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.


The relationship between oral tradition and literary authorship is a classic bone of contention in the study of early epic narrative. Works like the Iliad, Beowulf, La Chanson de Roland and Njáls saga have all been interpreted as orally transmitted texts, but they have also been interpreted as literary artifacts composed in writing by an author. Within the field of saga scholarship this disagreement was for a long time known as the conflict between Freeprose and Bookprose. The Freeprose Theory, vigorously defended by Knut Liestøl in Norway, Andreas Heusler in Germany and by several other Germanists and folklorists before the Second World War, maintained that the Íslendingasögur originated essentially in the Viking period and then circulated in oral tradition for a couple of hundred years until they were finally written down in the Sturlung Age. The Bookprose Theory, which was particularly influential in Iceland after the war and brilliantly represented by Sigurður Nordal, Einar Ól. Sveinsson and other prominent members of the so-called “Icelandic school,” maintained that Íslendingasögur originated essentially in the Sturlung Age as individual written literary compositions by prominent authors such as, for example, Snorri Sturluson.

Adherents of Freeprose could occasionally admit that individual saga-writers had sometimes left their trace on the saga texts, thereby modifying or in some cases even radically changing the previous oral tradition. Likewise, adherents of Bookprose have often admitted that the authors of the sagas probably had access to some kind of oral tales as basic source material for their literary compositions. Yet the adherents of Freeprose worked primarily as folklorists, while adherents of Bookprose worked primarily as philologists or literary historians, trying to establish manuscript relationships and literary influences. And it is the latter approach that dominated in Scandinavian scholarship until the late 1960’s.

In more recent years, however, partly as a result of Albert Lord’s influential book, The Singer of Tales, oral tradition has come back into focus, and there has been, internationally, an increasing reaction against the Bookprose theory of the “Icelandic School.” Gísli Sigurðsson’s book is a part of that reaction as can be seen already from its title, and still more from his introductory chapter, in which he states his aims and presents the previous discussion about oral tradition and literary authorship in the sagas. Unlike many American scholars, however, he does not count epic formulas or use other methods of the oral-formulaic school. His ambition is to introduce new methods in dealing with the oral tradition behind the written sagas.

One of these methods, and perhaps the most important one, consists in comparing sagas that deal with events that supposedly took place at roughly the same time in the same district of Iceland. To what extent can the similarities in content between these sagas be explained as a result of literary influence, as the adherents of Bookprose have maintained? To what extent is it more reasonable to explain the similarities as resulting from the fact that saga-writers had access to the same oral traditions circulating in the district?

In trying to answer such questions, Gísli makes use of a concept that was first introduced by Carol Clover and later taken over by John Miles Foley, namely that of “immanent narrative.” An “immanent narrative” or an “immanent saga” is one that is not explicitly told in the text but assumed to be known by the audience or the reader. The narrator or some character in the story may, for example, refer in passing to some event that has never been told or some hero that has never been introduced but is still considered well known by everybody. When this happens in a saga text, it usually indicates that the saga was told for people who were already well informed about at least some of the characters and events, and this information is likely to have come through oral tradition. One of the things that Gísli thus tries to do is to find traces of immanent sagas that were probably never written but still somehow part of common knowledge.

Although Gísli Sigurðsson is searching for oral tradition he does not really believe in a purely oral saga as some Freeprose advocates did. He is quite willing to accept the fact that the sagas were influenced by literary texts such as saints’ lives or foreign romances. He is also quite willing to accept the fact that saga-writers influenced each other through literary borrowing. Thus he does not completely reject the Bookprose theory but rather defines its limitations in explaining the origins of the saga. What he himself wants to establish is not the oral Urgestalt of any saga but rather its oral roots. And although one may in some cases disagree with his conclusions about individual sagas, he does convince us that numerous oral tales are indeed concealed behind the literary saga texts we nowadays read and admire.

Lars Lönnroth
Göteborg, November 2003