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"Farmers came to blows."—Jón "Grunnvíkingur" Ólafsson, 18th century scholar, summing up each and every Saga of Icelanders.
The Icelandic/Old Norse word saga means, basically, story. And the sagas are anonymous narratives in the Old West Norse language that were penned in the 13th and 14th century by Icelanders, in Iceland, and preserved in Iceland; which is where the term "Icelandic Sagas" comes in.
If this definition sounds clumsy -- well, it is, but an absolutely accurate definition of the entirety of sagas is rather difficult, as almost every of the listed characteristics has a few exceptions. For example, some genres of sagas were also cultivated in Norway, which is why some prefer the term "Norse sagas". This again has shortcomings, as indeed a few Latin texts are regarded as sagas for reasons of style and subject matter.
This fuzziness is not suprising as, in its basic meaning, the term saga can encompass almost all narrative prose of medieval Norse-speaking Europe. Medieval Iceland, however, was exceptionally productive in literary output, the place where writers most consequently used their native Norse (as opposed to Latin), and where most manuscripts of Old Norse literature were preserved.
The good news is that these issues of terminology are mostly irrelevant to the reader, as "Icelandic sagas" and "Norse sagas" can be used interchangeably, with few exceptions. The one name you should avoid is "Viking sagas" -- as in the world of the sagas, a "viking" is strictly a seaborne raider, and while many sagas are set in the so-called Viking Age, only a few of them deal with sea-raiders and viking expeditions prominently.
Sagas come in different genres, which are defined by their subject matter. Three genres stand out as the most important and famous:
- Sagas of Kings (Konungasögur). Narratives relating the lifes of kings and earls. Kings' sagas originated from historiography and were written with the claim of (at least approximate) factuality. Because of that, saga is also translated as "history" in the context of the Kings' sagas. Most Sagas of Kings are about the kings of Norway. The most famous single work of this genre is Heimskringla.
- Legendary Sagas (Fornaldarsögur -- literally "Ancient Age Sagas"). Heroic legends set in the so-called fornaldar or Old Age, which, in the worldview of the Icelanders, means more or less the time before the settlement of Iceland by the Norse c. 870 AD. Much of the legendary lore covered in the Legendary sagas is very old, often even predating the Viking Age. The fornaldarsögur were not claimed to be factual, but it was usually assumed (this being already the Christian era) that there was a core of truth in the old legends.
- Sagas of Icelanders (Íslendinga sögur). Narratives about early inhabitants of Iceland, mostly set in the period between 930, when the Alþing (or General Assembly) of Iceland was established, and circa 1030 (the latter date marking roughly the introduction of clerical structures to Iceland). Let sink in that "Sagas of Icelanders" (sagas about Icelanders) is not the same as "Icelandic Sagas" (sagas written by Icelanders) -- the former are a distinct group within the latter.
Usually, when a text is defined as an "Icelandic saga", it will be of one of these three categories. There are, however, still more genres of lesser importance. Click the folder if you want to know about these.
More saga genres
- Sagas of Saints (Heilagra manna sögur), Apostles (Postula sögur), and Bishops (Biskupa sögur): Genres that were intended for the religious education of the Icelanders. The contents were lives of Saints, biblical stories, and biographies of early Icelandic bishops. These religious genres marked the beginning of Icelandic literature in the 11th century and turned Old Norse into a literary language.
- Contemporary Sagas (Samtímasögur): Works of contemporary history, recording then-recent history of the 12th and 13th century. As such, they are historical sources of high value. The most important work of this group is Sturlunga saga, a chronicle focusing on the Sturlungs, the powerful clan of Icelandic landholders and officials of which Snorri Sturluson was an offspring.
- Chivalric Sagas (Riddarasögur), also called Sagas of Knights or Sagas of Chivalry: A collective name for translations or rather, retellings of contemporary continental literature of The High Middle Ages: Chivalric Romances of King Arthur and his Knights, French chansons de geste, but also popular medieval versions of the defaults of classical legend and (pseudo-)history, such as The Trojan War, Alexander the Great, and Roman history.
