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.

Introduction. Written Texts and Oral Traditions

The Medieval World View and the Individuality of Iceland

Life in Scandinavia lies beyond the horizons of most courses in medieval studies, based as they are almost entirely on ecclesiastical sources from continental Europe. To be sure, specialists in the field are aware of the writings in Latin of Adam of Bremen, Theodoricus, and Saxo Grammaticus, but the unique literature written in their native language by the people of medieval Iceland remains little known outside Scandinavia and Germany, the main centers for Norse and Germanic studies—plus the few universities in the English-speaking world where Old Norse is taught. This limited outlook makes it impossible to apply the methods of what we might call common European medievalism directly to research into the Norse and Gaelic cultural heritage that lies behind the ancient Icelandic sources.

The image of the European Middle Ages familiar to most people is one of compact little towns and cities with the spires of Gothic cathedrals towering over their squares, and of wealthy and powerful monasteries where worldly and pleasure-loving monks sat copying illuminated scriptures while the commoners roistered in the streets. We know too about kings, dukes, earls, counts, and barons who gathered around themselves troops of knights in armor and waged war against similar troops from the next castle, or sometimes all got together at the trumpet’s blast under the sign of the cross and went off on crusades to the Holy Land to fight against the warriors of Mohammed. Against this background people composed courtly heroic romances and sang of noble loves, pondered the fate of man beyond this life and wrote tales of earthy comedy. And from time to time, into this glittering world of the European Middle Ages sailed shaggy long-haired men who poured from their ships to ‘steal and kill and rape and burn’ with a smile on their lips: the so-called vikings. In the words of an Irish general history of the period: ‘And then came the Danes, so called because they came from Norway.’

To speak of ‘medieval man’ as a single entity is not without its problems. The Middle Ages extended over a long period of European history, from the fall of Rome to the time of Columbus, when the Genoese adventurer, using the experience of Atlantic waters he had gained in 1477 when sailing with English seamen from Bristol northwest to Iceland (where he might, or might not, have heard of Norse discoveries of lands in the distant west), set out across the ocean much farther to the south and discovered what is now called America rather than Vínland (see Taviani 2000:103-21). These centuries in Europe cover a wide range of cultures and thought, and the ‘medieval man’ who cut intricate carvings into the stones of Gotland would have had little in common with the ‘medieval man’ composing sonnets in 14th-century Florence, or the ‘medieval man’ from northern France in the time of Charlemagne who drew up colored images of the constellations according to his classical exemplar and copied out Caesar Germanicus’ poem based on the Phaenomena of Aratus of Soli, in which we find the idea of the dome of the heavens as the setting of myths. [1]

But even if it were possible to find a single homogeneous world view among all the peoples of medieval continental Europe, it is questionable how applicable this would be to the thoughts that turned in the heads of the people who inhabited the isolated turf farms of rural Iceland, who never constructed buildings or fortifications from stone, and who never needed to live in fear of armor-clad knights, but who amused themselves by reciting verses filled with ancient lore telling of the creation and history of the world, of the gods Óðinn, Þórr, and Freyr, and of the heroes Sigurðr Fáfnisbani, Guðrún Gjúkadóttir, and Atli, king of the Huns [2] ; who let themselves dream of traveling to foreign lands and reciting intricate and highly-wrought poems of praise before a king who paid them with a ring of gold; and who warmed themselves with tales of ancient kings and vikings or of the people who had settled the barren coasts of Iceland and who, despite the meager resources of their cold land, never wavered in the unconditional moral demand of choosing death with honor over life with shame. As elsewhere in Europe, once Iceland had been brought within the family of the Catholic Church it acquired with it the Church’s technology of reading and writing and its international literature of learning, philosophy, and long, well-structured stories of saints and distant lands and peoples. But, for whatever reason, in Iceland things were different: having gained the new technology and the learning that went with it, the Icelanders were not content merely to translate and reproduce the literature the Church supplied them with, but set about exploiting their newly acquired skills to write down their own stories and poems as well as to create new ones.

While the Icelanders were immersed in their literary activities, the Norwegians appear to have been content to confine themselves largely to religious writings and courtly romances based on southern models, chiefly translations of foreign originals. Exceptions include some 12th-century works in Latin on the history of Norway, and the 13th-century manual of courtly advice Konungsskuggsjá (‘King’s Mirror’). Even the early Old Norse historical works that were written in Norway—Ágrip probably by a native Norwegian but Fagrskinna conceivably by an Icelander (see Einarsson, B. 1985:cxxxi)—appear to have been better known and to have excited more interest in Iceland than in Norway, judging from the preservation of the manuscripts in Iceland and the impetus they gave to the creation of later kings’ sagas. The kings of Norway themselves tended to look to Icelanders for the writing of histories of this kind, as in the cases of Sverris saga and Hákonar saga, the biographical sagas of kings Sverrir (d. 1202) and Hákon (d. 1263), both of which were commissioned by their respective monarchs from the pens of Icelandic saga-men.

The special position of the Icelanders in medieval historiography is reflected not only in the number of works that have survived, it is also acknowledged by the 12th-century Scandinavian historians who wrote in Latin. Theodoricus, who around 1180 composed a Latin account of the kings of Norway, Historia de Antiquitate Regum Norwagiensium, says at the start of his work, plainly referring to the Icelanders: ‘hæc in suis antiquis carminibus percelebrata recolunt’ (‘they cultivate these much-celebrated things in their ancient songs’) (p. 3 in the1880 edition of his work). A similar, even clearer testimony appears in the words of Saxo Grammaticus in the fourth paragraph of the preface to his history of the Danes, Gesta Danorum, written in Latin around 1200, where he speaks of the special status of the Icelanders and their love of history and stories:

Nec Tylensium industria silentio oblitteranda: qui cum ob nativam soli sterilitatem luxuriæ nutrimentis carentes officia continuæ sobrietatis exerceant omniaque vitæ momenta ad excolendam alienorum operum notitiam conferre soleant, inopiam ingenio pensant. Cunctarum quippe nationum res gestas cognosse memoriæque mandare voluptatis loco reputant, non minoris gloriæ iudicantes alienas virtutes disserere quam proprias exhibere. Quorum thesauros historicarum rerum pignoribus refertos curiosius consulens, haud parvam præsentis operis partem ex eorum relationis imitatione contexui, nec arbitros habere contempsi, quos tanta vetustatis peritia callere cognovi.

Some continental Scandinavian scholars have sought to minimize the literary uniqueness of the Icelanders. For instance, the Norwegian Knut Liestøl (1929:7-28) maintained that oral family sagas of some kind had existed in Norway from ancient times, basing his view on the curiosity that stories of this type aroused among Norwegians in the 19th century and on folktales written down at this time and resembling the Icelandic sagas in their genealogical interests. To explain why the Norwegians failed to commit these stories to parchment in the 13th century as the Icelanders had done, Liestøl appealed to specific external conditions in Iceland that he claimed had been exceptionally conducive to literary creation of all kinds.

It is undoubtedly true that the Norwegians would always have told stories for their own and other people’s amusement: this practice appears, to varying extents, to be common to all peoples. However, it remains the case that saga writing achieved a far greater impetus and breadth among the Icelanders than the Norwegians, and this may in large part have been due to the special nature of their settlement society (see Schier 1975).

Other explanations for this difference between Iceland and Norway have been suggested by the Dane Hans Bekker-Nielsen and others (1965:135 ff). Most of these ideas center around the belief that the Norwegians did indeed produce a fair amount of writing but that it has simply not survived. Such theories, however, must be treated with skepticism, since a reasonable number of old manuscripts have been preserved from Norway, only many of them were written by Icelanders, either working at the Norwegian court or produced in Iceland with a view to export (see Karlsson, S. 1978, 1979). The Norwegian manuscripts we have contain nothing to suggest that anything like the same kind of historiographical tradition existed in Norway as we find in the sagas of Icelanders.

There thus seems little reason not to take the testimony of Theodoricus and Saxo at face value and accept that the Icelanders were, to an appreciable extent, set apart from the other peoples of Scandinavia in the world of letters of the 12th and 13th centuries. To explain this distinctive position, various factors can be adduced: one, as mentioned, is the generally conservative nature of settlement societies in matters such as customs, traditions, and stories, but it is also worth bearing in mind that Iceland was not, originally at least, a purely Scandinavian country but had, at the time of the settlements, been a cultural and ethnic melting pot of people from both Norway and the Gaelic British Isles (see Sigurðsson, G. 1988).


In the works produced by Icelanders we find a world view that reflects a very different culture from the ‘Mediterranean’ culture that came to the North with the Church, and we may suppose that the roots of this culture lie in the lands of the North and stretch back long before the coming of Christianity, before eventually flourishing in Iceland. In the writings of the 13th-century Icelander Snorri Sturluson—his Edda, a handbook for poets based on myths, edda poems, and dróttkvætt verses by himself and others; his Heimskringla, the fullest and most systematic saga of the kings of Norway from earliest times down to his own day (which in passing preserved about a seventh of all the dróttkvætt verse we still possess: see Frank 1985:162); and perhaps the first of the sagas of Icelanders, the life of the poet, farmer, and viking Egill Skallagrímsson (see Hafstað 1990; Kristjánsson 1990; Ólason, V. 1991)—the author shows little sign of having assimilated large amounts of the Latin learning of the Middle Ages (see Faulkes 1993). We can assume that Snorri learned to read and write at Oddi while still young, and he was later elected to the highest secular position in the country, that of lawspeaker. He ought thus to have had ready access to all the available sources of medieval Latin learning. But Snorri’s learning as it appears to us in the writings attributed to him bears witness first and foremost to a man highly educated in the oral culture and lore of his own people, in knowledge that was passed on from man to man and added to and changed by each generation, and that constantly took on the shape of the present while preserving material that went back to the mists of antiquity. Snorri was so fully at home in this learning, the laws, genealogies, stories, and poems, that it must have taken him all his ‘school years’ to build up the fund of knowledge he needed to write the books he left behind—while still leaving him time to become a highly regarded chieftain of national standing by the age at which youngsters nowadays are just finishing junior high school. To say the least, Snorri’s works show lit- tle sign of an author fired with spiritual devotion, immersing himself in the scholastic and religious literature of the medieval Church.

Oral Preservation, Latin Learning, and Snorri’s Edda

Over the course of the 20th century, scholarly voices have chosen to emphasize with ever increasing insistence the ideological connections between Snorri’s Edda and the Latin-based learned tradition of the medieval Church, and to downplay any potential internal tradition of stories and poems with roots reaching back into the northern heathendom. The most obvious influences of foreign learning in the Edda appear in the Prologue and were highlighted by Andreas Heusler (1908) in his study of how Snorri and other Scandinavian writers conceived and presented the prehistory of the Norse gods (see also Meyer 1911 and Nordal, S. 1920:107-128). A major step towards a clearer understanding of the significance of scholasticism in Old Norse mythography was taken by Walter Baetke (1950), who argued that Snorri based his ideas on the origins of the gods and his entire presentation of the myths in the Edda on contemporary doctrines relating to paganism and pagan gods as demons; one of Baetke’s purposes in this study was to refute the contention of Hans Kuhn (1942) that Snorri had himself been heathen at heart. [9] Working along similar lines, Anne Holtsmark (1964) attempted to distinguish Snorri’s personal contribution from, on the one hand, the pre-Christian inheritance that had come to him from his cultivation of poetry and, on the other, the dominant Christian ideas of his times. Holtsmark also drew attention to Snorri’s models for the dialog form he uses in Gylfaginning, a form which would have been familiar to him both from the edda poems and from the school book, the Elucidarius, which Holtsmark ‘finner nedslag af […] flere steder i Gylfaginning’ (‘finds numerous echoes of in Gylfaginning’) (Holtsmark 1964:82).

An upsurge in research into learned influences on the Prologue to the Edda followed the work of Ursula and Peter Dronke (1977), who attempted to account for Snorri’s positive attitude toward the heathen past in light of various scholastic writings by the Christian neo-Platonists of the 12th century—an attitude for which they say he could have found learned support among a number of Christian authorities. This approach was taken up by others and has led to a deeper understanding of the Edda, especially particular aspects of the Prologue and its ideological connections with learned works that Snorri may have been familiar with (see Faulkes 1979, 1983; Frank 1981), and Snorri’s treatment of the poems upon which he based Gylfaginning and Skáldskaparmál (Schier 1981). The theological context underlying the work as a whole has been studied by Heinrich Beck (1993), building largely upon Baetke, and by Gerd Wolfgang Weber (1986a; 1987), though Weber is in no doubt that Snorri knew both poems and prose narratives about the gods and stories that he integrated into the Edda (see Weber 1993:197; see also Tómasson 1996:10-13). The most thorough treatment along these lines in recent years is that of Margaret Clunies Ross (1987), who examines Snorri’s conceptual framework and presentation of material in light of Latin scholastic works on language and poetics.

Snorri’s purported scholastic learning has thus been the subject of much scholarly research in recent years (see also Halldórsson, H. 1975:11-12), though without any particular consideration being given to exactly where and how this learning makes itself manifest. In the face of these widely-accepted attitudes, Anthony Faulkes’s article (1993) on Snorri’s intellectual background—in so far as it can be deduced from the inferred sources of Skáldskaparmál, but also with reference to the sources of the other sections of the Edda—came as a breath of fresh air. Faulkes makes little of Snorri’s scholastic learning, pointing out that, even if he appears to have had some familiarity with Latin writings on poetics, he shows no clear sign of actually having read them. Though Snorri arranges his categories in the same way as them, his actual classification is different, and he confines himself to discrete aspects of poetic style and avoids the kinds of theories of overall structure of literary works that we find commonly among the 12th-century Latin critics. In stark contrast to his predecessors, Faulkes maintains that the only things in Snorri’s Edda that cannot be accounted to native sources occur in the Prologue and the section on Troy in Gylfaginning. For example, Snorri does not use his myths as a springboard for moral exegesis, and is thus strikingly unlike those who demonstrably draw on scholastic sources, such as Saxo Grammaticus and Óláfr hvítaskáld. Neither does he ever refer to Latin writers (with the sole exception of Sæmundr fróði [10] ), nor to the Bible—making him unique among medieval writers. The one Latin work he may have used is the version of the saga of King Óláfr Tryggvason by Oddr Snorrason, a monk at the monastery of Þingeyrar—and even this is by no means certain. Snorri does not use the works of Sæmundr fróði, Theodoricus, or Adam of Bremen, nor the Historia Norwegiae, and is thus the only medieval historian never to make any definite reference to Latin sources. Faulkes thinks it possible that Snorri may have known something of the contents of books written in Latin from conversation with learned churchmen and suggests that his cosmogony may have been acquired from looking at maps rather than reading Latin texts (see also Simek 1990:189-92).

