The Icelandic Sagas

“There was a man named Ulf, the son of Bjalfi and of Hallbera, the daughter of Ulf the Fearless. She was the sister of Hallbjorn Half-troll from Hrafniste, father of Ketil Haeng.” These two sentences are the opening lines in Egils saga, maybe the most famous of all independent sagas, and clearly a masterpiece of the style. The Sagas, or more precisely the Icelandic sagas, are a collection of early medieval text that are based on a storytelling tradition that lived on Iceland from centuries before the stories were written down in the 13th or 14th century.

For me personally the first encounter with the sagas were not the famous Egils saga or Njåls saga, but Heimskringla, which is for those of you who do not know it the saga about the Early Norwegian Kings, my first encounter with the style of the sagas was as mentioned taken from this text, it was the part in King Harald fair-haired’s saga where it tells about the battle of Hafrsfjord which happened in 872 where King Harald became king over all of Norway. Later scientists have debated this claim, and suggested that Harald could not possibly have made himself King over all of Norway, but that is not a debate we should look into here. Like with other Sagas, Heimskringla, have parts which not necessarily was the exact thing that happened or was said, and very few historians now days believe that the entire content of the sagas are true from beginning to end, however, it has been suggested that the sagas through their lives as oral stories have changed and been adapted to the audience over the years. This possibility makes it harder for both historians and ordinary people to read the sagas as historical records, for one may never be 100% sure on what is the truth and are the original story.

Many of the Sagas that have survived until today are not original documents, most of them are early modern copies of, either and late medieval copy or the original manuscript. This would mean that the text you and I read today in English have been re-written about 4 times which then increases the possibility of loosing information and meaning on the way. For one that want to read the Sagas a source for historical research, not only is there a possible problem with the translations and new copies, but also with the authorship of the text. As mentioned above are the majority of the sagas not first and foremost a written text in itself, they are texts that are based on oral traditions and stories that have been handed down through generations, some stories may have existed about 300 years before anyone wrote them down.

But who were these persons that wrote them down? The answer to this question is not simple, cause some of the texts have names connected to them, while other again do not. The truth is that scholars have so far not been able to exactly say that a certain person is the author, what is certain is that the author must have been among the educated elite of the Island, either through the being a part of the clergy or the civil elite. More than that is not possible to say certain, however, there are texts that have strong indications on who may have written them, like for example Heimskringla. This uncertainty makes the assessment of whether the author have been taking sides, or having  personal interests in the saga, very hard.

No matter how hard it is to assess or to get a grip on the truth in the Sagas, or how complicated they are as sources for history, they are still text that makes a good read, either you do it for the joy of it, or if you read them to get insight into a society that is so different from the one we live in today. So my suggestion will be, go to your local library and ask if they have either one or several of the Icelandic sagas and borrow it. For i would claim that reading them may need a bit of an effort, but it is worth it, after all they are seen as one of the masterpieces of European literature.

Source.

Thorsson, Ø.,(ed.) The Saga of Icelanders; a selection, 2000.

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