- Fairy-Tale Sagas (Lygisögur). The Legendary Saga genre was so popular that, when writers ran out of ancient legends to retell, they invented new ones from scratch. This new (sub)genre of fantastical, freely-composed heroic sagas became known under the affectionate nickname lygisögur -- "lie sagas" (though as a more elegant translation, the name "Fairy Tale sagas" has been offered). Structurally, they are often modelled on translated literature, i.e. Chivalric Sagas.
The most famous genre of all these are the Sagas of Icelanders, to the point that they are often incorrectly equated with the Icelandic Sagas (which you, as you know now, will not do). The following will focus mostly on them.
Much of the sagas' subject matter seems to have come down as oral tales from the Viking Age, the type of thing Icelanders told around the fire to pass the winter away for generations. Exactly how historically accurate they are is a matter of much scholarly debate, but it's worth noting that some sagas retell events that show up in historical chronicles (such as the Conversion and the Burning in Njáls Saga), and they are all set in concrete locations that can still be seen today. The stories tend to be at the Low Fantasy level (if the term fantasy is applicable to a medieval story) with supernatural elements being a minor element in the story if they appear at all. The fate of the universe is not at stake, only that of given heroes and their families.
The sagas contain such timeless elements as love, friendship, enmity, honor, and revenge. However they also contain a glimpse at everyday life and are traditionally seen as often written about characters whom we would call "upper middle class" rather then Princes and Nobles. In fact all the major sagas centre on the power struggles of the most powerful magnates, clans and personal alliances on Iceland and well depicts the situation of all the Scandinavian countries (even the forward and comparatively centralised Danmark) from Viking Age to High Middle Ages (and presumably before). The writing style is terse and laconic, depending heavily on the reader/listener being able to figure out context based on relationships, and can be hard to get used to for someone who grew up on the more descriptive style used in a modern novel format.
In many respects, the Sagas of the Icelanders can be compared to the Western genre: Like that genre, they deal with living on the edge of civilization, the problems of building a functional society without an all-powerful authority that enforces law and order, and the struggle of Order Versus Chaos in general.
The Sagas of Icelanders encompass about 40 extant texts. Njál's Saga, Laxdæla Saga, Grettir's Saga, Egil's Saga and Eyrbyggja Saga are sometimes defined as the 'Big Five' of the group. Other popular sagas of Icelanders include Gisli's Saga, Hrafnkel's Saga, the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue. For a more exhaustive list, check out the other wiki or our own Synopsis page. Note that the title of one and the same saga may be encountered in a variety of versions, due to choices made by translators and editors. For example, Grettis saga -- which is also called Grettla by Icelanders -- has been published in English as Grettir's Saga or The Saga of Grettir the Strong.
Many translations of Icelandic sagas are public domain. For Sagas of Icelanders, the go-to place is the Icelandic Saga Database. For sagas of other groups, you may check Northvegr.org or Sacred Texts.
This page is currently under construction, so things are going to look somewhat uneven for the time being.
Icelandic sagas that have their own pages on the wiki:
Tropes often found in the Sagas of Icelanders include:
- Added Alliterative Appeal: Many sagas incorporate stanzas of Old Norse poetry, which by default uses alliterative verse. Also used in poetic proverbs, as in "Bare is back without brother behind it". While recent translations usually try to keep the alliterative verse, older translations often switch to end rhyme.
- Anonymous Author: Most sagas in general, and all of the Sagas of Icelanders are of anonymous authorship.
- Arranged Marriage: A father had the right to marry off his daughter without her consent. However, the sagas generally take a stand against forced marriage, as when a woman is married off without her consent, it will always lead to trouble.
- Animal Stereotypes: Some Norse animal names are also first names. A saga character with such a name will frequently have the qualities associated with this animal: Someone called Ref (fox) will be clever and resourceful, characters called Mord (marten) are shrewd and devious, and people called Bjorn (bear) are bound to be fearless, formidable fighters.
- Badass: All the sagas relish feats of badassery, and most sagas have one or several characters who stand out for martial prowess, courage, bravery, and/or death-defiance. A saga will gladly sidestep the plot just to describe a memorable feat accomplished by a supporting character or even an insignificant extra.
