The Northern Way

The Icelandic Sagas

Chapter 3

Page 4

Whatever the historical value of the story may be, Njál's saga stands unrivalled in several respects. The characters of all the leading persons, both men and women, are brought out with masterly skill, not by any attempt at description or analysis on the part of the writer but by the simple account of their own words and actions. Scenes like Gunnar's last defense in his house at Hlíðarendi, and the burning of Njál's homestead, have few parallels in Icelandic saga-writing; and in may of the minor episodes the author's skill is equally evident. The saga is also of great importance for the interest in legal matters which it everywhere displays, and for the light it consequently throws upon the history of Icelandic law. By its contents and style, as well as by its length, Njála is amply entitled to the place of honour which has been unanimously assigned to it among the sagas of famous Icelanders.

§iii. Ecclesiastical Sagas. The formal acceptance of Christianity by the Icelandic community, in the year 1000 A.D., marked an important point in the history of the island, and its significance in this respect is fully recognized in many of the sagas. Although the new religion could not be expected to produce an immediate change in the character of the Icelanders, and to remove all at once the personal and family feuds which had marked the heathen period, its influence was not long in making itself felt in this direction it is significant that of all the sagas which have been named in the two preceding sections, only a few relate entirely to events later than 1000, while by 1030 the material for saga-making had practically come to an end. For fully a century after this Iceland enjoyed a period of almost complete peace, and the minds of the leading men were largely directed towards the fresh interest introduced by the new faith. It is not surprising, there fore, that when Icelanders began to write down everything relating to their past history, they carefully collected the facts connected with the bringing of the Christian faith to their remote island, and then continued the history of the new religion to the own times. Even in Ari's Íslendinga-bók the ecclesiastical interest is strikingly predominant, more than half of the little book being given up to this them. He relates with special fullness the introduction of Christianity and the names of the first bishops, and sketches the careers of the bishops Ísleif and Gizur, the former of whom died in 1080 and the latter in 1118.

The same ground is covered by the much fuller account in Kristni saga, which is partly based on Ari, but expanded by information from other sources. It opens with the story of how Thorvald the Wide faring and the bishop Friðrek vainly tried to convert the Icelanders, and the recounts the incidents connected with Thangbrand's highly militant missionary campaign, which also failed of attaining much success. The final efforts of Ólaf Tryggvason, and the notable scene at the Althingi, are then fully related; after this the work ends somewhat rapidly with matter copied from Ari relating to Ísleif and Gizur. A fuller and more original account of the mission of Friðrek is found in the short saga of Thorvald, which appears to be a translation of a Latin account by the monk Gunnlaug (c. 1200).

Of Ísleif and Gizur there are also accounts in the book called Hungrvaka, written about or soon after 1200, and so named by its author because he hoped that it might 'wake hunger' in its readers to know more about the great and pious men whose careers he relates. After the lives of these two there follow those of three later bishops, the last of whom died in 1176; all are told after the same model, in a simple unpretentious stlye, which together with the sensible preface gives a very favourable idea of the character of the author, whose personality is unknown. Where Hungrvka ends, the ecclesiastical history is taken up by separate sagas of several bishops, there of whom held the older see of Skálholt thus commemorated are Thorlák (t 1193), Pál (t 1121), Árni (t 1298): those of Hólar and Jón (t1121), Guðmund (t1237) and Laurentius (t 1331). The saga of Jón was originally written in Latin by Gunnlaug, a monk of Thyingeyrar (see pp. 81-2), but is preserved in two Icelandic versions. Those of Thorlák, Pál, Guðmund, and Árni, are the work of contemporaries who were well acquainted with their respective careers; there are two forms of Thorlák's saga, and a later one of Guðmund was written in Latin about 1345, but has come down only in an Icelandic translation. The life of Laurentius was written about 1350 by an intimate friend, Einar Hafliðason.     

These lives of bishops (Biskupa sögur) vary greatly in interest and value according to the subject and the author; some of them contain many interesting passages, and excellent delineations of character, but their general effect is less attractive and their contents less distinctive than those of the narrative is drawn out to a greater length than the matter requires, and this diffuseness is apt to develop into tediousness and dullness. Hence the bulk of the Biskupa sögur is somewhat out of productions of Icelandic literature, but the lack of them would leave a serious gap in the history of the country.

§iv. Sagas of later times. For about three-quarters of the eleventh century little is known of the civil history of Iceland beyond what can be learned from the lives of the bishops. In the twelfth century, however, a new period begins, represented by a steadily increasing saga-literature, which differs from that already described only in respect of relating to events of more recent date, so that the details are usually fuller and the legendary element almost entirely absent. The sagas covering this period, which extends from 1117 to 1284, have not all been preserved in their original form; some of them were at an early date employed in the formation of a composite work, now known by the tile of Sturlunga saga, and are extant only as parts of that compilation. This collective work is so extensive (some 750 large octavo pages), and so full of complicated incidents, that it is impossible here to give more than the barest outline of its contents. The earliest portion is formed by a short saga of Thorgils and Hafliði, two chiefs in the north of Iceland, who fell out with each other and were only reconciled with great difficulty. The events related took place in the years 1117-21, and the saga contains some notable passages, such as the account of the wedding at Reykhólar referred to on p. 17, and an interesting scene at the Althingi. There is every likelihood that the author had personal knowledge of the events he records, though the date of compostion may be thirty or more years later.

After this follows Sturlu saga, an account of some incidents in the life of Sturla Thórðarson, the father of Snorri the historian. This begins with the year 1148, and tells first of Sturla's quarrel with another chief, Einar Thorgilsson, which was ended in Sturla's favour by a regular battle in 1171. The later part of the saga relates to troubles between Sturla and Pál of Reykjaholt; these were finally settled by the interposition of one of the greatest men of the time, Jón Loptsson, grandson of Sæmund Sigfússon, who also offered to take Snorri Sturluson in fosterage. As the result of this, Snorri was brought up at Oddin. The saga ends with a brief mention of Sturla's death in 1183, and was evidently written early in the next century by some one who had an intimate acquaintance with the facts and endeavored to state them in an impartial manner.

