The Northern Way

The Icelandic Sagas

Chapter IV

Historical Sagas Relating to Norway And Other Nothern Lands

Page 1

In the first chapter some indication has been given of the continuous interest which the Icelandic settlers and their descendants maintained in the affairs of their old home-land, Norway, and of the way in which Icelanders who had been abroad were constantly bringing home news of what was taking place there in other countries near at hand. When the practice of writing down the sagas arose, it was to be expected that all the information which had thus accumulated should receive attention, and as a matter of fact the saga-writers were as diligent in recording this foreign historical matter as in preserving the traditions of their own island. In this, as in other things, it was Ari Thorgilsson who led the way. The first version of his Islendinga-bók contained 'lives of kings,' which he omitted in the abridgement. No doubt these accounts were very brief, and perhaps more chronological than historical, but it is clear that they served in some respects as a ground work for later writers. These frequently cite Ari as their authority, and sometimes also quote his contemporary Sæmund, whose views occasionally different from those of his friend.

As we have seen in the previous chapter, all the sagas of early Icelanders are the work of unknown authors, and the same thing is true of much of the saga-writing which deals with the affairs of Norway. Here, however, the names of a few authors are known, and from the knowledge thus attainable it is easier to see how the work of making a full and continuous history of Norway was carried on. It was really a long process, effected only by degrees and with the help of the successive work done by a number of writers.

About the middle of the twelfth century lived Eirík Oddsson, of whom little is known except that he spent a good part of his life in Norway. He made us of his stay there to collect, from reliable authorities, information about the events of Norwegian history from 1130 onwards, and out of this he wrote a work which apparently came down to the death of King Ingi in 1161. This book, which for some unknown reason bore the name of Hryggjarstykki or 'back-piece,' has not come down in its original form, but parts of it are preserved in later works dealing with the same period. The names of some of Eirík's chief informants are recorded, and it is mentioned that in many cases they have been eyewitnesses of the events they described to him.

Somewhat later in the same century lived Karl Jónsson, who in 1169 became abbot of the monastery at Thingeyrar in the north of Iceland, but resigned that office in 1181, and went to Norway in 1185. There he attached himself to King Sverrir, and in consequence came to write the life of that ruler. In the prologue to the saga it is stated that a considerable part of it was written under Sverir's own supervision, evidently the portion convering the years 1177 to 1184. The remainder (down to 1202) was derived from the accounts of reliable authorities, often eyewitnesses, and the work was no doubt completed in Iceland, to which Karl and returned; he was again abbot at Thingeyrar for some time, but resigned in 1207 and died in 1213. Sverris saga is a remarkably good piece of writing, and in the earlier portion there are clear traces of the king's own vigorous personality.

These two writers, Eifík and Karl, were thus dealing with events of contemporary history, in which tradition had no part to play. Others, however, directed their attention to matters of more ancient date, and endeavoured to collect the sagas of the earlier kings of Norway. Two these were monks of Thingeyrar, Odd Snorrason and Gunnlaug Leifsson. The former of these (about 1190) a life of King Ólaf Tryggvason in Latin; the original is lost, but there exists the greater part of an Icelandic translation made not long after the compostion of the work itself. Odd's work is not a favourable specimen of the historical saga, being full of monkish tales and legends, uncritically accepted and unskillfully put together. He knew the work of Sæmund and Ari, however, and his won book was of some value to later writers. Gunnlaug, who died in 1218 or 1219, was probably younger than Odd; he was considered one of the most learned men of his time, and was especially a food Latin scholar. He also wrote a life of Ólar Tryggvason, portions of which have been preserved in later compilations. His saga appears to have been much fuller, and better arranged, than that of Odd, but it is doubtful whether any higher place can be assigned to him as a historian.

 While these are the only authors of the period who can be distinguished by name in this department of a saga-writing, it is clear that before 1200 a number of other sagas relating to the kings of Norway had assumed a written form. The exact character of these cannot now be clearly made out, but it is obvious that the information they contained was largely utilized in subsequent works. Of one early saga, relating to King Ólaf the Saint, some fragments have accidentally been recovered, and show that it had considerable merit.

