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.

for Saswati and Pratichi


‘That’s my cue,’ says my father when he wants to get in with one of his stories and link it in with something someone else has just said apropos of something completely different. My interest in the oral telling of stories and reciting of verses goes back, like so much else in our lives, to influences in my childhood. At the time when I was growing up in the residential suburbs of Reykjavík, it was considered a proper sort of way of spending a Saturday or Sunday morning for fathers of mature years to get together in each other’s homes and have a glass of something invigorating and tell stories and recite verses and poems, while the mothers got on with the housework and the cooking. I suppose it was my father’s contribution to the child minding to have me with him on such occasions and let me listen in to what went on, encourage me even to put in something of my own to the conversation. My father’s guests, and he himself, appeared to possess a vast fund of verses that they would bring out to accompany their stories about past events and notable individuals, and each tale told acted as a cue for the next, and then the next after that. Even though these men—whom my aunt Ragnheiður called ‘the rubber men’ from the certain flexibility in their veracity induced by the schnapps—presumably already knew each other’s repertoires inside out and back to front, it was an unspoken rule that none of them would ever tell a story that one of the others had made his own. Each of them could give chapter and verse on where his stories came from—sometimes from personal experience, but more often from oral accounts of things that had happened in the country regions around Iceland where their families originally came from, or even lifted from printed books. But such origins did not prevent them from treating these stories as theirs and theirs alone, both through how they selected the bits and put them together, and in the contexts in which they were told. In this way they established a kind of copyright over material that was for the most part acquired from others, if we judge things from the standpoint of the modern concept of intellectual property.

My experience of the art of oral storytelling acquired on these weekend mornings broadened greatly when as a teenager I started to attend the midday sessions of the dining club Gnægtir (‘Plenty’), which met regularly every working day at my father’s law practice at Laugavegur 18 in downtown Reykjavík. Here people of all sorts came together, each with something to contribute to the lunch table, to entertain each other with their skills as raconteurs. These were wells that appeared inexhaustible, and I fear that the legal work often found itself conveniently forgotten when things got into full swing.

I never came across anything like this in books. Sometimes I tried to track down the sources that people said they had gotten this or that out of, and I scoured the volumes of Íslensk fyndni (‘Icelandic humor’) from cover to cover in search of this material—but always in vain. Now and then I stumbled on something a bit reminiscent, but nothing that came anywhere near to sitting among these people and listening to them talk. Many years later, when at university I came to read academic studies of oral cultures, it dawned on me that there, in my father’s office, I had been witness to a completely independent art form, one that cannot easily be captured in writing or set down on paper: the art of oral entertainment. [1]

Within the family, too, the passing on of information and entertainment in this kind of form was something we took for granted. My grandmother Maren from the island of Engey off Reykjavík told me stories of shipwrecks and the perils of the sea going back to people who lived there in the 19th century; and my grandmother Kristín from Reykjavík and Hofsós in Skagafjörður in the north could talk about her extended family all the way back to the Móðuharðindin, the volcanic disasters and famines of the 18th century, as if they were people known to her personally, and had at her fingertips all the intricacies of their genealogies backward and forward over the last two hundred years. My grandfather Gísli from Eyrarbakki on the south coast told me a love story from Flói in the southern lowlands that went back to the middle of the 19th century as if he had been there at the time; and at Halldórsstaðir, the farm in Kinn in the north where I spent my summers, it was as if Kristjana and Sveinn vert (‘publican’), the parents of my grandfather Baldur, had only just served the last drinks in their inn Baukurinn at Húsavík on the coast nearby, and parties of emigrants had recently been leaving for America, and our common forefathers and foremothers down to the seventh generation were all still within the reach of time.

