The Northern Way

The Icelandic Sagas

Chapter III

Historical Sagas Relating to Iceland and Greenland

Page 1

The contents of Ari's Islendinga-bók, and of Landnáma-bók, would be sufficient in themselves to show that a very great knowledge of the past history of the island existed in Iceland in the twelfth centruy; but it would have been impossible to imagine how rich and full the traditions actually were, if so many of them had not formed the bases of separate sagas. In almost every district of Iceland, but especially (as we have already said) in the west and the north, the memory of great men and distinguished families had been handed down, and out of the traditons came the collection of sagas now commonly grouped under the name of Islendinga sögur. Although they may thus be classed under a common title and have certain characteristic features in common, these sagas differ greatly from each other in length, and in the extent to which they can be regarded as having a genuinely historical character. Some are quite short, covering thirty or fourty small pages, or even less, while the larger extend to two, three, or even four hundred. In most cases it is clear that the shorter sagas are more original, or represent an earlier literary stage, the the longer ones; the latter or either composite made up by working together two or three separate marratives, or belong to a period when the art of literary compostion was more advanced. If only the more authentic sagas relating the the events prior to 1030 are rechoned, their total number amounts to about 30, which in all would fill more than 3000 pages similar to those in this book. The geographical distribution of thes is very unequal. The five longer sagas, which would accupy about 1400 pages, relate to the western half of Iceland; and of the remainder at least seven-eights are connected with the west and the north, the east and sout-east being represented by a mere handful of very short stories.
        In by far the greater number of these sagas the main action takes place at some period between the middle of the tenth century and the first quarter of
the eleventh. In many of them, however, the story begins at an earlier date; not uncommonly some account is given of the ancestors of the hero, whether in Iceland itself of before the emigration to what island. Occasionally this part is so fully treated that the proper subject of the saga is quite late in making its appearance; in such cases there is often much valuable information relating to the times immediately before and after the settlement. The value, however, depends on the character of the saga, and it is often a doubtful question how far the accounts are derived from genuine traditions, and how much is due to historical studies in the thirteenth century. Even the genealogies of the settlers, which are sometimes given with great fullness, cannot be regarded as perfectly reliable for more than one or two generations previous to the settlement.
        In giving some account of the extensive body of saga-literature relating directly to Iceland, of to its colony, Greenland, it will be best to divide it into four classes or groups, which to a great extent correspond to the historical development of the saga. The first two classes comprise the shorter and longer sagas of famous Icelanders, or of Icelandic families, during the older period, which closes about 1030. The third class consists of the sagas relating to the introduction of Christianity and the subsequent history of the Church in Iceland; These cover an otherwise barren century, and then from about 1120 run parallel to, or are closely connected with, and increasing volume of more secular history which reaches its latest point shortly after 1260.
        It is obviously impossible, in the compass of an outline like this, to enter into details of all the separate sagas coming under these different heads. At the same time, it is only by giving some account, however much condensed, of a considerable number of them that their great variety and interest can be clearly displayed. In the following pages, therefore, the majority of them are named and described more or less fully, although with omission of many matters which a closer study of them would necessarily involve.
        §i. The Shorter Sagas.        The best and most interesting of these amount to about a score in all, and contain a surprising variety of incidents, whether genuine of fictitious, and much skilful delineation of personal character. Some of them are masterpieces of story-telling, but their full merit cannot always be appreciated unless they are read in the original language, and with a knowledge of the local conditions. The author, being as a rule well acquainted with the scene of the saga and perfectly familiar with the relationship of the persons concerned in it, is apt to assume the same knowledge on the part of his readers; for this reason it is often necessary to make a close study of the geography of the district and of several genealogies, before the whole course of the story becomes quite clear.