In contrast to these historical or legendary accounts of single kings, or of short periods in the history of Norway, a desire soon manifested itself for a more continuous narrative on this them. Ari's work may have helped to suggest the procedure, but the idea of a connected history of Norway, on the basis of the kings' lives, would very naturally have arisen in any case. More than one attempt to satisfy the desire was actually made. One of the earliest and briefest of these, now known by the name of Ágrip (compendium) af Nóregs konunga sogum, contains an account of the kings of Norway from Hálfdan the Black in the ninth century down to 1177. It is partly an abridgement of older sagas, and partly based on independent information, and was evidently written about 1190. The concise nature of the work excludes the possibility of great literary merit, and its historical value is somewhat unequal, but the author has taken pains with chronology, and shows an obvious interest in some aspects of popular tradition. On account of this, as well as by it's early date, the compilation is of some importance.

A more ambitious work of the same kind is one that now goes under the name of Fagrskinna (fair skin), so called from the elegant binding of one of the two copies which existed in the seventeenth century: these have perished by fire (except a small fragment of one), but paper copies survive. This also begins with Hálfdan the Black and goes down to 1177; like Ágrip, it is partly founded on earlier writings and partly original. Throughout the work the author exhibits a special fondness for quoting old verses and poems, some of which are preserved nowhere else; the most valuable in this respect is the poem telling how King Eirík, who had fallen in battle, was received by Odin In Valhall. The narrative is full and free from digressions, and many of the more striking incidents are well related. The writer was obviously and Icelander, but it is also clear that the work was written in Norway; its date has been conjecture to be about 12430-40.

Another valuable compilation, probably a little earlier in date is that contained in the manuscript known as Morkinskinna (rotten skin), which contains full accounts of the kings of Norway from Magnus the Good, and probably went down as far as 1177, but the end is now wanting. Its principal contents are thus the sagas of Magnus and of Harald Harðráði, of Magnus berfœtt, and of Sigurd, who went as far as Jerusalem and so received the name of Jðrsala-fari. The few other sagas it contains are much shorter and of minor interest. Throughout the work numerous verses are cited, and the text of these is remarkably good. Morkinskinna is alos noteorth for the number of short stories of Icelanders which are interpolated here and there in the course of the narrative, and sometimes interrupt rather awkwardly the sequence of events. In themselves, however, these thættir, as they are called (see p. 59) , are of great interest, and many of them are excellently told.

 About the same time that this collection was made, there was also written the most famous recension of the lives of Norwegian kings, that which now goes by the name of Heimskringla, from the words with which in commences. This was the work of Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241), and holds a unique place in Icelandic literature not only for its historical value but for its surpassing literary merit. In the prologue Snorri indicates the main sources upon which he relied----the statements of learned men, the poems of the skalds (see p. 11), and the writings of Ari Thorgilsson. He begins his narrative in prehistoric times with the account of Odin and the other gods, regarded as kings and chiefs, and then goes on with the line of Ynglings at Uppsala, from whom the Norwegian royal line was believed to have descended. Throughout this section copious use is made of the old poem Ynglingatal, the author of which lived in the time of Harald the Fairhaired. The follow the sagas of the successive kings of Norway, from Hálfdan the Black down to the fall of King Eystein in 1177. The majority of the sagas are comparatively short, the great exception being that of Ólaf Haraldsson (Ólaf the Saint), which takes up about three-eights of the whole and is sometimes found as a separate work. Of the others, the longest are those of Ólaf Tryggvason and Harald harðráði. But whether short or long sagas in Snorri's versions are distinguished by the utmost clearness in thought and expression. A sound historical sense enabled him to seize upon the essential points of the story, and to discard what was trivial or fictitious, while his skill in the use of language (an art which he had studied closely) gives his narrative a simplicity combined with precision and strength that is rare in the Literature of any country.

Snorri's Heimskringla presents in a convenient form a connected, though condensed, history of Norway down to the year 1177. The further history of that country is related in Sverris saga already mentioned, and in an anonymous account of events which took place from 1203 to 1217, troublous years during which the two factions of the Baglar and Birkibeinar warred with each other. During these years the young Hákon Hákonarson was growing up, and in 1217 began his long reighn, which lasted down to 1263. It was in the latter year that Sturla Thórðarson, the son of Snorri's brother and author of the Íslendinga saga already mentioned, came to Norway. King Hákon had sailed on that expedition to Scotland from which he never returned, but Sturla gained great favour with his son and successor Magnus, and was subsequently commissioned by him to write the late king's life (see p. 18). This work, written within the next year or so, is both long and extremely minute in its details, while its historical accuracy is necessarily very great, as the events related were so recent and means of acquiring the best information abounded. The old saga-style, however, is still maintained, even to the insertion of verses by Sturla himself and by his brother Ólaf. At a later date Sturla also wrote the life of King Magnus, but only fragments of this remains; it forms the last saga of the Norwegian kings, brought the history of Norway down to the year 1280. From Ari to Sturla there is thus a period of more than a century and a half during which Icelanders were diligently committing to writing all that they could learn of the past and present history of Norway, and so succeeded in presenting an unbroken record covering more than four centuries, the greater part of which would otherwise be shrouded in obscurity.