When I started to study literature at university in 1979, there was much talk about sagas and novels, poems and plays, but not a word about the form of literary art I had grown up with and in my innocence believed to be a natural, everyday source of entertainment in the lives of most Icelanders. This sense of something missing grew even stronger during a winter spent in Winnipeg as part of my BA at the University of Iceland; there I sat at the feet of Haraldur Bessason and his courtiers in the Montcalm Society, where they practiced an art of conversation not unlike what I had experienced at the Gnægtir dining club—though moved to a totally different cultural environment. [2] At university, literature was studied, for understandable reasons, entirely ‘by the book,’ and when any attempt was made to discuss the esthetics or oral origins of ancient texts using the methods of contemporary literary criticism, very little use was made of examples drawn from living traditions of oral storytelling. Folklore studies, too, seemed very distant from this world that I had come to know; folktales turned primarily around beliefs in elves and huldufólk (‘the hidden people’), and students were still being led to believe that the classic collections of folktales were more or less word-for-word transcriptions taken straight down from oral tradition. This worried me, though it was a long time before I was able to put my finger on quite what it was that struck me as questionable about this book-based approach. I was well on into my university studies when I first became aware that there were areas of scholarship where the questions I was asking myself were at the very center of academic debate: how experience gained from living oral traditions might be applied to the study of ancient texts whose roots lay, at least to some extent, within such traditions. Much of what I now read struck me as obvious, being in various ways reminiscent of what I had seen with my own eyes in the circles around my father and later Haraldur Bessason, and I felt sure that others would see things this way too—if only they would take the trouble to look at the evidence. But far from it. The reaction of some people to comparative work of this kind was, and remains, like the one described by von Sydow (1922:22) among Norse scholars to the idea of Gaelic influences on the Icelandic sagas: ‘[Det] verkar […] som ett rödt kläde på en tjur’—‘like a red rag to a bull.’ Or, put another way: ‘Unsere Germanen sind nicht mit den wilden Hottentotten zu vergleichen’—‘You can’t go comparing our Germans with the savage Hottentots’—a phrase I heard ascribed to a certain Germanist when I was in Freiburg in 1995 about the use of living oral traditions from illiterate modern societies to shed light on societies in northwestern Europe in pre-Christian times. I was also told that it was not so long since these words had been uttered.

I had completed my master’s dissertation in Ireland in 1986 on Gaelic influences in Iceland (Sigurðsson G. 1988) and was taking my first steps in the fields of academia, working on a popular edition of the sagas for the publishers Svart á hvítu under the critical eye of Örnólfur Thorsson, when I came up against the fact that not everyone went along with my view of the potential significance of research into oral culture for our understanding of the ancient sagas. During these years, between sessions of peering into the company’s computer screens, Örnólfur and I spent most of our time discussing the sagas. As was only to be expected, I was much taken up with my recently completed essay on the Gaelic influences that I felt to be of considerable significance in explaining the origins of the sagas; for Örnólfur, what mattered was the literary value of these ancient texts—and it is this vision that has been the cornerstone of the many successful saga editions that he has seen though the press. After many hours of intense debate it seemed to me that I was at last managing to move Örnólfur just a little in the direction of acknowledging the role of Gaelic influences, when he launched into a counterattack—that the Icelandic sagas were literature, written by particular individuals at particular times, individuals who were in no cultural contact with any Gaelic influences that might or might not have come to Iceland many centuries earlier. ‘Yes, but the oral tradition…’ I mumbled in my defense, but Örnólfur would have none of it.

Perhaps no more would have come of these ideas if Hallfreður Örn Eiríksson had not offered me a temporary post at the folklore studies department of the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar (Árni Magnússon Institute) from the middle of 1990 to the end of the year—funded with money extracted from Sighvatur Björgvinsson, who was a member of the Althingi’s finance committee at the time. The then director of the Institute, Jónas Kristjánsson, was very supportive in this, despite being avowedly in disagreement with most of my ideas, and arranged my appointment in such a way that I could continue my research into oral culture and ancient literature even if, nominally, I was supposed to be working for the section of the Institute that saw to the sound recording archives. This was an offer too good to refuse.