- Badass Army: The fabled Jómsvíkingar, scurvy scourge of the Baltic Sea. More historical, the Varangian Guard of Constantinople, one of the most distinguished elite units of the Byzantine Army, composed of Northmen, among them Icelanders.
- Badass Beard: The male beauty ideal of the Saga Age. Inability to grow a beard was considered a sad disfigurement of the the male appereance, as lack of beard was associated with effeminateness. Becomes a plot point in Njáls saga.
- Beastly Bloodsports: Horse fights are a popular entertainment in the world of the Icelandic Sagas, and will always become the catalyzer of a quarrel or feud. A prominent example occurs in Njal's Saga.
- The Berserker: "Berserkir" show up mostly as stereotypical villains, but at least one saga, the Saga of Egil Skallagrímsson, focuses on protagonists who occasionally "go berserk" (Egil, his father Skalla-Grímr, and his grandfather Kveld-Úlfr).
- Black Magic: The ancient Norse believed in sorcery (in Norse, seiðr), and it is treated as a fact in the sagas. Professing it, however, carried a disreputable stigma. While sorcery in itself was not punishable, any hostile act supposedly committed by magic was treated like a regular offence, and this might lead to a sorcerer's execution.
- Blood Brothers: Along with relationship by marriage and fosterage, a third possibilty to seal a lasting relationship between men that were not blood-related. The literal term is 'sworn brotherhood' (fóstbræðralag).
- Born Lucky: An idea of Norse folk belief (tied to the belief in fate) was that you are born with a certain amount of luck, and some people have just more of it than others. Of course, you never quite know when it's going to be used up.
- Born Unlucky: The natural counterpart to Born Lucky. Grettir Asmundarson is an example.
- Buy Them Off: Weregild, literally meaning man fee or man debt, was a perfectly acceptable way to deal with someone who killed a member of your family or household.
- Catch and Return: Catching a spear from mid-air and throwing it back is the distinctive mark of the best of the saga heroes.
- The Clan: Much of this is centered around clans.
- Color Coded for Your Convenience: When colorful clothes are mentioned, it's a hint of what is about to happen for the Genre Savvy. Character wears blue: Character is intent on killing another one. Character wears red: Character will probably get killed soon.
- Courtroom Episode: Most sagas have one or several. Of course, there were no literal courtrooms as Icelandic courts were open-air events. The conducting of lawsuits was one of the main tasks of the annual assemblies (þing), both the 13 local assemblies of Iceland (vorþing) and the Althing or general assembly (alþing).
- Cranky Neighbor: Many a feud is started by one of these.
- Crossover: Many characters and families appear in multiple sagas. For example, Snorri Godi, the protagonist of Eyrbyggja saga, is also a major supporting character in Laxdoela saga and Njáls saga.
- Cycle of Revenge: Often created by Feuding Families.
- Deadpan Snarker: Pithy, laconic lines of dialogue are greatly appreciated by the sagas, especially when they are witty.
- Determined Homesteader: When not abroad adventuring, farming was the way of life of almost all Icelanders.
- Determined Homesteader's Wife: Norse women worked hard -- frequently harder than the men. Side note: While women in Norse society had certain rights that they typically did not have in medieval Christian societies (such as the right to divorce her husband or the right to inherit), by and large Norse society was sexist -- women could, for example, not vote in the assembly or hold chieftaincies. In legal affairs, they were usually represented by male relatives.
- The idea was that, the man is "lord" outside the house, and the wife is "lord" inside the house. As such, she didnt have much influence in public. Still, she where the one with the "keys", and it was a socically accepted punishment to lock the husband out of the house should she find it nessesary.
- Determined Widow
- Dreaming of Things to Come: A common folk belief, and often employed as a Foreshadowing. The dream will be symbolical; sometimes an expert must be consulted to interpret a dream.
- Duel to the Death: Norse society knew two forms of duels: The strictly formalized hólmganga (duel), a form of Trial by Combat, and the less formalized einvígi (single combat). While the first to draw blood would be winner of a hólmganga, einvígi often continued until one of the fighters was incapacitated -- or dead.
