— Jón "Grunnvíkingur" Ólafsson, 18th century scholar, summing up each and every Saga of Icelanders.
The Icelandic/Old Norse word saga means, basically, story.note In modern Icelandic it can also mean, depending on the context, "statement", "account" or "message". The Icelandic plural is sögur. And the sagas are anonymous narratives in the Old West Norse language that were penned in the 13th and 14th century by Icelanders, in Iceland, and preserved in Iceland; which is where the term "Icelandic Sagas" comes in.If this definition sounds clumsy — well, it is, but an absolutely accurate definition of the entirety of sagas is rather difficult, as almost every of the listed characteristics has a few exceptions. For example, some genres of sagas were also cultivated in Norway, which is why some prefer the term "Norse sagas". This again has shortcomings, as indeed a few Latin texts are regarded as sagas for reasons of style and subject matter.This fuzziness is not suprising as, in its basic meaning, the term saga can encompass almost all narrative prose of medieval Norse-speaking Europenote Which, besides Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland also included Orkney, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and some bilingual places — like Dublin, the Isle of Man, the Hebrides, and Caithness in Scotland.. Medieval Iceland, however, was exceptionally productive in literary output, the place where writers most consequently used their native Norse (as opposed to Latin), and where most manuscripts of Old Norse literature were preserved.The good news is that these issues of terminology are mostly irrelevant to the reader, as "Icelandic sagas" and "Norse sagas" can be used interchangeably, with few exceptions. The one name you should avoid is "Viking sagas" — as in the world of the sagas, a "viking" is strictly a seaborne raider, and while many sagas are set in the so-called Viking Age, only a few of them deal with sea-raiders and viking expeditions prominently.Sagas come in different genres, which are defined by their subject matter. Three genres stand out as the most important and famous:
Sagas of Kings (Konungasögur). Narratives relating the lifes of kings and earls. Kings' sagas originated from historiography and were written with the claim of (at least approximate) factuality. Because of that, saga is also translated as "history" in the context of the Kings' sagas. Most Sagas of Kings are about the kings of Norway. The most famous single work of this genre is Heimskringla.
Legendary Sagas (Fornaldarsögur — literally "Ancient Age Sagas"). Heroic legends set in the so-called fornaldar or Old Age, which, in the worldview of the Icelanders, means more or less the time before the settlement of Iceland by the Norse c. 870 AD.note This is quite stunning considering that Icelandic genealogies would, taken at face value, place the exploits of Sigurd the Dragonslayer at around 800 AD. Much of the legendary lore covered in the Legendary sagas is very old, often even predating the Viking Age. The fornaldarsögur were not claimed to be factual, but it was usually assumed (this being already the Christian era) that there was a core of truth in the old legends.
Sagas of Icelanders (Íslendinga sögur). Narratives about early inhabitants of Iceland, mostly set in the period between 930, when the Alţing (or General Assembly) of Iceland was established, and circa 1030 (the latter date marking roughly the introduction of clerical structures to Iceland). Let sink in that "Sagas of Icelanders" (sagas about Icelanders) is not the same as "Icelandic Sagas" (sagas written by Icelanders) — the former are a distinct group within the latter.
Usually, when a text is defined as an "Icelandic saga", it will be of one of these three categories. There are, however, still more genres of lesser importance. Click the folder if you want to know about these.
More saga genres
Sagas of Saints (Heilagra manna sögur), Apostles (Postula sögur), and Bishops (Biskupa sögur): Genres that were intended for the religious education of the Icelanders. The contents were lives of Saints, biblical stories, and biographies of early Icelandic bishops. These religious genres marked the beginning of Icelandic literature in the 11th century and turned Old Norse into a literary language.
Contemporary Sagas (Samtímasögur): Works of contemporary history, recording then-recent history of the 12th and 13th century. As such, they are historical sources of high value. The most important work of this group is Sturlunga saga, a chronicle focusing on the Sturlungs, the powerful clan of Icelandic landholders and officials of which Snorri Sturluson was an offspring.
