The Northern Way

The Icelandic Sagas

Chapter 3

Page 3

Among the shorter sagas there are several which deal more or less with Greenland, one of which (Fóstbroeðra saga) has already been mentioned. The discovery and settlement of that country are briefly related in the opening chapters of the saga of Eirík the Red (also, and with more reason, called the saga of Thorfinn Karlsefni). Some events in the early history of the settlements are then recounted, and here occurs the fullest extant description of an old Icelandic 'spae-wife' and her methods of divination. There are also strange tales of hountings and dead men's prophecies, mingled with matter of great historical and geograpical interest. Leif, the son of Eirík, had been in Norway and had there accepted the Christian faith. On his way back to Greenland he was driven out of his course, and came to a strange land, which either then or soon afterwards received the name of Vínland. Some years later (apparently in 1007) an expedition sailed in search of Vínland, under the leadership of Thorfinn, and the latter part of the saga gives an account of its fortunes. The details given in this account have been much discussed and disputed, and the matter is complicated by the existence of a very different form of the story, but there is no reason to doubt the general fact that Thorfinn and his comrades explored a considerable part of the eastern coast of North America. Vínland and it's inhabitants are alluded to by Air Thorgilsson, obviously as something well known, and Ari's information came from a very reliable sources. Moreover, Thorfinn's son Snorri, who was born in Vínland, was the immediate ancestor of several famous Icelandic bishops, and it is in the highest degree improbable that these would have been mistake in matters so closely connected with their family history.

There is a good deal about Greenland in Flóamanna saga, which tells how Thorgils from Flói, in the south-west of Iceland, went out there on the invitation of Eirík the Red, and suffered many hardships both on the voyage and in the country itself. The story of these is very well told, but their authenticity is extremely doubtful. The adventures of Thormóð appear to have a much better foundation; and a genuine glimpse of life in Greenland in the twelfth century is aforded by a shor story preserved in the great Flatey-book.

The works of which some account has been given is the preceding pages do not quiet exhaust the list of the shorter sagas, but those which remain do not present any features of an essentially different nature. One, however, deserves mention for two reasons. It is of a lighter type than the others, being more of a comedy than a tragedy, and it deals with a later period than any other (except the later portion of Ljósvetninga), as the events related in it took place about the middle of the eleventh century. This is the Bandamanna saga, the 'story of the confederates,' and its theme is how six or seven influential chiefs were befooled and rendered ridiculous by the craft of one old man, who is this way rendered an important service to his son. The saga is interesting not only for its unusual subject, but for the glimpse it gives of life in Iceland during this comparatively peaceful period of its history. To the same century, however, belong the greater number of the short stories of Icelanders, which are not found as separate compositions, but are interwoven in the longer versions of the sagas of Norwegian kings and are known by the name of Thoettir (in the singular tháttr, a word properly meaning a strand of a cord or rope). Many of these are of great merit and interest, and bring out very clearly the prominent part which Icelanders continued to play in Norway and other countries during this period.

§ii. The Longer Sagas. Five of the sagas relating to early Iceland stand out from the others by reasons of their greater length, though the shortest of them is nos so much longer than one or two of those already mentioned. In addition to their length, they are also characterized by their excellence, and are commonly recognized as reaching the highest levels of Icelandic literary art. In several respects, however, they differ very clearly from each other, and their historical value is by no means the same. The most reliable is this way is the shortest of the five, which bears the inappropriate name of Eyrbyggja saga, and is especially valuable for the information it has preserved relative to the old scandinavian religious beliefs and practices. It is the story of events which took place on the great peninsula of Snæfellsness, on the west coast of Iceland, between the period of the settlement (about 884) and the death of the famous chief Snorri (About 1031). The early chapters tell how Thórólf from Mostr in Norway went out to Iceland, taking with him the timber of Thór's temple, which he re-erected at the place where he made his new home. The whole passage relating to this contains much of all that is known about the actual worship of Thór among the old Norwegians and Icelanders, and appears to rest upon a trustworthy tradition. With the exception of a few events of slight importance, the saga passes rapidly over more than half a century from the death of Thórólf, and the main narrative begins (about 973) with the rise of the young Snorri, a son of that Thórgrím for whose death Gísli was outlawed. Snorri took up his abode at Helgafell, the hill which Thórólf had regarded as sacred, and is one of the principal figures throughout the rest of the saga. For a time he had a strong rival in Arnkel, a near neighbour, but the contest between them ended in the fall of the latter (about993). Some fifteen years later Snorri exchanged homesteads with the famous Guðrún (see p. 64), and so left the neighbourhood; nor does the saga have much to tell about his later doings, although he lived for twenty years after this. In the saga as a whole there is much dissension and fighting, and one of the encounters was the occasion of a good deal of verse-making by a certain Thórarinn. There are also stories of berserks and sorcery and hauntings; in respect of the latter this saga is especially powerful, and the account of the Hebridean woman Thorgunna, her death, and the subsequent marvels at Fróðá, forms one of the most striking passages of the kind in old Icelandic literature. Although Eyrbyggja is less of a connected story than many of the other sagas, the separate portions of if are interesting and well written. The author clearly belonged to the district, was well acquainted with its traditions and poetry, and had a sound historical sense in spite of his delight in the marvelous. Apart from the sections in which this interest predominates, there is no reason to doubt the substantial accuracy of the narrative.