- Everyone Is Armed: The norm for adult, free males in Norse society was to always carry weapons when away from home. This shows in the sagas. Common weapons in the sagas are axes, short-swords and spears, while long swords, bows and 'halberds'appear more rarely.
- Exact Words
- Famous Last Words: The Icelanders must have loved them. Big bonus points when your last words are funny.
- Feuding Families: Generally one of the big topics of the sagas.
- Foreshadowing: The Norse tended to belief in predestination, and premonitions of clairvoyants and prophetic dreams will always turn out to be true. More subtle foreshadowings are seemingly minute happenings that go unexplained by the narrative, but are to be understood as omens. For example, a character stumbling means that there is trouble ahead, and depending on the character's own Genre Savvy he/she may actually realize this.
- Generational Saga: The structure of most of the longer sagas, which in fact gave the format its name. The sagas, however, differ from the modern genre in that the themes of cultural conflict, adaptation and identity are absent, as Iceland was uninhabited before the Norse immigrants arrived.
- Grey and Gray Morality: The usual orientation: in most sagas the majority of the issues between the characters are not cases of simple good versus evil.
- Guardian Entity: The fylgjur (sometimes translated as 'fetches', literally 'followers') were spirits that supposedly accompanied all humans from birth to death on an invidual basis. Usually invisible, they could appear to "their" humans in dreams, often in animal shapes. Seeing your own fylgja while awake was a hint that you're about to die.
- Henpecked Husband: The only thing scarier than a Viking warrior is a Viking warrior's wife.
- Horny Vikings: In the original sense, where viking meant pirate. Interestingly, the mythification of the Vikings of old started as early as the Middle Ages, for example in such texts as Saga of the Jomsvikings, the legend of Ragnar Lodbrok and His Sons, Heimskringla and Egil's Saga. Many elements of the modern Viking stereotypes and Viking tropes are lifted from these sagas -- although most certainly not horned helmets.
- Intrepid Merchant: Because the pillaging vikings tend to capture our imagination most, it gets somewhat forgotten that Norse merchants of the same era operated a vast net of marine trade routes spanning Northern, Western and Eastern Europe. Icelanders themselves traded extensively with Norway and, on a lesser scale, with England, Scotland, Ireland and Denmark. However, the times being rough and the seas being a lawless place, the distinction between trade and piracy was fluid and sometimes a matter of situational choice.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: Especially in the longest Sagas (Njáls, Egils, Laxdæla, and Grettis Saga), but even the shorter ones almost always have a high character density. It doesn't help that a lot of the males tend to begin with thór-, and sometimes there are even multiple characters with the same first name. Woe to the careless, casual reader!
- Love Triangle: Often following on the heels of My Girl Back Home. The most common form is Two Guys and a Girl, see below.
- Made a Slave: In the time of the sagas, slavery was customary over the whole of Northern Europe (and much of the rest). 'Thralls' (slaves) were to be found on any major Icelandic farm. Most Icelandic slaves were bought or kidnapped from Scotland and Ireland.
- Made of Plasticine: It's either that or the Absurdly Sharp Blades, but limbs and heads get chopped off a little too easily to be credible  in the sagas. This is especially suspect as the home-produced weapons of Northern Europe were mediocre at best, and any weapon of quality had to be imported from England, France or Germany.
- The Magnificent: Nick- or bynames are almost ubiquitous in the saga universe. My personal favorite is 'Wolf the Unwashed' a minor supporting character in Njal's Saga.
- The Migration: Episodes from the settlement of Iceland often form the opening chapters of multi-generational sagas.
- Missing Episode: Not all sagas have survived the centuries. Some have missing parts, others are fragmentary, and of still others we only know the name. For example, a remark in Njáls Saga references an otherwise unknown "saga of King Brján" (i.e. Brian Boru of Ireland). Also, part of the manuscript of Heiðarvíga saga (Saga of the Heath-Slayings) was destroyed in the fire of Copenhagen 1728, and the existing text of the lost parts was reproduced by scholar Jón Grunnvíkingur from memory.