Fairy-Tale Sagas (Lygisögur). The Legendary Saga genre was so popular that, when writers ran out of ancient legends to retell, they invented new ones from scratch. This new (sub)genre of fantastical, freely-composed heroic sagas became known under the affectionate nickname lygisögur — "lie sagas" (though as a more elegant translation, the name "fairy tale sagas" has been offered). Structurally, they are often modelled on translated literature, i.e. Chivalric Sagas.
The most famous genre of all these are the Sagas of Icelanders, to the point that they are often incorrectly equated with the Icelandic Sagas (which you, as you know now, will not do). The following will focus mostly on them.Much of the sagas' subject matter seems to have come down as oral tales from the Viking Age, the type of thing Icelanders told around the fire to pass the winter away for generations. Exactly how historically accurate they are is a matter of much scholarly debate, but it's worth noting that some sagas retell events that show up in historical chronicles (such as the Conversion and the Burning in Njáls Saga), and they are all set in concrete locations that can still be seen today. The stories tend to be at the Low Fantasy level (if the term fantasy is applicable to a medieval story) with supernatural elements being a minor element in the story if they appear at all. The fate of the universe is not at stake, only that of given heroes and their families.The sagas contain such timeless elements as love, friendship, enmity, honor, and revenge. However they also contain a glimpse at everyday life and are traditionally seen as often written about characters whom we would call "upper middle class" rather then Princes and Nobles. In fact all the major sagas centre on the power struggles of the most powerful magnates, clans and personal alliances on Iceland and well depicts the situation of all the Scandinavian countries (even the forward and comparatively centralised Danmark) from Viking Age to High Middle Ages (and presumably before). The writing style is terse and laconic, depending heavily on the reader/listener being able to figure out context based on relationships, and can be hard to get used to for someone who grew up on the more descriptive style used in a modern novel format.In many respects, the Sagas of the Icelanders can be compared to the Western genre: Like that genre, they deal with living on the edge of civilization, the problems of building a functional society without an all-powerful authority that enforces law and order, and the struggle of Order Versus Chaos in general.The Sagas of Icelanders encompass about 40 extant texts. Njál's Saga, Laxdćla Saga, Grettir's Saga, Egil's Saga and Eyrbyggja Saga are sometimes defined as the 'Big Five' of the group. Other popular sagas of Icelanders include Gisli's Saga, Hrafnkel's Saga, the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue. For a more exhaustive list, check out the other wiki or our own Synopsis page. Note that the title of one and the same saga may be encountered in a variety of versions, due to choices made by translators and editors. For example, Grettis saga — which is also called Grettla by Icelanders — has been published in English as Grettir's Saga or The Saga of Grettir the Strong.Many translations of Icelandic sagas are public domain. For Sagas of Icelanders, the go-to place is the Icelandic Saga Database. For sagas of other groups, you may check Northvegr.org or Sacred Texts.
Icelandic sagas that have their own pages on the wiki:
Tropes often found in the Sagas of Icelanders include:
Added Alliterative Appeal: Many sagas incorporate stanzas of Old Norse poetry, which by default uses alliterative verse. Also used in poetic proverbs, as in "Bare is back without brother behind it". While recent translations usually try to keep the alliterative verse, older translations often switch to end rhyme.
Anonymous Author: Most sagas in general, and all of the Sagas of Icelanders are of anonymous authorship.
Arranged Marriage: A father had the right to marry off his daughter without her consent. However, the sagas generally take a stand against forced marriage, as when a woman is married off without her consent, it will always lead to trouble.
Animal Stereotypes: Some Norse animal names are also first names. A saga character with such a name will frequently have the qualities associated with this animal: Someone called Ref (fox) will be clever and resourceful, characters called Mord (marten) are shrewd and devious, and people called Bjorn (bear) are bound to be fearless, formidable fighters.
