Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

of MSS. have all perished. We have also complex sagas put together in the 13th century out of the scrolls relating to a given locality, such a group as still exists untouched in Vapnfirdinga being fused into such a saga as Niala or Laxdæla. Of the authors nothing is known; we can only guess that some belong to the Sturlung school. According to subject they fall into two classes, those relating to the older generation before Christianity and those telling of St Olaf’s contemporaries; only two fall into a third generation.

Beginning with the sagas of the west, most perfect in style and form, the earliest in subject is that of Gold-Thori (c. 930), whose adventurous career it relates; Hensa-Þorissaga tells of the burning of Blund-Ketil, a noble chief, an event which led to Thord Gelli’s reforms next year (c. 964); Gislasaga (960-980) tells of the career and death of that ill-fated outlaw; it is beautifully written, and the verses by the editor (13th century) are good and appropriate; Hord’s Saga (980) is the life of a band of outlaws on Whalesfirth, and especially of their leader Hord. Of later subject are the sagas of Havard and his revenge for his son, murdered by a neighbouring chief (997-1002); of the Heiðarirgasaga (990-1014), a typical tale of a great blood feud, written in the most primitive prose; of Gunnlaug and Hrafn (Gunnlaugssaga Ormstungu, 980-1008), the rival poets and their ill-starred love. The verse in this saga is important and interesting. To the west also belong the three great complex sagas Egla, Eyrbyggia and Laxdæla. The first (870-980), after noticing the migration of the father and grandfather of the hero poet Egil, and the origin of the feud between them and the kings of Norway, treats fully of Egil’s career, his enmity with Eirik Bloodaxe, his service with Æthelstan, and finally, after many adventures abroad, of his latter days in Iceland at Borg, illustrating very clearly what manner of men those great settlers and their descendants were, and the feelings of pride and freedom which led them to Iceland. The style is that of Snorri, who had himself dwelt at Borg. Eyrbyggia (890-1031) is the saga of politics, the most loosely woven of all the compound stories. It includes a mass of information on the law, religion, traditions, &c., of the heathen days in Iceland, and the lives of Eric, the real discoverer of Greenland, Biorn of Broadwick, a famous chief, and Snorri, the greatest statesman of his day. Dr Vigfusson would ascribe its editing and completion to Sturla the Lawman, c. 1250. Laxdæla (910-1026) is the saga of Romance. Its heroine Gudrun is the most famous of all Icelandic ladies. Her love for Kiartan the poet, and his career abroad, his betrayal by his friend Bolli, the sad death of Kiartan at his hands, the revenge taken for him on Bolli, whose slayers are themselves afterwards put to death, and the end of Gudrun, who becomes an anchorite after her stormy life, make up the pith of the story. The contrast of the characters, the rich style and fine dialogue which are so remarkable in this saga, have much in common with the best works of the Sturlung school.

Of the north there are the sagas of Kormak (930-960), most primitive of all, a tale of a wild poet’s love and feuds, containing many notices of the heathen times; of Vatzdælasaga (890-980), relating to the settlement and the chief family in Waterdale; of Hallfred the poet (996-1014), narrating his fortune at King Olafs court, his love affairs in Iceland, and finally his death and burial at Iona; of Reyk-dæla (990), which preserves the lives of Askell and his son Viga-Skuti; of Svarf-dæla (980-990), a cruel, coarse story of the old days, with some good scenes in it, unfortunately imperfect, chapters 1-10 being forged; of Viga-Glum (970-990), a fine story of a heathen hero, brave, crafty and cruel. To the north also belong the sagas of Gretti the Strong (1010-1031), the life and death of the most famous of Icelandic outlaws, the real story of whose career is mixed up with the mythical adventures of Beowulf, here put down to Gretti, and with late romantic episodes and fabulous folk-tales (Dr Vigfusson would ascribe the best parts of this saga to Sturla; its last editor, whose additions would be better away, must have touched it up about 1300), and the stories of the Ljosvetningasaga (1009-1060). Gudmund the Mighty and his family and neighbours are the heroes of these tales, which form a little cycle. The Banda-manna saga (1050-1060), the only comedy among the sagas, is also a northern tale; it relates the struggles of a plebeian who gets a chieftancy against the old families of the neighbourhood, whom he successfully outwits; Öl-kofra þattr is a later imitation of it in the same humorous strain. The sagas of the north are rougher and coarser than those of the west, but have a good deal of individual character.