- My Girl Back Home: As it was considered the default that the more ambitious young males of Iceland would go on at least one great trip abroad before marriage -- be it as vikings, merchants, or warriors for hire -- to gain experience, money, and fame (and by extension, social status), a lover, sweetheart of fiancé staying behind is a recurring motif in the sagas. When it comes up, it will usually lead to a Love Triangle. More often than not, the ending will be unhappy.
- Names to Run Away From: What kind of parents name their baby "Killer-Hrapp" anyway?
- Off on a Technicality / My Rule Fu Is Stronger Than Yours: As Old Icelandic society did not have writing, all legal procedures were conducted by strictly formalized oral interactions. Consequently, there was a lot one could do wrong, and exploiting technical errors made by the enemies was an extremely common strategy. In any Courtroom Episode, villains will always try this, but neither will heroes pass up on a good opportunity.
- One Liners: A trademark of the saga style. Subgroups include Pre-Ass-Kicking One-Liner, Pre-Mortem One-Liner, or Famous Last Words.
- One Steve Limit: Quite frequently violated.
- Our Ghosts Are Different: The Undead were much feared by the Norse, and they show up in the sagas quite frequently. The worst kind is the draugr, who has superhuman strength, can change sizes, move below the earth, often has various magical abilities including shapeshifting, and maliciously haunts the living -- often physically attacking or killing them, but their mere presence alone (even if invisible) can cause diseases or madness in people and animals. They are living corpses with solid bodies that have to be killed a second time to lay them to rest, and anyone killed by draugr is likely to become one himself. In a nutshell, they are very much like Vampires, apart from the fact that they don't literally suck blood. Less aggressive types of ghosts are the haugbui ('barrow-dweller'), who has the same powers as the draugr but thankfully does not leave his gravemound or its immediate surroundings, and the aptrgangr ('revenant'), which seems to be a catch-all term for all kinds of the restless dead, aggressive or not.
- Outlaw: Outlawry was the most severe punishment an Icelandic jury could dispense. Outlawry came in two degrees: Full outlawry was forever, lesser outlawry for three years. (There was also the still milder form of district banishment, where you were only forbidden to enter a certain district.) As killing an outlaw was impunishable by law, and it was technically forbidden to shelter an outlaw, your best bet as an outlaw was to leave the country; if you could not or would not, you had to settle for a life of hiding and running. Outlaws appear in sagas both as heroes and as villains, with Grettir Amundarson and Gisli Sursson (each from his own saga) as the most famous examples of heroic outlaws who escape their pursuers by cunning and perseverance for many years. Less noble-minded outlaws often are villains, as outlaws frequently would turn to robbery and violence to survive.
- Patronymic: The standard for your second name in Norse society was the name of your father plus son (for son) or dóttir (for daughter) attached at the end. Matronymics show up as an exception. The system is still in use in Iceland, though 'continental' naming systems have been introduced from abroad.
- Pirates: During the pagan era, going abroad for sea-raiding and pirating was considered a good and honorable way to earn money and fame. With the conversion to Christianity, these practices came more and more in discredit, though not immediately. For example, robbing non-Christians was often still considered unobjectionable by Christians, and for centuries to come, regular wars in Northern Europe were carried out much in the same way as viking expeditions.
- The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: The view of the 13th and 14th century Icelanders on the viking expeditions of the past was decidedly ambivalent. Horror and moral contempt at these barbaric practices was mixed with pride in the adventurous endeavours of one's ancestors, bold and daring gentlemen of fortune that they were. As a result, many sagas dealing with viking episodes struggle noticeably with the problem of making protagonists who spend time as sea-raiders look heroic, not horrible. One way to do this is to cover viking expeditions only summarily, generously glossing over the questionable details; another way is to have the heroes get into a clash with other, more villainous vikings, in which the latter are soundly defeated. Thus, the good guys have not only opportunity to prove their bravery against villainous Mooks who deserve no better, but also end up with a lot of loot, without the stigma of having it robbed from innocent people. Of course, they never think of giving it back. -- The big exception to this rule is, of course, Egil's Saga, whose eponymous protagonist loots and kills unapologetically for his own enrichment.
