The voice calls through the hall. The wind howls outside, and the fire crackles. The family gather round on benches. The speaker, maybe a parent or skald, by this single word has captured your attention, and they unfold their tale…
This article is about the Icelandic sagas, the great tales that began as fireside stories so many centuries past in the wild North Atlantic. If you are looking for something new to read, I hope this will be an intriguing introduction. Sagas combine the lyrical tragedy of Shakespeare with the bawdy posturing of a Restoration comedy, and the narrative complexity of Dumas with the searing social commentary of Dickens. In them we find the fierce poetic beauty of Beowulf and The Wanderer alongside succinct bursts of profound philosophy worthy of Solomon or Aurelius. Their power and strength always emanates from the human participants at the heart of the drama.
We are familiar with the word saga, meaning a story, but the Icelandic sagas are more than just stories. They are unique in the canon of medieval literature for their number and for their human realism. Despite often featuring trolls, ghosts, wights and sorcery, these form merely a background to intensely human narratives, set amidst the people who voyaged across the sea to find new homes and make new lives. More than forty sagas from that time survive, and most were first written in manuscripts from the 13th and 14th centuries, although they contain poetic and other material from much earlier. The authors are anonymous, but were probably monks, travelers and chroniclers whose lives were as exciting and bizarre as the stories they captured. Consider the case of Snorri Sturluson, the author of Heimskringla (the history of the Kings of Norway) and large sections of The Prose Edda, as well as the probable author of Egil’s Saga. He lived the life of an adventurer, poet, chieftain and law-speaker, before being murdered in his beer-cellar by men claiming to be agents of the King of Norway. Such varied, colourful and violent lives are mirrored in the sagas.
In this article, I’ll give a little context about the Icelandic community, and then move onto an introduction of the literary style and main themes of the sagas, before finishing with a consideration of their human aspects. I won’t be using specific plot details, because they are fantastic stories, full of twists and turns, and I want you to enjoy the plots for yourself. I hope this serves to whet your appetite.
Between the Mountain & the Sea
The sagas take place mostly in the Viking Age (c.800-1100AD). According to their literary sources, the origin of the Icelandic settlement was a result of increasing control in Norway by Harold Fairhair (or Tangle-Hair, as he was known at the time), who famously vowed never to cut or trim his hair until he had united all Norway. Disliking this hegemony and dangerously out of favour at court, many families self-exiled themselves, starting new lives in the uninhabited Iceland. The sagas chart the adventures and exploits of individuals and family groups, as well as whole communities. They mainly take place in Iceland, but there are long adventures in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, England, Scotland and Ireland, as well as sagas dedicated to the exploration of Greenland and America. There are sagas following the power-struggles or the Jarls of Orkney and the exploits of Viking warbands, as well as sagas regaling the heroic and crafty exploits of historical figures like Harold Hardrada. They cover periods of decades and even centuries.
Iceland itself was a remarkable community. Seeking an escape from central control, the settlers formed something like a Free State or commonwealth, although the community defies clear definition. Anthropologically, it was a ‘chieftain-level’ society, with no authority higher than local law-makers or prominent men. Unique among European countries at that time, there was no judiciary or executive authority. Instead, a highly sophisticated legal system emerged, with judgments being given by appointed judges, or Godis, at the Things, local courts, or the Althing, the high-court that met annually. Instead of capital punishment or incarceration, they practiced two main forms of justice; compensation or outlawry. Compensation could be paid for goods or livestock damaged either maliciously or accidentally, and any killings that took place had weregild attached to them. Outlawry was by far the worst punishment. Fjörbaugsgarðr, lesser outlawry, meant that the offender was banished from Iceland for 3 years, and had to depart within a set time. Skóggangr, greater outlawry, meant that the offender could not receive fire, shelter or food from any inhabitant of Iceland for twenty years, but neither were they permitted to leave Iceland, nor was any allowed to give them passage. In such a wild and dangerous life in the North Atlantic, this was in effect a death sentence. Both types of outlawry involved the confiscation of property, and the offender could be killed with impunity; their life was stripped of its value.
Chapter & Verse
The sagas take the form of chapters, usually a few paragraphs or pages long, describing a phase of narrative. This may be a conversation, a combat, a legal ruling, or a passage of narrative. The longer sagas have upwards of 90-100 chapters, covering long periods of time.
The sagas unique narrative viewpoint is almost entirely external to the actors in the drama. By this, I mean that they are written as if we are watching the events through a camera lens. We are given very little insight into the thought-lives of characters. This can be jarring at first, as we are used to fiction that gives us internal monologues and descriptions of how characters are feeling and thinking. In the sagas however, we are presented with everything external to the character (speech and events), and we are left to guess at their inner reaction, if they present no visible sign. Characters receive legal judgments against them, and we are told something along the lines of, ‘They accepted the ruling, for the time being, and the winter passed’. Ominous signs! How a character reacts is often only apparent in actions that transpire days, months or even years after an event. Sometimes we are given a verbal cue, such as, ‘He resented this action, but resolved to keep the peace for the moment, and wait until spring’. Personally, I find this a refreshing step back from the postmodern obsession with internal dialogue.
However, there is one device the authors use to give us a way of interpreting a character’s thoughts and character; verse. The sagas are noticeable for the prevalence of poetry. The pithy verse-forms of Scandinavian culture are often spoken by characters as contests of wit, laments, celebrations or verses in praise of a ruler or lord. They give an insight into the workings of the speaker’s mind, and the ambiguity of poetry often serves as a cunning vehicle for insults. Indeed, the ability to speak clever and moving poetic verses is a quality much-admired by the saga characters, and men are often saved from attack or judgment, based solely on their quick wit. However, poetry as a window into character is tantalizingly subjective and ambiguous, and that is deliberate, as the authors want to keep their audience guessing. Very often, the final judgment of a character’s life and actions lies very much with the reader’s perspective.
