Sagas (Cambridge, 1913).
Dodsworth, J. B., ‘Review’, The Modern Language Review, 61 (1966), p. 351.
Edwards, Paul and Hermann, Palsson, Legendary Fiction in Medieval Iceland (Reykjavik, 1971).
Leonard, Stephen Pax., Faroese Skjaldur: An Endangered Oral Tradition of the North Atlantic, (Cambridge, 2010).
Myers, Ben, ‘The Icelandic Sagas: Europe’s Most Important Book?’, The Guardian, October 3, 2008, <www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2008/oct/03/1>.
Niles, John. D., ‘Review’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 108 (2009), pp.378-380.
Orning, Hans Jacob, ‘The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180-1280)’, Scandinavian Journal of History, 34 (2009), pp. 93-97.