The Northern Way

The Icelandic Sagas

Chapter V



As has been pointed out in the first chapter, saga-telling was employed in Iceland as a means of entertainment as well as of instruction, and for the former purpose fiction was as interesting as fact, or might even be received with greater favour by an ordinary audience. It is not surprising, then, that beside the sagas which are more or less based upon historic facts there also exist many which are mainly or entirely destitute of such a foundation. It is also natural that in the later perioud of saga-writing the number of these should greatly increase, for while historic persons and events were a subject which in the end could be exhausted, there were no such limits to the imagination of the inventive writer. Very soon, too, a knowledge of foreign romances came in, and opened up new possibilities in the realm of fiction, which were so diligently cultivated that this type of saga latterly threatened to supersede all historical writing.

A considerable number of these sagas, evidently representing one of the earliest types of Icelandic fiction, relates to persons belonging to the prehistoric period of Norway or the other Scandinavian countries. To a certain extent they have a strong similarity to each other, most of them centering round some famous king or hero, who goes through a number of stock adventures, of which the commonest are combats with vikings, berserks, or giants, and the opening of grave-mounds in search of treasure. In most of them, however, there are more distinctive incidents, sometimes of a striking character, and often cleverly told. In the majority, too, the language is extremely good and idiomatic, and shows clearly that these sagas still belong to the classical period of Icelandic literature. There is every probability that most of them were written in the west of Iceland, where the literary tradition was the strongest and best.

The close connextion between some of these sagas and the traditions of Icelandic families is illustrated by such examples as Hálfs saga, a loosely-strung narrative of which only a small part actually relates to King Hálf himself. His son, however, was the father of two prominent settlers in Iceland, from whom many distinguished men were descended. The disconnected character of the saga indicates pretty clearly that the writer was dealing with vague traditions, and the nature of these shows that fancy had played a considerable part in their formation. Thus King Hjörleif throws his spear at a troll or giant and strikes him in the eye; on a voyage he sees rising out of the sea a great hill shaped like a man and endowed with speech; there is brought to him a merman who can foretell the future, and so on. King Hálf, again has a chosen band of warriors who are subject to strict regulations, probably modeled on those of the Jómsvikings. There is much verse in the saga, as in many of the others, and it is often difficult to decide whether this is older than the prose or is due to the same author. These verses are usually in one of the simpler meters, and in various ways recall the poems of the Edda; most of them express a spirit of many daring which is well in keeping with the style of the stories themselves.

Other sagas which similarly link on with Icelandic genealogies are those of Ketil hæng, Grím loðinkinna, and Örvar-Odd, who represents three generations of one family. Of the three, the longest and most celebrated is Örvar-Odds saga, the hero of which was no doubt a real person, to whom all kinds of marvelous adventures are here attributed. In the beginning of the saga there is an interesting account of a witch, who foretells the fate of Odd, and his long story ends with the fulfillment of her prophecy. The fictitious character of the saga as a whole is perfectly obvious, and a number of Odd's adventures are of the most conventional kind, though not devoid of inventive power in the details.

The district of Sogn in the west of Norway is represented by a saga, that of Friðthjóf the bold, which has become very well known through the poetical version of it by the modern Swedish poet, Esaias Tegnér; of this poem a number of English translations have been made. The saga is mainly a love-story about Friðthjóf and Ingibjög, and is attractively written, but has not the slightest historical value. There is much in it about a sanctuary sacred to the god Balder, but there is little probability that this rests upon any real tradition. In the end Friðthjóf, who was only a yeoman's son, marries Ingibjörg, overcomes all his enemies, and has a long and prosperous reign.

It would be tedious to enumerate and describe all the other sagas of this type, which are commonly known under the title of Fornaldarsögur, or 'sagas of olden time,' and are sufficiently numerous to fill three substantial volumes (originally edited by Rafn in 1829-30, and reprinted with some changes in 1885-9). Two or three, however, are deserving of notice. The saga of Hrólf kraki, which relates to early Danish and Swedish history, is interesting for the old traditions which have been utilized in it, though its present form is clearly late and marked by interpolations. Here occurs the story of Böðvar bjarki, which has obvious relations with some portions of the Old English poem of Béowulf; also the famous visit of Hrólf to the Swedish king Aðils at Uppsala, and his strewing of Fýrisvellir with gold in oder to delay his presuers. The memory of another famous Dane is preserved in the saga of Ragnar loðbrók, so named from the shaggy trousers which he wore when he went to slay a monstrous snake. After various other exploits, Ragnar, who had succeeded his father as king in Denmark, ventured to invade England, but was defeated by King Ella and thrown into a serpent pit, where he perished. His death was subsequently avenged by his sons, one of whom had obtained land in England by the old device of the bull's hide cut in strips, and those became the found of the town of London! A separate short piece about Ragnar's sons is more genuine than the saga in its present form. There is also a poem from the twelfth century (Krákumál), professing to be the death-song of Ragnar, in which his battles are enumerated and an ideal of dauntless courage finely expressed. This was one of the first pieces of 'Runic' poetry which became known in England, and ignorance of its real origin naturally caused much misunderstanding as to the general character of Old Northern skaldic verse.

