On the Rise of the Icelandic Saga as Written Literature
Arthur Herman Gets at the Heart of the Sagas’ Perennial Appeal
By the year 1200, after centuries of raiding and settlement, Iceland had become the Vikings’ principal outpost in the North Atlantic. This island, which gently brushes the Arctic Circle at Grimsey Island, is about the size of New York State but has less than one percent of New York’s population today. Whereas Vinland was quickly abandoned and settlement in Greenland slowly shrank away to extinction, the people and culture of Iceland found a very different path forward from the Viking Age. Icelanders had neither kings nor titled nobles. Its Althing remained a viable institution long after its German and Scandinavian counterparts had died away—viable up to the present day, even. In fact, it was the Althing, not a ruling monarch or family, that chose to replace paganism with Christianity almost by majority vote.
This meant that the transition from the rites of Odin and Freya to those of the Catholic mass went much more smoothly than it did in Norway or Denmark or Sweden. Strangely, it also meant that Icelanders were able to preserve a quiet pride in their ancient pagan past, as the past, while preserving Old Norse as their national language. That sense of pride in their roots is reflected in Iceland’s most important contribution to Scandinavia and the world in general: the sagas, which Icelandic poets and scholars began writing down in the late 1100s. This literary industry would keep them occupied for the next two centuries. What else was there to do on an island where winter lasts more than seven months?
There are more than forty sagas preserved in multiple manuscripts. Their forms range from epic histories— like the Heimskringla and the sagas extolling, in sometimes sensational detail, the lives of Viking kings who had died centuries before—to descriptions of the lives and fates of Iceland’s great families and their family feuds in the Viking Age, to works of pure literary fiction like Njal’s Saga: Western civilization’s first novels, in fact. The later sagas, composed in the 15th century, often were entirely fictional in character, looking back nostalgically to a Viking era that had vanished three centuries before. The sagas also include two works that give us our most detailed look at Norse religions and cosmogony: The Prose Edda and The Poetic Edda, composed by the best-known of the saga writers, Snorri Sturluson. Most other saga authors remained anonymous.
Saga means “story” in Old Norse and in modern Swedish. The interweaving of fact and fiction that characterizes all the sagas, including the Eddas, had a simple goal: to tell a good story that commanded an audience’s attention. Descended from the bardic recitations of the Vikings, these tales were preserved and embellished by the skalds, who became court bards for Norwegian kings and nobles. The skalds and their works grew into one of Iceland’s primary export industries in the 13th century, when the island became a Norwegian dependency.
Many of the stories center on events in Iceland itself. They reflect the patronage of prominent gothar, the chieftains who looked to the bards to tell their family histories, many of which reached back to the heyday of the Viking Age. But what is most extraordinary is that patron and poet chose to write these stories down in Old Norse rather than in the lingua franca of the western Middle Ages, which was Latin. The fact that these stories were written down at all marked a sea change in Scandinavian history. In this way, the oral traditions that had preserved Viking culture and religion through the centuries passed down through recitation from one skald to another—now found a more permanent form.
In fact, the Icelandic sagas are the only significant vernacular literature to emerge from Scandinavia for more than a millennium. It may seem incredible, but although the book and written word had been part of mainstream Christendom for more than a thousand years—for Judaism even longer—in Scandinavia, books were a relative newcomer. The very earliest example of a written religious text from Denmark (in Latin) dates from the 11th century.
This tardy arrival of the written word, and the habits of mind that rely on writing for communication and connectivity, had a profound impact on the evolution of Nordic society and culture. In lieu of written texts, the North remain rooted in a Viking Age culture based on oral transmission. Even runes had been used for monuments and memorials, not for documentation or record keeping, let alone (like the Bible or Quran) for transmission of a religious belief system. What you said and did mattered more than what you, or someone else, wrote down.
Instead of a culture of the book, a culture of deeds and spoken words shared with friends and neighbors, and even enemies, prevailed. Written cultures, as the scholar Walter J. Ong has explained, strive for “a sense of closure,” which reached its culmination in the printed word. Their people are comfortable with “a sense that what is found in a text has been finalized, has reached a state of completion.” By contrast oral culture is constantly open to new additions and interpretations and iterations, based on the audience and the perspective of the speaker or reciter. “A typical visual ideal is clarity and distinctness, a taking apart,” writes Ong. “The auditory ideal, by contrast, is harmony, a putting together.” So whereas “sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer.”
Although the Norse sagas have come to us in written form, they preserve that sturdy oral tradition, with their strong narrative lines and steady flow of new but also familiar persons and events. They remain rooted in the rituals of storytelling around the hearth fire or on a ship’s deck during a long, tedious voyage; those who tell the tale and those who listen are comrades and kin. That tradition would shape the character of the Icelandic sagas.