The sections of Sturlunga which follow upon this have been compiled from three separate works. The first two of these are the sagas of Guðmund the Good and Guðmund the Dear. The former is an account of the career of Guðmun Arason (mainly from 1180) down to the time when he was elected bishop and set out on his voyage to Norway to be consecrated (1202). The compiler has here copied, with some abridgement, from the 'priest-saga' of Guðmund, the original and fuller form of which has been preserved and is printed among the Biskupa sögur. The other saga, not found elsewhere, deals with events which took place during the years 1184 to 1200, and takes its title (Guðmundar saga dýra) from a chief in Eyjafirth is the north of Iceland. Certain troubles rose out of a question of inheritance, and culminated in the burning of one of the parties in his house, a scene which is minutely described. The whole story anticipates the disorders of the coming Sturlung period, and loses part of its interest by the multiplicity of the details.

The main part of Sturlunga consists of the Islendinga saga written by Sturla Thórðarson (born 1214, died 1284). and commences with the death of earlier Sturla in 1183. From 1203 to 1237 a considerable part of the narrative is concerned with Bishop Guðmund, with whom are also connected two independent sagas of some value. One of these is the saga of Hrafn Sveinbjörnsson, of Eyrr in Arnarfirth in the north-west of Iceland; this relates to a period extending from about 1190 to 1213. Hrafn is described in terms which recalls heroes of the older time like Gumar in Njál's saga; he was not only a good archer and athlete, but a skilled craftsman, leech, lawyer, and poet. In consequence of a vow, he went on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, and there offered to St Thomas the tusks of a walrus caught in Dýrafirth. Before returning to Iceland, he also visited the shrine of St Giles near Arles, and that of St James in Spain, and even went as far as Rome. At a later date (in 1202) he accompanied Guðmund, the bishop-elect, when the latter went to Norway for consecration. The voyage which is fully described was a very stormy one, and for some time the ship was in considerable danger about the Debrides. The voyagers had also some trouble with Ólaf, the Norse king of the Hebrides, who tried to exact heavy anchorage-dues from them. In the later part of the saga the interest centers in dissensions which arose between Hrafn and Thorvald Snorrason in Vatnsfirth, who finally came upon him unexpectedly, force him out of his house by setting fire to it, and put him to death. This and some other events related in the safa were preceded by various dreams and prtents, of whisch particulars are given with great minuteness. The author was evidently a contemporary and friend of Hrafn, and the saga must have been written not long after the latter's death; only the later part of it is copied into Sturlunga, The earlier parts of it have been perserved in the saga of Bishop Guðmund.

The other saga connected with Guðmund, but not included in Sturlunga, is that of Aron Hjörleifsson. Through a relative, who was a faithful adherent of the bishop, Aron was at an early age drawn into the conflict between Guðmund and Sighvat Sturluson, and took a prominent part in the fighting which went on in the year 1222. The attack made by the bishop's party on Hólar, and the return assault upon them in Grímsey, are extremely well. After a gallant defense Aron succeeded in escaping, though severely wounded, and for some time wandered about, or remained in hiding, with occasional hair-breadth escapes. In the end he was able to reach Norway, and from there went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On his return he attained to great favour with King Hákon, and had an opportunity of showing his generosity by rendering assistance to Thórð kakali, the brother of his greatest enemy, Sturla Sighvatsson. Twice revisited Iceland, but ended his days in Norway (in 1255), and was honoured at his burial with a high encomium from the king himself. Of all these later sagas, that of Aron has most of the old spirit in it and is less marred by superfluity of detail than any of the others.

The real Islendings saga of Sturla may be said to fall into two parts, the first and shorter of which contains the events from 1202 to 1242, the year after the slaying of Snorri Sturluson. The second part, although much the longer, deals with a short period and ends with the year 1262. The interpolations in the first part have been already indicated; those in the second are even more extensive, and include sagas of Thórð kakal (1242-50), of the brothers of Svíbafekk (1248-52), and of Thorgils skarði (mainly 1252-58). It is thus a little difficult to decide how much of the collection is the genuine work of Sturla, and some have even held that only the first part is from his hand. Whatever the facts may be as to its constituent parts, Sturlunga saga as the whole is a work of great interest and value, both on historical and literary grounds. To appreciate and understand it fully, however, requires long and careful study, and it is only certain portions that can be read with the same enjoyment as most of the sagas relating to the earlier period. This is partly due to the blending of so many distinct narratives, by which the sequence of each is rendered less obvious, and partly to excess of detail, especially in respect of the number of persons named. From the historical point of view, however, this abundance of detail is a merit rather than a fault; and it is a to a minute interest in persons and things that the greater part of Icelandic literature is directly due. On the literary side, Sturlunga serves to bring into prominence several defects which are really present in most of the Icelandic sagas, though in very varying degrees. One of these is a want of variety in the subjects; there is apt to be a sameness in the sources of the disputes, and in the fighting which arises out of them. The motives of action are often insufficiently explained; sometimes they are only to be discovered by observing closely the family relationship between the different persons. The task of keeping these clearly in the mind, and of distinguishing one person from another, is at times rendered difficult by the similarity of the names (as Thorgeir, Thorgrím, Thorgils). To these may be added the difficulties of genealogy and geography which have already been mentioned (p. 37). That in spite of these disadvantages so many of the Icelandic saga must be recognized as works of exceptional merit is one of the strongest testimonies to the literary skill of their authors.

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