Of a different type is the much longer Egils saga, to which a very prominent place must be assigned, not only on account of its length and the variety of its incidents, but also for its masterly arrangement and lucid style. It also begins at an early date, with men who were grown up before Harald the Fairhaired began to extend his rule over the whole of Norway. Two of these, Kveldúlf and his son Skallagrím, finally took revenge upon Harald for the death of another son, Thórólf, and thereupon set sail for Iceland. Kveldúlf died at sea, but Skallagrím and reached his destination, took possession of a large district on the west coast, and made his homestead at Borg in Mýrar. The account of all this, together with some other matters, takes up about one-third of the saga; the rest of it relates entirely to Egil, the son of Skallagrím, and gives a full account of both his adventures abroad and his doings in Iceland itself down to his death in 982. These adventures are twoo varied for enumeration here; were he fought for King Athelstan against the Scots and their allies, and on a later occasion saved his head at York by composing, in the course of one night, a poem in praise of him enemy, Earl Eirík. Two other poems by Egil are given in the saga, one in praise of his trusty friend Arinbjörn, and the other on the loss of his sons. One of these had died, another was drowned in Borgarfirth, and Egil was with difficulty prevented from starving himself to death. At the request of his daughter he composed the poem, in which resignation and resentment are curiously blended and powerfully expressed. Many single verses are also cited throughout the saga as being by Egil, but it is not quite clear how many of these are authentic. It is even uncertain how far the saga as a whole can be regarded as historical; much in it was no doubt drawn from local tradition, but the writer was clearly a man capable of handling his materials in a very independent manner, and there is every likelihood that he did so. The view has been advanced that the saga may actually be the work of Snorri Sturluson, who lived at Borg from 1201 to 1206; both the style and the historical knowledge, so apparent in every part of it, are strongly in favour of this attribution, though it can scarcely be regarded as proved. In any case the author was some one with thorough local knowledge, who took a deep interest in all that related to his hero and the family to which he belonged. In spite of its containing the history of three generations, the saga is so skillfully put together that the interest goes on by a natural sequence from the beginning to the end, and forms a very fine specimen of Icelandic literary skill. 

Another of the longer sagas, that of the Laxdale men (Laxdoela saga), also gives the story of several generations, but in more than one respect presents a marked contrast to Egil's saga. It is less connected, confused in its chronology, obviously fictitious in a number of its details, and exhibits a late romantic tone which is at variance with the true saga-style. The latter feature is especially noticeable in what must be regarded as the central part of the story ---that relating to Kjartan and Guðrún. This, however, is not reached till nearly the middle of the saga, which begins with the days of Harald the Fairhaired and the settlement of Iceland. The it tells of Höskuld, a son of one of the settlers, who bough a bondmaid in Norway and took her out to Iceland with him. It was only when her son Ólaf was two years old, that Höskuld discovered she was really and Irish princess, whose name was Melkorka. When he grew up, Óalf went to Ireland and visited his grandfather Myrkjartan (=Muircheartach in Irish), but returned to Iceland after the latter's death and finally took up his abode at Hjarðarholt in Laxdale. Then comes the account of Guðrún, daughter of Óvífr, the fairest woman in Iceland, whose successive marriages left her still a young woman at the time when Ólaf's son, Kjartan, had grown to manhood. The story of these two really occupies but a small part of the saga, but its romantic character and its tragic ending make it stand out clear and distinct above everything else in the narrative. The situation is to a great extent the same as in the sagas of Gunnlaug and Björn, but is rendered much more striking by the strong character of Guðrún herself, compared with whom Helga and Oddný are weak and colourless. In the later part of the saga the defects is its composition become more marked; the fictitious element is very obvious, and defies all chronology. But while Laxdoela must in some respects be regarded more as a historical novel than history, there can be no question of its great merits as a saga, and it well deserves the high esteem in which it has been held in Iceland and which it has won in other countries.

