I started teaching the Icelandic Sagas just over twenty years ago. I had read some of them as a student, and though they didn’t feature in my research when I did my doctoral thesis, I was glad to get back to them as a teacher. A colleague asked me to teach his Icelandic course for him while he was on sabbatical, and I liked it so much I set up one of my own. As with other courses on “Old Norse literature,” as it is mostly called in the English-speaking world, mine aimed to teach students to read the Sagas, first in translation, and then in the original Icelandic.
But first things first: what are the Sagas and why are they famous? The Sagas are from Iceland, about forty in number, most of them written in the 1200s. They are long stories in prose, about the same length as modern novels. In contrast to novels, however, the stories in Sagas of Icelanders are not fiction. They are based on, or elaborated from, a nucleus of historical events, and the places they refer to may be visited today. The Sagas are written with a large cast of people, many of whom actually lived in Iceland, Norway, and sometimes Britain in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the period in which the action is set. It is likely that Sagas were commissioned by powerful thirteenth-century families to celebrate some of these characters as their ancestors. A Saga will focus on one or two families in regions of Iceland, usually showing protagonists who try to get the better of each other in feuds. For that reason they can also be called “Family Sagas.” The feuds are conducted in and out of law-courts, with many attempts by goðar (mediator-chieftains) to keep the peace. However, Sagas also show the violence which the legal process aims to prevent, often in graphic detail, revealing the variously ironic or explosive or laconic traits of character that set their heroes, women as well as men, apart.
The three most famous Sagas are Egil’s Saga (1230s), The Saga of the People of Laxdale (1240s), and Njal’s Saga (circa 1290). Egil’s Saga is the family history and biography of an Icelandic poet who was a Viking in Norway and England and a rich farmer back home in western Iceland. The Saga of the People of Laxdale has a huge cast but opens with one woman, Aud the Deep-Minded, and closes with another, her descendant Gudrun Osvifr’s-Daughter. This Saga is essentially a love story, with Gudrun a heroine who ends up killing the man she loves, Kjartan, a man who was grandson both to Egil and separately to an Irish princess. And Njal’s Saga, whose author made use of the earlier two works, tells the story of a great friendship between two men, Njal and Gunnar, chieftains in the south of Iceland, and the feuds which try to divide them, separately finish them and almost succeed in plunging their country into a civil war.
These and many other Sagas became famous in England and America in the nineteenth century, and there have been many translations up to the present day. The university courses which teach them use translation first, often in the Penguin Classic editions, and then train students in enough Icelandic to read excerpts on their own, and then a whole Saga. It can take a long time, but the effort is worth it. The course I have taught gives students the basics of Old Icelandic grammar, while reading a translation of Egil’s Saga and discussing the craft of the author and such things as his plot and characterization of the hero. Eventually the streams converge with the reading of an episode from this Saga (chapter sixty) where Egil meets his arch-enemies in York, Eirik Bloodaxe and his queen Gunnhild. Eirik is now king of York for the Anglo-Saxons. Egil has done many things against him, including killing his twelve-year-old son, and when Egil’s ship grounds near the mouth of the Humber, he heads to York to turn himself in. Gunnhild, in fact, cast the spell which drew Egil overseas to them in the first place. Egil seeks out his old friend Arinbjorn, who is the king’s right-hand man. Using all his wits, Arinbjorn thwarts Gunnhild’s attempt to have Egil killed on the spot, and wins time by proposing that Egil spend the night in his house composing a eulogy in honour of Eirik. They go back, with Egil under house arrest, and as the Icelander starts to craft the verses in his head in a loft room in Arinbjorn’s, Gunnhild disguises herself as a swallow and torments him from the windowsill. Only when Arinbjorn goes on the roof does she withdraw, leaving Egil to finish the poem. The next day Egil delivers it, the “Head-Ransom,” so named because his reward for the poem is to keep his head. This meeting between Egil and Eirik, or something like it, took place in the mid-tenth century and is part of our history as well as Iceland’s.
The Sagas have many striking incidents of this kind, and are justly famous, having fascinated readers all over the world since the first translations appeared. They are part of a much larger literature which includes Sagas of Kings, Legendary Sagas, poems of gods and heroes from the Edda, and Old Norse mythology as written by their most famous author of all, Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241). The reward of teaching students an introduction to this great ensemble is to see the first stirrings in them of the love affair that all of us eventually have with Iceland, land of the Sagas.
For the late Joe Allard’s captivating introduction to the Sagas of Icelanders, see “Beowulf” and Other Stories, ed. Richard North and Joe Allard, second edition (Pearson Education Ltd, 2011). For his text and translation of episodes from the Sagas, see the Longman Anthology of Old English, Old Icelandic and Anglo-Norman Literatures, ed. Richard North and Joe Allard, with Patricia H. Gillies (Pearson Education Ltd, 2011).