Flóki spotted some drift ice off the fjords…


Egill Skallagrímsson

From History Today:

During the 13th and 14th centuries on a sparsely populated, volcanic and inhospitable island at the edge of the Arctic Circle there was an outpouring of literary creativity unparalleled in the medieval world. The legacy of the family sagas, penned by anonymous Icelanders some 600 years ago, has endured over the centuries and has even influenced some of Britain’s best-loved writers. How a tiny population of Viking settlers came to produce so many fascinating stories is one of the great riddles of literary history. What was it about the experience, culture and attitude of these Icelandic authors that enabled them to create what has been described as ‘the most remarkable vernacular literature in medieval Europe’?

The Icelandic word saga is a derivative of the verb segja, ‘to speak or say’, although it has become associated with a tale or story. The term ‘Family Saga’ has come to be thought of as a tale of considerable length that centres on the lives of people from a relatively small group of Icelandic families. The majority of the action takes place in Iceland, in the hundred years following the establishment of the Althing in ad 930, although many begin their stories immediately after the settlement around ad 870. Heather O’Donoghue, Vigfusson Rausing Reader in Ancient Icelandic Literature and Antiquities at the University of Oxford, offers the following description:

Family sagas are based on historical fact and are set in a very real Icelandic landscape but they are imaginative recreations of a past society, fictionalised accounts of events which could have happened, and characters who might have existed.

It is difficult to say with certainty how much of the family sagas are based on historical fact, actual characters and events. The landscape itself, its place-names and features, retain tangible links with those described in the sagas. Nevertheless, the sagas are not mere historical records and each one displays fine artistry in its composition. There are elements within the sagas that connect them with contemporary literature from mainland Europe, such as the genre of courtly romance. For example, Laxdaela Saga centres on a love-triangle between the main characters, Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir, Kjartan Ólafsson and Bolli Þorleiksson. Yet the sagas remain distinct from other medieval European literature. Stylistically the sagas are unique for the age they were written in. They are more akin to modern novels than the highly symbolic and formulaic works of romance that proliferated elsewhere in Europe. The narrative is recounted in a spare and colloquial way, punctuated by stretches of realistic, idiomatic dialogue or sometimes, stylised and cryptic verses.

In terms of distinctive characteristics, the main feature that binds together the 40-odd surviving sagas is a focus on feuding. The feuds arise from an event or action that has besmirched a character’s honour; how they and their family then respond to that assault lies at the heart of narratives. There is a sense in which these cycles of revenge are echoed in modern culture through mafia-based stories like The Sopranos. Unlike the majority of medieval texts, which seem archaic in both their style and substance to today’s readers, the family sagas still resonate. This is particularly the case in Iceland, where they are read and re-read by large sections of the population and are part of the curriculum for all the country’s school children. Modern Icelandic has changed remarkably little from the Old Norse Icelandic of the sagas and, as a result, they can be accessed relatively easily by readers today.

“The Sagas of Iceland: Creating Terra Nova”, Janina Ramirez, History Today