One story in skaldic verse, on stone, and in Hymiskviða

Though apparently attested in the carvings, and thus part of the myth from early times, this detail does not seem to come from any of the skaldic verses cited by Snorri and has thus been taken as evidence that Snorri had access to sources of information no longer known to us. However, it should be borne in mind that these pictures come with no accompanying text that might put their content beyond doubt and thus great care is needed in their interpretation; for instance, the Altuna stone is unique in portraying a single fisherman in the boat, [17] and the Hørdum stone’s value as evidence is limited by it having been cut during the building of the church, resulting in the loss of part of the picture. The same story may also appear on a stone from Gosforth on the coast of Cumbria in northwest England, dated by Brøndsted (1955:98) to the 10th century. Here two men are shown in a boat using a head as bait for some kind of sea creature like a fish; one of them has a hammer in his hand, the other has an axe, possibly to cut the line. Also of relevance here is a stone from Ardre in eastern Gotland, near the coastal village of Ljugarn. This stone is dated to the 8th century (Brøndsted 1955:95) and known as Ardre VIII. Three pictures on the stone have been interpreted as presenting a sequence of events: first, two men are collecting bait (which could be an ox’s head), then come two pictures showing men fishing in a boat; in one they could be using an ox’s head to fish for Miðgarðsormr, and in the other they are spearing a fish. [18]


Putting all the evidence together, the story of Þórr’s fishing expedition emerges as one of the best known and best attested myths of the Scandinavian heathendom. The sheer variety of the sources that refer to it provide an unambiguous indication that the myth rests on ancient roots and almost certainly, in some form, constituted an element in the belief system of the peoples of the North prior to the arrival of Christianity. It is rare to be able to provide such strong grounds for believing in the existence of a Scandinavian myth as in this instance. The case thus serves to increase our general faith that the extant written sources for Scandinavian heathendom must be in some way linked to a living oral tradition going back to ancient times. This in turn acts as a powerful counterargument to all notions that Snorri and his contemporaries were in the habit of ‘making up’ their myths themselves.

Poetry and prose in Snorri’s Edda

Snorri’s account of the meeting of Þórr and Hymir and the preparations for the fishing differ substantially from the one given in Hymiskviða, but when it comes to the fishing expedition itself the two coincide on a number of points. It is therefore instructive to compare the two versions. It seems universally agreed that Snorri did not use Hymiskviða when writing Gylfaginning; the poem thus has independent value as a source, and in fact the account in the poem is in other respects so unlike Snorri’s that there is no way of conflating the two. The poem thus provides confirmation that the story was widely known in differing versions.

It is also notable that Snorri only rarely follows the wording of the poems, though there are many correspondences in individual words with both Hymiskviða and the skaldic verses. This might be seen as evidence both of a formalized tradition of poetic diction and of an intentional independence on Snorri’s part in his use of the poems. We might even question whether it is justifiable to speak of the skaldic verses as being ‘sources’ at all; the independent selection of material and the personal choice of diction might rather be taken to suggest that Snorri was familiar with the story on its own, in prose form, and so did not need to piece it together out of skaldic stanzas he knew from elsewhere.

The existence of an independent narrative of this sort is further supported by the fact that none of the poems makes mention of Þórr’s feet going through the bottom of the boat. There are two main possible explanations: either Snorri simply failed to record any verse or verses that included this detail (the poems in question are known only in extremely fragmentary form), or he knew the story divorced from any poems, i.e. the story formed a part of a living prose tradition in Snorri’s times.

But which of these two possible explanations is the more likely? It is a priori extremely improbable that Snorri included all the poems he knew in his Edda. The fragments he quotes bear witness to a much greater body of material in the background; for instance, it is his general practice to quote only half stanzas, of which he in most cases would presumably have known the other halves. And it is also highly improbable that a man with such a vast fund of ancient poetry at his command would have been unable to recount the stories on which the poems were based without needing to rely specifically on these same poems as a kind of source. This kind of piecemeal reconstruction of stories is the province of scholars who come across fragments of a lost culture and try to fit them back together again in a kind of academic jigsaw puzzle. In addition, working practices of this sort are inconceivable unless the fragments have a fixed form, either iconographic or in writing, which enables them to outlive the culture that produced them; when the fragments are all preserved orally, out of context and misunderstood, they are unlikely to survive for long. And in an oral culture, once something has been forgotten it can never be recovered.

It therefore seems reasonable to assume that Snorri knew both poems and stories, and thus that his prose retellings can stand as original sources every bit as much as the poems he quotes from. If this is the case, we need hardly be surprised if there is not always complete agreement between the versions of stories reflected in the prose and in the verse. If both poems and prose accounts of the gods were still current in Snorri’s day, we also have cause to doubt the value of research aimed at classifying the multiforms of the stories by their age; for instance, in this case according to whether Þórr kills the serpent or not in a particular poem and whether this is then the original version of the story, though, as noted above (p. 11), scholars discussing this myth have generally permitted themselves to indulge in speculation of this sort without comment. It would be closer to the mark to assume that at any given time there would have been various versions of the story in circulation, without any one of them precluding any other. Looked at this way, arguments based on the form of the sources—that the intricate and fixed form of skaldic verse ensured a stricter word-for-word preservation at the oral stage than was possible with prose accounts—hold considerably less weight. With myths, the elements are usually so fully formalized and conventionalized that they can survive for long periods in oral transmission, in either prose or verse, and there is no reason to expect word-for-word preservation other than in the case of specific and universally familiar formulas.

Applied to our research, this conclusion can change the ways in which we handle and interpret multiforms of myths, while also having a broader affect on how we evaluate the sources of Scandinavian mythology and the strength of oral tradition in the 13th century. For instance, it lends support to the belief that Snorri was writing from a living tradition that was familiar to him and his contemporaries, even if by this time the tradition was in all probability in decline; the very fact that Snorri felt the need to record this learning in book form suggests that it was already on the way to becoming moribund. Before modern scholars start accusing Snorri of ‘misunderstanding’ or ‘misinterpreting’ something ‘correct’ or ‘original,’ we need to examine closely exactly what he and his contemporaries say in their writings and take it as genuine evidence of the tradition as it existed in their times. What it might have to say about the ancient stories, myths, and customs of the North in pre-Christian times is, of course, a quite different matter and a subject for other research; but the business of Þórr’s foot points at least to a tradition that was homogeneous throughout the North from viking times all the way up to the time when literate men in the southwest of Iceland took up their pens and started compiling books in the first half of the 13th century.


As stated previously, the world view of Snorri Sturluson and other Scandinavians who grew up and were familiar with domestic oral culture can be explained only to a very limited extent through the Latin writings of monks in continental Europe, i.e. through conventional medieval studies. We are much more likely to come to an understanding of this world view if we read the works written by the Icelanders in their national tongue not first and foremost as the ideological offshoot of Christian scholasticism, but as the product of a quite different tradition of learning, one that was just as broad in range. This tradition was preserved orally by people who had to learn it from those older and more learned than themselves, and it was molded and developed without recourse to written books. Such an emphasis on the domestic tradition of learning should not be taken to suggest that Christian writings that people may have known about or heard read out in church had no influence on the traditional culture that existed among learned men outside the Church. [26] There is of course little we can say for sure about the prehistory of this domestic culture—we cannot, for example, discuss and explain the religious ideas of 10th-century Swedes and Norwegians as if Snorri’s Edda and the narratives in Heimskringla were direct firsthand records of the pre-Christian North—but we can stop and examine various things that the sources are likely to be evidence for, because we do know a certain amount about how culture works in general and we can assume that much of this will also apply to Scandinavian culture in ancient times. But before we can start talking about oral culture as it may have existed in Iceland before the advent of writing, we must be clear first about the nature of the written sources and the part of Latin-based education in the writing of the sagas, and second about the methods that may be used to elicit evidence about the oral culture of a lost age.

The Origins of the Sagas: Two Types of Theory

The study of medieval Icelandic texts from a literary and historical perspective has come a long way since the 17th century, when Þormóður Torfason, keeper of the privy archives and historiographer royal to the king of Denmark, wrote his history of Viking-Age Scandinavia directly from his old Icelandic sources, without distinction between the legendary sagas (fornaldarsögur), kings’ sagas, and the sagas of Icelanders (and in spite of the strictures of Árni Magnússon in his review of Þormóður’s Series dynastarum et regum Daniæ: see Halldórsson, Ó. 1992, Malm 1996:59-61). Philology, source criticism, and textual interpretation had not as yet entered the scholarly armory and the texts were treated pretty much as on-the-spot reports of real societies. The importance of the manuscript history of texts was first understood by Þormóður’s contemporary, Árni Magnússon (see Rafnsson 1987), and since then historians and paleographers have come to realize the necessity of investigating the manuscripts and genesis of texts before anything worthwhile can be said about any relation they might have to the external reality they claim to describe. The early notion, shared by most scholars, was clearly that the oral tradition behind the texts had been strong and reliable and that the original scribes had done little more than set down on parchment what the tradition had handed on to them. From this it followed that the oldest text would always be the best and most trustworthy. The problem of how an oral text might be captured in writing was not even considered—something we now know to be technically impossible without modern sound recording equipment. [27]

The 19th century saw great advances in classical philology, both in the areas of biblical research (see Culley 1986) and Homeric studies. On the Homeric poems two main schools of thought emerged according to the emphasis placed, on the one hand, on the part of tradition in the shaping of the poems and, on the other, on the creative input of the individual poet Homer (see Foley 1988:1-18). The role of scholarship thus became either to elevate Homer’s poetic genius or to identify the sources of individual episodes in older sources. This quest for origins shed light on many aspects of the texts but on occasion led scholars some distance away from the actual object of their research, the works themselves, as memorably described by the English medievalist J. R. R. Tolkien (1936) in his lecture ‘Beowulf: the monsters and the critics.’ Tolkien compares the Old English poem Beowulf to a splendid tower dismantled by scholars in order to investigate the provenance of individual stones and the fragmentary inscriptions found on them, while the master builder stands by and weeps because from the tower he had once been able to look out upon the sea.

A similar preoccupation with origins manifested itself among those working in the field of old Icelandic literature. Andreas Heusler (1913) categorized these approaches as the freiprosa (‘freeprose’) theory and the buchprosa (‘bookprose’) theory, according to the importance scholars ascribed to the assumed existence of oral tales behind the written works or to the part of the individual authors working at their writing desk. [28] The subjects scholars chose to study were largely determined by the theory of origins they adhered to: within the bookprose school, research centered around questions of literary relations (intertextuality) and age, together with the search for specific named authors and the learned influences of Latin culture; freeprose research tended to concentrate on the historicity of the sagas and explained related passages by appeal to an underlying oral tradition. For a time it was the former approach that became dominant, providing for instance the scholarly basis behind the Íslenzk fornrit series—that it was the editors’ job to sift carefully through each work for indications of manuscript transmission, literary relations, age, and possible author, thereby avoiding the risk of letting the research be distorted by unprovable theories of origin (see also below, p. 34). Against this background, speculation about oral tales became something of pariah: what was the point in talking about an oral background many centuries after the last storyteller had fallen silent? Much safer to stick to the actual words as they appeared in the manuscripts.

Scholars’ attitudes to the origins of the sagas do not, however, appear always to have been motivated by solely scholarly arguments; national pride and ambition also came into it. [29] The main early advocates of the freeprose theory were, for example, mostly Swedes and Norwegians, who argued that, to be sure, the edda poems, myths, legendary sagas, and kings’ sagas had been written down in Iceland, but even so they were really Germanic, or common Norse, or even Norwegian literature (see Keyser 1866:3-25). The argument went that all this material had been preserved orally from before the time that Iceland was settled, and that Icelanders had done little more than consign it to memory and preserve it there in their solitude and isolation through the long dark winter nights out in the middle of the North Atlantic. Somehow built into the freeprose argument was the idea that oral tradition was a reliable record of past events and that the texts had been preserved verbatim from generation to generation. This gave the theory popular appeal within Iceland; it supplied the ordinary people of Iceland with scholarly justification for their belief that the sagas of Icelanders were true descriptions of life in their country in the Saga Age, and that their ancestors really had been the splendid heroes portrayed in the sagas of Icelanders—and these, by definition, could not have come from Norway or Sweden and must have originated in Iceland because they told of Icelanders of the settlement period and on after the arrival of Christianity. [30]

The origins of the bookprose theory can be traced to the work of the German scholar Konrad Maurer (1871), who applied methods of textual research developed in Germany in the field of classical literature to a study of Hœnsa-Þóris saga. Though academically the discussion of the origins of the sagas centered around the application of scholarly methods similar to those used more generally in the study of ancient texts, both classical and medieval, it is notable that the heyday of the bookprose theory in Iceland coincided with a growing sense of national identity and awareness among Icelanders during (and after) the struggle for independence from Denmark. Much effort was employed in demonstrating to the Danes and the world at large that medieval Icelandic literature was the product of an impressive body of learning that had been brought to Iceland and flourished there in the hands of a vigorous and independent people prior to their submission to the king of Norway in 1262. The sagas were used to lend weight to the Icelanders’ demand for independence. The Icelanders could point to the sagas with pride and say that they provided irrefutable evidence that the Icelandic people were and had always been a culturally separate and independent nation; they had preserved their cultural heritage both in language and literature, unlike the Norwegians and later the Danes, who for all that had ruled over the Icelanders and even oppressed them in times of hardship.

With the establishment of the University of Iceland in 1911, Icelandic academics, led initially by Björn M. Ólsen, the first rector, and then by Sigurður Nordal, set out to demonstrate to the world just how learned, literate, and creative their forebears had been in ancient times. The ‘golden age’ of Icelandic literature was held to have been the final years of the Commonwealth, while the Icelanders still controlled their own affairs; and then, within a few years of the Icelandic chieftains pledging their allegiance to the king of Norway, the rot set in, characterized among other things by a taste for exaggerated wonder stories (ýkjusögur) and increasingly untrammeled fantasy at the expense of realism (see Thorsson 1990:42-3). Emphasis was laid on the medieval literature of Iceland as the creation of educated and self-conscious Icelandic authors rather than mere recorders who did little more than set down on vellum things that had been preserved in an oral tradition inherited from Norway. The fruit of this scholarly mission appears in the Íslenzk fornrit series, initiated in the 1930s as a kind of flagship of the ‘Icelandic school’ of saga research. [31] The series places primary emphasis on manuscript research and the study of literary relations, grounded in the view that all correspondences between sagas are evidence of (written) textual borrowings, and that scholarship consists in identifying these correspondences and then working out which text is the provider and which the recipient. [32] The general view of origins was that the factual ‘foundation’ had been laid with Landnámabók (‘Book of Settlements’) and that writers had then started to piece together sagas from this and from other material derived from kings’ sagas, bishops’ sagas and saints’ lives, philosophical writings and leechbooks, local topographical knowledge, incidents from the Sturlung Age, [33] and other written sagas.

