Most people have heard of the epic poems and tragedies of ancient Greece, as well as the most noted Roman philosophers, but less well known are Iceland’s very own set of classics. The Sagas of the Icelanders, written in the 12th and 13th century and telling the stories of the early settlers of Iceland from the 10th century, are an amazing treasure trove of historical knowledge about the early years of settlement in Iceland. Better yet, they’re also impressive examples of literary excellence that still hold their own when it comes to enthralling storytelling.
While reading the sagas shouldn’t exactly be compared to reading modern day thrillers; their gripping subjects and epic storytelling might still surprise you. Woven in with long chapters about genealogy and a host of stories about people who all seem to be named Þórólfur are grand stories about love, honour, friendship, and fate. They’re funny, sad, thrilling, and everything in between.
What are the sagas of the Icelanders?
The sagas are the Classics of Iceland. Written in the 12th-14th century and telling the stories of the early settlers of Iceland, the sagas are of great historical, cultural and literary value. They paint a picture of a world gone by that’s far removed from modern society and yet still the same in so many ways.
Why should I read centuries-old stories?
If the historical value doesn’t impress you, you might still be swayed by the entertainment value of the sagas. They tell the stories of the lives, loves, and adventures of the early Icelandic Vikings. It may take a while to get into the impersonal storytelling and the different culture of the Norse people, but you’ll be rewarded for your efforts. There’s the story of Egill Skallagrímsson who fought and drank his way through most of Northern Europe, writing poetry that tended to get him into as much trouble as it saved him from, the story of the beautiful Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir and the men in her life, and the dramatic tragedy of Gunnar of Hlíðarendi and his best friend Njáll, who tried but failed to escape their destiny. I know, right? Sounds pretty good to me too.
Before you start reading, you should know that…
The narrative is impersonal
The sagas are an exercise in subtlety. Modern stories might have lines like “He couldn’t even hear the last part of the insult before the anger consumed him. It felt like his blood was boiling as a mixture of humiliation and fury tore him apart from the inside.” The sagas will have lines conveying the same sentiment in words like “he said nothing and for a moment, his cheeks turned red.” While reading, you have to pay close attention to descriptions and you really can’t skip chapters, because…
Values Were Different
Honour was the basis of society in those days. In a country without law enforcement, people lived highly moral (according to their values) lives or faced the consequences. Family was everything and if someone wronged a cousin of yours, you were not only expected, but required to avenge him, either by money or blood. Last but not least, there was also a strong belief in fatalism, dreams in the sagas are often prophetic and wise men could see the future.
Every Word Counts
When reading the sagas, a lot of the first chapters might seem superfluous. The thing is, if they were, they wouldn’t have been written down. The manuscripts were made of calfskin and were very expensive. Everything they could skip, they did. The early setup may feel unimportant at first, (sometimes even happening years before the main characters were born) but it’s all a part of the chain of events that eventually set the stage for the plot of the saga to progress.
They’re Probably Somewhere About Halfway Between Truth and Fiction
The stories supposedly happened in the 10th century but weren’t written down until a couple of hundred years later. There’s reason to believe some events might have been poetically adjusted in the meantime. While we’re pretty sure most (at the very least, some) of these people lived in Iceland at some point, we’re pretty sure the stories have at least been somewhat exaggerated. Still, they’re the cornerstone of Icelandic culture and self-value as we know them.
Where to begin with the Icelandic Sagas
If you like romance novels and soap operas, start with Laxdæla Saga
Laxdæla is the thrilling story of bonds of friendship torn asunder for the love of a woman. The love triangle of the formerly inseparable friends Kjartan and Bolli and the beautiful and clever Guðrún has far-reaching consequences in this heartwrenching story of honour, destiny, love and betrayal. Will Guðrún follow her heart or her pride? Are they all mere pawns of fate? Will her efforts to overturn destiny prove fruitful? …or fatal!?
The saga also features Kjartan’s adventures with the Norwegian court (especially the king’s mother) as well as a Pretty Woman-esque B-story of a princess in disguise.
If you’re a fan of legal dramas and the Greek tragedies, start with Brennu-Njáls saga
Njála, as it is affectionately known, is the most revered of all the sagas in Iceland and its main character, Gunnar of Hlíðarendi is probably the most idealised hero in all Icelandic literature. The dashing blond Gunnar only longs to live happily ever after on his farm, next door to his best friend Njáll, but unfortunately, destiny has other ideas. Familial obligations, honour and, most importantly, love, throw him and everyone around him into a whirlwind of theft and murder. His fate is marked from the moment he lays eyes on the woman he loves and not even the sage advice of the second (platonic) love of his life, Njáll, can save him. As an added bonus, Gunnar’s wife, Hallgerður, also happens to be arguably the best female character in all medieval literature.
If you’re into fantasy, start with Völsunga Saga
Völsunga saga has it all, dragons, sleeping beauties, magical swords, revenge and a dash of incest. It’s basically Game of Thrones for the 13th century! Its the story of the Völsungs, a dynasty of kings and heroes. The best known story from the saga is the story of Sigurður, the slayer of the dragon Fáfnir. After he kills the dragon, he eats his heart because magical birds told him to do it. What more do you need to know?
Völsungasaga is younger than many of the other sagas mentioned here and its fantastical storytelling has provided inspiration for many a modern masterpiece, such as Richard Wagner’s magnum opus Der ring des Nibelungen and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
If you like action movies and adventure stories, start with Egil’s saga
Egil’s saga tells the story of the fascinating antihero Egill Skallagrímsson and his adventurous travels all over the north of Europe. A fierce fighter and clever poet with severe anger management issues, Egil’s saga weaves the stories of the first time he killed a man (at the tender age of 7), his impending beheading thwarted by some seriously great poetry, and a drunken feast turned massacre (where our hero at one point cuts off a man’s head before vomiting down his neck), to name a few.
If you aren’t completely sold yet, there’s also the story of Egill in his old age, plotting mischief involving his treasure. He wanted to go to the meeting of parliament, throw his silver in the air and sit back and watch people fighting over it. When that didn’t work out, he decided to bury his treasure, creating the legend of Egil’s silver.