The Northern Way

The Icelandic Sagas

Chapter VII

English Translations and Other Aids


For the proper study of Old Icelandic literature a fair knowledge of several languages is essential, in order to read not only the texts themselves, but the best that has been written about them. It is possible, however, from translations and some other works, to make an extensive acquaintance with the sagas themselves, and with their history, without the study of foreign tongues. A considerable number of them have been translated into English, and most of these are of the kinds which best illustrate the different phases of old Scandinavian life in Iceland, Norway or the British Isles. These translations vary much in respect of merit, and even the best of them leave something to be desired; there are certain difficulties in the way of converting the best Icelandic prose into equally good English, and the task of surmounting these successfully has not yet been accomplished. It is difficult, for example, to render neatly and yet clearly the many technical terms which occur frequently in the sagas, and to adapt the forms of Icelandic proper names so as to make them fit naturally into an English context. Some translators have adopted an archaic style, which has certain advantages and merits, but is too often carried to the verge of obscurity. The verses interspersed in some of the best sagas are also a great difficulty, and it is seldom that any serious attempt has been made to render them adequately. In the majority of cases, however, the translation is sufficiently accurate and readable, though it may fail to convey a just impression of the excellencies of the original. The prefatory matter to these translations frequently gives more or less complete information as to the externals of the saga-the sources of the text; the supposed date of its composition, its authenticity, possible authorship, and so on. It depends greatly on the date at which the translation was made, whether the information given on these heads can be accepted as reliable.

A general account of Icelandic literature, with much information on special points relating to texts and manuscripts, is to be found in the Prolegomena (of 214 pages) to the edition of Sturlunga saga by Dr. Gudbrand Vigfusson, published at Oxford in 1878. In the second volume of this there is a large mape of Iceland, as well as full indexes and various useful appendices. The same scholar, with the collaboration of Prof. F. York Powell, also prepared the two volumes of Origines Islandicae (Oxford, 1905), containing "a collection of the more important sagas and other native writings relating to the settlement and early history of Iceland." In this work a large number of sagas and other texts are printed (but not always in full) and accompanied by an English translation; a few are given only in one or the other language. The account of the sources, and discussion of the value, of the various texts is very full and minute, but the views expressed are not always in agreement with the general opinion of other scholars. In some sections of the work the scattered evidence of the sagas on certain matters is brought together, as in the one "Primitive laws and customs of the days of the Settlement."

Of the five longer sagas of Icelanders the following separate translations are available. The Story of Burnt Njal, by Sir G. W. Dasent (1861, in two volumes; reprinted in one volume in 1900, and again in 'Everyman's Libarary.' 1912). The Story of Grettir the Strong, by E. Magnusson and W. Morris (1869). The Eyrbiggia, or the Story of th Ere-Dwellers, by the same, in vol. II of the 'Saga Library,' published by B. Quaritch (1892). The Saga of Egil Skallagrímsson, by the Rev. W. C. Green (1892). Laxdoela Saga, by Muriel A. C. Press, in the 'Temple Classics' (1899); also The Story of the Laxdalers, By R. Proctor (1903). Portions of Eyrbyggja and Laxdoela are also translated in Origines Islandicae.

The shorter sagas relating to Iceland are only partially represented by separate translations, of which the more important are the following. The Story of Gísil the Outlaw, by Sir G. W. Dasent (1866). Gunnlaugs saga and the fictitious Viglundar saga are two of the Three Northern Love Stories by Magnusson and Morris (1875). The same translators, in the first volume of the 'Saga Libarary' (1891), have given the stories of Howard the Halt, the Banded Men, and Hen Thorir, while the second volume (1892) contains the story of the Heath-Slayings (i.e. Heiðarvíga saga). Cormac's Saga has been translated by W. Collingwood and J. Stefánsson. The sagas relating to the discovery of America by the Icelanders have been most fully dealt with by Arthur Reeves in the Finding of Wineland the Good (1890). Of the remaining short sagas, seven or eight are more or less fully translated in the Origines, together with a number of smaller tales and episodes.

Of the ecclesiastical sagas little has been translated outside of the Origines, which contains versions of Kristni saga and Hungrvaka, together with the lives of the bishops Jón, Pál, and Thorlák, and various smaller pieces and excerpts. The Lives of Laurence, Bishop of Hólar has been separately rendered by Prof. Elton (1890). The saga of St Magnus of Orkney is included in Sir G. Dasent's translation of the Orkneyinga saga (see below) and in the Rev. W. M. Metcalfe's Lives of Scottish Saints (1895). The Rolls edition of Thomas saga erkibyskups, by E. Magnusson (1875-83), is accompanied by a full translation.

The sagas of the kings of Norway have received considerable attention. In 1844 appeared The Heimskringla, or Chronicles of the Kings of Norway, by S. Laing (really translated from a Danish version); a revised edition of this, by R. M. Anderson, entitled Snorro's Heimskringla, or the Sagas of the Norse Kings, was published in 1889. A new translation from the original Icelandic, by Magnusson and Morris, forms volumes III. to VI. of the 'Saga Libary' (1893-1905). Volumes I. and IV. of the 'Northern Library,' published by d. Nutt, contain The Saga of King Olaf Tryggwason, by the Rev. J. Sephton (1895), and The saga of King Sverrir of Norway, by the same (1899); each of these forms a thick quarto volume. In the Rolls series there are translations of the fullest versions of Hákonar saga and Orkneyinga saga, by Sir G. Dasent (1894); the latter had previously been translated by Jón Hjaltalín and G. Goudie (1873). Volume II of the 'Northern Library' contains The tale of Thrond of Gate, commonly called Foereyinga saga, by Prof. F York Powell (1896).

Very few of the mythical and fictitious sagas are accessible in translations. The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs, by Magnusson and Morris, appeared in 1870 (reprinted in the 'Camelot Series' in 1888). The saga of Frithiof is one of the Three Norhtern Love Stories, and has also been translated, along with that of Thorstein Víkingsson, by R. B. Anderson and J. Bjarnason (1877). The late Ambales saga, edited and translated by L. Gollanez, forms volume III. of th 'Northern Library' (1898).

In addition to the above, there are some works in which copious excerpts from the sagas are given, such as F. Metcalfe's The Englishman and the Scandinavian (1880) and P. du Chaillu's Viking Age (1889). A number of typical passages are also translated in Stories from the Northern Sagas, by A. F. Major and E. E. Speight (2ed. 1905), and Translations from the Icelandic, by Rev. W. C. Green, in the 'Kings Classics' (2908).

The fullest and most authoritative work on the sagas (and on the older Icelandic literature as a whole) is that written in Danish by Prof. Finnur Jónsson and entitled Den oldnorske og oldislandske Litterature Historie (in three volumes, published at Copenhagen, 1894-1902). The same author has also give a shorter account of the subject in a single volume in Danish (Den islandske Literatures Historie, Copenhagen, 1907), and on a similar scale in Icelandic (Bókmentasaga Islendinga, Copenhagen, 1904-5). In the German the sagas are fully dealt with in Chapter IX. of Prof. E. Mogk's article on Norwegian and Icelandic literature in the second volume of Paul's Grundriss der germanishen Philologie. In these works the copious references to other sources of information will be found, and the mere enumeration of which would sufficiently indicate the immense range of the subject in its widest aspects.

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