With this poetic ambiguity comes a concurrent ambiguity of historiography. Reading the sagas with any awareness of the history of the Viking Age, it becomes apparent that these are not historical documents. Very few dates are given, and the chronology of these tales can only be roughly established. Battles are in the wrong year, or kings are mentioned who were not even ruling at the stated time. This may seem strange to us; in the 21st century, we believe that scientific and chronological truth gives a story its validity, but in an age before exact timekeeping, what mattered was the moral or symbolic truth of a story. For example, one character fights alongside King Athelstan at the battle of Brunaburh, and as a result becomes a much more compassionate, mature man. We know that this battle occurred in 937AD, but the external chronology of the story means that the character could not have been in England at that time. However, what the character learned was far more important that a precise itinerary of his journey. For the storytelling of the Northern World, this taught two lessons; it meant that the people are complex and ambiguous, defying offhand judgments, and that actions have consequences. The Northern World was a world of consequence. No matter how much a character matured and repented, they still must pay the piper. That is a sobering lesson to learn, but a very necessary one for them, and for us.
Character is Destiny
The plots of the sagas are usually a single narrative, reinforced by many intertwining and differing plots. As a result, it can be hard to give a précis or summary. A good example is the Laxdaela Saga. The most basic summary would be, ‘a love triangle’, but there are a score of other characters, both major and minor, and many other narratives that weave in and out of this central plot. The themes of the sagas are varied and complicated, but three of the most commonly explored topics are the inescapability of character, the nature of revenge and the importance of oaths (and the concurrent despicableness of oath-breaking). A wild flavour of the supernatural seasons all these dishes, and weaves through all of them.
For the saga writers, the maxim ‘character is destiny’ is a true representation of Scandinavian honour-culture; a man’s character and reputation were of the utmost importance. Both Grettir and Egil are protagonists who mature and grow wiser with age, yet their fates are controlled by the rash and violent actions of their younger, immature selves. The world of the sagas is a world where actions have consequences, and reputation matters. Men and women alike are caught in their own schemes, and there is a feeling of Biblical moral consequence in much of their destiny; ‘as a man sows, so shall he reap’. Those that live by the sword do indeed die by the sword. However, the inverse is also true. Those whose character is good are shown to prosper, and they in turn reap the benefits of demonstrating hospitality, courage and wisdom, the great virtues of the Viking world.
Revenge is a key motivator in the sagas, and forms much of their powerfully tragic narrative framework. Limiting and avoiding the excesses of bloodfeud was a key aspect of Icelandic and medieval law, but the actions of individuals cannot be so neatly governed. The tragedy comes from the inescapability of character, as explored above, but also from the fact that many of the most bitter and murderous feuds have fairly innocuous beginnings. The first point of offence is often nothing more than an ill-timed joke, an insult spoken in anger or a small and thoughtless act of greed. The tragedy lies in the escalation, as more and more families and individuals become involved, and motivations become more blurred and complicated in cycles of revenge, murder and violence. Those with axes to grind leap on the chance to vow vengeance, using an existing feud as a cover to avenge their own grievances, no matter how slight or imagined.
And once an oath is made, the oath-maker breaks it at their peril. Again and again, the narratives cycle around oaths made in haste that must be fulfilled. Many times, a protagonist has vowed revenge on another character, but their heart is not in it, especially after some time has passed. However, an oath is an oath, and they must one again submerge themselves and their families into a cycle of violence to avoid losing face.
The supernatural elements in these tales are frequent, and draw heavily on the mythology of the Norse peoples. Alongside creatures like trolls and barrow-wights, there are curses, blessings and magic spells, which often impact on a character’s ability to exercise agency. Heroes often have to contend with draugr, which are angry grave-spirits given corporeal form, or the curses of witches and seers. The line between the physical and the supernatural is often blurred, for when do wise foreseeing words become prophecy, and when do words spoken in anger become a curse? The tension between the pragmatic legalism of the Althing ruling, and the dealing out of curses and rune-spells always exists in the sagas, and it is a strange and gripping world to explore.
Moral complexity has become something of a fetish in modern fiction, particularly in speculative fiction. It has, ironically, led to the ‘morally grey character’ becoming a trope all of its own, devolving into little more than a rhetorical trick to give the appearance of profundity to the merely sordid. However, the sagas give the lie to the assumption that this is a 20th century innovation, and show that moral complexity does not have to be a trick to deceive your audience; instead, it becomes a window into the humanity of these people, and a brake on attempts to judge their actions too quickly. There are few two-dimensionally good or bad characters, and when they do appear, they usually only have walk-on parts. The characters of the saga are like us; human, mostly neither totally evil nor totally virtuous. Instead they are motivated by common desires; they want to belong and to be loved, to have reputation and wealth. They desire vengeance for the wrongs they have suffered, and strike out in anger against those who wound them. They build houses and raise families. They drink and feast, and argue about religion and politics and justice. They want what is theirs, and sometimes they want what belongs to other people. In the sagas we find love, cruelty, jealously, happiness, longing, violence, revenge, forgiveness and a desire to explore and find freedom amongst the mountains and the seas. Who among us can denounce those desires without hypocrisy?
There are many sagas, but a good place to start may well be the most famous and loved sagas. Egil’s Saga, Njal’s Saga and The Laxdaela Saga are the finest of the ‘family sagas’, which deal with the interplay of powerful families in the Icelandic Commonwealth. Grettir’s Saga, King Harald’s Saga and The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue focus more an individual’s journey, while The Saga of the Jomsvikings and The Vinland Sagas focus on groups of warriors and adventurers. For an informative, readable and authoritative introduction to medieval Iceland, Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland is an excellent place to start.