Of tales relating to the east there survive the Weapon-firth cycle—the tales of Thorstein the White (c. 900), of Thorstein the Staffsmitten (c. 985), of Gunnar Thidrand’s Bane (1000-1008) and of the Weapon-firth Men (975-990), all relating to the family of Hof and their friends and kin for several generations—and the story of Hrafnkell Frey’s Priest (c. 960), the most idyllic of sagas and best of the eastern tales. Of later times there are Droplaug’s Sons’ Saga (997-1007), written probably about 1110, and preserved in the uncouth style of the original (a brother’s revenge for his brother’s death is the substance of it; Brandkrossa Þattr is an appendix to it), and the tales of Thorstein Hall of Side’s Son (c. 1014) and his brother Thidrandi (c. 996), which belong to the cycle of Hall o’ Side’s Saga, unhappily lost; they are weird tales of bloodshed and magic, with idyllic and pathetic episodes.

The sagas of the south are either lost or absorbed in that of Nial (970-1014), a long and complex story into which are woven the tales of Gunnar Nial, and parts of others, as Brian Boroimhe, Hall o’ Side, &c. It is, whether we look at style, contents or legal and historical weight, the foremost of all sagas. It deals especially with law, and contains the pith and the moral of all early Icelandic history. Its hero Nial, type of the good lawyer, is contrasted with its villain Mord, the ensample of cunning, chicane, and legal wrong doing; and a great part of the saga is taken up with the three cases and suits of the divorce, the death of Hoskuld and the burning of Nial, which are given with great minuteness. The number and variety of its dramatis personae give it the liveliest interest throughout. The women Hallgerda, Bergthora and Ragnhild are as sharply contrasted as the men Gunnar, Skarphedin, Flosi and Kari. The pathos of such tragedies as the death of Gunnar and Hoskuld and the burning is interrupted by the humour of the Althing scenes and the intellectual interest of the legal proceedings. The plot dealing first with the life and death of Gunnar, type of the chivalry of his day, then with the burning of Nial by Flosi, and how it came about, and lastly with Kari’s revenge on the burners, is the ideal saga-plot. The author must have been of the east, a good lawyer and genealogist, and have composed it about 1250, to judge from internal evidence. It has been overworked by a later editor, c. 1300, who inserted many spurious verses.

Relating partly to Iceland, but mostly to Greenland and Vinland (N. America), are the Floamannasaga (985-990), a good story of the adventures of Thorgils and of the struggles of shipwrecked colonists in Greenland, a Of Greenland and North America. graphic and terrible picture; and Eirikssaga rauða (990-1000), two versions, one northern (Flatey-book), one western, the better (in Hawk’s Book, and AM. 557), the story of the discovery of Greenland and Vinland (America) by the Icelanders at the end of the 9th century. Later is the Fostbrædrasaga (1015-1030), a very interesting story, told in a quaint romantic style, of Thorgeir, the reckless henchman of King Olaf, and how his death was revenged in Greenland by his sworn brother the true-hearted Thormod Coalbrow’s poet, who afterward dies at Sticklestad. The tale of Einar Sookisson (c. 1125) may also be noticed. The lost saga of Poet Helgi, of which only fragments remain, was also laid in Greenland.

Besides complete sagas there are embedded in the Heimskringla numerous small Þættir or episodes, small tales of Icelanders’ adventures, often relating to poets and their lives at the kings’ courts; one or two of these seem to be fragments of sagas now lost. Among the more notable are those of Orm Storolfsson, Ogmund Dijtt, Halldor Snorrason, Thorstein Oxfoot, Hromund Halt, Thorwald Tasaldi, Svadi and Arnor Herlingar-nef, Audunn of Westfirth, Sneglu-Halli, Hrafn of Hrutfiord, Hreidar