History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 November 2008

Sagas as history

A saga is an epic prose story about people--people who most often lived hundreds of years earlier and whose story was passed down orally until someone wrote it down. Much can be learned from reading between the lines of a prose saga--what did men value? What role did women play? What were their houses like? Even though it's not history, nor is it archeology, reading a saga puts one in touch with a remote time period and apparently real people.

One saga, known as Njal's Saga, is judged to be the greatest of Iceland's prose literature by scholars who have studied it for the last 150 years. Discovered and settled by Norsemen (Vikings) in the 9th century A.D., Iceland was a mix of settlers from Scandinavian lands and the Norse colonies in Ireland and the Hebrides, numbering about 60,000. The parliamentary commonwealth established in 930 A.D. broke down years before Njal's Saga was written, and during this period of internal struggle, intrigues, and power-seeking, the independence based on law and individual rights crumbled. The saga was written about this crucial period of Iceland's history.

The author of the story recreated this heroic age, a time when pride and honor were prized over wealth and even life itself. Vernacular prose-writing started in the 12th century, and sagas were written about life in Iceland from early history down to contemporary times. Saga writing continued through the 13th century
(Heimskringla, Egil's Saga) but the high point of literary development was Njal's Saga.

Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) was the leading poet and saga writer of the day, but Snorri did not compose Njal's Saga. An unknown poet undertook the work, one who was equally aware of the history of his land and current events of his day.

The plot? Impossibly intricate. At the core is the story of a farmer, Njal, who with his family is burned alive in his home by his enemies. A long tale of events leading up to this act, and the consequences that spilled over, form the central theme.

How true is it? Some scholars think it pure fiction; others disagree. The Burning of Bergthorsknoll (Njal's home) is corroborated by earlier written sources, and excavations reveal evidence of buildings that were burned hundreds of years ago. There are written historical accounts of the conversion of Iceland to Christianity in the year 1000 (everyone converted at once, by parliamentary decree) and of the Battle of Clontarf outside Dublin in 1014, along with genealogies of various characters which the reader must untangle.

Primary beliefs were conceptions of honor, of luck, fate, and nobility of character. Any slight to one's honor or to the honor of one's family invited revenge with either blood or money. Thus, characters were easy to goad into avenging actions to satisfy family pressure.

Luck, good or bad, was considered part of every individual, and heroes like Njal could detect an "ill-starred" or "lucky" man. The concept of Fate swept the action along, and a man's struggle to change fate heightened the conflict. Also important was the supernatural--ghosts, prophecies, dreams, hallucinations, portents; everyone believed in such things. Supernatural events knit the story together and provided inner tension.

In addition, the social fabric of Icelandic society acknowledged hospitality as the height of good behavior. Slaves were owned but treated sympathetically, often given their freedom and some land of their own.

Sagas were regarded as serious entertainment. Poetry cost nothing, held no dangers, and one man or a hundred might wish to listen.

Source: Magnus Magnusson, introduction to Njal's Saga, Penguin Classics, 1960.

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Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Lynna, thanks for introducing me to this saga. I took a course in Icelandic and Norse literature at Cornell but the professor missed this one! I'm always ibtrigued by how stories are shaped and retold through oral cultures and how (or if) they morph over time, like in a huge cultural game of "telephone." I'm also always fascinated by the universal themes and tropes you find in sagas and epics that sprung up in different eras and in different parts of the globe. Take for example the concept/theme of the "hero's journey" a story you find the world over--only the details are changed to reflect the culture of origin.

6:34 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for a fascinating post, Lynna! I love reading primary sources, but my books that mostly means plays and novels, letters and diaries, newspaper articles. It's fascinating to look at primary sources from so long ago.

3:07 PM  

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