The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180–1280)

The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180–1280)

Theodore M. Andersson
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 248
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    The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180–1280)
    Book Description:

    In this book, Theodore M. Andersson, a leading scholar of the Norse sagas, introduces readers to the development of the Icelandic sagas between 1180 and 1280, a crucial period that witnessed a gradual shift of emphasis from tales of adventure and personal distinction to the analysis of political and historical propositions. Beginning with the first full-length sagas and culminating in the acknowledged masterpiece Njáls saga, Andersson emphasizes a historical perspective, establishing a chronology for seventeen of the most important sagas and showing how they evolve thematically and stylistically over the century under study.

    Revisiting the long-standing debate about the oral and literary components of the sagas, Andersson argues that there is a clear progression from the somewhat mechanical gathering of oral lore in the early sagas to an increasingly tight and authorially controlled composition in the later sagas. The early sagas-including The Legendary Saga of Saint Olaf and Odd Snorrason's Saga of Olaf Tryggvason-focus on conspicuous individuals and their memorable deeds; later works are more apt to formulate the abstract problems and ideas that preoccupied their authors. As the authors begin to impose their views on the inherited narratives, the sagas become more and more critical and self-conscious, to the point where Njáls saga may be considered not only to approximate a novel in our sense of the term but also to comment on the saga form.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6030-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Introduction The Prehistory of the Sagas
    (pp. 1-20)

    This work sets out to clarify how the book-length sagas of medieval Iceland evolved in literary terms from circa 1180 to circa 1280. This approach is a departure from previous practice to the extent that the sagas, in particular those about early Iceland, have seemed to defy chronological treatment.¹ The dating indices are normally not clear enough to allow for the establishment of a firm chronology. As a result, surveys of the sagas often organize them in rough groupings or regionally rather than chronologically. The regional principle was, for example, enshrined in the important series of editions titled Íslenzk fornrit....

  6. CHAPTER ONE From Hagiography to Hero: Odd Snorrason′s Saga of Olaf Tryggvason
    (pp. 21-42)

    There is no evidence of professional or quasi-professional saga tellers in Iceland, but there are some indications that historical lore was in the hands of persons with special qualifications. When Ari Thorgilsson began the process of recording Icelandic history in the 1120s, he referred to three of his informants in the very first sentence of his extant booklet: his foster father, Teit, the son of Bishop Ísleif, who was born in 1006; his uncle Thorkel Gellisson; and Thuríd, the daughter of Snorri the Chieftain, who died in 1112.¹ Ari credits Teit with being the wisest man he knew, notes that...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Sanctifying a Viking Chieftain: The Oldest/Legendary Saga of Saint Olaf
    (pp. 43-59)

    There are some indications that the Icelanders had less oral tradition about Olaf Haraldsson than they had about Olaf Tryggvason, although the former ruled longer and later (1015–30) and should have been in more recent memory. The difference may have been that Olaf Tryggvason enjoyed some quasi-official status as the apostle of Christianity in Iceland, whereas Olaf Haraldssonʹs reputation was cultivated more particularly in Norway.

    We have no list of informants for the gesta of Olaf Haraldsson, as we have in the case of Ari Thorgilsson and Odd Snorrason, but similarly knowledgeable men and women must have been available...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Creating Personalities: The Saga Age Icelanders
    (pp. 60-85)

    King Olaf Tryggvason and King Olaf Haraldsson were remembered as great promoters of the faith and men of heroic dimensions, but it is difficult for a reader of their sagas to assess their personal qualities beyond the accomplishments required by their roles. They occasionally interact with their wives or their followers, though almost never in a way that is revealing about these relationships. Neither thoughts, reflections, principles, nor motivations are developed in such a way as to explain their actions. The reader is not invited to see them as characters impelled by a particular style or inner conviction. And yet,...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Defining Political Identities: The Saga of King Magnús and King Harald
    (pp. 86-101)

    If the estimate of 1200 is about right for the dating of The Oldest Saga of Saint Olaf, there elapsed some twenty years between its composition and the writing of The Saga of King Magnús and King Harald, the first and by far the longest section of the kingsʹ saga compilation known as Morkinskinna.¹ These were the crucial years in the development of saga writing, although we cannot know what the exact sequence of literary events was. It is probable that Karl Jónsson’s Sverris saga was completed in this period, whether by Karl himself or someone else.² A saga about...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Political Ambiguities: Egils saga Skallagrímssonar
    (pp. 102-118)

    The continuity between the kingsʹ sagas discussed above and Egils saga has often gone unnoticed because they have traditionally been assigned to different genres and are therefore not studied together. It could be argued, however, that Egils saga merely inverts the paradigm established in the kingsʹ sagas. The latter are overtly about Norwegian kings but covertly about Icelandʹs position in relation to Norwegian royalty. Egils saga is overtly about an important Icelandic family and its most celebrated scion but also centrally about a series of Norwegian kings and how they interact with Iceland.