Although the real composition of the older lives of Norwegian kings was over by 1230 or so, Icelandic scribes during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries continued to work away at the materials already furnished, and especial to expand the original by insertions of various kinds. One of the latest and worst examples of this is the great Flatey-book, written towards the end of the fourteenth century, in which whole sagas are broken up for the insertion here and there in the lives for the kings, so that the main narrative is often interrupted by a long series of such interpolations. In one respect the practice was a fortunate one; it has been the means of preserving many pieces of saga-writing which are not found elsewhere in a separate form, and would probably have disappeared altogeher if they had not been utilized in this manner.   

One interesting saga, which has thus been preserved in the Flatey-book is that relating to the Færöes (Foereyinga saga), which is mainly the story of Sigmund Brestisson and of his chief enemy and rival of Thránd of Gata. Sigmund, who had spent the greater part of his early life in Norway, and was instrumental in bringing the Færöese to accept Christianity, was finally overcome by Thránd and his supporters, and was murdered on the beach of Suðrey, which he had reached by a remarkable feat of swimming. The remainder of the saga is chiefly a record of fighting and attempts at peace-making between the rival parties, and ends with the death of Thránd, some time after 1030. Although the traditions of which the saga is based must have been collected in the Færöes, or at least from men belonging to these islands, it is quite clear that the author was an Icelander, who probably composed the work about 1200. It appears to have been preserved in a fairly complete form, and has considerable literary merit; some portions are evidently conventional fiction, but the greater part has all the marks of being genuine tradition.

Another saga copied into the Flatey-book, but found also in a separate form in other manuscripts, is that of the Orkney Earls (Jarla saga or Orkenyinga saga). This gives the history of the islands (and incidentally something of Scottish history) from coming of the Norsemen in the ninth century down to about the year 1160. The various sections differ in length and interest according to the personality of the earl they deal with, and the most important of these are Thorfinn, Rögnvald Brúsason, Magnus the Saint (killed in 1116) and Rögnvald kali. The account of the later is very full and of great interest, as he was not only a man of many accomplishments (among other things a good skald) but had a striking career, and made a voyage to the Holy Land which is described with much detail. The saga, which is of great length, must have been written in Iceland about 1200, but the materials for it may have be gathered mainly in the Orkneys themselves, as Icelanders were frequent visitors to the Islands, and Icelandic poets attached themselves to several of the earls. The mass of information contained in the saga, however, is a striking example of the zeal and diligence with which the Icelandic historians carried out their investigations, wherever it was possible to do so.

The only other northern country about which special sagas were composed was Denmark. The history of the early Danish kings, the descendants of Skjöld, was told in Skjöldunga saga, which was almost entirely of a legendary character; this existed as late as the seventeenth century, but is now known only in a Latin epitome. The later hitory, from Harald Gormsson in the tenth century down to about 1190, is contained in Knytlinga saga, a compilation which appears to date from the second half of the thirteenth century. Considerable parts of this were evidently derived from the works of previous writers, but a certain amount, especially in the later portion, must have been based on oral information. The lives of the earlier kings are treated very briefly, but the narrative becomes fuller with the accession of Knúmsborg (Jómsvíkinga saga), which exists in several versions. In its longer form there is a certian amount of introductory matter, relating to the kings Gorm and Harald; this has no real connexiton with the proper subject of the saga, which is the foundation and history of the viking stronghold at Wollin in Pommern, ending in the unsuccessful attack made by the vikings upon Earl Hákon of Norway in the year 986 or 987. THere is much in the saga, that is fictitious or exaggerated, but the main outlines have a historical basis. Not a few Icelanders look part in the great battle in which Hákon crushed the vikings, and the subsequent traditions relating to this must have been based for the most part on their accounts, and on the verses composed by some of them as a piece of the story-telling Jómsvíkinga saga takes a high place, the account of the battle being particularly powerful and impressive.

The survey given in this chapter can convey only a slight idea of the great extent of the writings mentioned in it, and of the immense amount of historical matter they contain. Many of the separate sagas extend to hundreds of pages, and are full of precise details as to persons, places, and events. The more these are studied, the more marvelous it seems that such a mass of minute information could have been collected, remembered, and finally committed to writing, by men whose native land lay so far away from the countries in which the events had taken place.

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