Badass: All the sagas relish feats of badassery, and most sagas have one or several characters who stand out for martial prowess, courage, bravery, and/or death-defiance. A saga will gladly sidestep the plot just to describe a memorable feat accomplished by a supporting character or even an insignificant extra.
Badass Army: The fabled Jómsvíkingar, scurvy scourge of the Baltic Sea. More historical, the Varangian Guard of Constantinople, one of the most distinguished elite units of the Byzantine Army, composed of Northmen, among them Icelanders.
Badass Beard: The male beauty ideal of the Saga Age. Inability to grow a beard was considered a sad disfigurement of the the male appereance, as lack of beard was associated with effeminateness. Becomes a plot point in Njáls saga.
Based on a True Story: With the one exception of the Fairytale Sagas, sagas of all genres claim to be based on facts. How serious this claim can be taken is the subject of much research and controversy, and probably varies considerably between individual sagas.
Beastly Bloodsports: Horse fights are a popular entertainment in the world of the Icelandic Sagas, and will always become the catalyzer of a quarrel or feud. A prominent example occurs in Njal's Saga.
The Berserker: "Berserkir" show up mostly as stereotypical villains, but at least one saga, the Saga of Egil Skallagrímsson, focuses on protagonists who occasionally "go berserk" (Egil, his father Skalla-Grímr, and his grandfather Kveld-Úlfr).
Black Magic: The ancient Norse believed in sorcery (in Norse, seiđr), and it is treated as a fact in the sagas. Professing it, however, carried a disreputable stigma. While sorcery in itself was not punishable, any hostile act supposedly committed by magic was treated like a regular offence, and this might lead to a sorcerer's execution.
Blood Brothers: Along with relationship by marriage and fosterage, a third possibilty to seal a lasting relationship between men that were not blood-related. The literal term is 'sworn brotherhood' (fóstbrćđralag).
Bold Explorer: The Vinland Sagas tell how Leif Ericson's explorations led him to become the first European known to have set foot on North America. (The popular theory that Leif's father, Erik the Red, discovered Greenland, however, is not supported by the sagas, nor by any other historical evidence.)
Born Lucky: An idea of Norse folk belief (tied to the belief in fate) was that you are born with a certain amount of luck, and some people have just more of it than others. Of course, you never quite know when it's going to be used up.
Color-Coded for Your Convenience: When colorful clothes are mentioned, it's a hint of what is about to happen for the Genre Savvy. Character wears blue: Character is intent on killing another one. Character wears red: Character will probably get killed soon.note This convention probably emerged so as to reveal the intentions of a character without "getting into his head", which is an impossibility in the saga style.
Courtroom Episode: Most sagas have one or several. Of course, there were no literal courtrooms as Icelandic courts were open-air events. The conducting of lawsuits was one of the main tasks of the annual assemblies (ţing), both the 13 local assemblies of Iceland (vorţing) and the Althing or general assembly (alţing).
Determined Homesteader's Wife: Norse women worked hard — frequently harder than the men. Side note: While women in Norse society had certain rights that they typically did not have in medieval Christian societies (such as the right to divorce her husband or the right to inherit), by and large Norse society was sexist — women could, for example, not vote in the assembly or hold chieftaincies. In legal affairs, they were usually represented by male relatives.
The idea was that, the man is "lord" outside the house, and the wife is "lord" inside the house. As such, she didnt have much influence in public. Still, she where the one with the "keys", and it was a socically accepted punishment to lock the husband out of the house should she find it nessesary.
Draconic Humanoid: A few of the tales (for example, "The Tale of Styrbjorn") mention a monster called finngalkn, a gigantic creature with the head and shoulders of a man and the lower body of a dragon.
Duel to the Death: Norse society knew two forms of duels: The strictly formalized hólmganga (duel), a form of Trial by Combat, and the less formalized einvígi (single combat). While the first to draw blood would be winner of a hólmganga, einvígi often continued until one of the fighters was incapacitated — or dead.