With the lines thus laid down, the debate turned around what in particular texts might be of oral origin and what might be traced to other written works. Within this debate, the written was associated with the learned Latin tradition, aesthetics, and authorial stamp, and there was a general assumption among scholars of the bookprose school that oral accounts could not assume any hard form: they were intended merely to preserve isolated fragments of historical information rather than serve as artistically created stories. The most extreme bookprose men, such as the German Walter Baetke in the 1950s, even went so far as to assume that, if it could be shown that a particular episode in a saga conformed to aesthetic principles of narrative, it was automatically suspect historically and thus the work of a literate author who was consciously creating a saga rather than writing up traditional tales from oral transmission (see Baetke 1956:49-54).

To be sure, the concept of oral tradition was never entirely ignored by the bookprose men of the Icelandic school. But it was reserved to account for the ‘leftovers’ in their studies; once the sources, models, and artistic input of the ‘author’ had been identified and highlighted, there was always a residue of minor details for which there were no apparent sources, and these could be said to derive from oral tradition. There was a constant reluctance to tackle the problems inherent in postulating an oral tradition behind the literary texts; instead, little by little the attention was turned ever more toward the supposed learned Latin influences in the writing of the sagas. So it is worth spending a little time over the question, Where precisely do these learned influences manifest themselves?

Christianity and the Arrival of Literacy

The development of saga writing in Iceland in light of Latin literature

The Latin learning introduced by the Church was already firmly established by the time the Icelanders started to write the kings’ sagas and sagas of Icelanders. This led Sigurður Nordal (1953), Turville-Petre (1953), and later Lars Lönnroth (1965:15 ff.) to the view that Icelandic literature developed as a domestic efflorescence upon a stem of Latin historiography. However, others have found this development as Nordal and Lönnroth envisaged it—broadly from foreign saints’ lives and hagiographical writings to royal biography, which then merged with an internal tradition to produce the sagas of Icelanders—far from self-evident. For instance, in his critique of these ideas Michael Chesnutt observes that the subject matter of the sagas of Icelanders is not such as to suggest itself automatically to clerics intent on putting their native language to literary use:

[…] Icelandic authors might well have restricted themselves to imitating the works from which they learned the basic techniques of their craft. (This is actually what they did in the twelfth century, and what their Norwegian cousins for the most part continued to do.)

(Chesnutt 1973:36)

Three types of learned influence in the sagas

It is possible to divide the suggested learned influences of foreign texts, mainly Latin, on the Icelandic sagas under three broad headings:

  1. Individual motifs and short episodes in the sagas derived directly from foreign writings.
  2. Ideological influences. Hermann Pálsson has propounded the view that various of the sagas of Icelanders can be seen as a kind of fable constructed around proverbs or well-known sayings, or as romans à clef based on real incidents from 13th-century history, and that they reflect more than anything the theological and philosophical preoccupations of that century.
  3. Various features of the narrative technique of the sagas; i.e. how their elements are put together to create integrated works using methods developed in historiographical writing in continental Europe in the 12th century.

The figures given here for the number of bones, teeth, and veins in the human body can be found in various Latin writings. The source that resembles Fóstbrœðra saga most closely is the didactic poem Regimen Sanitatis, which originated at the medical school of Salerno in Italy and was known widely throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. The oldest known text is from the 12th century. This passage from Fóstbrœðra saga has been discussed in detail by Jónas Kristjánsson (1972:240 ff.), chiefly with respect to whether or not the Flateyjarbók text is modeled directly on the Regimen Sanitatis. But it in fact makes little difference for our purposes whether the saga writer had Regimen Sanitatis or some other related text at his elbow as he wrote. Whatever their immediate source, these lines come directly from the learned tradition of the times and are thus indicative of an educated writer inserting examples of his own learning into a piece of literature he is working on. This snippet of scholastic erudition forms an obvious interpolation, stylistically at odds with the saga itself, and stands out like a sore thumb against what we might call the internal saga tradition. What is also clear is that this is not carelessness or incompetence on the part of the writer, but rather a sign of playfulness or humor. Helga Kress (1987) has indeed suggested that Fóstbrœðra saga, and particularly the Flateyjarbók text, is a parody directed to some extent against the conventional heroic ideal and that this comic function is revealed among other things by passages like the interpolation quoted. [42]

In the second example, from Njáls saga, the loan is better disguised than in Fóstbrœðra saga. Einar Ól. Sveinsson (1943:8-13) traced the models for the account of Flosi Þórðarson’s dream, which Flosi tells to Ketill of Mǫrk and Ketill interprets as presaging the deaths of those named in it, to the dream of Anastasius in Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, where the dreamer hears the names of doomed monks being called out. [43] There is no reason to doubt the connection between Njáls saga and the Dialogues, and Sveinsson, quite properly, puts great emphasis on how the author of the saga adapted his source and incorporated it into his own work in conformity with Icelandic folk beliefs and personal experience. Flosi’s dream is set within an Icelandic landscape and linked with a specific mountain, Lómagnúpur, and what is only a voice in the dream of Anastasius is turned in the saga into an Icelandic troll or giant called Járngrímr. To quote Sveinsson:

Mér finnst ég sjá í gegnum þetta allt. Höfundurinn hefur áreiðanlega séð Lómagnúp, horft upp til hans heiman frá bænum, fundið til hins ósjálfráða og óskiljanlega geigs, sem getur gripið menn, þegar þeir horfa út úr mannheimum, út í jötunheima náttúrunnar. Ef til vill var haustnótt, ef til vill hefur gnýr af grjóthruni í fjallinu rofið kyrðina, eða hver veit hvað. Hann var alinn upp við sögur um bergbúa, hvort sem hann hefur nú heyrt einhverjar sagnir einmitt um þetta fjall eða ekki; það má vel vera, þó að það verði ekki sannað. Var það kannske hér heima á bænum, að klerkur eða djákn las honum eða sagði söguna af Anastasiusi og gnúpnum Suppentonia? Var það kannske hér sem hann heyrði söguna af furðusýn Guðmundar, sem mætti Járngrími? Því er ekki unnt að svara. En það er Lómagnúpur og sá skapblær sem hann er sveipaður í huga söguritarans, sem dregur þetta efni að sér og gerir það að einni heild.

Influences on the ideological background of the sagas. We must now look a little closer at the suggestion that the Icelandic sagas reflect the preoccupations of 12th-and 13th-century philosophy and theology. The purest example of this approach to saga research is to be found in Hermann Pálsson’s studies of Hrafnkels saga (1962a, 1966, 1971). Pálsson strongly rejects the idea that in writing the saga the author was in any way interested in the preservation of historical material from pre-Christian and viking times; the saga should rather be read as something produced by a Christian man, for Christian men, in a 13th-century world of Christian values (1971:10, 15). Neither the authors of the sagas nor their readers had any real knowledge of the pre-Christian past, and the sagas can thus only be understood in light of the cultural environment in which they were produced.

To Pálsson, Hrafnkels saga is a kind of test case for how the sagas were created. He takes the view that it was written a little after the middle of the 13th century and points to stylistic similarities with Gyðinga saga (‘Saga of the Jews’) by Abbot Brandr Jónsson (d. 1264), a compilation based on various Latin texts (see Wolf, K. 1995:lxxxviii-c). From these supposed similarities, Pálsson suggests that Brandr was also the author of Hrafnkels saga. According to genealogies, Brandr was a descendant of the Hrafnkell mentioned in Landnámabók, and Pálsson takes the view that there is more reason to believe in the historicity of the Hrafnkell of Landnámabók than his namesake in the saga (see also p. 197 ff). Pálsson (1962a: 25-68; 1971:12-22) also sees Hrafnkels saga as a kind of roman à clef, whose ‘real’ subject is the tragic events suffered by Brandr’s family in the middle years of the 13th century, as described in Svínfellinga saga, part of the Sturlunga saga compilation. On this basis he comes to the conclusion that the saga of Hrafnkell is built around people and incidents from the 13th century, which the author of the saga deliberately archaizes by use of information gleaned from texts such as Landnámabók. These incidents are then examined in light of 13th-century Christian ideas on ethics and morality.

A number of earlier scholars, including Gordon (1939) and Sigurður Nordal (1940), had already shown that Hrafnkels saga was not reliable as a historical source and should therefore rather be read as a piece of creative fiction, i.e. a conscious effort on the part of an author to write a good story. Pálsson goes further and claims that the author was not remotely interested in presenting his readers with information about their pre-Christian past; his main aim had been to give them a conscious lesson in ethics, and the saga can only be interpreted in this way.

Pálsson (1971:16-7) also points to features he considers evidence of an author deliberately employing distancing techniques, such as the introduction of names familiar from other sagas like King Haraldr hárfagri (‘the Fine-Haired’) and Þórólfr Skallagrímsson, the brother of the poet Egill. He considers the passage on Hrafnkell in Landnámabók to be the main historical source for the first two chapters of the saga. To illustrate the saga author’s supposed use of his sources, the two passages are reproduced below (my italics):

Landnámabók (S 283, H 244) Hrafnkels saga (ÍF XI:97-8)
Hrafnkell hét maðr Hrafnsson; hann kom út síð landnámatíðar. Hann var enn fyrsta vetr í Breiðdal, en um várit fór hann upp um fjall. Hann áði í Skriðudal ok sofnaði; þá dreymði hann, at maðr kom at honum ok bað hann upp standa ok fara braut sem skjótast; hann vaknaði ok fór brutt. En er hann var skammt kominn, þá hljóp ofan fjallit allt, ok varð undir gǫltr ok griðungr, er hann átti. Síðan nam Hrafnkell Hrafnkelsdal ok bjó á Steinrøðarstǫðum. Hans son var Ásbjǫrn, faðir Helga, ok Þórir, faðir Hrafnkels goða, fǫður Sveinbjarnar. Hallfreðr setti bú saman. […] En um várit fœrði Hallfreðr bú sitt norðr yfir heiði ok gerði bú þar, sem heitir í Geitdal. Ok eina nótt dreymði hann, at maðr kom at honum ok mælti: ‘Þar liggr þú, Hallfreðr, ok heldr óvarliga. Fœr þú á brott bú þitt ok vestr yfir Lagarfljót. Þar er heill þín ǫll.’ Eftir þat vaknar hann ok fœrir bú sitt út yfir Rangá í Tungu, þar sem síðan heitir á Hallfreðarstǫðum, ok bjó þar til elli. En honum varð þar eftir gǫltr ok hafr. Ok inn sama dag, sem Hallfreðr var í brott, hljóp skriða á húsin, ok týndusk þar þessir gripir, ok því heitir þat síðan í Geitdal.a

a. Landnámabók (S 283, H 244): ‘There was a man called Hrafnkell, the son of Hrafn; he moved to Iceland late in the settlement period. He spent his first winter in Breiðdalur, and in spring went up into the mountains. He set his sheep to graze in Skriðudalur and fell asleep; he dreamed that a man came to him and told him to stand up and get away as quickly as possible; he woke up and moved away. He had not gone far when the whole mountain collapsed, burying a boar and a bull that he owned. Afterwards, Hrafnkell settled Hrafnkelsdalur and lived at Steinrøðarstaðir. His sons were Ásbjǫrn, the father of Helgi, and Þórir, the father of Hrafnkell the Chieftain, the father of Sveinbjǫrn.’

Hrafnkels saga (ÍF XI: 7-8): ‘Hallfreðr put a farm together. […] But in the spring Hallfreðr moved his farm north across the moors and set up farm in the place called Geitdalur. And one night he dreamed that a man came to him and said: ‘There you lie, Hallfreðr, and rather heedlessly. Move your farm away, west across Lagarfljót water. All your good fortune awaits you there.’ At this he wakes up and moves his farm up across the river Rangá in Tunga, to the place that has since been called Hallfreðarstaðir, and lived there till old age. But he happened to leave behind a boar and a billy goat. And the same day that Hallfreðr moved away a landslide fell onto the buildings, and this stock was lost, and so the place has since been called Geitdalur.’

As well as bringing in known characters from the past, Pálsson believes that the author deliberately spiced his story with familiar bits and pieces of archaizing color, such as heathen customs, sacrifices and feasts, priests and burial mounds. He is also guilty of anachronism when he speaks of Icelanders traveling to Mikligarðr (Constantinople) at the time of the saga, i.e. in the 10th century, since, on the basis of other sagas, Pálsson claims that such journeys did not get under way until the 11th century. Pálsson (1971:19) cites as another example of historical ‘error’ in the saga that it seems as if the author believed that new land was still being claimed and settled in the Eastern Quarter of Iceland at the time when the action takes place. This he considers a blatant anachronism, since anyone who had read Landnámabók would have known immediately that this could not be the case; Landnámabók is quite specific that the Eastern Quarter was fully settled at an early date, while according to the chronology of the saga Hrafnkell was driven out of Hrafnkelsdalur many years after the end of the settlement period.

Pálsson’s arguments call for three main comments:

  1. Traditional oral tales are equated with historical reliability.
  2. Pálsson attempts to show that the ‘author’ used written sources to obtain historical information for his story, but then goes on to say that the author used these sources with such lack of care that it is obvious he had no intention of writing history.
  3. Pálsson cites a number of what he considers serious historical ‘errors’ and anachronisms on the part of the ‘author’ of the saga, basing his knowledge of the ‘true’ facts on the very sources that the ‘author’ is supposed himself to have used when seeking information about the past.

