The Saga; Old Norse narrative of achievements and events in the history of the Vikings

Sagas are stories mostly about ancient Nordic and Germanic history, about early Viking voyages, the battles that took place during the voyages, about migration to Iceland and of feuds between Icelandic families. They were written in the Old Norse language, mainly in Iceland.

The texts are tales in prose which share some similarities with the epic, often with stanzas or whole poems in alliterative verse embedded in the text, of heroic deeds of days long gone, “tales of worthy men,” who were often Vikings, sometimes pagan, sometimes Christian. The tales are usually realistic, except legendary sagas, sagas of saints, sagas of bishops and translated or recomposed romances. They are sometimes romanticised and fantastic.

Excerpt from Beowulf

The term saga originates from the Norse saga (pl. sögur), and refers to (1) “what is said, statement” or (2) “story, tale, history”. It is cognate with the English word saw (as in old saw), and the German Sage. Icelandic sagas are based on oral traditions and much research has focused on what is real and what is fiction within each tale. The accuracy of the sagas is often hotly disputed. Most of the manuscripts in which the sagas are preserved were taken to Denmark and Sweden in the 17th century, but later returned to Iceland. Classic sagas were composed in the 13th century. Scholars once believed that these sagas were transmitted orally from generation to generation until scribes wrote them down in the 13th century. However, most scholars now believe the sagas were conscious artistic creations, based on both oral and written tradition. A study focusing on the description of the items of clothing mentioned in the sagas concludes that the authors attempted to create a historic “feel” to the story, by dressing the characters in what was at the time thought to be “old fashioned clothing”. However, this clothing is not contemporary with the events of the saga as it is a closer match to the clothing worn in the 12th century.

There are plenty of tales of kings (e.g. Heimskringla), everyday people (e.g. Bandamanna saga) and larger than life characters (e.g. Egils saga). The sagas describe a part of the history of some of the Nordic countries (e.g. the last chapter of Hervarar saga). The British Isles, northern France and North America are also mentioned. It was only recently (start of 20th century) that the tales of the voyages to North America (modern day Canada) were authenticated.

Most sagas of Icelanders take place in the period 930–1030, which is called söguöld (Age of the Sagas) in Icelandic history. The sagas of kings, bishops, contemporary sagas have their own time frame. Most were written down between 1190 and 1320, sometimes existing as oral traditions long before, others are pure fiction, and for some we do know the sources: the author of King Sverrir‘s saga had met the king and used him as a source.

Excerpt from Njáls saga in the Möðruvallabók (AM 132 folio 13r) c. 1350.

Norse sagas are generally classified as: the Kings’ sagas (Konungasögur), sagas of Icelanders (Íslendinga sögur), Short tales of Icelanders (Íslendingaþættir), Contemporary sagas (Samtíðarsögur or Samtímasögur), Legendary sagas (Fornaldarsögur), Chivalric sagas (Riddarasögur), Saints’ sagas (Heilagra manna sögur) and bishops’ sagas (Biskupa sögur).

Dronning Ragnhilds drøm (Queen Ragnhild’s dream) from Snorre Sturlassons Kongesagaer by Erik Werenskiold, c. 1899

Kings’ sagas are of the lives of Scandinavian kings. They were composed in the 12th to 14th centuries. The Icelanders’ sagas (Íslendinga sögur), a.k.a. Family Sagas, are stories of real events, passed in oral form till they eventually were recorded, mostly in the 13th century. These are the highest form of the classical Icelandic saga writing. Some well-known examples include Njáls saga, Laxdæla saga and Grettis saga. The material of the Short tales of Icelanders sagas is similar to Íslendinga sögur, in shorter form. The narratives of the Contemporary Sagas are set in 12th- and 13th-century Iceland, and were written soon after the events they describe. Most are preserved in the compilation Sturlunga saga, though some, such as Arons saga Hjörleifssonar are preserved separately. Legendary Sagas blend remote history with myth or legend. The aim is on a lively narrative and entertainment. Scandinavia’s pagan past was a proud and heroic history for the Icelanders. Chivalric sagas are translations of Latin pseudo-historical works and French chansons de geste as well as native creations in the same style.

While sagas are generally anonymous, a distinctive literary movement in the 14th century involves sagas, mostly on religious topics, with identifiable authors and a distinctive Latinate style. Associated with Iceland’s northern diocese of Hólar, this movement is known as the North Icelandic Benedictine School (Norðlenski Benediktskólinn).

