The Norse sagas drew on oral storytelling traditions that stretched back, in some cases, for centuries. But they are even closer to the events and people they describe; and while they contain many fanciful elements—ghosts, demons, trolls, and fairies—they are mostly narrated in prose, and in a style that is often disarmingly matter-of-fact and humorous.
Fact or Fiction?
It is notoriously difficult to separate fact from fiction in these stories, or to decide how one is supposed to respond to episodes of very dark comedy.
Think of the famous scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which the seemingly formidable Black Knight refuses to admit that he has been mortally maimed when his arm is cut off—”It’s just a flesh wound”—and whose limbless trunk promises to “bite the legs off” his opponent; that is precisely the sort of laconic and hilarious exchange that you often find in sagas. (The creators of Python, deeply read in medieval literature, knew this well.)
Historical Sources and Artful Confections
The word saga simply means “a saying, an oral account”, but when referring to this long-form storytelling genre, we are usually talking about texts written down in medieval Iceland after 1200, most of which are focused on the 1st century of that island’s settlement, 930–1030, the so-called Saga Age.
This means that, as with Roland or Beowulf, or the ancient Homeric epics, there is a certain historical layering that occurs in the shift from oral performance to textual composition. The saga narrator is usually a third-person observer who reports on what is unfolding in the present or immediate past, while the actual author is a later literary craftsman who plays up old-timey details and vocabulary to add historical verisimilitude to his project.
This means that the sagas are simultaneously historical sources for the Viking Age and artful confections of the later Middle Ages. It also means that the original stories, which describe the deeds, beliefs, and worldview of pagans, are being run through the mill of Scandinavia’s rather belated and piecemeal conversion to Christianity, without being cleansed of their pagan content.
There are also a number of Old Norse translations of Continental chivalric romances, which place the tales of Arthur and his knights in this same Icelandic milieu, as well as sagas recounting the deeds of Christian bishops and saints.
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The most famous, and one of the few named saga authors, is Snorri Sturluson, whose career matches the rich variety of the saga tradition. Born in 1179, he was both a saga poet and a historian—roles that he may not have viewed as distinct—who was elected lawspeaker of the Alþingi, or Althing, the Icelandic parliament—the oldest continuously functioning democratic body in history.
However, the institution of the Althing suffered a setback on Snorri’s watch, at a time when Iceland was becoming drawn into the powerful orbit of Norway. He was later assassinated at the behest of the Norwegian king, in 1241.
What Norse Sagas Actually Deal With
Many sagas are multigenerational and deal with internecine warfare and blood feuds carried out over decades. They often feature powerful and outspoken female protagonists or matriarchs, and thus reflect and amplify the very real opportunities for political participation and gender equality in Iceland and, to a certain extent, elsewhere in Scandinavia.
Although only free, propertied men were allowed to participate directly in meetings of the Althing, these were annual open-air gatherings held in the Thing-Fields (Þingvellir) that were also attended by virtually everyone in Iceland.
This means that there were plenty of opportunities for women to influence the political process and legal business conducted there. Indeed, many of such episodes are featured in sagas, and sagas would have been among the entertainments enjoyed at such meetings.
This collapsing of literary entertainment and real life is another salient characteristic of the sagas. So is the way they mirror the actual fluidity of Norse gender norms and roles. As Carol Clover, an American medievalist, has shown, Old Norse does not have a stable vocabulary for describing the alleged binary between male and female traits.
It acknowledges biological sexual differences, but its gender model is a sliding scale of behaviors plotted on the axis whose two poles are hvatr and blauðr, “strong” and “weak”. A male warrior in his prime can be praised as hvatr, but so can a female head-of-household.
This helps to explain why episodes in which men and women’s advantage shift drastically are a staple of the saga genre. Indeed, because women could inherit property and engage in warfare, and therefore function as men in Old Norse societies, this was not merely a symbolic advantage, but a real one.
Prefiguring and Inspiring
The Old Norse sagas prefigure and inspire the sweeping narratives of historical novels from War and Peace to Wolf Hall, and the closely observed studies of modern life, from The Forsyte Saga to the magical realism of Gabriel García Márques or Marilynne Robinson.
Growing up, finding one’s way, negotiating power, losing love, settling scores, family dynamics, moral choices, and miraculous occurrences—all of these medieval elements are still exerting their powerful influence.
Common Questions about the Old Norse Sagas of Scandinavia
Saga means “a saying, an oral account”. However, it mostly refers to the long-form storytelling genre written down in medieval Iceland after 1200. Most of these are focused on the 1st century of that island’s settlement, 930–1030, the Saga Age.
Born in 1179, Snorri Sturluson is one of the most famous as well as one of the few named saga authors.
Historical novels such as War and Peace and Wolf Hall as well as some modern-day novels such as The Forsyte Saga all took inspiration from the Old Norse sagas.