Icelandic sagas

The Icelandic word 'saga' has found its way into English and most other Western European languages. It means 'narrative' or 'history' and is used today in Iceland both for histories and for novels. But when speakers of English refer to 'the Icelandic sagas' they normally have in mind prose narratives composed in Iceland during the Middle Ages. Generally they are thinking primarily of one genre in particular, referred to in English as the 'Sagas of the Icelanders' (or as the 'Family Sagas', though this latter term is somewhat out of favour as many of the sagas in questions focus on individuals, or the inhabitants of a district, rather than on a family).

There survive about forty 'Sagas of Icelanders'. All are anonymous. During the second half of the twentieth century the usual view was that they were mostly composed in Iceland during the thirteenth century, but more recently the idea that they may be largely fourteenth century in their present form has gained currency. These sagas deal mainly with the deeds of people who are said to have lived in Iceland during a hundred year period, the so-called 'Saga Age', extending from about 930, shortly after the initial colonisation of Iceland was completed, to 1030. Thus the sagas are dealing with a period several hundred years before the time in which they were composed. Clearly it was regarded by later generations of Icelanders as a seminal period.

Two questions have long exercised the minds of saga scholars. Are the Sagas of the Icelanders history or fiction? And are the sagas as we now have them literary compostions by writers not very different from modern authors, or should they be regarded as faithful reproductions of oral stories told around the firereside by storytellers? The general view today is that there may be elements of history in them, but that what we have are in large measure works of fiction (a little like modern historical novels), and that while the sagas doubtless owe much to oral tradition, the versions we now have are in large measure literary compositions.

The Sagas of the Icelanders are works from the European Middle Ages, but they are unusual for their time. They were written by Christians but they are not overtly religious, nor do they have the aim of hammering home a moral. They strike modern readers as realistic narratives, though emanating from a society a bit more superstitious and credulous than our own: ghosts may briefly appear, and wise men and women may have some ability to foretell the future, but we are not in a world of superheroes and dragons, nor do they deal with chivalric knights and beautiful princesses. The Sagas of the Icelanders deal with the feuds of farmers and farmer's wives, and the men and women we encounter in them are readily recognisable to any reader of modern novels.

Icelandic narrative prose is one of the glories of saga literature. English translations inevitably cannot do it full justice, though good English translations do a reasonable job. The prose is remarkably lucid and subtle, and well suited to the presentation of dialogue, which is prominent in most of the Sagas of Icelanders. Saga objectivity is famous: we as readers seem to be presented with the facts as an observer on the scene might encounter them. We are not generally told how to judge a character, or how to respond to a scene. We are not told what characters are thinking: we have to work it out from what they say and do. (In fact there are subtle clues as to how the writers want us to react, but they are indeed quite subtle.)

'Njal's saga', at which we will be looking in Classic Readers this month, is the longest of the Sagas of the Icelanders - about 300 pages in the Robert Cook translation for Penguin Classics. It is almost universally regarded as the finest of these sagas. It has some features that may deter modern readers, such as the large cast of characters with names unfamiliar to English speakers, and genealogies that usually accompany the introduction of a significant figure into the narrative. But its characterisation is exceptionally rich, and it tells a powerful and moving story which moves inexorably to a satisfying conclusion, providing a vivid picture that extends beyond Iceland to Norway and Ireland at the time of the famous Battle of Clontarf in 1014.


Faye said...

Dear John,
Thank you for that clear intro. i have also read Robert Cooks intro and am quite excited at the reading prospect in front of me.

John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Faye, for this comment and the rather flattring remarks on the ALIA retirees site! I am enjoying reading th saga again: it is, I think, one of those works which you appreciate even more when you are rereading it.

I hope you and others do enjoy it.