Other

“Saga” is a word originating from Old Norse or Icelandic language (“Saga” is also the modern Icelandic and Swedish word for “story” or, especially in Swedish, fairytale). Saga is a cognate of the English word say: its various meanings in Icelandic are approximately equivalent to “something said” or “a narrative in prose”, along the lines of a “story”, “tale” or “history”. Through the centuries, the word saga has gained a broader meaning in Nordic languages. In contemporary Swedish and Danish it describes a non-realistic or epic work of fiction. Folksaga means folk tale; a fairy tale by an unknown author, in Swedish and Danish. Konstsaga is the Swedish term for a fairy tale by a known author, such as Hans Christian Andersen or Astrid Lindgren, while the Danish and Norwegian term is eventyr (“adventure”).

Saga can also be a work of fantasy fiction. J. R. R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings series was translated into Swedish by Åke Ohlmarks with the title Sagan om ringen: “The Saga of the Ring”. The 2004 translation was titled Ringarnas herre, a literal translation from the original. Icelandic journalist Þorsteinn Thorarensen (1926–2006) translated the work into Hringadróttins saga meaning “Saga of the Lord of the Rings”.

In Swedish history, the term sagokung, “saga king” is intended to be ambiguous, as it describes the semi-legendary kings of Sweden, who are known only from unreliable, probably fictional, sources.

In Faroese, the word underwent U-umlaut becoming søga, and adopted a wider meaning. In addition to saga, it also covers terms such as history, tale, story.

References

9 thoughts on “The Saga; Old Norse narrative of achievements and events in the history of the Vikings”

  1. Clothing descriptions probably aren’t a good basis for the “experts” to dismiss a saga as fictional. Supposing that whatever text or oral source they had didn’t give a description of the clothes, and so the scribes just filled in the gaps as best they could. We can see examples of this in our modern times. It would be like saying the Grimm’s fairy tales weren’t written in the 1800s because modern copies sold for children are in modern words and the pictures also don’t fit with the style of the 1800s.
    I think you have to read the sagas and the lore with a grain of salt; read between the lines. There you will find the underlying message, at least the gist of it, and discover the thread of Truth.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. Many historians claim that the sagas were fictional and written from the point of view of the victor’s and therefore cannot be subjective. Julius Ceasar’s account of his invasion of Britain in 43AD isn’t subjective. It too is written from perspective of the conquering forces, and yet it is often used as an historic reference for students and scholars. The embellishment of the sagas tells us a great deal about how the Vikings saw themselves, but when combined with archeological fact (and as you point out, some reading between the lines) can provide us with a rich source of analysis.

    1. Definitely. I saw a documentary on Stonehenge last night (another exciting night in!) Archaeologist’s still can’t agree on its use. The same is true of the Avebury stone circle nearby. It could be ritualistic, it could be a meeting place. Conjecture is part of what makes history so exciting, yet some scholars seem keen to dismiss ideas out of hand because they seem too far fetched or untrue.

      1. Or it could be something entirely different, something that we can’t fully understand. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. If for no other reason than that I want there to be some magic and mystery to the world, I prefer to believe that either the megalithic structures, particularly Stonehenge, are a sort of portal into the otherworld, call it what you will; or they are part of some ancient technology, and we just haven’t figured out how to use it, or repair it and get it working again. Maybe it is working, but because it’s always been there in our recorded history, its affects are not apparent to us. For all we know, the henge’s could be barring the way through some portal to another dimension; or these structures are what keeps the earth’s magnetic field, or weather patterns, or tectonic plates in balance to prevent some kind of cataclysmic event. It could even be something nefarious. But unless we blow them all up, we’ll likely never know.

      2. There is so much that we don’t understand, so much we have yet to learn, about this world and what lies out there in the universe. The henge’s are certainly strange places. As a child I used to go amongst the stones at Stonehenge, now of course they are fenced off. I have been to Avebury many times. I always get an overwhelming sense of emotion when I am there. They are certainly powerful structures.

      3. Lucky! Stonehenge is on my bucket list. I’d probably just wait for the dead of night and jump the fence to go right into the henge. Maybe bring a mallet and find out if they really do have a special resonance when struck. 😉 (I read the Long Earth series, in case you’re wondering what I’m talking about.)

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