The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

The Nordic sagas

BEFORE

12th century The first Old Norse sagas, Konungasogur (“Kings’ Sagas”), are written in Norway and Iceland.

c.1220 Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson is believed to have either written or compiled the collection of myths known as the Prose Edda.

Mid–late 1200s An anonymous verse collection is compiled of Scandinavian myths. It is later known as the Poetic Edda.

AFTER

13th century Translations of French chansons de geste (“songs of heroic deeds”) inspire a genre of Icelandic chivalric sagas.

c.1300 Stories about the Sturlung family in 12th-century Iceland are collected as the Sturlunga Saga.

Rich in heroic exploits, family feuds, love affairs, legends, and historical detail, the Nordic sagas were written between the 12th and 14th centuries. By and large their authorship is unknown. Until the 12th century, most belonged to the oral storytelling tradition, and were only written down by scribes some years later. However, unlike most medieval literature, which was recorded in Latin, the sagas were transcribed in the vernacular languages of ordinary people, in Old Norse or Old Icelandic.

The sagas divide into five main classes: sagas of the kings, mainly about the early rulers of Norway, but including Orkney and Sweden; contemporary sagas, concerning the secular matters of Icelandic chieftains (and sometimes named after the important Sturlung family); the Fornaldsogur, which have little historical basis and relate to legendary and mythological times; chivalric romantic sagas, such as Alexander’s Saga, which started as translations of French chansons de geste (“songs of heroic deeds”); and the Icelanders’ sagas.

Written in the early 13th century, the Icelanders’ sagas, also known as family sagas, are heroic prose narratives that focus especially on genealogical (family) history, and describe the various struggles and conflicts that took place.

The realism, starkly beautiful writing, and vivid description of character in the family sagas mark them as the highpoint of classical Icelandic saga writing. Among the better known are Egil’s SagaLaxdæla SagaGrettis Saga, and Njal’s Saga. Some scholars believe that Snorri Sturluson may have written Egil’s Saga, but the other authors are unknown.

A tragic blood feud

Njal’s Saga, or “The Story of Burnt Njal”, is one of the longest of the Icelanders’ sagas and is generally considered to be the finest. The saga is written in prose, with some verse embedded in the narrative, and recreates Icelandic life during its heroic period, describing events that occurred among the great families between the 10th and 11th centuries. Episodic and bleak, Njal’s Saga is essentially the account of a 50-year blood feud that touches the lives of a wide range of complex and vividly drawn characters.

Much of the narrative focuses on the two heroes: Njal, a wise, prudent lawyer, and his friend Gunnar, a powerful but reluctant warrior. Both are peaceful men, but the demands of honour and kinship ties draw them and their families into bloodthirsty feuds with tragic consequences. In some ways – in its length, content, and psychological themes – Njal’s Saga is similar to a modern novel. The relationships and characters are familiar and believable. The issue of honour and the consequences of vengeance are the key themes, but the saga also explores the role of law in settling disputes.

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The Eddur

The Eddur (singular Edda) refers to a body of ancient Icelandic literature found in two 13th-century books: the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda. Together these two works form the most comprehensive source of Scandinavian mythology.

The Prose Edda, or Younger Edda, was written or compiled by Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241) in around 1220. It is a textbook on poetry that explains the metres of early skalds (court poets) and provides a guide to mythological subjects in early poetry. It consists of a prologue and three parts: Skáldskaparmál (“The Language of Poetry”); Háttatal (“A Catalog of Metres”); and Gylfaginning (“The Beguiling of Gylfi”), which tells of the visit of King Gylfi to Asgard, the citadel of the gods.

The Poetic Edda, or the Elder Edda, is a later collection that contains much older material (800–1100). It consists of heroic and mythological poems composed by unknown authors.

A powerful influence

The Icelandic sagas portray warriors, kings, strong men, and powerful matriarchs. Calling on historical events and tumultuous times but containing older myths and legends, they present a realistic picture of a vanished society, as well as fantastic tales and romances.

The collection of stories represents some of the greatest writing in European medieval literature. They also had a powerful influence on later writers, notably Sir Walter Scott, the 19th-century Scottish poet and playwright, and J R R Tolkein, the 20th-century English fantasy writer.

"Never break the peace which good men and true make between thee and others."


Njal’s Saga

See also: Iliad • Beowulf • The Song of Roland • Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart • Cantar de Mio Cid • Ivanhoe • Kalevala • The Lord of the Rings