Soon after I started working at the Institute I began to give serious thought to how I could construct a thesis based on what I considered to be sound working principles. There were problems. The main subject matter, the connections between oral tradition and ancient written texts, has been under the scholarly spotlight from the earliest times, and no obvious way presented itself of taking up such a well-worn discussion and moving it forward enough to justify a doctoral thesis. However, my conviction that the last word had not been said on the sagas and oral tradition never wavered. I also had a very strong sense that in just about all scholarly work on the sagas there was a blithe acceptance of certain premises that could not be justified. In the interests of objectivity, scholars needed to give more thought to the foundations on which their scholarship was built—as I had had to do in my work for the encyclopedia—and might, by adopting a different approach, find ways of putting their work on a sounder footing. The minimum requirement was that people be clear in their own minds, and to others, about the limits of their scholarship and stop pretending that something was solid and reliable that was in fact constructed on unquestioned premises and unprovable theories.

Now, a good ten years on, and after much thought, reading, attendance at conferences and seminars, and writing of articles, I have put together something that I feel fulfils what I set out to achieve—and goes rather beyond it. Some of the material has already seen publication, at various stages of completion, in books, journals, and conference papers, in deference to the cardinal principle of academic life that I first heard from the lips of the linguist Helgi Guðmundsson in one of his lessons on the history of the Icelandic language—‘Publish or perish!’—which at the time seemed a rather risible eccentricity of the university system in North America. As is only to be expected, there have been many twists and turns along the way and the research has turned up various unexpected matters that it never occurred to me beforehand might find a place within the basic idea I started with, that of hypothesizing a strong oral tradition within the society that produced the Icelandic sagas and considering the implications: matters such as the party politics of the ancient lawspeakers, the localized poetical knowledge of Óláfr Þórðarson hvítaskáld, the figure of Þorkell Geitisson in the saga tradition of eastern Iceland, and the riddle of *Saga Njarðvíkinga, the ‘lost’ saga mentioned in passing in Laxdæla saga, and its connections with the eastern sagas. [7] All this came as a surprise, yet lay clearly within the bounds of what I might have expected when I set out. Rather more of a surprise was my subsequent realization that this approach and the overall view I was taking of the sagas might also bear fruit in the quest to unravel the problem of Vínland.

At the outset I took a conscious decision to avoid letting the discussion of oral tradition get bogged down in questions of historicity; I had enough on my plate trying to demonstrate the likelihood that the ancient texts had connections with an oral tradition at the time when they were written, and it was a weight off my mind not to have to be forever looking for links between the sagas and the events and chronology of the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. But the hand of fate decided that in spring 1996 I should go, at the instigation of Dagný Kristjánsdóttir, as a Nordplus lecturer to the University of Nuuk in Greenland. There, as a specialist in the Icelandic sagas, there was no way of getting out of having to play the part of resident authority on Greenland in medieval Icelandic writings, and as a result I found myself drawn into discussions and controversies in the field of Vínland studies. The university library contained a good selection of books on Norse finds in Greenland and at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. I had the great benefit of being able to discuss these matters with the rector of the university, Claus Andreasen, who was himself an archaeologist.

Shortly after my return from Greenland I found myself at a gathering at the home of my cousin Guðrún Pétursdóttir and Ólafur Hannibalsson. Among the guests was a party from Prince Edward Island on the south side of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada, off the coast of New Brunswick—Harry Baglole, director of a research institute of island studies, and his colleagues. They were in Iceland to foster cooperation among the various island peoples of the north Atlantic and felt themselves at times a little left out of things, for all the other representatives, from Man, the Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland, the Faeroes, Iceland, Greenland, and even Newfoundland, could come together in shared memories of vikings on their patch. The people of Prince Edward Island however had nothing in their European past that went back further than the 16th-century French explorer Jacques Cartier. At the time, the only thing I knew about their island was where it lay on the map, but it had excited my interest while I was in Greenland and deep in my reading of the Vínland material.

