The Northern Way

The Icelandic Sagas


In this brief outline of an extensive subject I have endeavoured to explain clearly not only what the Icelandic sagas are, but how it happened that they arose in a place so remote from the rest of Europe. This is certainly one of the most surprising features of this unique literature, though in reality it is not quite so strange as it appears. The special reasons which explain it are fully stated in the first chapter, but there is also a general consideration which perhaps ought not to be overlooked. In respect of early original literature, the central Germanic area is not strongly represented; it is on the outmost borders, in Iceland, England, and southern Germany, that literary activity of a high order first manifests itself. This would appear to suggest that the Germanic race was first enabled to create original literature of a permanent character when it had come into contact with, or even had largely mixed with, other races, and had received the impulse of new experiences. This the more central peoples of the Germanic stock --- the southern Scandinavians, the Frisians, the Saxons, and the Lower Franks --- have either little or nothing in the way of early literature to set beside the poetry and prose of the extreme north, west, and south. However this may be, the cultivation of a great poetic and prose literature in Iceland is remarkable enough, and becomes more notable when the period to which it belongs is considered. The poetry, so far as preserved, dates from about or before 900, and is very copious for the centuries that follow. The prose literature begins about 1120, and is at its highest level in the thirteenth century, at a time when there was practically no writing of prose either in England or in Germany. The comparative isolation of Iceland enabled it to take its own course, and to preserve, in its own language and with its own literary style, the records of its own past and of other countries as well.

It is one peculiarity of this style that it makes little or no distinction between fact and fiction; in either case there is the same minuteness of detail and the same apparent good faith or implicit belief on the part of the narrator. This feature is apt to be misunderstood, especially in the earlier stages of saga-reading, and I have specially endeavoured to show clearly the real facts of the matter.

With regard to the Icelandic names of persons and titles of sagas occurring throughout the book, the only points to be noted are that vowels marked with an acute accent are long, that j has the value of the semi-vowel y, and that the letter ð represents the soft or voiced th, as in bathe. In translations of the sagas and other works it is commonly expressed by a simple d, as in Odin, Sigurd.

W. A. Craigie.


November, 1912.

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