In Our Time: Icelandic Sagas

The Icelandic Sagas were written down in the 13th Century and tell the stories of the original colonists of Iceland and their descendants. On In Our Time the context & contents of these sagas were discussed by Carolyne Larrington (St John’s College, Oxford), Elizabeth Ashman Rowe (University of Cambridge) and Emily Lethbridge (Árni Magnússon Manuscripts Institute in Reykjavík).

Iceland was settled primarily by Norwegian aristocrats and their households from the 9th Century AD onwards. In Norway at the time the King was beginning to centralise more power which wasn’t going down well with these aristocrats, hence their move. As well as the Norwegians there were also other Scandinavian settlers, including some who had settled in parts of the British Isles first. And a not insignificant number of Celtic women from the British Isles. The society they set up in Iceland didn’t have a King, instead there were 36 or so chieftains who met at the Althingi to decide on laws & settle court cases. The sagas are often about these court cases, which makes them sound rather dry but these cases would be to settle things like family feuds which had got out of hand with lots of death on both sides so they’re anything but dry.

During the programme they told us the plot line of part of one of the sagas – the Laxdæla saga. In this two foster brothers (their genealogies are told in an earlier part of the saga) make a trip to Norway & they leave behind in Iceland a woman (Guðrún) that one of them (Kjartan) intends to marry. She would rather have made the trip with them, but was told it wasn’t appropriate. Kjartan remains in Norway longer than his foster brother (Bolli), who when he returns fails to pass on greetings from Kjartan to Guðrún and instead gives her the impression that Kjartan has found himself a new woman. Bolli & Guðrún marry, and when Kjartan returns to Iceland he’s not happy with this state of affairs. Eventually Bolli kills Kjartan, and then Kjartan’s brothers seek vengeance on Bolli & kill him. Guðrún is pregnant with Bolli’s son at this point, and when the boy grows up he seeks vengeance on his father’s killers. The saga as a whole tells the story of all four of Guðrún’s marriages.

Christianity came to Iceland around the year 1000AD, and with Christianity came the writing of books. At first religious texts were the only books written down but by the 13th & 14th Centuries the Sagas were being written. They were explaining that the coming of Christianity influenced the way these sagas were told or rather written down – in some ways the stories are divided into what might be thought of as an Old Testament & a New. So the people who lived prior to Christianity reaching Iceland are often depicted as virtuous pagans (by Christian ideas of virtue) or incidents in their stories are pre-figuring eventual conversion or reflecting biblical imagery.

Lethbridge talked about how the sagas are very much rooted in the landscape of Iceland. The places where events take place are real places that you can go and visit. And people who live nearby can tell you the stories that are associated with their local area. The sagas are still very much a piece of the identity of Icelandic culture, and the return of the physical manuscripts when Iceland became independent after the Second World War was an event that a lot of the population turned out on the streets to witness. People living in Iceland today can often trace back their family history to the people talked about in the sagas.

There is some debate about how much of the stories in the sagas are true. Clearly the supernatural parts (like the dead who don’t stay in their graves but come back to fight you) didn’t really happen. But in terms of the non-supernatural stuff some of it can be corroborated from other sources, although some can be disproved or disputed using these sources. For instance people & places exist independently of the sagas, and some of the events are recorded in more sober histories. But equally some descriptions of laws or events are clearly written long after the fact as they’re anachronistic for the time the saga is set. One of the experts said you can think of the sagas as being like historical novels – the facts are used but then dialogue & details are added to make it a good story.

The sagas generally share a narrative style. They are written fairly neutrally, and talk about what people said or what people did not what they were thinking. The narrator doesn’t take sides or judge the characters. The furthest they go is to say things like “and many men agreed this was not wise” – putting the judgement in the things other characters said at the time. There are interludes of poetry, said to be composed by the characters in the saga, which do convey something of the internal thoughts of a character and the experts were saying that this poetry was possibly composed at the time of the saga’s stories and passed down orally.

Women in Iceland in the era that this stories took place did not have legal standing – and so had to work through the men in their lives. The experts said that despite this women in the sagas are written about much like men, as real people, and the sagas will often have female characters who do act and get their own way. Even if it is through men because of the legal system, they’re still shown with agency of their own.

Near the end of the programme Bragg went off on a little diversion about language. He repeated a story he’d heard about speakers of Cumbrian dialect being able to make themselves understood to Icelandic speakers & vice versa after a little bit of time & some good will on both sides. The experts agreed that there’s sufficient Norse influence in Cumbrian dialect that this is plausible (and I think they agreed that the particular story he’d heard was true too).