So I asked these people whether there were extensive tidal flats in the channel between their island and the mainland. ‘Oh yes, so much so you can walk dry-shod from the provincial capital Charlottetown all the way to an island that lies far out in the firth when the tide is in.’ ‘And were there then tidal pools and lagoons along the coast?’ ‘Quite a few, but more of them in New Brunswick, especially around the mouth of the Miramichi, just as you come west out of the channel.’ ‘And how about the salmon fishing in these parts?’ ‘Yes indeed, no shortage of salmon in the Miramichi. The first explorers in the 16th century complained about not being able to sleep by the river for the splashing of leaping salmon.’ ‘And wild grapes?’ I finally asked, with some trepidation. ‘Not so much of them, but on his travels Cartier described seeing great bunches of grapes all along the south side of the Gulf, especially round the mouth of the St. Lawrence, but also at the lagoon where the Miramichi comes out into the sea. The place is even called Baie du Vin—Wine Bay. But we grow vines at home and Harry makes his own wine…’ By this point in the conversation I reckoned I’d heard enough to be able to offer them the consolation that, if they were feeling the lack of a viking past, I could easily supply them with one, for the description of Leifr the Lucky’s journey in Grœnlendinga saga fitted precisely the route across the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Prince Edward Island and then on into the strait that lies between it and the mainland. And the saga says that Leifr came to this island from the north, sailed east along it, and made a landfall and tasted the sweet dew, and then sailed west through the strait until he came to a tidal lagoon with an abundance of salmon and wild grapes. So these people had just as good a claim as many others to a share in the vikings. This was news to their ears, and they offered to arrange a lecture tour if I would come over and tell them about it on their home soil.

All went ahead as planned, and this might have been the end of it if it had not been for the millennium. Around the year 2000 ‘Vinlandicists’ suddenly found themselves in great demand; the international media got together to report on Leifr Eiríksson and his voyages a thousand years earlier, and exhibitions sprang up here in Iceland and elsewhere designed to do justice to these journeys. Within the academic community there was a lot of tut-tutting at all these goings-on, and a marked absence of scholars willing to come forward and be associated with historical interpretations of what they saw as the consciously literary figures of the Vínland sagas, the products of creative imaginations working in a Christian cultural environment —but whom the general public and their political representatives preferred to look upon as real historical people. I seemed to be just about the only relatively young saga scholar to have shown any indication of reading anything other than religious symbolism out of the saga accounts and thus found myself besieged with requests to take on the various projects that were now piling up. So I had no choice but to roll up my sleeves and immerse myself in these matters from the bottom up, in the rather forlorn hope of being able to do something more than just posting Leifr Eiríksson off to Prince Edward Island. Little by little it dawned on me that, by applying to the Vínland sagas the methods I was myself proselytizing in my already largely completed doctoral thesis—that is, of looking at the sagas not as a source of facts but of an oral tradition that passed on in story form the information that society deemed necessary to keep from oblivion—the route descriptions in the sagas could all be shown to make coherent sense. This left me no option but to go along with the suggestion of my chief adviser in the writing of this book, Vésteinn Ólason, current director of the Árni Magnússon Institute, and add a chapter to incorporate this material, thereby bringing my discussion of oral tradition to a close with precisely what I had started out intending to avoid: the grain of truth inside the sagas.