In view of the general unreliability of oral tradition, we are likely to come to a deeper understanding of the ancient sagas and how they work if we leave aside all accusations of historical error and speculations about possible inaccuracy in the way the writers used their sources. From the examples cited by Pálsson, it in fact seems better to suppose that whoever wrote Hrafnkels saga never made use of any written sources such as Landnámabók and related historical writings. The saga is too unlike such works for this to be at all probable. The most natural explanation for the so-called errors in the saga is that the person who wrote it got his material from traditional oral tales. As is well known, looking to such tales for strict historical accuracy is a waste of effort, all the more so when the tales are rooted in events that took place three hundred years earlier. But in spite of this, we must allow for an unbroken chain of telling throughout the intervening period, with the stories undergoing changes each time they are told. This makes it extremely unlikely that bits of old material would have been tacked on to the saga to divert the audience’s gaze away from the 13th century.

It is, of course, perfectly true that authors of all ages have used knowledge of local conditions and geography to gives their stories a ‘real’ setting, without there being any need to assume that these stories are based on ancient accounts, let alone ancient events. Nor is it unlikely that the class divisions that constitute an important theme in the saga reflect conditions in the 13th century rather than the settlement period. And it is extremely probable, as Davíð Erlingsson (1971) has said, echoing Pálsson, that the ethical values of the saga are closer to the teachings of the 13th-century Church than to the heathen outlook of the 10th century, whatever that may have been.

The error in the argumentation, however, lies in the belief that, if a writing from the 13th century is not thoroughly heathen and historically accurate on events from the 10th century, it must then be a work of pure imagination by a 13th-century ‘author’ without any connection to oral tradition. This argument runs counter to the basic and proven fact that stories pre- served orally are subject to constant change and, just like purely written works, are influenced by the present and colored by the prevailing values of their times. Prehistorical characters are always viewed through the eyes of the times when the stories about them are told.

Thus, Pálsson fails to demonstrate convincingly that Hrafnkels saga is not, to some extent at least, based on oral accounts purporting to tell about Hrafnkell. The parallels with events of the 13th century are certainly interesting, but there is nothing to stop contemporary events from shaping and coloring stories from earlier times in oral tradition. The person who wrote the saga might also have noted similarities between contemporary events and things related in the ancient stories, and so it is by no means inconceivable that he modified the story and tailored it to the expectations that people made of written works, for instance so that the saga’s message to his own times might stand out more clearly. It is perfectly plausible that whoever wrote Hrafnkels saga did so with an eye to providing his contemporaries with a lesson in ethics—as Pálsson has stressed repeatedly in his studies; this is something storytellers of all ages are prone to dreaming of. But this purpose certainly does not mean that he could not have used oral tales as the basis for his saga.

This is not the place to analyze the individual examples presented by Pálsson in support of his contention that Hrafnkels saga exhibits a pervasive influence from proverbs and Christian ethics. The conclusion remains the same: that such influences do nothing to reduce the likelihood of the saga being based on oral tales about Hrafnkell. It is perfectly conceivable that some of these tales go back in some way to the 10th century and actual events. They must, however, have changed over time and been colored by the personal tastes and attitudes of their storytellers and audiences. The writer of the saga was undoubtedly familiar with 13th-century Christian ethics and would have read the schoolbooks that came with an education provided by the Church. It might also well be that he recognized some sort of connection between his school learning and the oral tales he had heard about Hrafnkell and thus set out deliberately to write a saga demonstrating the validity of certain ethical rules, so it need come as no surprise if the saga reflects problems the writer might have had to struggle with as part of his education.

In addition to all this, it should not be forgotten, as Davíð Erlingsson (1971:12) pointed out, that there is often no way of deciding for sure whether a particular ethical feature is typical of Christianity or heathendom. There are views and attitudes that are common to all humanity and have little to do with the specific ethical codes promoted by individual religions. Bjarni Guðnason (1965) has taken this a step further and maintained that the course of the saga is determined by the heathen and humanistic attitudes of the edda poem Hávamál. The dominant ethical imperatives espoused in Hrafnkels saga are self-knowledge, wisdom, honor, and vengeance, and thus akin to what may be deduced of the heathen view of life as it appears in Hávamál; the central concept of Christianity, forgiveness, says Guðnason, is notable by its absence from the saga of Hrafnkell.

Influences on the structure of the sagas. The third and final area in which critics have sought to identify influences from Latin writings in the sagas concerns their structure and narrative technique. A valuable contribution to this debate was made by Carol Clover in her book The Medieval Saga (1982). Clover relates the Icelandic sagas to the wider narrative tradition of the Middle Ages, with particular emphasis on the contrast between the sagas and the Aristotelian precept of literary works as self-sufficient wholes with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Medieval stories tend to be un-Aristotelian in being ‘open’ at both ends, and Clover sets the sagas within the context of this tradition. The sagas start a long time before the main course of events gets underway and often relate large numbers of incidents that appear to have no direct relevance to the story, if viewed from an Aristotelian literary perspective. Thus the sagas of Icelanders generally have extended prologues and continue to include apparently adventitious details even after the action has reached the main events. Additionally, the sagas are open ended: they sometimes close with short résumés of the characters’ later lives and list their descendants down to the time when the saga was written, just as they list their forefathers at the beginning.

This, according to Clover (1982:41), indicates that the sagas are not to be seen as discrete units but rather as parts in an overall conceptualization of the history of Iceland reaching right back to the settlement period—just as each individual king’s saga is not so much a self-contained entity as a constituent element in an inclusive history of the kingdom of Norway. The unAristotelian features of saga style should not therefore be viewed as structural defects, but rather as integral to what people expected of stories, how they thought stories ought to be. These formal features offered a more detailed and discursive presentation of events (Latin amplificatio), as well as allowing the saga writers to assemble a number of disparate stories under one hat. Both these features are found widely in medieval literature, which tends to treat the same events again and again but with constant accretions of new material into the narratives. Another feature common in medieval literature, including the sagas, is that originally unconnected deeds tend to accumulate around just a few heroes—just as fugitive and anonymous verses tend to become ascribed to a limited group of named poets. Similarly, saga style shares with works from mainland Europe techniques of bipartite narrative, used to create tensions and allow significant events to be highlighted and intensified; events from an earlier part of a saga are made to re-occur in some later part, generally more impressively and set at a higher level. As a simple example we may cite the structural parallels in Egils saga, where the account of Egill’s Norwegian forefathers sheds light on later events in the saga.

Clover uses such features to argue that the writers of the sagas were benefiting from a learned European tradition in the construction of their works. Another authorial device viewed by Clover as an importation is the way saga authors allow two stories to run side by side. One of the chief characteristics, she says, of oral narrative is that storytellers present events in strict chronological order and avoid multiple storylines. Thus it should be taken as evidence of written literature when we meet phrases in the sagas like ‘nú ferr tvennum sǫgum fram’ (‘now two stories progress’), ‘víkr nú sǫgunni til’ (‘now the story turns to’), ‘nú er þar til at taka er áðr var frá horfit’ (‘now we must return to where we left off before’). Similar phrases appear in Latin writings, and even if we cannot demonstrate direct models for the Icelandic formulas in Latin works it is the general technique that is significant; having adopted the technique, the saga writers were perfectly capable of developing their own phraseology. This technique provided the key to much more complex and sophisticated modes of narrative than had previously been known or would have occurred in oral narratives. By allowing two stories, or even more as in Eyrbyggja saga, to move forward concurrently it became possible to break up narrative time in a way that constitutes an important innovation of medieval European literature. Clover (1982:147) maintains that this technique plays a key role in the Icelandic sagas and is not paralleled before the experiments of 20th-century authors aimed at creating disjunctures of time and plot.


The general conclusion from this discussion of the influences of learned Latin culture on the Icelandic sagas is that the sagas may be viewed as the outcome of a happy synthesis of scholastic learning acquired from books and a purely domestic artistic tradition of oral storytelling. Romances based on continental models appeared early in Icelandic and went on to become extremely popular after the end of the period in which most of the sagas of Icelanders were written. Literary tastes appear to have changed, with a gradual increase in interest in translations from French and in the composition of new sagas constructed to foreign models. The picture that seems to emerge is one of a strong, domestic oral narrative tradition coming into contact with historiographical works from abroad and flourishing by way of attempts to reproduce the methods used in them. At the end of the golden age, the domestic culture is overwhelmed by the international culture that had initially breathed life into it. Margaret Schlauch (1936:149) pointed to similar developments in England and Germany, where the heroic poems about Beowulf and Sigurðr the Vǫlsung gave way to romances based on French originals. But even when the romances took over as the dominant literary form in Iceland they were shaped by domestic traditions and attitudes. The ideas and principles of the age of chivalry, love and courtesy, seem never to have gripped the imagination of readers in Iceland (Schlauch 1936:169); when producing their Icelandic versions, whether abridging the stories themselves or working from already abridged versions, the translators and adapters preferred to concentrate on the battles and feats of heroism. [48]

That the Icelandic sagas should have features in common with learned writings of the Middle Ages need come as no surprise. Much more remarkable is just how different the Icelandic literature is from the works that are supposed to have influenced it. The explanation can hardly be other than that in Iceland there was a strong and independent tradition of oral stories that merged with the learning brought in from abroad and modified it to its own rules and demands. Without the learning there could have been no sagas as we know them, since it was the learning that made it possible for the native tradition to find expression in written form. But it is equally clear that this learning on its own and unsupported could not have engendered the Icelandic sagas and the literary tradition as we know it from 13th-century Iceland; as proof of this, we need only look to mainland Scandinavia, where the same learning existed, but produced only negligible results in terms of original literature.

Do Origins Matter for the Sagas as Literature?

A related approach applied by various scholars, originally deriving from the field of medieval Biblical and theological studies, centers on notions of the multiple ambiguity of texts (see Weber 1987, Tómasson 1988:251-3). Much of the research on the sagas conducted in this vein has been characterized by entertaining, if highly speculative, interpretations (see, for instance, Pálsson, E. 1990), but tends to skate over an important fact—that the Icelandic sagas do not contain any key as to how they should be interpreted, such as we usually find in genuine medieval allegories—and thus modern scholars in this area have been apt to let their imaginations run far beyond what is likely to have been in the minds of the writers as they wrote their sagas and their readers as they read them. Perhaps a more promising way forward is along the lines suggested by Torfi Tulinius (1995:203-9; 2001), of looking to ideas we know were familiar to Icelanders of the 13th century of hidden meanings within skaldic verse and seeing if we can identify similar semiotic forms in the prose works produced at this time. This kind of comparison is not without its problems and there are various approaches that might produce results—or not, as the case may be.

There is thus no way around the need to discuss and adopt a position on theories of the origins of medieval texts like the Icelandic sagas, since the position we adopt on origins will influence all our attempts to interpret the texts. All research is conducted in light of a theory of origins, if only in the choice of subjects that the researcher chooses to deal with.

Many bookprose scholars would, it seems, disagree, claiming that their approach is based not on theory but on method. As an example we may cite the comments of Einar Ól. Sveinsson (1958:7-8) in his book on the dating of the sagas, which may be read as a kind of statement of principles of the ‘Icelandic school’:

The chief difference between the two theories [book-prose and free-prose] is that the bookprose theory is not, in the first place, a theory, not in the first place a doctrine, but rather an attempt to follow the tracks from the known to the unknown without prejudice, to pass with the help of experience and probability from one point to the other. On the other hand the freeprose theory, at least in its German form, is primarily a Lehre, a doctrine, which is set forth fully fashioned, and the origin of the Family Sagas is explained in accordance with it.

Nordal and Sveinsson appear to have encouraged a similar conviction among their disciples: that the theorizing was all on the part of those who advocated oral tradition; that they themselves were concerned only with the written texts as they were preserved; and that since, unfortunately, the oral tradition had fallen silent it was no longer a fit subject for academic inquiry.

However, this attitude involves a danger of raising scholarship on unreliable grounds. Anyone who deals with medieval texts needs to work with some kind of theory of origins, and it is better to be aware of this and make allowances for the limitations of the research than to live in a fool’s paradise where everything is safe and secure and in perfect working order long after the walls have started to fall in around us. It is thus impermissible to claim that the question of origins is settled and no longer of any relevance; it is ever-present and demands a response from all who are involved in scholarship, demands that they be clear in their own minds, and to others, about where they think the most probable answers lie before they can proceed any further. You cannot both have your cake and eat it.

Direct References to Oral Tradition—Evidence of What?

How then can we investigate oral tradition in the Middle Ages when all we have to go on are written sources and there are no sound recordings? Are there any means available to us that might help in tackling the question of what oral tradition in medieval Iceland was really like?

What used to be done was simply to gather together references in written texts to oral storytelling and poetry performance and leave it at that. Here was living oral tradition for you; the ancient Icelanders were forever telling each other stories and reciting poems; what more do you need? Perhaps the most celebrated passage occurs in Þorgils saga ok Hafliða (‘Saga of Þorgils and Hafliði’) in the Sturlunga saga collection, dated by Ursula Brown (1952:xxix) to some time after 1237. The passage describes a wedding at a chieftain’s farm at Reykjahólar in western Iceland in 1119 where, as part of the celebrations, ancient poems were performed and legendary sagas recited (by a priest) for the entertainment of the guests. Sturlu þáttr, another part of Sturlunga saga from around 1300, tells of the poet, lawman and saga writer Sturla Þórðarson entertaining the court of the king of Norway with ‘Huldar saga,’ presumably a legendary saga of some kind (see Bragason 1990 and Mitchell 2001). The source says that Sturla told the story better than other people, but it is conceivable that the author regarded the saga here as being in written form, since he then has the queen ask Sturla to come to her and bring the saga with him—which might suggest that the queen is thought of as envisaging it as a book. From around the same time we have a more literary tale, Norna-Gests þáttr, set at the court of Óláfr Tryggvason (c. 1000), which tells of a visit by a certain Norna-Gestr (‘Gestr of the Fates’) in a disguise suggestive of Óðinn; Norna-Gestr recites ancient heathen poems on the kinds of subjects we know from the heroic poems of the edda, and is finally baptized and laid to rest where he dies after a candle he has brought with him burns out (see Lonnröth, L. 1971, Harris and Hill 1989). Another classic case concerns an account of the travels of Haraldr harðráði (‘the Hard-Ruler’), king of Norway, which Halldórr Snorrason taught to Þorsteinn sǫgufróði (‘the Story-Wise’) at the Alþingi and which Þorsteinn subsequently repeated to Haraldr himself at his court (see Þorsteins þáttr sǫgufróða). Much has also been made of the testimony of the late 12th-century Scandinavian historians of the ancient North writing in Latin, Theodoricus in Norway and Saxo Grammaticus in Denmark (see pp. 3–4), whose comments have been taken to support the general view that Icelanders were renowned for their ability to tell each other stories and perform poems without the aid of written support. [52]

These references to oral storytelling have sometimes been enough to convince scholars that the Icelanders were in the habit of telling artistically created stories both at home and at the courts of Scandinavia where they made their livings as court poets and historians. The story from Norna-Gests þáttr about Óláfr Tryggvason and Óðinn was taken as evidence of how the edda poems were performed orally—as well as being symbolic evidence that the heathen cultural heritage of the poems lived on despite the change in religion for which Óláfr acts as representative. A further reference used to argue the case for the sagas of Icelanders having existed in oral form occurs at the end of Droplaugarsona saga (‘Saga of the Sons of Droplaug’), where it is said that the saga was told by a descendant of one of the main characters, Grímr Droplaugarson. More generally, various elements of saga style have been viewed as suggestive of oral tradition, notably fixed formulas such as ‘svá er sagt…’ (‘it is so said’), ‘sagt er…’ (‘it is said’), ‘sumir segja…’ (‘some say’), ‘þat er annara manna sǫgn’ (‘it is the report of others’), [53] and the fact that the narrative perspective in the sagas is almost invariably restricted to what somebody could have seen and then told to others. With the backing of the saga accounts of the oral composition and performance of skaldic verse, it was thus possible to draw up from the written sources an image of a vigorous and artistic oral culture before the coming of the age of writing. [54]

To this we may add that even if the references to orality are taken at face value they are not actually of much use to us. They do not explain whether the texts were floating, i.e. constantly changing—as it seems most oral texts are unless they have a sacred or ritual function and there is a trained group of specialists responsible for their verbatim preservation (see Finnegan 1988:86-109); they do not explain how the oral texts came to be written down, e.g. whether learned performers dictated them to scribes or whether the writers and oral performers were one and the same; they do not say how widespread the texts were in their oral form, when and where they were performed, by whom and for whom, how they were passed on from generation to generation, and so on. The direct references to orality are thus of sadly little use when it comes to the questions we would like to have answers to, and we must therefore turn else- where for a more reliable method of studying oral tradition in medieval Iceland and its part in the writing and understanding of the sagas of Icelanders.