- Revenge: A powerful force in any saga. Revenge was not understood to be only a matter of personal vindictiveness; in a pretty rough and violent world without police forces, public prosecutors, and religious teachings of love and forgiveness, taking revenge was also a requirement of keeping one's social prestige and credibility. As a victim of an injury, either getting legal compensation or self-administering revenge was necessary to hold up both your personal and your family's honor.
- Revenge by Proxy: As the concept of justice was inseparably linked to the concept of honor, a clan could be held liable for a misdeed one of his members committed. Thus, if the real culprit was out of reach for revenge, his brother, relative, or even a servant or slave might become the target.
- Second Sight: Most sagas have at least one person with this. Since Prophecies Are Always Right, visions and premonitions are always a Foreshadowing. Seers are also frequently very good at interpreting other people's dreams.
- Shapeshifters: Although "shape-changers" are sometimes referenced, they do not actually shift shape -- the name seems to go back on the belief that the soul of certain people can leave the body and roam around in animal shape, though this is not clearly expressed in the Icelanders' Sagas. There, "shape-changers" are people who involuntarily experience phases when their mind (not their body) gets "beast-like"; the concept seems to be virtually the same as berserkerism, as "fits of shape-strength" are synonyms for the berserk-fury.
- Shining City: Constantinople, called Miklagard ('great city') by the Norse, was considered the greatest city on Earth. A sizable colony of Norse mercenaries resided permanently in Byzantium.
- Trial by Combat: Duels (hólmganga; see above) were a valid way to resolve legal disputes -- up to 1006 AD, when they were banned in Iceland.
- Tricksters: Several sagas, such as Gisli Sursson's, have a character named Ref -- Icelandic for "Fox" -- who always lives up to his name. There is also a Saga of Ref the Sly, where the eponymous hero tricks Harald Hardradi.
- Two Guys and a Girl: Often the follow-up of a My Girl Back Home situation (see above). By far the most famous instance is Laxdoela Saga. For some reason or other, this trope is also always the main plot device in any of the "Sagas of Poets", a subgroup of the Sagas of Icelanders, where the poet-protagonist will compete with another older or richer suitor for the hand of a beautiful woman, and usually lose. It seems Norse ladies were more practical than romantic. An example for this subgenre would be the Saga of Gunnlaugr Serpent-Tongue.
- Vigilante Execution: Manslaughter was not illegal for a free man under Norse law. However, for a killing to count as manslaughter, you had to declare your deed before witnesses (that is, your name, whom you had killed, and where you had left the body) at the first settlement you reached where you weren't likely to be instantly killed as vengeance by a friend or relative. Failing to do so made the killing a murder, a contemptible crime that resulted in full outlawry.
- Warrior Poet: Egill in Egils Saga, as well as several others collected in Sagas of Warrior-Poets.
- Warrior Prince: Many sagas have episodes where Icelandic heroes on a continental trip rub shoulders with royalty, mostly kings of Norway. Because Asskicking Equals Authority was the rule among Norse aristocracy, every Norse king or earl was necessarily a Warrior Prince (though some more so than others).
- You Can't Fight Fate: The idea that everything is preordained was commonplace. Ploys to prevent prophecies or prophetic dreams from coming true won't work.
- ↑ In modern Icelandic it can also mean, depending on the context, "statement", "account" or "message". The Icelandic plural is sögur.
- ↑ Which, besides Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland also included Orkney, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and some bilingual places -- like Dublin, the Isle of Man, the Hebrides, and Caithness in Scotland.
- ↑ This is quite stunning considering that Icelandic genealogies would, taken at face value, place the exploits of Sigurd the Dragonslayer at around 800 AD.
- ↑ This convention probably emerged so as to reveal the intentions of a character without "getting into his head", which is an impossibility in the saga style.
- ↑ A frequently used translation of terms like atgeir, höggspjót and kesja; the exact look of these weapons is unclear (if they are historical fact at all).
- ↑ We don't actually know, and we don't want to find out.
- ↑ Though as the sagas testify, this ban was often violated in secret.