        Of the short self-contained stories which probably represent most closely the primitive types of saga, one of the best is the Hrafnkels saga, the action of which takes place in the east of Iceland (and at the Althingi), about the middle of the tenth century. The story, written by someone with throrough local knowledge and an interest in the past history of the district, is excellently told, and forms a neatly rounded tale, with an unexpected turn at the close. The whole series of events arises in a natural way out of Hrafnkel's personal character, coupled with his possession of a horse, which he had dedicated to the god Frey, and with regard to which he had made a rash vow. The fulfillment of this, almost against his own will, brought on his temporary downfall, and destroyed all his faith in the god, whose priest he had previously been. Both Hrafnkel's own case, and that of his chief adversary, and striking examples of the pride that goes before a fall -- a sentiment which the saga itself expresses in a proverb. The serious character of the story is cleverly relieved by scenes of a lighter character at the Althingi, where a chief's festered toe was humorously utilized as a means of enlisting his sympathy on the side of the injured and thus enabling those whom Hrafnkel had despised to triumph over him. Their subsequent want of foresight enabled Hrafnkel to requite them in full and recover his old position, with his character greatly improved by the reverse of fortune he had thus experienced. The delineation of character in this saga is remarkably good, and there is a striking air of impartiality and quiet forbearance about it, suggestive of a peace-loving honest-minded writer.
        Another saga of the east of Iceland, and relating to events of much the same date as those in Hrafnkel's saga, is the short story of Thorstein the White, which contains some typical incidents. One of these forms after his betrothal to Helga, decided to go abroad before settling down. Illness detained him in Norway, but his comrade Einar returned to Iceland, spread a report of his death, and succeeded in winning Helga for himself. As Thorstein recovered, it was a matter of course that he should subsequently avenge himself of his false associate, and almost inevitable that ather innocent persons should be drawn into the blood-feud and lose their lives. Among these was Thorgils, son of Thorstein the White, and whomethe loss fell all the more hardly, as he had the misfortune of being blind. Five years later Thorstein the Fair came back to Iceland, and immediately rode to the house of his namesake, not in order to revive the old quarrel, but with an offer to settle it by full payment for the death of Thorgils. "Thorstein the White said that he would not carry his son in his purse. Thorstein the Fair then springs up and lays his head on the knee of his namesake." This absolute submission touched the blind father's heart, and he not only forgave everything, but insisted that Thorstein should stay with him and take charge of his household. The further relations between the two afford a fine example of the magnanimity which, in many of the sagas, stands in strong contrast to the implacable spirit of the ordinary blood-feud. There is a very similar transition from hostility to friendship at the end of Vàpnfurðinga saga, which relates to the same district and partly to the same family the events take place between 980 and 990. It is mainly a record of local dissensions, arising in the first instance out of covetousness, and here the generous character of Thorleif the Christian comes out in clear relief against the self-interest of the other chief actors. This saga is must longer than that of Thorstein, but both of them appear to be honest reproductions of local tradition, without any attempt at invention or the introduction of extraneous matter. Still another saga from the same quarter of the island appears to rest on a good family tradition, the great-grandsom of one of the leading persons being specially mentioned as the quthority for it. This is the story of Helgi and Grím, the two sons of a widow named Droplaug, who at the ages of 13 and 12 avenge a reflection upon their mother's character by killing the author of the slander. This youthfulness of the heroes is a common feature in many sagas, and it is difficult to say how far it is merely conventional. Through his and other acts the two came into conflict with the leading man of the district, Helgi Àsbjarnarson; the older brother, Helgi, was the chief cause of these troubles, the younger being of a quiet and inoffensive disposition. Helgi's doings finally led to his being sentenced to banishment for three years; but like some more famous outlaws he chose to run the risks of remaining in Iceland, exposed at any moment to the lawful attack of his enemies. What the end would be as darkly shown to him by forebodings and dreams, such as are prominent in many of the sagas, and which no doubt had a foundation in real experience. At last his foes found their opportunity, and after a gallant fight (the description of which is one of the best parts of the saga) Helgi was killed and Grím severely wounded. The latter recovered but "he never laughed after the death of Helgi." The story of how he avenged his brother by entering his enemy's house at night is a striking one and is well told. Subsequently, though with some difficulty, he succeeded in getting away from Iceland and arrived in Norway; there he was reported to have died from wounds received in a duel with a Viking, who had arrogantly demanded in marriage the sister of his Norwedian host. There is a conventional touch in this which renders its authenticity doubtful, but the story as a whole has an air of truth about it; some of the incidents are corroborated by verses, most of them composed by Grím himself. The events belong to the later part of the saga-age, from about 980 to 1006; and Grím's great-grandson, who 'told the saga' might well have lived a good way into the twelfth century.