Impasse—And New Perspectives

At the point reached here, scholarly discussion of oral tradition stalled. The research interests and methodology of the bookprose school became utterly dominant and all speculation about oral origins was pushed to one side. However, around 1960 news started to filter through to Western scholars of Vladimir Propp’s (1928; first English edition 1958) discoveries of formalized and recurrent patterns in the structure of Russian folktales and legends, as well as Albert B. Lord’s (1960) descriptions of his and Milman Parry’s research into the oral poets of the Balkans, and the idea arose that certain fixed and replicable elements of form, ranging from short formulas to longer episodes and even whole stories, might be used as evidence of originally oral material within written texts. A number of studies appeared based on formula counts and the identification of common structural units, both of which were held to indicate the presence of such material. By the use of these methods, attempts were even made to distinguish what was oral from what was written within individual works.

These new ideas greatly strengthened the position of those who believed oral tradition to be a significant source of the form and material of the ancient sagas. It was clear that oral theory had answered many of the chief reservations of the bookprose scholars concerning the oral origins of sagas, for instance as regards long term social memory, the number of stories individual performers could master, and the aesthetic possibilities of oral literature. This point was made by H. M. Heinrichs (1976), who commented that much of what some people had previously felt to be impossible or implausible had turned out to have living parallels and was thus academically unproblematic. Heinrichs’s conclusion was that the Church and its educational system had provided the tools in the form of writing, but that the art of narrative had already been in place. The rug had previously been pulled from under the literary-relations approach by Theodore M. Andersson (1964:82-119), who had drawn attention to so many flaws in Einar Ól. Sveinsson’s argumentation for verbal borrowings between Njáls saga and other sagas that there was no alternative but to assume that the sagas owed some kind of debt to an oral tradition. Andersson (1967) went on from here to draw up a typical structure for the sagas of Icelanders, a structure that he traced to oral tradition. Among others to apply the Parry-Lord theory to Old Icelandic literature were Scholes and Kellogg (1966:43-51), soon followed by a host of others: Clover 1974 drew attention to oral narrative techniques in the settings of events; the studies of Allen (1971) and Lönnroth, L. (1976) on Njáls saga were valuable attempts to bring out narrative patterns that they associated with orality, while also attempting to evaluate the part of the author in the overall composition of the work; and Vésteinn Ólason 1989 used not dissimilar methods to uncover traditional narrative patterns in Eyrbyggja saga, while also emphasizing the role of an educated writer in bringing the various elements of the saga together into a whole. [57]

The new ideas represented in these writings have been given the covering label of ‘formalist-traditionalism’ or ‘new traditionalism,’ a movement which established itself firmly in Iceland with Óskar Halldórsson’s book on Hrafnkels saga (1976). Halldórsson demonstrated the existence in the east of Iceland of stories concerning the events related in the saga and went on from here to interpret the saga in light of oral tradition. Various critics had difficulties coming to terms with the sea change in attitude that this book represented, for instance Peter Hallberg (1977) and Hermann Pálsson (1978, 1979). Halldórsson answered this criticism in 1978 with an excellent survey of developments within the field of saga research and reiterated his view that the sagas were independent and integrated works of art, but with roots in orality. Hughes 1980 provided a detailed review of Halldórsson’s book, setting it in its intellectual context and detailing the discussions it had provoked. A further contribution to this debate appeared with Jesse L. Byock’s book (1982) on the feuds in the sagas, which put forward a number of challenging ideas on links between oral narratives and the handling of real disputes during the Commonwealth period; Byock envisaged an interaction in which feuds engendered sagas, which in turn offered people lessons in how to deal with and solve similar kinds of disputes—not unlike Eric Havelock’s (1963) ideas on the function of the Homeric poems in Greek society, which Havelock saw as a kind of knowledge bank and model for ethical and social behavior.

In other areas of medieval studies, attempts to apply Lord’s methods to identifying the oral within written texts produced only mixed results. The main problem was that it soon became clear that so-called oral features were open to contradictory interpretations, as signs of genuine orality or as creative input on the part of writers. The same features could thus point in opposite directions, just as the direct references to oral tradition in the sagas had for scholars of the previous generation. It was, to be sure, beyond doubt that traditional poetry and storytelling at the oral stage were grounded on fixed formulas and that their material was integrated into prestructured themes. The problem was that the same aesthetic methods were also available to authors who were not performing in front of a live audience (see Benson 1966); these techniques were simply a recognized way to tell a story or construct a poem, and they survived long after people had started to compose their works in silence with quill in hand.

Robert Kellogg’s (1979) contribution to this debate was to introduce in this context the terms ‘traditional art’ on the one hand and ‘high art’ on the other, with an intermediate stage which he designated ‘popular art.’ Traditional art is not the creation of a particular artist, but rather communal and conservative in nature; high art is the innovative and personal work of an author. Popular art combines the two, being based on common property but at the same time created by people with the deliberate intention of producing something new. Oral culture is always traditional in this sense, while high art only appears with written culture. But even after the influence of literacy began to make itself felt, people continued to create new works in the spirit of traditional artistic forms; people’s ideas of what art was had been shaped by the tradition and so the saga authors and poets continued to write using traditional modes based around the formulas and narrative themes that had been handed down to them. According to Kellogg, it is not until Dante that we find the emergence in medieval European literature of personal originality, and with it high art. Accordingly, a work written by a single author might still display all the characteristics of oral literature, because that was how it had to be to be considered a work of art in the eyes of its audience. Throughout the first centuries of writing authors continued to struggle with the intractable task of holding the attention of their readers and listeners, and to this end they resorted to the methods that had proved their effectiveness in the oral performance of poems and stories. As a result, ‘oral features’ continued to live a good life at the authorial writing desk.

Along with these studies there grew a clearer understanding of something that Lord (1960) had touched on in his chapter on ‘Writing and oral tradition’—that oral tradition could only be recorded successfully with the aid of modern technology. Oral performers never used the same words when performing to a single plodding scribe as when entertaining a live audience, and the task facing literate storytellers who might want to transfer their own oral artistry to the page was fraught with difficulties (Lord 1986)—a problem all too familiar to schoolteachers when trying to get reasonably articulate pupils to write essays. It is thus simply not possible to speak of medieval ‘oral texts.’ Even the popular tales that the folklore collectors fired by the ideals of 19th-century Romanticism were supposed to have taken down direct from the lips of ordinary people were in fact dressed up in literary style; what had been oral entertainment had been converted into written literature, to be enjoyed in private by silent reading of a printed book. Had the classic 19th-century collections of folktales been published as ver- batim transcriptions of modern electronic recordings, they would in all probability never have achieved the success that they did as literature; however good it may sound in performance, oral storytelling simply does not transfer directly to paper (see Sigurðsson, G. 1996:409-27).

So it might appear that we are left to conclude that it is simply not possible to use written texts in our search for orality in the way that has been done hitherto. It is just not feasible to sift the oral from the written in the sagas, because they were all written using the same stylistic techniques. But rather than throw up our hands in despair, we need to look again at the fundamental questions we wish to ask. Perhaps the preoccupation with finding ways to identify where the oral and the written meet in written texts is the wrong question to ask and has simply led us down a blind alley.

The Comparative Approach

Now, four decades on from the publication of The Singer of Tales, and after many field stud- ies and much subsequent scholarly theorizing on the oral versus the written, we can attempt some kind of status report on what oral theory has done to increase our understanding of medieval texts and their possible links with oral tradition. As noted, little progress has been made in our ability to distinguish the oral from the written, but we have come a long way from early notions of the formula, which is now seen as serving a central aesthetic role in oral tradition in building up layers of meaning and reference, rather than being simply a convenient tool to fill the silences and help poets meet their metrical demands (Foley 1991). Perhaps the most important thing we have learned is how orality lives and operates within a culture, whether in storytelling and the performance of poetry, or in the preservation of legal texts and ancient lore. It is now clear that societies can function perfectly well on an oral level, with organized systems of administration and education. Oral knowledge can be preserved and passed on from generation to generation. Although this transmission of knowledge is not flawless, it is sufficiently effective that people who have grown up and acquired their education in an oral environment do not necessarily feel that writing presents an inherent advantage. Such people do not automatically share our sense of the self-evident benefits to be had from writing in terms of, for example, the word-for-word preservation of legal texts, which might reduce the risk of boundary disputes or wrangles over the correct letter of the law. In other words, there is ample reason to question the widespread belief that writing has always been welcomed with open arms as a relief to the overburdened memories of those unfortunate souls (in our eyes) who have had to learn the laws and conventions of society without the aid of writing or books (see p. 159). The most important achievement of recent research has thus lain not in the counting of formulas and the identification of formalized themes in large bodies of ancient texts, but in the possibilities opened up by the so-called comparative method, in which data from modern-day field studies are used to plug gaps in our fragmentary knowledge from the past. [58] This is rather like the methods that have been accepted in the geological sciences for nearly two centuries, ever since the Englishman Charles Lyell (1797-1875) started using the findings of modern-day researchers to build up an understanding of things that had happened in prehistorical times.

Unfortunately, much research conducted in the spirit of comparativism has been vitiated by the lumping together of societies and literary genres so different that they cannot justifiably be compared in any plausible manner, and the method has consequently laid itself open to criticism. Using information from societies that are amenable to modern research to shed light on ancient cultures requires great care; scholars need to take account of the peculiarities of each society and avoid the temptation to take conditions from one society and superimpose them blindly onto another. What we can do, however, is to use new information gathered from living oral societies to formulate new questions of the limited sources at our disposal.

Perhaps the most important thing to emerge from modern-day field studies of oral societies is that many of the basic assumptions that scholars formerly made about the nature of orality were, quite simply, wrong—though obviously there was no consensus of ignorance and not all of the mistakes listed below apply equally to all previous scholars. Among the most prevalent misconceptions have been:

  1. That oral tradition necessarily maintains information accurately for centuries on end.
  2. That the oral can be equated with what might be historically true.
  3. That artistic expression precludes oral origins, and vice versa.
  4. That oral stories cannot survive for two or three hundred years among peoples and families living in a single location. This misconception has even led some scholars to assume that people in oral societies are incapable of having any genuine knowledge about their pasts (see Guðmundsson, H. 1997:42, 81, 296).

If all these assumptions are wrong—and they have, to varying extents, provided the basis for most older ideas about orality and remain remarkably persistent even today—we must also conclude that all ideas based on them are in urgent need of reappraisal. In other words, we need to start from scratch and work our way through the written sources in search of clues about and residual elements of the oral tradition as it once existed in medieval Iceland; only then can we determine whether orality might affect the way we understand and interpret a saga or particular literary text, and if so in what ways.

One way out of the dilemma facing us is to adopt the approach of anthropologists and sociologists in recent years, and throw overboard all the research and traditional problems surrounding ancient texts; instead, the sagas should be treated as if they were some kind of field report from an alien society, as sources that can be used to construct a picture of the social reality of the 12th and 13th centuries, and we can forget about looking to them for direct evidence of specific people and events of the 10th century. [59] Writings on the social reality of the Commonwealth period in Iceland using the sagas as sources have raised many questions about how far it is possible to bypass entirely traditional research and its preoccupations, such as the problems of textual history and classification. Preben Meulengracht Sørensen’s doctoral thesis from 1993 may be read in part as a riposte to such attempts to cut through this particular scholarly Gordian knot (see Meulengracht Sørensen 1993:323-4). Meulengracht Sørensen places emphasis on methodology in saga research (1993:17-33) and tries to construct a way of viewing the sagas that takes account of the foundations on which previous research has been based and the main questions that people have tackled when dealing with the sagas. Rather than ask whether the sagas are history or fiction, he attempts to approach them from the perspective of what people in the Middle Ages would themselves have thought—as their attempt to create a particular image of a past which he associates with social changes that occurred first with the coming of Christianity and then with loss of independence to the king of Norway in 1262. The sagas themselves are subject to artistic laws and are not to be regarded as descriptions of reality, even if they are written as part of a tradition that their immediate audiences would in all probability have viewed as conveying reliable information about the past. [60] The center of interest in the sagas revolves around the evaluation, dignity, and honor of people as revealed in their behavior and interaction with their families and society. While the writers were using the saga tradition to address what were to them burning issues, their stories of former times also set up a benchmark for the ethical comparison of people as social beings, as comes out, for example, in the deaths of the brothers Snorri and Þórðr Þorvaldsson as described in Sturlunga saga:

På en måde døde de to unge mænd, fordi de havde lyttet til for mange fortællinger om tapperhed. Deres død var jo ikke nødvendig, ikke ved den lejlighed. Med deres handlemåde viste de som så mange før dem, at æren var vigtigere end livet, og på den måde skabte de selv fortælling.

