The Northern Way

The Icelandic Sagas

Chapter VI

Sagas From Latin Sources


It has already been pointed out that the introduction of Christianity, bringing with it a certain amount of classical and mediæval book-learning, had much to do with the subsequent developments of Icelandic literature. In the classes of sagas already considered the influence of this foreign learning was mainly of an indirect character, serving as a stimulus, or occasionally as a course of information, rather than as a model for imitation. It was natural, however, that Icelanders who became good Latin scholars, and studied such works as were accessible to them, should very soon have thought of turning some of these into their own language. In fact, the practice of translating Latin works into Icelandic soon became extremely common, and a very large body of both secular and religious literature has been preserved in versions dating from the twelfth to the fourteenth century. In the best of these the native feeling for style is clearly exhibited; the translator does not attempt to render word for word or even sentence for sentence, but first of all grasps the sense of the passage and then retells it in his own way. Frequently his work is rather a paraphrase than a translation, with comment or explanation freely added wherever it seemed to be required. There are, however, varying degrees of merit in these translations and some of them are sufficiently mechanical and even incorrect.

Among those which have been preserved, ancient history is represented by half-a-dozen works. The most comprehensive of these (now called Veraldar saga) is an account of the six ages of the world, mainly founded on Bæda's treatise. It gives a very rapid survey of the chief events of Jewish, Greek, and Roman history, and ends with a list of German emperors. Of these "Conrad was emperor when Gizur Hallsson was south," which pretty clearly indicates that the compilation of the work must be assigned to some time about 1200. Greek history is represented by sagas of Troy and of Alexander. The former of these (Trójumanna saga) is mainly a translation of Dares Phyrgius, but with occasional use of others works. It begins with some account of Greek mythology and early legend, and ends with the reoccupation of Troy by the sons of Hector. Alexanders saga is a prose version of the Alexandreis of Philip Gautier of Châtillon, and was the work of the bishop Brand Jónsson, who died in 1264. The translation, which has much literary merit, was probably made at the instance of King Magnus Hákonsson, for whom Brand also compiled a history of the Jews (Gyðinga saga) from the rise of Antiochus to the death od Pilate. The earlier part of this is mainly base on the first book of Maccabees; the later portion is derived from various sources.   

A fairly extensive account of Roman history (Rómverja sögur), which has partly been preserved in two recensions, is made up by combining translations of Sallust's Jugurtha and Catiline with an abridgement of Lucan's Pharsalia. The compiler was evidently well acquainted with Latin, and the Icelandic is remarkably good. This cannot be said of the remaining work which falls to be mentioned here, a translation of Geoffry of Monmouth's history of the Britons (Breta sögur), in which there are many evidences of haste and imperfect understanding of the original. In one copy of this saga there is inserted a metrical version of Merlin's prophecies, which is known to have been the work of the monk Gunnlaug Liefsson.

Of far greater extent that the works just mentioned are those of a religious character, especially the lives of saints or holy persons. From and early date in Iceland, as in other countries, these were extensively read and studied, and were undoubtedly among the first things of which translations were attempted. This is indicated among other evidence, by the fact that a considerable number of the very earliest specimens of Icelandic manuscripts (From about 1200) are fragments of these legends. Those which survive form a very extensive collection, which has been published under the titles of Postola sögur (one volume) and Heilagra manna sögur (two volumes); in addition to these there is a Mariu saga, accompanied by a large number of miracles. As these saints' lives form part of the common ecclesiastical literature of the middle ages, it is unnecessary to enter into details regarding the Icelandic versions. Of northern saints very few are represented, such as King Ólaf and his kinsman Hallvar; the life of the former is mainly excerpted from Snorri's work, and that of the latter only survives in a small fragment. There is also a saga of St Magnus of the Orkneys, which is really an extract from Orkenyinga saga, but one version is interpolated with passages of little value translated from a Latin life, the author of which was a 'master Rodbert' otherwise unkown. English saints are represented by sagas of Edward the Confessor (Játvarðar saga), which is mainly a list of miracles, of Dunstan (complied in the first half of the fourteenth century by Árni, son of the bishop Laurentius), and especially of the archbishop Thomas Becket. The latter are very extensive, and of one or more only fragments are preserved. Of the more complete texts, the older is of Norwegian origin, and is a translation of the Quadrilogus or Historia quadripartita. To Norway also belong the translations of the story of Barlaam and Josaphat, a work of considerable length, and of the Vision of Tundale (Duggals leizla). The former of these was made a the instance of King Hákon Hákonarson, probably about 1255.

Although these translated works have very little that is distinctively Icelandic about them, they cannot be altogether omitted in the general survey of Icelandic literature. They show very clearly the kind of reading which was most popular among those Icelanders who took and interest in the learning of the Church, and indicate the general character of these influence which might be exercised on the native literature from this source. The numerous lives of saints, with their long series of miracles performed by the more famous of them, undoubtedly gave suggestions for the similar accounts of Norwegian and Icelandic saints and bishops. The study of ancient history led to the attempts to link on the early history of the North with that of classical and biblical antiquity, as is most clearly shown in the prologue to Snorri's Edda. This begins with the creation and the flood, the division of the world among Noah's sons, the tower of Babel, and so on; the it tells of Saturn and Jupiter, and other ancient deities, and of Troy and its kings. One of these had a son named Trór, "him we call Thór"; he married Sibil, "whom we call Sif," and from him Odin was descended. Odin left his own country, Trykland, and came north with a great multitude of people and much treasure. They first settled in Saxland, then in Jutland, and finally in Sweden and Norway; and from Odin the royal and noble families in these countries were ultimately sprung.

Fortunately this mode of applying scholastic learning is not at all prominent in the historical work of the best Icelandic writers, although it frequently appears in the fictitious sagas. It is well to remember, whoever that such sources of knowledge were open to many authors during the whole of the saga-writing period, and would probably have exercised greater influence on the style and matter of the sagas if the art of these had not already been in a highly developed state.

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