As is only natural at the end of such a long-drawn-out, wide-ranging, and, some might say, disparate work, I owe a debt of thanks to many people. As well as Vésteinn Ólason, mentioned above, who has read over the book in its entirety, the following have read individual chapters at various stages of their completion: the chapter on the lawspeakers as originally written for the Jónas Kristjánsson Festschrift in 1994—Guðrún Nordal, Gunnar Karlsson, Helgi Skúli Kjartansson, and Peter Foote; the chapter on Óláfr hvítaskáld, which originally appeared in the proceedings of the 1997 saga conference in Akureyri—Sverrir Tómasson, Örnólfur Thorsson, Jónas Kristjánsson, Gunnar Harðarson, and Margaret Clunies Ross (the editor of the English version of this paper as it appeared in Old Icelandic literature and society in 2000). I received a detailed and valuable appraisal of all the chapters (other than the one on the Vínland sagas) in nearly finished form from the adjudication panel in January 2000 following my application in August 1998 for a transfer between pay scales; the panel comprised Ásdís Egilsdóttir, Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson, and Davíð Erlingsson—the self-styled Þríhöfði (‘Three-Head’)—and when dealing with a troll of that kind it is well advised to offer thanks for suggestions and constructive criticism. I also have to thank Sverrir Tómasson, who read over the entire typescript with his customary eye for detail and picked up on many points that had escaped my attention—even if I was not able to incorporate all his comments.

The general introduction and the studies of the lawspeakers and Þorkell Geitisson benefited from a short survey of the material that I published under the editorship of Hildegaard L. C. Tristram in the series ScriptOralia in 1997. I was also able to refine the section on *Saga Njarðvíkinga considerably following a lecture I delivered on the subject at a meeting of Vísindafélag Íslendinga (Icelandic Science Association) in spring 1998.

The material in the chapters on the Vínland sagas is based in part on work carried out for conferences, exhibitions and exhibition catalogs on the millennium of the voyages in 2000. In this I received valuable advice from William Fitzhugh and Elisabeth Ward, my editors at the Smithsonian Institute (see Sigurðsson, G. 2000a). I also thank my collaborators at the exhibition ‘Landnám og Vínlandsferðir’ (‘Vikings and the New World’) at Þjóðmenningarhúsið (Culture House) in Reykjavík, who added greatly to my understanding of the questions raised by this material. As well as Sigurjón Jóhannsson, my co-presenter of the exhibition, I would mention especially the archaeologist Birgitta Wallace, who was exceptionally generous with her time when we first met on Prince Edward Island in spring 1998 and has since written me a number of long letters that have opened my eyes to many of the problems associated with Vínland studies; for others who gave advice and assistance with the exhibition at Þjóðmenningarhúsið, see the exhibition catalog (Sigurðsson, G. 2000b). I have also had deep and lively discussions on the Vínland voyages with Páll Bergþórsson which have made me much clearer about the questions that need to be addressed; Páll has found much to criticize in various aspects of my interpretation, but I am amazed at how many things we do agree on (especially in light of the fierce debate endemic in this area of study), for all that our backgrounds and approaches differ radically.

In the final chapter, I make free use of material on Finnbogi rammi previously published in Skáldskaparmál (1994) and in the ScriptOralia series under the editorship of Hildegaard L. C. Tristram, and on Hœnsa-Þórir in the University of Akureyri conference papers Líf undir leiðarstjörnu (1994c), edited by Haraldur Bessason.

I should also make a general mention of all the people I have met and discussed things with at conferences and seminars, whose comments have very often proved extremely fruitful for the work presented here. With no prejudice to anyone else, perhaps the greatest benefits have accrued from the folklore conferences I have attended in connection with the Nordic Institute (and later Network) of Folklore.

Last but not least, there is no way I could have completed this work without the facilities and understanding I have enjoyed at the Árni Magnússon Institute; perhaps most important here was my sabbatical in Freiburg in spring 1995 as a visiting scholar at the research project Übergänge und Spannungsfelder zwischen Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit. My time in Freiburg proved particularly inspiring, especially my discussions with Stephen Tranter, as well as with Hildegaard L. C. Tristram and various students and scholars either based there or passing through for conferences and lectures held in connection with the project, such as the ever encouraging Gregory Nagy.