Meulengracht Sørensen’s work centers on the functions of the written sagas and places less weight on the extent of any debt they may owe to oral tradition, other than to say that the sagas are written in the spirit of the tradition and are supposed to sound as if they derive from real oral accounts (pp. 53-6). He thus takes a rather different line from the one attempted here to try to add to our understanding of the sagas. The same applies to some extent to Vésteinn Ólason 1998, who examines the world of the sagas of Icelanders from a literary perspective, though often with explicit regard to the tradition lying behind them.

The formalist-traditionalist approach has breathed new life into many of the ideas behind the freeprose theory, while discarding its emphasis on historicity and the verbatim preservation of texts in oral tradition. Formalist-traditionalism teaches that artistically created traditional oral tales were an important element in the writing of the sagas but were never put together as integrated wholes before the time they were committed to parchment. But despite the great progress that has been made in our understanding of the laws to which oral tradition is subject, little has been done to address the question of how the way in which we view their origins might affect how we view the sagas as works of art, i.e. what it means for our interpretation of individual sagas to assume an oral tradition somewhere in the background. General scholarly debate in the field of oral studies has, however, started to edge its way towards aesthetic questions of this sort. Instead of squabbling about whether particular works come from oral tradition or are purely written literature, we now speak of works being grounded in oral tradition; and instead of bickering about whether formulas and formulaic narrative themes are evidence of oral origins or stylistic tics on the part of the writers, we now attempt to assess their aesthetic value (see Foley 1991). Thus it becomes possible to consider how the aesthetics of stories and poems may have been shaped by the oral tradition that both they and their audiences were elements in, and to demonstrate how familiarity with the tradition may have helped audiences in their interpretation of the works.

One of the most significant recent accounts of the ways in which long stories survive in oral tradition is to be found in an article by Carol Clover from 1986. She notes that such stories are not usually told from beginning to end in the way we are accustomed to with written works; instead, it is generally assumed that the audience is familiar with the story material and the main characters beforehand, and a typical performance extends only to individual incidents from, to use Clover’s term, the ‘immanent whole,’ the conceptual saga as it exists as the sum of its parts at the preliterary stage. This immanent whole is never told in full and exists only in the minds of the members of the traditional culture, and only achieves an integrated form when the story comes to be written. This is how Clover sees the origins of the written sagas. Clover relates her ideas to the so-called ‘þáttr theory’ (see Andersson 1964:61-4), a theory of origins that had previously been discarded because scholars assumed verbatim recording from oral tradition and could not see how short episodes like the ones we know as the íslendingaþættir (see p. 31) could have been combined to form full sagas like the sagas of Icelanders.

John Miles Foley’s book Immanent Art (1991) owes a direct debt to Clover’s article and represents a major contribution to the aesthetical interpretation of oral culture. Foley takes his central concept of ‘immanence’ from Clover and works out from the idea that the meaning of traditional works in oral preservation is founded on formulas and prefabricated themes that build up a series of links to other works within the tradition which treat of similar characters and events; this differs fundamentally from the idea that long dominated thinking in this area, that such elements were first and foremost mnemonic devices to help storytellers and poets perform fluently and coherently. Thus Foley envisages a traditional superstructure that colors meaning and interpretation: no aspect of a text can be understood simply from its immediate context; each requires to be viewed in light of the tradition as a whole, wherever similar circumstances occur. This overall view, says Foley, helps people to make sense of what is happening through hints and allusions, without everything needing to be spelled out specifically on each occasion. This differs from textual relationships between written works (intertextuality, rittengsl) in that in oral tradition it is meaningless to talk about one work coming before another and another copying it, or about one particular work having correspondences with another; it is rather a case of all works obtaining their material from a single tradition. As a consequence of this characteristic of oral art, certain texts often appear to be deeply flawed if judged from modern literary perspectives; but what would be a clear defect in a written work by a single author might be a feature of the artistic technique of an oral storyteller, something which Foley calls ‘immanent art.’ Foley also stresses that, when discussing medieval and even older texts, we cannot properly regard them as ‘oral,’ even if we have good reason to believe that they tell of the same characters and events as figured in the oral tradition of their times. Instead, he speaks of ‘orally derived texts,’ texts built out of material from oral tradition. By such means we can relate discussions of the origins of old Icelandic literature to developments that have taken place in recent decades in the fields of philology and literary theory and which are characterized by, among other things, a growing interest among scholars in oral performance and the reception of medieval texts among their original audiences (see Schaefer 1993).


Scholarly thinking has now reached a point where it is safe to say that the premises on which we base all discussion of the relationship between ancient texts and oral storytelling traditions are now quite different from what they were only a few decades ago. Research into living traditions has shown that many older ideas were, to a greater or lesser extent, incorrect, but because of the resistance between different academic disciplines it has proved difficult to mediate this new knowledge beyond the ranks of the ethnologists and folklore specialists. Literary specialists continue to analyze ancient texts using the methods of 20th-century literary criticism, and historians and archaeologists continue to reject the sagas as sources of preliterate times and concentrate largely on the age of the manuscripts, which in turn are the special province of the paleographer. Anthropologists have taken refuge in electing to view ancient texts as sources for the times in which they were written, a course that scholars in other disciplines often find decidedly unsatisfactory. Despite the chilly reception it has been accorded among other academic disciplines, the change that has taken place in our understanding of oral stories and poetry as art can be compared with the revolution in the natural sciences in the 19th century that followed the publication of Darwin’s ideas on natural selection. In the humanities, however, things move slowly and within many disciplines there still seems to be no awareness that this revolution has taken place. This in itself gives us food for thought, to observe how long it takes for new knowledge to come to the fore and produce results where it is needed.

The proper task of the humanities is to talk about man and human culture under the banner of the search for truth—however elusive the truth often proves to be. This search sometimes involves the use of different methods associated with different disciplines. But scholars are apt to suffer from tunnel vision and are often reluctant to take any interest in what goes on outside the walls of their own departments. There is always the danger of forgetting the task we all have in common and believing that the ultimate aim of research is to ascertain the history of the documentary sources, or of some literary genre, or of whatever ideas are most in fashion at any moment in time. With such a narrow perspective it is all too easy to lose sight of the main point, of which the particular methods of research form only a part.

According to the methods of literary history, we begin from a fixed starting point and explain the development of a particular literary genre in terms of works appearing in a definite order and one book leading to other books, and so on. People tend to think they have identified the origin of all kinds of ideas when they first come across them in books. There is a danger of solipsism here unless we bear constantly in mind that stories and poems existed without writing, that individuals and societies had a particular mental image of their pasts, that world views were constructed, laws established, judgments passed, and religions practiced, and that people engaged in genealogy, navigation, astronomy, poetics, and rhetoric—all without being able to read or write. Medieval studies that do not take account of what can be ascertained about oral culture of this kind run the risk of bypassing medieval life and culture entirely and losing themselves within the narrow task of tracing just the sources and their provenance.

People had always told stories and performed poems about gods and heroes and kings and settlers, and recited the law and trained young people to memorize and preserve traditions. Much of this was not touched by writing in any way. The art of speaking and telling did not change, nor the art of composing poetry, and learned men continued to hold their honored position in society—at least to start with. It took a long time for people to accept the precedence of the written word over the testimony of the wise. The main changes brought about by the arrival of writing were that religion became associated with books, or the book (i.e. the Bible), that people acquired a wider outlook once they could read in books about things from far away in place and time, and that it became possible to produce bigger works, structured in a more organized way. An external chronology was established, and knowledge began to pile up as libraries came into existence and the learned tradition of the Church was added to the knowledge and culture that society already possessed.

This general epistemological background, the result of research into living oral traditions in the latter part of the 20th century, has completely revolutionized the foundations underlying all study of the Icelandic Middle Ages. In the research that follows, I attempt to build on these foundations and take them a step further.

About This Research

The main subject of the research that follows is oral tradition in medieval Iceland and the sagas of Icelanders. The research considers the methods available for investigating oral tradition at the time when the sagas were created, and how this tradition might affect our interpretation of individual sagas and our choice of subjects for research. In this I make use of the body of knowledge on oral tradition that has built up over recent decades to ask new questions of the ancient sources, regarding a) the oral tradition that we know existed in 12th- and 13th-century Iceland in connection with the law and poetry, and b) the possible interrelation- ship between the written sagas and the oral story tradition. Broadly, there are two main ques- tions that need to be considered, on the one hand concerning the tradition, and on the other concerning the interpretation of individual texts. These questions are, however, closely related, since it is difficult to talk about an unspecified oral tradition behind saga texts without discussing the oral tradition in general and being explicit about what can be known of it.

In the foregoing Introduction I have traced the history of research relating to the main questions to be addressed. Particular emphasis has been placed on how great a role Latin and scholastic learning may have played in the writing of the sagas and the methods and evidence scholars have applied when discussing oral tradition and the part of orality in the origins of the sagas: viz. a) direct information about storytelling and the performance of poetry, and references to oral stories in particular texts, and b) research into the structure of sagas and oral tales, the ‘prefabricated’ diction of formulas, and thematic narrative patterning. Both approaches have proved unsatisfactory because a) the descriptions in the sources fail to answer the questions we would like to ask, and b) the structural units, formulaic diction, and narrative themes that were held to be a sure sign of orally preserved works can all equally appear in works produced with pen in hand. The discussion of oral tradition and the oral origins of sagas thus stalled on the methods that could be applied.

The research itself is divided into three sections. In the first section I look to field studies of oral traditions for ideas and information that may shed light on traditions that we know existed in medieval Iceland. The intention is not to superimpose conditions from various societies scattered around the world today directly onto society in medieval Iceland, but to come up with new questions for which answers may be sought through fairly conventional textual criticism of the ancient sources. The two areas considered are:

  1. The role of the lawspeakers of the Icelandic Commonwealth and what we can find out about these men from the meager sources available, particularly as regards a) their attitudes to the writing of the laws, b) the party politics surrounding the election of the lawspeakers, and c) the growing role of the Church in 11th-, 12th-, and 13th-century Icelandic society.
  2. The range and scope of the oral poetic tradition in 13th-century Iceland as evidenced by the examples of verse quoted by Óláfr Þórðarson hvítaskáld in the Third Grammatical Treatise (Icelandic Þriðja málfrœðiritgerðin). By investigating where the poets he refers to came from and when they lived, we can build up a picture of the literary horizons of a man of the 13th century who was well versed in both the oral, secular learning of his family, the Sturlungar, and the Latin learning associated with the Church.

The second section deals specifically with a group of sagas from the east of Iceland and attempts to assess whether their internal relationships are better explained as literary borrowings or through an oral story tradition shared by them all. These internal relations manifest themselves in three areas:

  1. Four characters that appear in more than one saga: the two father and son pairs Brodd-Helgi Þorgilsson and Víga-Bjarni, and Geitir Lýtingsson and Þorkell Geitisson. Here the focus is on whether and to what extent their characterizations match and/or conflict in the sources, and what this may signify.
  2. The genealogical information given about Helgi Ásbjarnarson and the Droplaugarson brothers in the different sagas. The questions addressed here concern the function of the genealogies and whether they can be supposed to derive from authorial ‘source work’ or whether there is anything to suggest that they are based on a general knowledge of genealogy shared by both the writers and their audiences.
  3. Accounts of the ‘same’ incidents in different sagas, viz. a) the battle of Bǫðvarsdalr, b) the story of how one of the Droplaugarson brothers’ ancestors obtained a wife abroad, c) the drowning of Helgi Ásbjarnarson’s first wife, d) the killing of Þorgrímr torðyfill, and e) the killing of Gunnarr Þiðrandabani. Tentative conclusions are drawn about the relationships between the different accounts and what they tell us about the genesis of the written sagas in light of their interplay with oral tradition.

The third and final section turns to the sagas and truth, specifically the historical reality that may lie behind sagas based on a unified and unbroken story tradition going back to the Viking Age and the settlement period. I look particularly at the picture passed down to us by the saga tradition of the lands explored by sea-rovers from Iceland and Greenland to the west and south of Eric the Red’s settlement in Greenland and which they called Helluland, Markland, and Vínland. According to this tradition, these men discovered an island lying north of the mainland to the southwest of Markland and named the area nearby Vínland. The tradition also mentions places by the names of Leifsbúðir, Kjalarnes, Furðustrandir, Straum(s)fjǫrðr, and Hóp—and says that on one journey the explorers came upon a one-legged man on the far side of some mountains they had previously seen from Hóp. The main areas of interest here are how theories of saga origins have shaped people’s ideas about the Vínland sagas, and how advances in archaeology, textual criticism, and, not least, our understanding of oral tradition may be used to shed new light on the Vínland question. It will be shown that, with the change in premises advocated in this research, it may be possible to move Vínland studies a step forward toward the solution of an otherwise extremely intractable problem.

The final chapter contains some general comments on what allowing for an oral tradition behind the Icelandic sagas means for the principles on which research is based and the conclusions that can be drawn from it. Two particular examples are taken for consideration: the scholarly debate surrounding the connections between Vatnsdœla saga and Finnboga saga ramma; and the way in which Hœnsa-Þóris saga refers to and works with its audience’s familiarity with the mythological tradition and how this forms an essential part of the interpretation of the saga.

It should be stated here that, because of the different methods used to locate information in the works under discussion, I have not been completely consistent in my use of texts. Section II is based largely on the indexes and notes in the Íslenzk fornrit series and the quotations are therefore from these editions. Elsewhere I have made extensive use of a computer-based corpus of the sagas in modern Icelandic spelling. For this English translation an attempt has been made where possible to substitute the modern Icelandic spelling with the ‘Fornrit standard’ spelling for Old Icelandic.


[ back ] 1. I am thinking here of the beautiful manuscript of this work, now in Leiden and published with detailed critical apparatus by Bischoff et al. 1987-9.

[ back ] 2. Characters in the main cycle of heroic poems in the edda collection. A closely related story is preserved in German in the early 13th-century Nibelungenlied and retold in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Sigurðr Fáfnisbani (‘Slayer of [the dragon] Fáfnir’), or Sigurðr the Vǫlsung, is the Siegfried of the Nibelungenlied and Wagner. Guðrún Gjúkadóttir corresponds in German tradition to Kriemhilt but is more fully developed in the edda poems. The Atli, i.e. Attila the Hun, of the edda is very different in character from his counterpart Etzel in the German sources.