One reason why these works remain so readable today, whereas most medieval literature is of interest only to people in pursuit of a graduate degree (like myself as a budding young medievalist at the University of Minnesota), is because the sagas are the literature of a democratic community. There, as in modern Iceland, everyone knew one another and their families. These works include characters rich and poor, female and male, old and young, who have a familiar face.
Another reason for the sagas’ continuing popularity is their consummate storytelling. The novelist Jane Smiley has said that the sagas represent the best training for an aspiring novelist: how to build a plot, memorable but also believable characters, and a narrative that reveals something profound about the characters but also about the audience of readers or listeners.
That storytelling tradition grew out of the circumstances in which they were composed. Iceland’s small population and extreme cultural homogeneity meant a high degree of social mobility, with families and individuals rising and falling in wealth and dominance with surprising speed. The island nation’s relative isolation also kept its people aloof from the disruptive trends sweeping over the rest of the Scandinavian world, while their well-remembered ancestry as well as the island’s rich Viking past—were passed down through the generations and remembered with both pride and nostalgia.
The sagas also reveal Icelanders at their most human. “People are always making rash commitments and foolish choices,” writes Jane Smiley, “speaking unwisely, taking stubborn positions, ignoring the wise counsel of others, hoping to get something more on a gamble than what they are already assured of, refusing to submit or lose face.” They are people we can relate to, which gives the sagas universal meaning and appeal. But they also reveal a world shaped by Icelandic, and more broadly, Scandinavian values. There, people take pride in work and what they do with their hands: building, cooking, washing, sheep herding, and horse breeding, as well as sailing and fighting.
Always fighting, in fact. Over land, over treasure, over women in marriage, and over children born in or out of wedlock. From a modern perspective, this literary universe combines the best of epic poetry with the best of soap opera. It’s only surprising that their titles aren’t better known, given that their themes, stories, and even characters live on in later Western literature. From Sigurd the dragon slayer in The Saga of the Volsungs; to Egil Skallagrimsson, the morally ambiguous hero of the most immediately readable of all the sagas, Egil’s Saga; to Njal Thorgeirsson, the tormented central character in the saga with the most modern feel, Njal’s Saga; and the gods, giants, dwarves, and elves who populate the Eddas: traces of these archetypal figures are scattered throughout the Western storytelling tradition—in Richard Wagner’s operas, of course, but also in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, not to mention Star Wars and the Harry Potter stories.
That is thanks, in large part, to Snorri Sturluson, the best-known of all the saga authors and one of the most famous Icelanders in history.
Snorri was no bookworm but something of a Viking warrior himself. Born in 1178 or 1179, he was the son of a hard-edged chieftain from western Iceland. When Snorri was two years old, Iceland’s leading gothi, Jon Loptsson, offered to raise Snorri in his household as a way to settle a feud between Loptsson and the Sturlungs, the family of Snorri’s father, Sturla. Snorri spent the next sixteen years on Loptsson’s estate at Oddi, where he learned the art of storytelling as well as the art of war. The life of a skald was considered an exalted calling in 13th-century Iceland.
Snorri thrived. He married one of Iceland’s wealthiest women and became a prominent gothi, or chieftain, in his own right. Twice he was elected as law speaker of the Althing, in 1215 and in 1222. The law speaker was the Icelandic equivalent of chief justice of the Supreme Court and Speaker of the House rolled into one.
At Thingvellir he built a magnificent hall for himself, which he named Valhalla; he and his cronies and allies both reveled and conducted official business there. We don’t know when Snorri started writing sagas in his spare time. Surely he didn’t have much time to spare, between supervising his large estate, presiding at the Althing, and making two lengthy voyages to Norway in order to leverage his power in Iceland with the help of Norway’s most powerful families. But his works included not only the Eddas—among the world’s most influential literary works—but also the semi-mythical history of the Danish kings, the Heimskringla.
All the same, as the commentator Jesse Byock has noted, “In the 1230s the number and reach of Snorri’s enemies in Iceland and Norway grew enormously.” In 1241 two of his former sons-in-law (the marriages of his daughters to Icelandic chieftains had ended disastrously, with ill-feeling all around) were recruited by the Norwegian king, Haakon IV, to rid Iceland of Snorri; Haakon considered him an arrogant and recalcitrant foe. The men surprised Snorri at his home at Reykjaholt, in western Iceland, and murdered him.
Snorri’s death marked a turning point in Iceland’s history. Yet Haakon IV was laboring to secure his grip over his island domain. Like the efforts of most Scandinavian kings when they tried to increase their power in the Middle Ages, Haakon’s effort would fail. Snorri was his most prominent victim. But the losers in the struggle for thrones, whether in Iceland or at home, were the kings themselves: the sagas have survived, while the kings have vanished.
From The Viking Heart by Arthur Herman, courtesy Mariner. Copyright 2021, Arthur Herman.