        Various sagas relating to the north of Iceland also appear to be, in the main, good representatives of a genuine tradition. Several of these belong to the district round about Eyjafirth, in the eastern half of the north coast, and contain much interesting matter; some particulars relating to these it may be useful to mention briefly, a full account of each saga being out of the question. For the most part these sagas relate to events which took place around 970 and 1030; but one begins much earlier, and another ends with incidents of a generation later. Two are named after the hero of the story: these are the sagas of Víga-Glúm and Valla-Liót. Another two have more comprehensive titles, and are called the sagas of the men of Reykjadal (Reykdoela saga) and of Ljósavatn (Ljósventninga saga). That of Valla-Ljót in the shortest, and Ljósvetninga the longest, of the four. The former has but slight literary value and is not of special interest; it is mainly and account of a conflict between Ljót and another chief, Guðmund the Mighty, which was soon ended by mutual agreement (in 1010). The saga of Víga-Glúm is in every way superior to this, and contains much interesting information as to old customs and beliefs. Glúm began his energetic career at an early age, and the story of his later life covers a period of some fifty years, down to his death in 1003. This is one of the few sagas which throw some real light upon the old religion of Iceland, as it not only makes mention of Frey's temple in Eyjafirth, but has preserved some ideas relating to the god himself and his attitude towards his worshippers. The disputes for the possession of a certain field bring into prominence the fact that for some centuries after the settlement there was a considerable amount of agriculture in Iceland; traces of this still appear largely in local names throughout the island. The old sport of horse-fighting and the pastime of 'choosing confidants' have also a part in the sequence of events. A curious incident is that of Glúm's oath, in which by the ambiguous use of a word he seemed to clear himself from a charge of manslaughter; the record of the procedure and the formula employed are of considerable value for Icelandic legal antiquities. All Glúm's fighting brought him little profits in the end; he was driven from his homestead, became old and blind, and died immediately after having accepted the new faith which had come to Iceland.
        Glúm also enters to some extent into the second portion of Reykdoela saga, the hero of which is Víga-Skúta; in the earlier portion the leading persons are Skúta's father, Áskel, and the latter's nephew Vémund. The action takes place in the second half of the tenth century, and the author has evidently done his best to give the story as he found it in the district. The longer Ljósventninga saga, also based on a good tradition, is composed of several sections which have only a loose connexion with each other. The central portion relates to the famous chief Guðmund the Mighty, and ends with his sudden death in 1025. The remainder of the saga relates to Guðmund's sons, Eyjólf and Koðrán, and deals with events which took place as late as between 1050 and 1065, a period lying altogether outside of that which constitutes the 'saga-age' proper.
        A different and less original type of sag is represented by one from a district further west than the preceding story of the men of Vatnsdal (Vatnsdoela saga), in which the fortunes of a family for nearly two hundred years are told. The narrative here begins very early, with distinguished Norwegians belonging to the first half of the ninth century; how much of this is genuine tradtion is very doubtful. There can be no question, however, of the historical existence of Ingimund, who was a viking and fought for King Harald at Hafrsfirth in 872. He refused to believe the prophecy of a Finnish wise-woman, who told him that he was destined to end his days in Iceland; but fate proved too strong for him, and in the end everything went as she had foretold. The power of fate is in fact the connection thread which runs all through the saga, and occasionally find expression in proverbial sayings, after the death of Ingimund, and the avenging of him, the connexion between the various parts of the saga becomes much looser, so that the latter haf is less interesting and attractive that the earlier. In the saga as a whole there is much information about old beliefs, old religious rites, and early customs, all narrated in a style which shows considerable literary training as well as a marked interest in history and antiquities. A different version of some of the incidents is given in the Finnboga saga, and a comparison of the two accounts is instructive as the difference between the historical and the fictitious element in the Icelandic sagas.
        In four or five of the shorter sagas the hero is a poet (a skáld), in all of these there is more or less a love-element present. As revealed in these sagas, the poets are striking and interesting characters impulsive, self-willed men, as ready with the sword as with the tongue, and usually the authors of their own misfortunes.

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page