The Northern Way

The Icelandic Sagas

Chapter 1

Page 1

The Origin of the Sagas

The general title of Icelandic Sagas is used to denote a very extensive body of prose literature written in Iceland, and in the language of that country, at various dates between the middle of the twelfth century and the beginning of the fifteenth; the end of the period, however, is less clearly marked than the beginning. The common feature of the works classed under this name, which vary greatly in length, value, and interest, is that they have the outward form of historical or biographical narratives; but the matter is often purely fictitious, and in many cases fact and fiction are inseparably blended. Both in the form and in the matter there is much that is conventional, and many features of style and content are quite peculiar to the special Icelandic mode of story-telling.

The word saga (of which the plural is sögur) literally means, 'something said,' and was in use long before there was any written literature in Iceland. From an early period it had been a custom, which in course of time became an accomplishment and an art, to put together in a connected form the exploits of some notable man or the record of some memorable event, and to relate the story thus composed as a means of entertainment and instruction. It was out of these oral narratives, augmented and elaborated during the course of several centuries, that that the written saga finally arose; but before entering into any account of how this came to pass it will be well to explain why Iceland, of all the Scandinavian counties, became the home of this form of literature. For this purpose it is necessary to take a brief survey of the history of that island, and of its relations with the lands lying nearest to it.

Iceland was colonized, mainly from Norway, and almost entirely by settlers of Norwegian origin, during the half-century or so following upon the year 874 A. D. As late as the middle of the ninth century, Norway was still a country of small kingdoms, each independent of the other, and having distinctive names. Even within these petty kingdoms the power of the kings was far from absolute, and many earls and chiefs were men of as much importance and influence as some of those who bore the royal name. The Viking period, with its constant expeditions to foreign lands in search of plunder, fostered the spirit of independence by enriching the bolder spirits of the community, and made them less inclined than ever to brook interference from those of higher rank. With the second half of the century an important change took place. Harald the Fair-haired, whose paternal Kingdom was limited to a small district in the east of Norway, began at an early age to extend his domain by conquest. According to the story given in the saga of Harald, his desire of dominion was mainly due to the words of a girl, who refused to consider his wooing of her so long as he was only king over a few small districts; "and I think it strange," she said, "that there is no king who will try to make Norway his own, as Gorm has done in Denmark, and Eirik at Uppsala." When these words were reported to Harald, he declared himself grateful for the, and made a vow never to cut of comb his hair, until he had made himself master of the whole of Norway. The following years, from 864 onwards, witnessed the rapid fulfillment of this resolve, culminating in the great sea-fight at Hafrsfirth on the west coast of Norway, in the year 872. After this battle, says his saga, King Harald met with no further resistance. His greatest opponents had either fallen, or fled from the country; and the latter were sufficiently numerous to colonize several new districts, such as Jamtaland and Helsingland (in modern Sweden), and even new-found lands like the Færöes and Iceland. There was also much emigration to Shetland; and many powerful men who were outlawed by Harald took to 'western viking.' They lived in the Orkneys or the Hebrides in the winter, while in the summer they plundered Norway, and did much damage there.

The tendency to make the British Isles their chief resort, on the part of those who could not or would not remain in Norway after Harald's triumph, was greatly checked by the discovery of Iceland. As soon as the existence of this extensive island (larger even than Ireland) became generally known, and some idea had been gained of what it could offer to the settler, one or two of the bolder spirits were not long in seizing the opportunity which thus presented itself. The land was to be had for the taking, for the only inhabitants were a few Celtic monks who had wandered there in quest of solitude and who left again when the new settlers came; and the long sea-voyage did not deter men to whom the sea had become almost a second home. The first settlement, that of Ingólf, appears to have taken place in 874, and for the next fifty or sixty years a steady stream of colonists, coming either directly from Norway or from the Norwegian settlements in Britain, poured into the island, until every valley round its deeply indented coast had been occupied. So great was the emigration from Norway that King Harald became alarmed, and tried to lessen it by imposing a tax on every one who went out to Iceland. Thanks to the deep and unbroken interest in genealogy and history among subsequent generations of Icelanders, a very full record of the details of the colonization has been preserved, and is to be found in the compilation known as Landnáma-bók, while the broader outlines are carefully stated in the still earlier Ísledinga-bók of Ari the Learned. From these two works, as well as from many of the sagas, the names and much of the history of all the leading settlers are known; and it is thus possible to understand clearly both their relations with their old home and the manner in which they adapted themselves to their new one.

Not a few of these settlers belonged to old and famous families in Norway, and some of them were closely connected with kings and earls there, or in other Scandinavian countries. When these removed to Iceland, they were accompanied by many of their adherents and dependents, and asserted for themselves in the new land the leading place they had held in the old. To such settlers 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. Not a few of these men had also seen much of other lands before they went to end their days in Iceland. Some had played an active part as vikings --- to them an honourable was well as profitable occupation --- and had plundered in the Baltic lands, or in the British Isles, or even further south. Others had seen the manners and men of foreign countries in the more peaceful capacity of traders, and as such had frequented not only foreign towns but even the courts of foreign kings, as Ohthere and Wulfstan did that of King Alfred. Others again, as we have already seen, had been actually settled for some time in the Scottish islands, or in Ireland, and had intermarried with the Gaelic peoples there. Some of these were men and women of great distinction, and played a prominent part in the early history of Iceland, though their number was smaller than has sometimes been supposed; at the very most only one in every six of the leading settlers came from 'west the sea.' many of these colonists brought with them thralls belonging to other countries, some of whom were almost immediately set free and established in homes of their own, thus helping towards a mixture of race which can be clearly observed at the present day. In all this there was much matter worthy of being remembered, and the origin and adventures of such men formed themes of great interest both for their own descendants and for others.

As might be expected, the occupation of a new land by this crowd of strong-willed men, already taught by experience how to hold their own against others, did not always take place in a peaceful manner. There were some who recognized no right as prior to their own, and did not hesitate to make their own strong arm the law. Quarrels readily arose over small matters, and northern ideas as to the duty of revenge often converted these differences into prolonged and bitter family feuds with violent and tragic endings. Out of these many conflicts between persons and families there grew fresh matter for tradition, and in each district the memory of notable men and their deeds of courage or mischief was long and carefully preserved. This preservation was greatly assisted by a strong bent towards the art of story-telling, which often led to the incidents being narrated in good set form by one or other of the parties concerned, while they were still new and capable of being verified. The story thus told was then carefully learned by others, and handed on with all its details, in a way that would have been impossible with any looser or less formal style of tradition. The Accuracy of the narrative was often further secured by another factor --- the Icelandic fondness for poetry. In many cases the events had been the cause or theme of single verses or of poems, whether composed by actors in the affair or by others, and these not only served to adorn the tale, but could be cited to prove the facts. In another line of tradition, as will presently be seen, such verses and poems were of even greater value.

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