There is also some remarkable poetry in the early part of Hervarar saga, which tells how Hervör, whose father Angantýr had fallen in battle in Sámsey, went to his grave-mound in order to recover the famous sword Tyrfing, which had been buried with him. The later part of the saga chiefly relates to Hervör's son, Heiðrek, and contains a curious contest in riddles between him and another person, who is Odin in disguise. There are echoes of real tradition in the saga, though the fictitious elements is the predominant one.

In respect both of its contents and the mode of its composition Völsunga saga has a very distinctive character, which calls for special mention. Its main subject is an early form of the Nibelung legend, and it is chiefly based on a number of old poems, most of which are preserved in the collection known as the (poetic or elder) Edda. The author, however had access to various other sources, written or traditional, and by a combination of these with the poems has succeeded in presenting a connected narrative stretching over several generations. The first personage of real importance in the story is King Völsung, from whose descendants the saga takes its name. These are especially the son of Völsung, Sigmund, and his sons, Singjötli and Sigurd. The latter, born after his father's death, is the hero of fully half of the saga; he is fostered by the smith Regin, kills the great dragon Fáfnir and becomes possessor of his hoarded gold, delivers Brynkild from her charmed sleep and plights his troth to her, is led by guile to marry Guðrún instead, helps Gunnar to become the husband of Brynkild, and finally falls a victim to her wrath at the deceit practiced upon her. With his death, and that of Brynhild, the saga becomes the story of Guðrún, who is next married to Atli, king of the Huns, and revenges on him the death of her brothers, from whom he had vainly tried to obtain the fatal hoard, now sunk in the Rhine. Still another marriage awaited her, and the closing chapters tell of her daughter Svanhild, trodden to death by horses, and of her sons slain in the act of revenging their sister. The whole story is skillfully pieced together, and told in style not unworthy of the matter, mainly because the writer had the fine heroic poems on which to model his language; but credit must also be given to him for his ability to use them with judgment and restraint. Some passages may very well be interpolations, but on the whole the text has evidently been transmitted in much the same form as the author gave to it.

A very different version of the Nibelung story forms part of an extensive work entitled Thiðriks saga, which has for its chief hero the famous Dietrich of Bern, but includes many other legends which are but loosely connected with the main theme. A very interesting and valuable prologue states that this saga was derived from German poems and stories, which were recited and told in exactly the same form throughout the whole of Saxony. In all probability it was in Norway that these were learned from North German merchants, and there can be no doubt that it was an Icelander who wrote them down, some time in the thirteenth century. So voluminous and complicated is the saga that no detailed account of it can be given here; in addition to the whole story of Sigurd and the Niflungs, which is told with great fullness, it contains that of Velent (=Weland) the smith and his relations with King Nidung; there is also much about Attila both before and after his marriage with Grimhild. These are episodes are so extensive that Thiðrik himself plays but a minor part throughout large portions of the saga. In spite of its interest in relation to German heroic legend, which it evidently reproduces with great faithfulness, the work as a whole tends to become a little tedious from lack of variety in the incidents; the description of fighting, between single combatants or armies, is especially carried to excess. The language, is marked contrast to Völsunga saga, is often of a rhetorical and inflated character, and clearly influenced by the style of foreign romances, though far from displaying the worst features of these.