Everyone Is Armed: The norm for adult, free males in Norse society was to always carry weapons when away from home. This shows in the sagas. Common weapons in the sagas are axes, short-swords and spears, while long swords, bows and 'halberds'note A frequently used translation of terms like atgeir, höggspjót and kesja; the exact look of these weapons is unclear (if they are historical fact at all).appear more rarely.
Generational Saga: The structure of most of the longer sagas, which in fact gave the format its name. The sagas, however, differ from the modern genre in that the themes of cultural conflict, adaptation and identity are absent, as Iceland was uninhabited before the Norse immigrants arrived.
Grey and Gray Morality: The usual orientation: in most sagas the majority of the issues between the characters are not cases of simple good versus evil.
Guardian Entity: The fylgjur (sometimes translated as 'fetches', literally 'followers') were spirits that supposedly accompanied all humans from birth to death on an invidual basis. Usually invisible, they could appear to "their" humans in dreams, often in animal shapes. Seeing your own fylgja while awake was a hint that you're about to die.
Henpecked Husband: The only thing scarier than a Viking warrior is a Viking warrior's wife.
Horny Vikings: In the original sense, where viking meant pirate. Interestingly, the mythification of the Vikings of old started as early as the Middle Ages, for example in such texts as Saga of the Jomsvikings, the legend of Ragnar Lodbrok and His Sons, Heimskringla and Egil's Saga. Many elements of the modern Viking stereotypes and Viking tropes are lifted from these sagas — although most certainly not horned helmets.
Intrepid Merchant: Because the pillaging vikings tend to capture our imagination most, it gets somewhat forgotten that Norse merchants of the same era operated a vast net of marine trade routes spanning Northern, Western and Eastern Europe. Icelanders themselves traded extensively with Norway and, on a lesser scale, with England, Scotland, Ireland and Denmark. However, the times being rough and the seas being a lawless place, the distinction between trade and piracy was fluid and sometimes a matter of situational choice.
Loads and Loads of Characters: Especially in the longest Sagas (Njáls, Egils, Laxdćla, and Grettis Saga), but even the shorter ones almost always have a high character density. It doesn't help that a lot of the males tend to begin with thór-, and sometimes there are even multiple characters with the same first name. Woe to the careless, casual reader!
Lost in Translation: The most obvious example is the key Icelandic social position of godi, which is so impossible to translate into a single English (or most other languages) word that most modern translations simply describe it in detail in the introduction or a footnote and then use it untranslated. Also atgeir, the Weapon of Choice of many saga characters, is often translated as "halberd" despite the fact that nobody is certain whether that's what it actually was and no actual halberds dating from the saga era have ever been found. Finally, Old Norse poetry is notoriously difficult to translate into other languages thanks to its reliance on wordplay and complex metaphor. In particular, wordplay in poems based on people's names is often just explained in a footnote.
Made a Slave: In the time of the sagas, slavery was customary over the whole of Northern Europe (and much of the rest). 'Thralls' (slaves) were to be found on any major Icelandic farm. Most Icelandic slaves were bought or kidnapped from Scotland and Ireland.
Made of Plasticine: It's either that or the Absurdly Sharp Blades, but limbs and heads get chopped off a little too easily to be credible note We don't actually know, and we don't want to find out. in the sagas. This is especially suspect as the home-produced weapons of Northern Europe were mediocre at best, and any weapon of quality had to be imported from England, France or Germany.
The Magnificent: Nick- or bynames are almost ubiquitous in the saga universe. "Wolf the Unwashed", a minor supporting character in Njal's Saga, is one of the odder examples.
The Migration: Episodes from the settlement of Iceland often form the opening chapters of multi-generational sagas.