    The very selection of Olaf Tryggvason as...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Turning Inward: Ljósvetninga saga
    (pp. 119-131)

    Scholars have traditionally distinguished between kingsʹ sagas and sagas about early Icelanders. I depart from that tradition with a view to tracing a continuity from three kingsʹ sagas and five native sagas through the transitional Egils saga to the full-blown and justly famous middle and late thirteenth-century sagas about early Icelanders. I postulate that Ljósvetninga saga is symptomatic of the turning point—not that in itself it marks the turning point but only that it illustrates the shift. It was almost certainly not the first saga with a predominantly Icelandic focus. Some or all of the so-called skald sagas, devoted...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Gilding an Age: Laxdœla saga
    (pp. 132-149)

    Laxdœla saga, like Ljósvetninga saga, is a regional saga, set in the inner reaches of Hvammsfjord on the west coast of Iceland, to the north of the area settled by Skallagrím in Egils saga. Like Ljósvetninga saga it too is organized by generations, but whereas the author of Ljósvetninga saga seems determined to avoid the colonial period in order to focus on the internal politics of Iceland in the first half of the eleventh century, the author of Laxdœla saga dwells fondly on the age of settlement (870–930). Ljósvetninga saga embraces two generations, but Laxdœla saga reaches seven or...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT Two Views of Icelandic History: Eyrbyggja saga and Vatnsdœla saga
    (pp. 150-161)

    Laxdœla saga and Eyrbyggja saga are linked, but the relationship between them is notoriously difficult to disentangle. The difficulty may perhaps be of our own making, because toward the end of Eyrbyggja saga the text refers in so many words to Laxdœla saga and Heiờarvíga saga. The editor Einar Ólafur Sveinsson took the latter reference at face value but was more doubtful about the authorʹs knowledge of Laxdœla saga.¹ In addition, it seems quite clear that the author knew Gísla saga, even though there is a discrepancy in the chronology of Thórdísʹs divorce from Bo̮rk.² The verbal echoes are nonetheless...

  14. CHAPTER NINE Pondering Justice: Hœnsa-þóris saga, Bandamanna saga, and Hrafnkels saga
    (pp. 162-182)

    The three sagas under study in this chapter are among the most elegant of the shorter texts. They are generally dated in the middle or late thirteenth century, although the criteria are, as usual, tenuous.¹ To the extent that we see saga writing as having evolved and improved over time, we may be tempted to think that the sharp contours and narrative economy of these sagas reinforce the likelihood that they are late and represent the culmination of the short form. It might also be argued that they share a new skepticism about governance, specifically about the reliability of chieftains,...

  15. CHAPTER TEN Demythologizing the Tradition: Njáls saga
    (pp. 183-203)

    By common agreement, Njáls saga occupies a transcendent place in the Icelandic tradition as the greatest, if not quite the latest, of the classical sagas.¹ It represents such a pinnacle of style, range, and drama that it tends to overshadow the earlier sagas and relegate them to the status of preliminary attempts at a form that matures only in Njáls saga.² My approach departs from this perspective. Rather than viewing Njáls saga as the crowning achievement, I suggest that it consciously subverts the narrative positions constructed in the earlier sagas. I consider the author less as the master architect perfecting...

    (pp. 204-210)

    It should come as no surprise that the Icelandic sagas are centrally about Iceland, more particularly about stages in Icelandic self-consciousness. The first sagas appear at the end of the twelfth century, a century literarily dominated by the appropriation of Christian writings. They capitalize on that tradition by exalting the conversion kings, first in Latin and then in the vernacular. The hypothesis advanced in this book is that Olaf Tryggvason had priority because, according to both Ari and Odd, he brought Christianity to Iceland and thus initiated the integration of Iceland into the Christian world. Though ostensibly about a Norwegian...

    (pp. 211-226)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 227-238)