In Norway, from at least 1225 or so, these romances had come into vogue under the patronage of King Hákon, at whose instance some if not most of the existing translations were made. He is expressly named as having commissioned the sagas of Tristram, translated in 1226 by 'Brother Robert,' of Elis and Rosamunda by the same hand, of Ivent (=Yvain), and of the mantle (Möttuls saga), as well as a translation of the lais of Marie of France. In addition to these, there are sagas of Erec, of Percival, of Bevis, of Hamton, of Flovent, of Flores and Blancheflur, of Paralope, and some others. There is also a voluminous saga of Charlemagne (Karlamagnús saga), the result of combining a number of translations of French or Latin originals. These prose translation of Old French poems show considerable skill in adapting the foreign matter to Scandinavian circumstances and ideas, and as a rule avoid anything like servile and verbal reproduction of the originals. At the same time they introduced a style and spirit which were at variance with the best type of Icelandic saga-writing, but which rapidly came into favour in Iceland and had a pernicious influence. The great popularity of these romances, and of Thiðriks saga, was evidently responsible in a high degree for the decline in literary taste and in sobriety of judgment which becomes more and more marked after the close of the classical period. Their influence is also seen in a large number of sagas directly modeled upon them, which appear to have been written from about 1400 onwards, and are for the most part lifeless variatons of a few conventional themes. As in the poorer specimens of Fornaldarsögur, single incidents or episodes may be fairly well told or exhibit some originality, but as a rule these sagas are merely tedious both in matter and in language. They were, however extremely popular, and many of them were subsequently turned into meter, usually with elaborate rhymes; the sets of poems produced in this way are known in Icelandic by the name of rímur, and form in themselves an extensive and curious branch of literature.

There are two short sagas, of a different type from those just mentioned, which are worthy of brief notice. Both are sagas of travel, but in other respects they have little resemblance to each other. One is the saga of Yngvar the Wide-faring, a chief of Swedish origin, and tells of the strange adventures which he and subsequently his son Svein, encountered in unknown regions of Russia. At the end there is a very circumstantial statement as to the authority for the story, but there can be little doubt that this is pure invention, and that the saga has no historical value. This is still more evidence in that of Eirík the Wide-faring, who is represented to have been a son of Thránd, the first king of Thrándheim in Norway. One Yule eve he made a vow to go in search of that place "which heathen men call the immortal field, and Christians call the land of living men or Paradise." As the result of information which he obtained from the emperor at Constantinople, he was finally able to reach the earthly Paradise, where he remained for some time and received instruction from and angel. In the end he returned to Norway, but after living there for ten years he was suddenly taken away from this earth and seen no more. The story is obviously founded upon a few ideas current in the middle ages, and the lore both of the emperor and the angel is derived from very ordinary sources. There is some originality, however, in making an early Norwegian the hero of the tale.

In comparison with the immense body of fictitious literature relating to other countries, that which is directly connected with Iceland is small and unimportant. This is a natural result of the fact that the whole history of Iceland was well known, so that it was more difficult to find a place for what was obviously invented. In some cases the difficulty was surmounted by taking a real person of the saga-age, especially one about whom tradition had become rather vague, and treating his career in an imaginative fashion; some instances of this have already been mentioned in Chapter III. There are some sagas, however, which to all appearance do not possess even this slender foundation of fact, but are pure invention from beginning to end. Of this type is Kjalnesinga saga, the story of Búi from Kjalarnes and his son Jökul, whose mother was a daughter of the giant Dofri in Norway. With the exception of Búi's adventures in that country, the action takes place in Iceland and contains nothing improbable. In this respect it differs widely from Bárðar saga, which takes its name from a superhuman being connected with the greatest mountain Snæfell, and in which most of the leading characters are of a similar origin. In its own way this saga has some merit, and to a certain extent it is no doubt based upon local traditions and beliefs, but much of it may well be the product of the author's own fancy. A saga of another type, but connected with the same district, is that of Viglund and Ketilríð; this is in the main a love-story, and contains a number of verses which have quite a distinctive town of their own about them. The brothers of Ketilríð try to throw obstacles in the way of her union with Viglund, but all ends happily at last. The story is simply and attractively told, and is obviously the work of a man of some taste and reading.

A saga with some original and entertaining features in it is that of Króka-Ref, who is represented as having belonged to Breiðifjörð in the west of Iceland. Having avenged his father and killed another man, Ref took refuge in Greenland, where he spent a number of years and had some stirring adventures. From there he went to Norway, although King Harald was unfavorably disposed towards him. By means of disguise and a false name he succeeded in evading the king's notice, and even informed him in person of having killed one of his followers; but the intimation was given in punning language which it took the king some time to puzzle out.

Subsequently Ref settled in Denmark and died in France, while on a pilgrimage to Rome. The story is pure invention, but rather well told, and the sue of the punning speech is a novel incident.

One or two other sagas belonging to this class might be mentioned, such as that of Thórð hreða (which is of a plain matter-of-fact character), but they offer no distinctive features deserving of special notice. Those already described are sufficient to indicate the lines upon which the authors of fictitious sagas worked, and to show how persistent the Icelandic mind was in its desire to invent something new in the way of story-telling, even though the result was often little more then a new combination of the old and hackneyed themes.

Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page