[ back ] 3. Icelandic íslendingasaga, pl. íslendingasögur, the group of sagas, mostly written in the 13th and 14th centuries, set mainly in Iceland and purporting to describe events between the settlement in the late 9th century and the middle of the 11th century, and including most of the best known sagas both within Iceland and abroad, e.g. Njáls saga, Laxdœla saga; also known as the Icelandic family sagas. The term is used here when it is necessary to distinguish this group from other genres, e.g. the kings’ sagas (konungasögur) and the heroic sagas (fornaldarsögur, literally ‘sagas of ancient times,’ sometimes called ‘mythical-poetic sagas’ or ‘legendary sagas,’ see Mitchell 1991).

[ back ] 4. Unlike the edda poems, which are anonymous, traditional, usually narrative, and generally simple, dróttkvætt (Icelandic dróttkvæði) are extremely highly-wrought and allusive poems, usually composed by specific poets for specific occasions. The form was most typically used for praise poems for kings and noblemen in continental Scandinavia, and such poems appear to have been highly prized and well paid for. While the term skáld can be used of any poet, it is typically restricted to professional poets working the courts of Scandinavia; hence skaldic verse is more or less synonymous with dróttkvætt.

[ back ] 5. ‘The diligence of the men of Iceland must not be shrouded in silence; since the barrenness of their native soil offers no means of self-indulgence, they pursue a steady routine of temperance and devote all their time to improving our knowledge of others’ deeds, compensating for poverty by their intelligence. They regard it a real pleasure to discover and commemorate the achievements of every nation; in their judgement it is as elevating to discourse on the prowess of others as to display their own. Thus I have scrutinized their store of historical treasures and composed a considerable part of this present work by copying their narratives, not scorning, where I recognized such skill in ancient lore, to take these men as witnesses.’ Trans. P. Fisher, in Ellis Davidson, H. R., ed. 1979-80. Saxo Grammaticus: the History of the Danes. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.

[ back ] 6. For a discussion of the sources used in the earliest Scandinavian historical writings, both preserved and conjectured, see Ellehøj 1965

[ back ] 7. Margaret Clunies Ross and B. K. Martin (1986) have shown that Snorri’s account of the god Þórr’s journey to Geirrøðargarðar contains strong structural similarities to adventure Märchen according to the analytical methods developed by Vladimir Propp (1958). But rather than view this as an indication that the story may have been molded by oral performance like an adventure tale, they conclude that Snorri reshaped his material according to a familiar legendary pattern with the aim of making it more accessible to his audience. There is something about this line of reasoning that sounds too far fetched. Joseph Harris (1979), however, put forward a similar idea concerning the tale in Gylfaginning of the smith who built fortifications for the gods to keep out the rock giants and frost giants; Harris rejected the idea that this story had any genuine roots in the mythological world of the ancient North, seeing it rather as Snorri’s own invention, intended to account for certain references in the edda poem Vǫluspá and constructed on the model of a well-known migratory tale about a master builder, a story he could have known as a localized etiology of Berserkjahraun on Snæfellsnes in western Iceland or from Trójumanna saga (‘Saga of Troy’).

[ back ] 8. It is customary to speak of Snorri’s Edda as if it were a single work by a single man, Snorri Sturluson. It would, however, perhaps be more accurate to distinguish different versions in the seven manuscripts and fragments that include the Edda along with other works: Skáldatal and the genealogies of the Sturlungar in Uppsala Book; the four grammatical treatises, a longer version of the Prologue, and Rígsþula in Codex Wormianus; Grottasǫngr, Jómsvíkingadrápa and Málsháttakvæði in Codex Regius; and þulur (metrical lists) in other manuscript fragments (see Faulkes 1993a; Nordal, G. 2001:41-72). The preservation of the work is such that it is impossible to speak of a single original version; closer to the mark would be to speak of the learned tradition of which the Edda forms an inseparable element in the manuscripts. Even so, the figure of Snorri has been central to all discussion of the work, alongside the domestic and foreign learning he had access to and utilized in its creation.

[ back ] 9. Baetke was in part inspired by Eugen Mogk (1923, 1924, 1932), who maintained that Snorri had more or less created his myths himself and was thus of little value as a source of Norse mythology except when he quotes directly from poetry. Later, however, George Dumézil (1948; see also Dumézil 1973 and Page 1979) demonstrated that various central ideas in Snorri’s myths reflect themes going back to common Indo-European mythology, and presumably no one nowadays would still accept Mogk’s view that Snorri created the myths in the sense of spinning them out of thin air.

[ back ] 10. Sæmundr fróði Sigfússon (1056-1133, ‘Sæmundr the Wise,’ ‘Sæmundr the Learned’) is believed to have compiled a (probably short and certainly now lost) synopsis in Latin of the kings of Norway—which would make him the first known Icelandic writer.

[ back ] 11. Ofljóst, a trope used in skaldic verse, approximating to rhyming slang in modern English; that is, it replaces elements of kennings with others dependent on punning.

[ back ] 12. For evidence that pre-Christian myths continued to play a living role in popular imagination in the 13th century, see Nordal, G. 1992.

[ back ] 13. For a general overview of this story, see Turville-Petre 1964:75-6. Turville-Petre interprets the sources as reflecting multiform versions of the myth in pre-Christian times: in Bragi’s Ragnarsdrápa the serpent appears to escape Þórr’s blow, while other sources, such as Úlfr Uggason’s Húsdrápa, suggest that Þórr manages to kill it. Turville-Petre sees Hymiskviða as reflecting this latter version. Snorri’s ideas about the serpent escaping and returning to fight against Þórr at Ragnarǫk (at the mythological end of the world) Turville-Petre sees as being based on Vǫluspá, possibly influenced by the account of the dragon that is bound and then escapes in chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation. Jan de Vries (1957:142-3) makes a similar point, commenting that many scholars have identified biblical influences here, but notes that the story is in fact widely distributed, as analyzed by Schröder (see note 15, p. 11). See also Kabell (1976:125-6) and references there, for and against; Kabell is inclined to accept the biblical connections and cites Jewish stories about a monster and an ox which could have spread to northern Europe.

[ back ] 14. Finnur Jónsson’s arrangement and reconstruction of various skaldic poems have been the subject of much recent discussion, especially as they affect the poems composed for kings and noblemen: see Fidjestøl 1982 and Poole 1991.

[ back ] 15. For a detailed discussion of Þórr’s encounter with Miðgarðsormr, see especially Schröder 1955:30-5. Schröder traces related motifs in widely distributed myths from Asia and the Pacific; his conclusion is that the story was very ancient among the peoples of Scandinavia and hardly of Christian origin. Schröder 1957 discusses Þórr’s Indo-European connections. Preben Meulengracht Sørensen 1986a considers the different multiforms of the myth with a view to identifying its original form. Schier’s (1976:433 ff.) study of the Þórr story in Húsdrápa also includes a discussion of multiforms and original forms; in tracing the sources, Schier has no hesitation in classifying them according to whether Þórr kills the serpent or not. Snorri himself, in chapter 9 of Skáldskaparmál, compares the story of how ‘Ǫku-Þórr egnði uxahǫfði ok dró at borði Miðgarðsorm en ormrinn hélt svá lífinu at hann søkktisk í hafit’ (‘Chariot-Thor baited with an ox’s head and pulled Miðgarðsormr up to the side of his boat, but the serpent survived and sank back into the ocean’) with Greek tales of Hector and Achilles.

[ back ] 16. The age of the carvings is uncertain. Von Friesen 1924 dates the Altuna stone to the 11th century on the basis of style and the names inscribed on the stone—those of the runemaster Lífsteinn, who was working in the first half of that century, and his apprentices, Bal(l)i and Freysteinn, who would presumably have been a little younger. The Hørdum stone has no particular features that might allow the carvings to be dated with any certainty; Brøndsted 1955:102 considers it to be from the Viking Age, when stories about Þórr were in popular currency, i.e. the 8th-11th centuries.

[ back ] 17. Preben Meulengracht Sørensen 1986a: 265 rejects von Friesen’s explanation (1924:482) that this was due to lack of space on the stone, preferring to see it as a deliberate device on the part of the stone carver to emphasize Þórr’s part in the story within the overall context of the carvings, which depict a tripartite world of gods and men, with heaven, earth and underworld.

[ back ] 18. See Lindqvist 1942:24, who numbers the pictures 14, 17, and 19.

[ back ] 19. See Meulengracht Sørensen 1986a: 268, 272, who puts forward the view that Þórr’s fishing represents a threat to the balance of nature, in which the serpent forms an integral part, and that it was thus necessary that the god be thwarted in his intentions. In this way the myth valorizes the order of the universe. This interpretation is, however, by no means evident from Snorri’s account and only emerges from a comparison of all the available sources.

[ back ] 20. It is not the intention to discuss Hymiskviða in detail here. Fuller treatments may be found by, among others, Del Zotto 1979, who translates the poem into Italian with detailed notes and considers its age and connections with the poetic tradition, and Glendinning 1980 who demonstrates how the framework and structure of the poem are determined by its mythic basis.

[ back ] 21. Many commentators on this myth appear to presume that Snorri did indeed construct the prose with the poems as his source; for instance, Alois Wolf 1977 who takes such working methods for granted without comment in his article on Snorri’s narrative technique in Gylfaginning. The same is true of Vilhjálmur Þ. Gíslason 1942 in his book on Snorri and his mythology.

[ back ] 22. Old Norse poetry, particularly formal skaldic verse, makes wide use of allusive ways of citing frequent referents, e.g. sword, ship, warrior and the gods. Heiti are poetic synonyms; kennings are conventionalized periphrastic metaphors, as in ‘steed/horse/charger of the sea/ocean/waves’ for ‘ship.’ A large part of Skáldskaparmál lists ways to kenna different referents, i.e. the kinds of kennings that are applicable to them; for example, in chapter 12 of Skáldskaparmál Snorri notes that Þórr may be called ‘son of Óðinn,’ ‘hammer wielder,’ ‘destroyer of giants.’ (In non-technical prose usage, kenna has meanings such as ‘know, recognize, identify.’)

[ back ] 23. See Meulengracht Sørensen 1986a:273 and references there for differing views as to whether this is to be interpreted as Þórr having made himself small to deceive the giant Hymir or whether the use of the word sveinn merely indicates that Þórr is here thought of as a young god.

[ back ] 24. Lie 1952:33 ff. compares Hymiskviða and Bragi’s Ragnarsdrápa in order to bring out their differing stylistic approaches. Meulengracht Sørensen 1986a compares Snorri’s account of Þórr’s fishing expedition with those in his ‘sources.’

[ back ] 25. Here may be mentioned the idiosyncratic interpretation of the myth by Björn Jónsson (1989:60-3). Jónsson places the story in the context of the orbit of the planet Jupiter (which he associates with the god Þórr in the manner of classical mythology), which in the year 233 moved in conjunction with Saturn (corresponding to Hymir) through the sign of Pisces (i.e. the Fish), below the ecliptic through Taurus (the Bull) and returning through the constellation Cetus (the Whale), which Jónsson identifies in part with Miðgarðsormr in the region called ‘The Sea of Heaven’ by Björn and in ancient astronomy, before moving back on his track. In this passage Jupiter reached its nadir in the zodiac before it and Saturn turned back up to the ecliptic and moved out of con- junction. The ferocious glaring eyes Jónsson associates with the variable star Mira in Cetus; as Jupiter and Sat- urn passed Mira, Jupiter achieved a high luminosity (-2.0) while Saturn faded to 0.0. The interesting feature of this interpretation is that Jupiter passes through regions that recall many aspects of the fishing expedition—through the sign of the Fish to the Bull, and as far from the ecliptic as it is possible to go, to where the Whale/ Serpent awaits Jupiter and Saturn. Jónsson’s interpretation must be seen in light of his overall view of Scandina- vian mythology as being bound up with astronomical phenomena; for instance, according to his approach, this passage of Jupiter/Þórr comes in direct continuation of his visit to Útgarða-Loki. As a general consideration, it is not unlikely that stories of journeys and actions among the gods may be connected in some way with astronomical phenomena; this is true of the myths of most peoples and was, for example, a widespread way of viewing classical myths in the first centuries after Christ and on into the Middle Ages: see p. 12; see also Santillana and Dechend 1994. This makes Jónsson’s interpretation extremely interesting, though hardly amenable to direct proof in its particular details.

[ back ] 26. Gurevich 1988 discusses the interrelationship between clerical writings and popular culture in the Middle Ages, with particular reference to how the Church sought to harmonize its doctrines with existing patterns of thought (pp. 39-77) and how Christianity manifested itself in the lives of ordinary people (pp. 78-103).

[ back ] 27. On methodological problems for the interpretation of the sagas of Icelanders as regards the relationship between literature and reality, see Meulengracht Sørensen 1992, 1993:17-33; for Sturlunga saga, see idem 1988.

[ back ] 28. Excellent book-length surveys of the ideas and methods of the freeprose and bookprose schools can be found in Andersson 1964 and Mundal 1977; see also Mundal’s article (1993). For a general overview from the perspective of the ‘Icelandic school,’ see Nordal, S. 1993:32-47.

[ back ] 29. See for example Halldórsson, Ó. 1978, Sigurjónsson 1984, and Byock 1993, 1994a.

[ back ] 30. On the Icelandic sagas as historical sources, see Sveinsson 1971, Harris 1986, Skovgaard-Petersen 1987, Ólason, V. 1987, Kristjánsson 1987. The question of historicity in the sagas is dealt with in greater detail below (p. 253 ff).

[ back ] 31. On the ‘Icelandic school,’ see Lie 1939, Halldórsson, Ó. 1978, Thorsson 1990, and Aðalsteinsson 1991.

[ back ] 32. The key concept of the ‘Icelandic school,’ rittengsl, denotes correspondences between texts believed to indicate that the author of one was using material from the other. This is translated ‘literary relations,’ ‘verbal borrowing,’ ‘intertextuality’ or the like (see also p. 123 ff).

[ back ] 33. The period from around 1200 to the end of the Commonwealth, characterized by an increasing concentration of power around a small number of clans (notably the Sturlungar) and described in the Sturlunga saga compilation.