Missing Episode: Not all sagas have survived the centuries. Some have missing parts, others are fragmentary, and of still others we only know the name. For example, a remark in Njáls Saga references an otherwise unknown "saga of King Brján" (i.e. Brian Boru of Ireland). Also, part of the manuscript of Heiđarvíga saga (Saga of the Heath-Slayings) was destroyed in the fire of Copenhagen 1728, and the existing text of the lost parts was reproduced by scholar Jón Grunnvíkingur from memory. A really tragic example is Gauks saga Trandilssonar. A manuscript of Njáls saga ends thus: "Please ask herra Grímr to have Gauks saga be written herafter. I have heard he has it." Regrettably enough this request was in vain. And Gaukr Trandilsson was a historical person, mentioned in passing here and there.
My Girl Back Home: As it was considered the default that the more ambitious young males of Iceland would go on at least one great trip abroad before marriage — be it as vikings, merchants, or warriors for hire — to gain experience, money, and fame (and by extension, social status), a lover, sweetheart of fiancé staying behind is a recurring motif in the sagas. When it comes up, it will usually lead to a Love Triangle. More often than not, the ending will be unhappy.
Off on a Technicality / My Rule Fu Is Stronger than Yours: As Old Icelandic society did not have writing, all legal procedures were conducted by strictly formalized oral interactions. Consequently, there was a lot one could do wrong, and exploiting technical errors made by the enemies was an extremely common strategy. In any Courtroom Episode, villains will always try this, but neither will heroes pass up on a good opportunity.
Our Ghosts Are Different: The undead were much feared by the Norse, and they show up in the sagas quite frequently. The worst kind is the draugr, who has superhuman strength, can change sizes, move below the earth, often has various magical abilities including shapeshifting, and maliciously haunts the living — often physically attacking or killing them, but their mere presence alone (even if invisible) can cause diseases or madness in people and animals. They are living corpses with solid bodies that have to be killed a second time to lay them to rest, and anyone killed by draugr is likely to become one himself. In a nutshell, they are very much like vampires apart from the fact that they don't literally suck blood. Less aggressive types of ghosts are the haugbui ('barrow-dweller'), who has the same powers as the draugr but thankfully does not leave his gravemound or its immediate surroundings, and the aptrgangr ('revenant'), which seems to be a catch-all term for all kinds of the restless dead, aggressive or not.
Outlaw: Outlawry was the most severe punishment an Icelandic jury could dispense. Outlawry came in two degrees: Full outlawry was forever, lesser outlawry for three years. (There was also the still milder form of district banishment, where you were only forbidden to enter a certain district.) As killing an outlaw was impunishable by law, and it was technically forbidden to shelter an outlawnote Though as the sagas testify, this ban was often violated in secret., your best bet as an outlaw was to leave the country; if you could not or would not, you had to settle for a life of hiding and running. Outlaws appear in sagas both as heroes and as villains, with Grettir Amundarson and Gisli Sursson (each from his own saga) as the most famous examples of heroic outlaws who escape their pursuers by cunning and perseverance for many years. Less noble-minded outlaws often are villains, as outlaws frequently would turn to robbery and violence to survive.
Patronymic: The standard for your second name in Norse society was the name of your father plus son (for son) or dóttir (for daughter) attached at the end. Matronymics show up as an exception. The system is still in use in Iceland, though 'continental' naming systems have been introduced from abroad.
Pirates: During the pagan era, going abroad for sea-raiding and pirating was considered a good and honorable way to earn money and fame. With the conversion to Christianity, these practices came more and more in discredit, though not immediately. For example, robbing non-Christians was often still considered unobjectionable by Christians, and for centuries to come, regular wars in Northern Europe were carried out much in the same way as viking expeditions.
