The Northern Way

The Icelandic Sagas

Chapter 1

Page 3

That saga-telling was one of the chief modes of entertainment among the Icelanders of this period would be sufficiently evident from the mass of traditional matter preserved in the written literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the sagas themselves, however, the practice is frequently mentioned, and some of the more interesting passages may be cited here to complete the outlines given in the preceding pages. When Thormóð the poet was in Greenland, where he had gone with the object of avenging his foster-brother Thorgeir, he one day went to sleep in the booth (one of the temporary dwellings used by those who attended the thing or assembly). On waking up, he found the place empty. Then one came in and said, "You are too far away from a great entertainment." Thormóð asked, "Where have you come from , and what pastime is going on?" Egil answered, "I was at Thorgrím's booth, and nearly the whole assembly is there now." Thormóð asked, "What pastime have they there?" Egil said, "Thorgrím is telling a saga.: Thormóð said, "About whom is the saga that he tells?" Egil answered "I do not know clearly about whom it is; but I Know that he tells it well, and in an entertaining manner. He is seated on a chair outside his booth, and the people are sitting round about him and listening to the saga." Thormóð said, "You must be able to give the name of some man who comes into the saga, especially as you speak so highly of it." Egil said, "A certain Thorgeir was a great hero in the saga and it seems to me that Thorgrím himself must have taken part in it, and borne himself bravely, as might be expected. I would like you to go there and listen to the entertainment." (That Egil did not know more about the story is explained by the fact that he was but half-witted.)

In the saga of Njál it is told that when Kári and his comrades landed in the Orkneys on Christmas Day, and went up to the hall of Earl Sigurd, they found Gunnar Lambason in the act of telling how Njál's homestead and its inmates were burned by Flosi and his associates. Gunnar, who had also taken a part in the burning, was seated on a chair in front of King Sigtrygg of Dublin, and all the seats in the hall were filled with hearers. As Kári and the others stood listening outside, King Sigtrygg asked, "How did Skarp-heðin stand the burning?" "Well at first," said Gunnar, "but in the end he wept," and all through the story he told much both unfairly and falsely. Kári could not stand this, sprang in with drawn sword, and swept off Gunnar's head in a moment.

How an untravelled Icelander could learn about events that took place in other lands is well illustrated by the story of a young man, who came one summer to the court of King Harald (surnamed harðráði), and was received there on condition that he should tell sagas whenever he was required to do so. When Christmas came near, the Icelander showed signs of dejection. The king suspected that this was because his sagas had come to an end, and he had no entertainment to offer during the festive season. The Icelander admitted that this was really the case. "I have only one saga left,: he said, "and I dare not tell that here, for it is about your own adventures in foreign lands." "That is the saga I should most of all like to hear," said the king, and gave him directions how to make it last over the Christmas festival. The king's men knew nothing of this arrangement, and many of them thought it a piece of great presumption on the part of the Icelander, and wondered how the king would take it. The king, however, showed no sign either way. On the twelfth day the saga was finished, and on the thirteenth day the king said, "Are you not curious, Icelander, to know how I am pleased with the saga?" "I am rather afraid about that," was the reply. "I like it very well," said the king, "who taught it to you?" He answered, "It was my custom in Iceland to go every summer to the Thing, and each summer I learned part of the saga from Halldór Snorrason." "Then it is not remarkable that you know it so well," said the king, Halldór was another Icelander, who had been with Harald while he fought for the Greek emperor in Greece, Africa, and Italy, and afterwards carried home the story of all his exploits in these lands.

The use of saga-telling to enliven festive gatherings is further illustrated in the account of a wedding, which took place at Reykhólar (in the north-west of Iceland) in the year 1119. "Hrólf of Skálmarness," it says, "told the saga about Hröngvið the viking, and Ólaf, king of the Lithsmen, and the breaking into the grave-mound of Thráin the berserk, and Hrómund Gripsson, and many verses along with it. With this saga King Sverrir was entertained, and he said that such lying sagas were the most entertaining of all; and yet some men trace their descent from Hrómund Gripsson. Hrólf had put this saga together himself. --- Ingemund the priest told the saga of Orm, the poet of Barrey, with many verses in it, and at the end of it a good poem which Ingimund had composed; and for that reason many learned men take this saga as true." This passage is of great interest and value, as evidence not only for the personal authorship of these fictitious sagas, but for the fact that their unhistorical character was quite well understood.

The incident just described took place at the time when a written literature was about to arise in Iceland. Yet so strong was the interest in hearing stories told by good narrators, that the art was still in high favour a century and a half later. When Sturla the historian visited Norway in 1263, he accompanied King Magnus on board ship, an sailed south along the coast with him. In the evening, when men lay down to sleep, Sturla was asked to entertain them. Thereupon he told the saga of the witch-woman Huld, and related it much better than nay of the listeners had ever heard it told before. Many then crowded forward on the deck to hear the story as well as possible, until there was a great throng there. The queen asked, "What is that crowd forward on the deck there?" One replied, "It is men who want to hear the saga that the Icelander is telling.: She said, "What saga is that?" he answered, "It is about a great troll-wife, and it is a good saga, and moreover it is well told." Next day the queen sent for Sturla, and bade him come to her, "and bring with him the saga of the troll-wife." She then asked him to tell the story over again, and he did so during a great part of the day. When he had finished, the queen and many others thanked him, and looked upon him as a learned and clever man. Not long after this, King Magnus gave Sturla the task of putting together the saga of his father, King Hákon, according to information supplied by the best authorities. Sturla not only did this, but wrote the saga of King Magnus as well.

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