Of a different type from these district and family sagas is that of Grettir the Strong, which, with the exception of a few chapters at the beginning and end, deals entirely with the life and fortunes of the famous outlaw, especially during the years from 1010 and 1031. In respect of his long outlawry Grettir was even more famous that Gísli, but his character is less attractive and his hard fate less touching, nor is it certain how far the saga can be accepted as giving a traditional account of the man and his exploits. It is clearly a pretty late work, written by an author of considerable skill, whose object probably was to compose a work of entertainment rather than of serious history. This enables him to invest his hero with a certain romantic interest; Grettir is distinguished above all by his strength and endurance, has a cheerful disposition in the midst of all his misfortunes, and is ever ready with a short and pithy proverb. The incidents which stand out most clearly in the saga, however are mainly those which have no original connexion with Grettir, though it may be doubtful whether the author or popular tradition first brought them into relation with him. Chief among these is the tale of Glám, one of the most vivd and impressive ghost-stories in any mediæval literature. Considerable interest also attaches to the adventure with the troll-wife and the giant, in which there are obvious resemblances to the much earlier story of Beowulf and Grendel. The concluding chapters, which tell how Grettir was avenged in Constantinople, are also an adaptation of a common mediæval tale, part of which is found in the romance of Sir Tristem. Even setting aside these episodes, however, the story of Grettir's adventures is interesting and varied, and the account of his later days in Drangey forms a fitting climax to the whole. On account of Grettir's wanderings during his nineteen years outlawry the saga touches upon many different parts of Iceland, and requires a considerable knowledge of Icelandic topography for the clear understanding of some parts of it. The verses, of which there are many in the saga, are mostly spurious and of little value.

The longest and the most famous of all these sagas is that of Njál, which easily holds the place of pre-eminence among them, although critical investigations have show that several serious charges may be made against it as a record of facts. In its existing form it is a comparatively late, and is clearly a composite work, joined together with some skill, but showing distinctly the diverse materials out of which it has been built up. Although taking its name from Njál, it begins with a section, occupying more than a third of the whole work, in which the real hero is Gunnar of Hlíðarendi. It is commonly supposed that this portion represents an originally distinct Gunnars saga, which has probably been worked over and expanded by the insertion of fictitious adventures and spurious verses. Except for the personality of Njál, who plays the part of Gunnar's faithful friend and adviser, this section has no real unity with the main part of the saga, which begins with chapter 82. The subject of this is briefly the troubles which the sons of Njál's brought upon themselves and their father, till in the end their numerous enemies, headed by Flosi, surprised and burned them all in their home at Bergthórshvol in the year 1011. Jnál's son-in-law, Kári, succeeded in escaping from the fate which overtook the others, and the last third of the saga gives a full account of the steps taken by him and others to avenge the death of his kinsfolk. In the end Kári and Flosi are reconciled and the story ends somewhat abruptly with the latter's disappearance at sea. Even in the two later sections of the saga there are portions which do not originally belong to it, and more or less interrupt the progress of the narrative. One of these is the full account of the introduction of Christianity into Iceland; another is a considerable portion of what must have been a Brjáns sagam, or a history of the Irish king Brian Boru, who fought the battle of Clontarf against the Scandinavians in 1014. It is here that the famous poem is preserve which Gray paraphrased in hi 'Fatal Sisters.' In addition to these, there are other minor passages which are probably late additions to the story, some of them giving impressive glimpses of supernatural occurrences; how far these were really believed in by the writer or his contemporaries, it is now impossible to decide. The process by which the saga as a whole was brought to its present form is also a mere matter of conjecture; it seems pretty certain, however, that the part of the saga relating to Njál and his sons is more original and of earlier date that that of which Gunnar is the hero.

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