[ back ] 34. Much has been written in recent decades on the art of oral narrative: see, for example, Dégh 1969, who describes narrative art among Hungarian peasants in the middle years of the 20th century, the settings and conditions of storytelling as entertainment, how tales are performed, and how the style and choice of material of individual performers is shaped in active interplay with their audiences; Stahl 1989, on the interpretation of stories based on personal recollection; and the collections of articles on oral storytelling edited by Nøjgaard et al. 1990, Röhrich and Wienker-Piepho 1990, and Honko 2000 (esp. the articles by Honko himself, Lauri Harvilahti, and Anna-Leena Siikaala). See also the article by Carol Clover 1986, dealing specifically with the Icelandic sagas; this subject is treated in more detail below, p. 45.

[ back ] 35. On the social memory of peoples and groups within societies, see Liestøl 1929:189-216, who advanced a number of arguments in support of long-term folk memory among the medieval Icelanders; Assmann 1988, who discusses how social memory among peoples and cultural groups may be grounded in both oral communication between individuals and concrete objects (including books); and Fentress and Wickham 1992, for a general account of the social memory of units within society (for the Icelanders and the Icelandic sagas in particular, see pp. 162-72). See also the collection of articles edited by Hildegard L. C. Tristram (1994), which discusses various aspects relating to texts preserved for periods of 300 years or more within the same cultural area, with exam- ples of both oral and written preservation from Iceland, Ireland, England, and mainland Europe. See also Kristjánsson 1987 for a discussion of extended social memory and the historicity of the sagas.

[ back ] 36. This has been the subject of some debate. For example, Lönnroth, L. 1965 held that literary work in the Middle Ages was almost entirely restricted to the Church, but this view has been contested by both Hallberg (1965, 1966) and Chesnutt (1973).

[ back ] 37. Íslendingabók (‘Book of the Icelanders’) by Ari fróði (‘the Wise,’ ‘the Learned’) Þorgilsson, written some time in the years 1122-33, is the oldest extant work of Icelandic literature. It gives a brief account of the settlement and history of Iceland and is notable for its historiographical scrupulousness, e.g. attention to chronology and citation of sources.

[ back ] 38. (Íslendinga)þáttr, pl. –þættir, a ‘short saga,’ a short, discrete text in a style very similar to that of the sagas of Ice- landers but usually dealing with a single event and a limited number of characters. Many are found incorporated into the texts of longer works, especially the kings’ sagas. For a discussion of þættir see Harris 1972 and 1976a, and Lindow 1978. For the literary role of þættir within the context of the kings’ sagas, see Jakobsson 2002:78-92.

[ back ] 39. Schlauch 1934:170. Similar ideas were expressed by Rubow 1928, for whom the main literary influences on the sagas of Icelanders came almost entirely from translations of European literature rather than from any internal tradition. For more recent attempts to associate the Icelandic saga tradition with influences from the continent, see Bjarni Einarsson’s work on the sagas telling the lives of Icelandic poets (1961), and on Egils saga (1975); and Tulinius (1995) on the style of the legendary sagas and Egils saga. Along similar lines, see also Tulinius 1993, 2000. But even with the best will in the world it seems futile to look for any inspiration from continental literature in the great majority of Icelandic literature, such as the edda poems, the sagas of Icelanders, Sturlunga saga, Landnámabók, the legendary sagas, and the kings’ sagas.

[ back ] 40. For instance, Christianity and west Norse literature was one of the two main subjects for discussion at the Sixth International Saga Conference held in Roskilde in Denmark in 1985.

[ back ] 41. ‘All the bones that were in his body shook, and that was two hundred and fourteen bones. His teeth chattered, there were thirty of them. All the veins in his flesh quivered with fear, there were four hundred and fifteen of them.’

[ back ] 42. For reactions to Kress’s ideas, see Hallberg 1991 and Meulengracht Sørensen 1993a. Meulengracht Sørensen 1994 discusses ways of interpreting the oral tradition behind Fóstbrœðra saga against the background of its hero Þormóðr’s adventures in Greenland.

[ back ] 43. A related dream which Sveinsson believes may also have influenced the author of Njáls saga is that of Guðmundr guðiþekkr in Sturlunga saga following the Battle of Ørlygsstaðir, in which a giant also called Járngrímr appears, saying he is on his way among the dead. The Battle of Ørlygsstaðir, 1238, was the biggest battle ever fought on Icelandic soil, at Blönduhlíð in Skagafjörður in the north; it resulted in the defeat of the Sturlungar clan and is described in detail in Sturla Þórðarson’s Íslendinga saga, the central saga within the Sturlunga saga compilation.

[ back ] 44. ‘It is as if I can see what is going on here. The author had without doubt seen Lómagnúpur, looked up at it from down at the farm, felt the instinctive and incomprehensible dread that can take hold of people when they look out of the world of men into the world of giants, the world of nature. Perhaps it was an autumn night, perhaps the crash of falling rocks in the mountain shattered the silence, or who knows what? He had been brought up with stories of dwellers of the rocks, whether or not he had heard any stories about this particular mountain— perhaps so, though it cannot be proved. Was it perhaps here at home on the farm that a clerk or deacon read out to him or told him the story of Anastasius and the peak of Suppentonia? Was it perhaps here that he heard the story of Guðmundr’s vision, when he met Járngrímr? There is no way of saying. But it is Lómagnúpur and the atmosphere that shrouds it in the mind of the saga writer that draws this material to itself and makes it into a unified whole.’

[ back ] 45. See for example Dronke, U. 1971:145-6 and Kristjánsson 1956:xxxix ff.

[ back ] 46. ‘…the author’s treatment of this source [sc. Landnámabók] shows unmistakably that it was not his main purpose to record historical facts.’ Pálsson, H. 1971:16-17.

[ back ] 47. An excellent general survey of historiographical translations and their development in Iceland in association with foreign learning can be found in Tómasson 1992:411-418, 517-571. For translations of historical works specifically from Latin, see Würth 1996, 1998.

[ back ] 48. In their attempts to explain why the subtleties of courtly literature tend to get lost in Norse translations, scholars have made appeal either to the primacy of entertainment value or to a simple lack of understanding on the part of the men of the North of the finer shades of meaning and message with which writers like Chrétien de Troyes imbued their work: see Kalinke 1981, 1985:335-349; Barnes, G. 1975, 1977; Weber 1986; Tulinius 1993:214-217.

[ back ] 49. This kind of analysis has produced some interesting results in saga research, for instance regarding class attitudes (see Njarðvík 1971) and the portrayal of individual characters (see Cook 1971). See also the introduction and various articles in vol. 1 of the periodical Skáldskaparmál (Sigurðsson, G., Harðarson, G., and Thorsson, Ö., eds., 1990), which was founded with the expressed aim of providing a forum for the discussion of the literary value of ancient texts.

[ back ] 50. See also Lonnröth, L. 1979, who also makes the point that the oral performance of written works has an influence on the ways in which they are interpreted; the sagas were largely written to be read aloud to audiences and are thus not directly amenable to methods of criticism designed specifically for the analysis of modern works intended to be read silently and alone.

[ back ] 51. ‘The label Buchprosa was originally applied by Heusler as a term of condescension for the unpoetically-minded Maurer and his ilk; it was not their own choice, which is hardly surprising, since we are not really talking about a “theory” here so much as simply a program of research.’

[ back ] 52. Most of the references in the sagas to oral storytelling have been collected and discussed by Hermann Pálsson (1962, 1999). Much has been written particularly on the Reykjahólar wedding and Sturla Þórðarson’s recitation: see for instance Foote 1984, Meulengracht Sørensen 1993:42-50, 68-69. For a general discussion of oral storytelling among the Icelanders in ancient times, see Mitchell 1991:92-114. On the question of whether it is necessary to prove the existence of oral traditions in the Middle Ages, see the comments of Franz H. Bäuml 1978:42 regarding German medieval poetry: ‘The theory of oral-formulaic composition cannot well serve to establish the fact that these epics [sc. Nibelungenlied and Kudrun] were once transmitted orally, for that fact was never in doubt and played a role in theories of their evolution from Lachmann’s “Liedertheorie” on. All historical evidence upon which our knowledge of the culture of north-central Europe from the period of the migrations to the twelfth century is based, requires our acceptance of the oral transmission of vernacular “heroic” epic as historical fact, just as surely as the orality of the South-Slavic songs recorded by Parry and Lord must be accepted as historical fact.’

[ back ] 53. No agreement has been reached on whether these references should be interpreted as a stylistic mannerism on the part of the authors (Baetke 1956:29-31) or as genuine evidence of orality (Liestøl 1928, 1929; Andersson 1966). Andersson collects 230 examples of this type, of which 80 come from Reykdœla saga, putting it in a unique position in this respect. Of the remaining cases, he estimates that 24.7% refer to a genuine tradition, most of them relating to feuds, which he considers likely to have formed the core of oral tales. Hofmann 1972, 1977, 1977a has discussed this matter and comes to the conclusion that these are genuine references to oral tradition; this he links to the way people experienced contemporaneous events, which they would have heard about in the form of spoken accounts that would have been viewed in the same sort of way as accounts of ancient events. Thorsson’s (1993:93-6; 191-203) exhaustive computer-based research of saga vocabulary, especially the formulas in Grettis saga and the words used in the sagas for ‘to tell about’ and ‘to remember,’ has not dispelled any of the doubts in this area, though it has increased the number of examples significantly.

[ back ] 54. The evidence and argumentation presented here have also been used in attempts to come to some kind of understanding of how poems were delivered in oral performance, specifically whether they were interspersed with prose story material to provide explanations or to act as narrative links; for instance, the manuscript texts of many of the edda poems contain prose passages alternating with the verse, while much of the extant skaldic corpus is hard to imagine ever having existed other than embedded within a larger narrative context: see Lönnroth, L. 1971, Hofmann 1971, 1979, O’Donoghue 1991:170-185, Harris 1997. Stephen A. Mitchell 2001 has recently reopened the entire debate in this area by turning away from the freeprose-bookprose controversy and using the evidence of performance studies from modern times (in a way similar to that applied to sagas below) to interpret the textual evidence of Old Norse poetry and attempt to draw conclusions on how it may have been performed and enjoyed in its original oral environment.

[ back ] 55. Here may be mentioned the work of Bo Almqvist (1975, 1988, 1998), who has identified a wide range of folktale material in the sagas and used this as an indication of connections between the sagas and oral tradition. A further example of how the same material has been used both in support of and against the existence of oral stories about the heroes of the sagas appears in articles by Jónas Kristjánsson (1975) and Bjarni Einarsson (1989) on the skaldic poem Íslendingadrápa (‘Drápa of the Icelanders’). If the poem is as old as Kristjánsson maintains, it may provide evidence of oral tales before the time the sagas of Icelanders came to be written (though, in Kristjánsson’s opinion, not very strong evidence). Einarsson, on the other hand, considers the poem to be much younger and thus evidence of nothing more than that its author had access to books. Kristjánsson (1988) has also compared the sagas of Icelanders and Sturlunga saga and shown that the closer in time the sagas are to the events they describe, the more precise and accurate the narrative is, and that with the passage of time the sagas become more ‘literary.’ Perkins 1989 argues that sagas could have been preserved orally in association with ancient artifacts and features of the landscape such as ruins and burial mounds.

[ back ] 56. There are excellent summaries of research into oral culture in the wake of Lord’s book in Ong 1982, Lord 1986a, and Foley 1985, 1988; see also the journal Oral Tradition, founded in 1986. Detailed discussion of recent developments in this area can be found in the collection of articles edited by Olson and Torrance 1991 and in Raible’s (1994) introductory article on oral culture and literacy in a major English-German anthology on writing and its uses throughout the world. Another important contribution is Lauri Honko’s comprehensive treatment of the Siri poem from India: see Honko 1998, which includes a text of the poem extending to 15,683 lines, and the collection of articles in Honko 2000. A second edition of Lord’s The Singer of Tales (1960), edited by Stephen Mitchell and Greg Nagy, came out in 2000.

[ back ] 57. See also Meulengracht Sørensen 1977, Ólason, V. 1978, Byock 1984, 1990, and Clover 1985:272-294, all of whom highlight ways in which research into oral culture has influenced attitudes toward the Icelandic sagas. Mitchell 1991 deals specifically with the legendary sagas, providing an excellent survey of medieval ideas on literary genre in light of the links between these sagas and oral tradition and the role of storytelling within society: see also Buchholz 1980. The subject of literary genre in the Middle Ages is also treated in some detail in various places in the first two volumes of Íslensk bókmenntasaga (‘History of Icelandic Literature’) (Ólason, V., ed. 1992, 1993a).

[ back ] 58. See Foley 1991:14-17 for a discussion of how the comparative point of view may be used in research into poems and stories without falling into the trap of comparing the uncomparable.

[ back ] 59. Fundamental writings in this spirit include Miller 1990 and the introduction to Andersson and Miller’s transla- tion of Ljósvetninga saga and Reykdœla saga (Andersson and Miller 1989). See also Durrenberger 1992 and the collection of articles edited by Gísli Pálsson (1992).

[ back ] 60. Similar ideas are implicit in Steblin-Kamenskij’s (1973:21-48) concept of ‘syncretic truth,’ which is also based around the working assumptions of the writers and audiences of the sagas and their attitudes to their source value.

[ back ] 61. ‘In a way, the two young men died because they had listened to too many tales of heroism. Their deaths were not necessary, not on that occasion. By their conduct they showed, as so many before them, that honor was more important than life, and in this way they shaped the telling themselves.’

[ back ] 62. These ideas are closely related to what many have seen as being true of language in general, i.e. that it occupies a central position in all human communication, imbued with its own values and charging everything that is said or written with meaning determined by the cultural heritage and environment of which the language forms a living part. In such matters, in so far as they affect literary studies, it is customary to refer with ringing hyperbole to the words of Roland Barthes (1977:143), that it is the language that speaks, and not the author.

[ back ] 63. On the premises accepted by scholars in their research and the influence these exert over their conclusions, see Sigurðsson, G. 1990. See also Mundal 1990 on comparable problems in light of Clover’s article.

[ back ] 64. It is perhaps emblematic of the state of scholarship, which may be compared with pre-Darwinian natural history, that the historian Sveinbjörn Rafnsson should have published an article on these poems in 1999 without giving any indication of acquaintance with research into oral tradition and the preservation of poems in the Middle Ages. That such an article should appear in a learned journal demonstrates how little communication there is between the academic disciplines, and perhaps provides yet another example of people being more interested in preserving the purity of their own areas of scholarship than in participating in a common search for truth within the humanities.