For the final preparation of this book in spring 2001 I have again been granted study leave and sit here among the mountains of Aquila in central Italy, a little inland from Rome, in perfect conditions provided by my friend from my time in Ireland, Paolo Taviani, and his family. Outside the window rises the Gran Sasso of Italy and our little daughter, now in her second year, puts her head in regularly to have a go on the computer while I drink the coffee Guðrún brings me and make my way through her perspicacious comments entered on the printout.

The cues and prompts in reaching this point have been many. Possible answers to one question have called up other, new questions, but all the diversions and sidetracks have only served to direct my thoughts along the same channels. Faced with matters that might at first sight appear to have only the most tenuous connections, like the genealogies of the lawspeakers and the voyages to Vínland, I have kept finding myself saying the same thing: ‘Yes, that sounds just like oral tradition…’ To be sure, my mother has found it bordering on obsession with me, whatever the subject, going on about the need to take account of oral tradition. But that’s the way it has had to be. And now it is time for a break—as farmer Þórhallur of Halldórsstaðir would say when he reckoned he’d done enough fence building or haymaking and felt like going in, putting his feet up, and having a cup of coffee.

At the Borghetto a Fonte Romana in Scoppito, Lent 2001,
Gísli Sigurðsson

Acknowledgements for the English Translation

Shortly after its publication in Icelandic, in the late summer of 2002, I was delighted to hear from Stephen A. Mitchell of Harvard University that the book had been accepted for publication, in English translation, in the Parry Collection’s monograph series. By happy chance, I had then recently been in contact with Nicholas Jones, an old friend from my university days, who has for some years divided his time in England between publishing and translation work. I now asked him whether he might be willing to undertake the onerous task of translating my book into English, if some means could be found for paying him. He responded enthusiastically and immediately set to work, without regard to the funding uncertainties. His efforts have produced a significantly better book in English than the one with which he began in Icelandic; and, moreover, the translation was delivered on exactly the date promised some seven months earlier. I am also very grateful for the support provided at every stage of the editorial process from the Harvard University Press team: I benefited greatly from the guidance of Stephen A. Mitchell and Ryan Hackney, David Elmer’s close supervision kept the project securely on schedule, and Leonard Mueller’s technological expertise saved us from many a potential mishap with unfamiliar fonts and symbols. With all this assistance at my disposal it may truly be said that any faults that remain in the book are entirely my responsibility.



[ back ] 1. Despite the problems, to celebrate my father’s seventieth birthday, my brother Baldur, our cousin Baldur Hafstað, and I had a go at putting together a little volume of the kinds of things we had gotten to hear among his circle, and gave it out under the name Þetta geturðu lært (‘This you can learn’) (Baldursson 1993).

[ back ] 2. A taste of Haraldur’s oral storytelling is now available to a wider audience in literary form in his Bréf til Brands (‘Letters to Brandur’) (Bessason 1999a).

[ back ] 3. ‘Poetic Diction,’ taken from the title of a section of Snorri Sturluson’s Edda.

[ back ] 4. The Old Norse mythological and heroic poems, first written down in Iceland in the 13th century, but some at least containing material going back to a common Germanic heritage.

[ back ] 5. Halldór Laxness (1902-98), Nobel Prize winner for Literature, 1955, and éminence grise of 20th-century Icelandic letters. My essay on Gaelic influences in Iceland was treated in some detail in a weekend edition of the newspaper DV, in an interview taken by Andrés Eiríksson. It gives me great pleasure to relate that the day the paper came out Halldór Laxness himself phoned me to talk about these matters: he had given the subject a fair amount of thought and felt that by no means the last word had been said on the possible significance of Gaelic influences in the earliest days of Icelandic culture.

[ back ] 6. ‘The Icelandic encyclopedia,’ 3 vols. 1990. Reykjavík: Bókaútgáfan Örn og Örlygur.

[ back ] 7. In this text, postulated lost sagas are indicated by a prefixed asterisk (*).