The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: The view of the 13th and 14th century Icelanders on the viking expeditions of the past was decidedly ambivalent. Horror and moral contempt at these barbaric practices was mixed with pride in the adventurous endeavours of one's ancestors, bold and daring gentlemen of fortune that they were. As a result, many sagas dealing with viking episodes struggle noticeably with the problem of making protagonists who spend time as sea-raiders look heroic, not horrible. One way to do this is to cover viking expeditions only summarily, generously glossing over the questionable details; another way is to have the heroes get into a clash with other, more villainous vikings, in which the latter are soundly defeated. Thus, the good guys have not only opportunity to prove their bravery against villainous mooks who deserve no better, but also end up with a lot of loot, without the stigma of having it robbed from innocent people. Of course, they never think of giving it back. — The big exception to this rule is, of course, Egil's Saga, whose eponymous protagonist loots and kills unapologetically for his own enrichment.
Rated M for Manly: While female characters in vital roles occur and there is a surprising variety of themes, there is a certain focus on men doing manly things, like fighting and displaying feats of strength.
Revenge: A powerful force in any saga. Revenge was not understood to be only a matter of personal vindictiveness; in a pretty rough and violent world without police forces, public prosecutors, and religious teachings of love and forgiveness, taking revenge was also a requirement of keeping one's social prestige and credibility. As a victim of an injury, either getting legal compensation or self-administering revenge was necessary to hold up both your personal and your family's honor.
Revenge by Proxy: As the concept of justice was inseparably linked to the concept of honor, a clan could be held liable for a misdeed one of his members committed. Thus, if the real culprit was out of reach for revenge, his brother, relative, or even a servant or slave might become the target.
Shapeshifters: Although "shape-changers" are sometimes referenced, they do not actually shift shape — the name seems to go back on the belief that the soul of certain people can leave the body and roam around in animal shape, though this is not clearly expressed in the Icelanders' Sagas. There, "shape-changers" are people who involuntarily experience phases when their mind (not their body) gets "beast-like"; the concept seems to be virtually the same as berserkerism, as "fits of shape-strength" are synonyms for the berserk-fury.
Shining City: Constantinople, called Miklagard ('great city') by the Norse, was considered the greatest city on Earth. A sizable colony of Norse mercenaries resided permanently in Byzantium.
Tricksters: Several sagas, such as Gisli Sursson's, have a character named Ref — Icelandic for "Fox" — who always lives up to his name. There is also a Saga of Ref the Sly, where the eponymous hero tricks Harald Hardradi. (Parts of the Saga of Ref, and some of the scenes dealing with bit-part Ref characters in other sagas, show clear similarities to the French "Reynard" folktales.)
Two Guys and a Girl: Often the follow-up of a My Girl Back Home situation (see above). By far the most famous instance is Laxdoela Saga. For some reason or other, this trope is also always the main plot device in any of the "Sagas of Poets", a subgroup of the Sagas of Icelanders, where the poet-protagonist will compete with another older or richer suitor for the hand of a beautiful woman, and usually lose. An example for this subgenre would be the Saga of Gunnlaugr Serpent-Tongue.
The Verse: Tied to their premise to tell true stories, technically all the Sagas of Icelanders, Kings' Sagas, and Legendary Sagas are set in the same continuity, forming one large "saga universe".
Vigilante Execution: Manslaughter was not illegal for a free man under Norse law. However, for a killing to count as manslaughter, you had to declare your deed before witnesses (that is, your name, whom you had killed, and where you had left the body) at the first settlement you reached where you weren't likely to be instantly killed as vengeance by a friend or relative. Failing to do so made the killing a murder, a contemptible crime that resulted in full outlawry.
Warrior Poet: Egill in Egils Saga, as well as several others collected in Sagas of Warrior-Poets. Norse culture did not see literary and fighting talent as having any incompatibility. Often they went together, as one of the most effective ways of making your name as a poet was to come up with witty insults for your enemies, who would often react with violence.
Warrior Prince: Many sagas have episodes where Icelandic heroes on a continental trip rub shoulders with royalty, mostly kings of Norway. Because Asskicking Equals Authority was the rule among Norse aristocracy, every Norse king or earl was necessarily a Warrior Prince (though some more so than others).