The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method

  Sigurðsson, Gísli. 2004. The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method. Trans. Nicholas Jones. Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 2. Cambridge, MA: Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature.

6. Conclusions to Part II

The sagas of the east of Iceland contain a large number of passages with parallels of subject matter or theme with other sagas within the group or with written works from other parts of the country. Of the examples considered in the previous two chapters, the only cases where it seems, on the grounds of shared diction, that the relationship can be traced to a literary connection (rittengsl), i.e. the use of one text in the composition of another, are as follows:

  1. Vápnfirðinga saga and Þorsteins saga hvíta: the description of Brodd-Helgi and the story of how he got his nickname.
  2. Landnámabók and Brand-Krossa þáttr: the dream of Hrafnkell Hrafnsson in Skriðudalur. However, Brand-Krossa þáttr has material not found in Hrafnkels saga, which reduces the likelihood that the þáttr got its material directly from any of the known redactions of Landnámabók.
  3. The Sturlubók redaction of Landnámabók and Droplaugarsona saga: the episode about Ketill þrymr and Arneiðr, the daughter of the earl of the Hebrides. However, Sturla Þórðarson can hardly have been using the written saga as we know it but rather some other written source related to both these texts.
  4. Laxdœla saga and Gunnars saga Þiðrandabana: Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir’s reception of Gunnarr Þiðrandabani at Helgafell.
  5. Laxdœla saga and Fljótsdœla saga: Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir’s reception of Gunnarr Þiðrandabani at Helgafell.
  6. Laxdœla saga and Vápnfirðinga saga: the deaths of Kjartan Óláfsson and Geitir Lýtingsson.

This is a considerably simpler picture than the intricate web of literary relationships that previous scholars have claimed to detect among the Austfirðingasögur. Previous analyses have tended, for instance, to involve lost written works for whose existence there is no independent evidence, posited solely to account for passages where two or more sagas tell of the same characters or events. When accounting for correspondences for which there is no tangible evidence of literary relations in the form of shared diction, we ought rather to assume that the writers of the sagas derived their material from an oral narrative tradition. At many places in the extant texts characters are referred to in ways that suggest that the writer took for granted that his audience was already familiar with them and thus able to interpret correctly the events that were being described: for instance, Brodd-Helgi Þorgilsson is known as a heathen chieftain living at Hof in Vopnafjörður far beyond the confines of the main source that tells of his life, Vápnfirðinga saga; his son Bjarni is consistently portrayed as a peaceable and conciliatory chieftain in the sagas that we may suppose owe most to local stories from the Vopnafjörður region, but as we move further away from his immediate environment he develops into a more aggressive figure, perhaps prompted by his celebrated nickname—‘Víga-Bjarni,’ ‘Killer-Bjarni’—which may have colored how he was pictured by writers in places where he was less well known; Geitir Lýtingsson is little mentioned outside Vápnfirðinga saga but his name has curious echoes in tales of giants and trolls set in Norway and Shetland; and finally there is his son Þorkell Geitisson, who judging from the extant sources was a much better known man than his father, particularly outside his own local region.

Though several sagas mention Þorkell, in none of them is he the main character. However, his various appearances present a consistent image of the man and can be arranged into a plausible chronological order, making it possible to construct a coherent and continuous biography of his life. We can suppose that this broad outline constituted a reality in the minds of participants in the saga tradition of eastern Iceland. In the existing sagas we therefore get a clear reflection of a fully rounded characterization going back to fragmentary oral accounts, even though these fragments were never integrated into a single written saga. A similar ‘oral saga’ might lie behind the textual appearances of Sveinungr/Sveinki of Borgarfjörður, an independently minded farmer from a remote and rugged fjord who stood up against more powerful men and refused to be cowed in the face of their high-handedness and overbearing manner.

In this respect Fljótsdœla saga stands out from the other sagas considered here. Here, on almost all occasions, we find spelled out in full matters that often seem to be taken for granted in the other texts and are consistently provided with all relevant details of family connections and external circumstances. This narrative technique differentiates Fljótsdœla saga starkly from most other sagas of Icelanders and brings it much closer to modern forms of literature in which, to a much greater extent than in the sagas, meaning exists and is constructed within the written text alone. A possible explanation for this special status of Fljótsdœla saga is that it was written for an audience that was not as familiar with the story material as the original audiences of the other sagas; see, for instance, its explanatory note on the distance swum by Gunnarr Þiðrandabani across the bay at Njarðvík, whether this is in terms of places around Eyjafjörður in the north or not. However, the text also provides clear evidence that the story material it covers was still fully current in the minds of informed people at the time when it was written. The writer of Fljótsdœla saga can hardly have been alone in his knowledge and interpretation of the events he describes, but he seems to have recognized that he was writing for people whose knowledge might not have been as good as his own, possibly people in some other part of the country. But there is no particular reason to believe, as has often been argued, that he ‘authored’ his saga, working it up from pre-existing written sources, since although most of the events he describes are paralleled in other sagas there is no evidence in the diction that any of his material comes from any writings that we still know today.

The picture presented here of the internal relationships among the written texts, and between them and the oral story tradition that we can suppose they arose from, differs strikingly from the ideas on the ages and relationships of the sagas that still form the background to most recent publications in this area. The results suggest that it is time to carry out a root-and- branch re-examination of all our ideas on both the development of the literary genre as a whole and the interpretative methodologies applicable to individual texts—methodologies that have all too often been based on modern theoretical approaches to literature and failed to take into account how much the meaning of the sagas was built up within oral tradition by the creative interplay of all participants, storytellers, audiences, and the material itself. In recent decades an increasing number of scholars have turned away from a slavish adherence to theories centered on literary relationships and looked to other ways of coming to an overall understanding of the sagas and interpreting them for a modern readership. Among the leading names in this new direction in saga studies have been Dietrich Hofman, Theodore M. Andersson, Robert Kellogg, Óskar Halldórsson, Lars Lönnroth, Preben Meulengracht-Sørensen, Jesse Byock, Margaret Clunies Ross, Joseph Harris, Carol Clover, Stephen A. Mitchell, and Vésteinn Ólason. But there is still a long way to go. The traditional approaches, which the present study argues simply do not stand up to scrutiny, still hold general sway and much work remains to be done before they can finally be put to rest and superseded by something newer and likelier to be of lasting value.


[ back ] 1. This finding runs directly counter to the picture of the relationship between Landnámabók and the saga texts given by Friðriksson and Vésteinsson (2003:144-5): ‘All other sagas [sc. than Kjalnesinga saga, Hrafnkels saga, and Svarfdœla saga] seem to base their settlement accounts on Landnámabók (in Flóamanna saga there is even a direct quotation), although some of them then add additional details (e.g. Þorskfirðinga saga). […] They simply paraphrase and rework the same material, further spinning the same yarn. This is an important conclusion. It suggests a remarkable consistency in the information available to the saga authors regarding the origins of their communities. In fact it suggests that there was little or no variability in thirteenth-century traditions regarding the settlement of Iceland. If this had been a society obsessed with a remembered past one would expect a variety of contradictory traditions or at least different emphases on events. Instead, we are presented with a coherent picture from a single work, Landnámabók, which was then taken up by subsequent writers.’ As has been detailed in this study at some length, Friðriksson and Vésteinsson’s ‘conclusion’ simply does not stand up to scrutiny, despite its being presented in a scholarly publication for archaeologists as a general description of the sagas and their relations to Landnámabók—providing yet another example of how much there is to be gained from a more interdisciplinary exchange of knowledge and understanding across the spectrum of medieval studies.