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Literature / Orkneyinga Saga

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Orkneyinga saga (the Saga of the Orkneypeople) is an Icelandic saga from about 1230 CE. It is a history of Orkney from the 9th century to about 1200, where "history" is primarily the history of the jarls of Orkney, not so much that of their subjects. In older scholarship, this saga is also called Jarlasaga (Saga of the Jarls). Orkneyinga saga has the distinction of being the only known medieval chronicle with Orkney as its focus; unfortunately this makes it also very difficult to assess its factuality, as there is practically nothing to cross-check it against.

King Harald Finehair of Norway crosses the North Sea to punish the vikings of the Western Isles, in the process conquering Shetland, Orkney, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. Returning victorious, Harald transfers the Isles of Orkney to his loyal companion and friend, Jarl Rognvald of More, to rule as a jarldom in fief.

But the vikings are not so easily dismayed and return as soon as the islands are unguarded. Eventually Rognvald sends his least favorite son Einar, the ugly son of a slave, to rule Orkney, if he can free it from the pirates. Defying his father's expectations, Einar wipes out the vikings, discovers the combustibility of peat, and becomes the ancestor of an illustrious dynasty which includes such jarls as Thorfinn Skullsplitter, Sigurd Hlodvisson the Stout, Thorfinn the Mighty, Saint Magnus Erlendsson, Rognvald Kali, and many others. In fact, so numerous are the descendants of Turf-Einar that naturally there arises a need to kill each other off.

The translation by George W. Dasent (1894) can be read online here.


  • Be Careful What You Wish For: When drinking in Jarl Paul's hall, Paul's retainer Svein Breast-Rope feels so insulted by a minor taunt of Svein Asleifarson, he mutters to himself "Svein will kill Svein, and Svein shall kill Svein". Eyvind, another retainer, hears it and warns Svein Asleifarson. Svein Asleifarson decides to not wait for the other Svein's initiative, and thus Svein Breast-Rope's words come true—though naturally not the way he intended them.
  • End of an Age: The summer after the death of Svein Asleifarson on what was supposed to be his last viking expedition, his sons Olaf and Andres set up partition walls in Svein's great drinking hall at Gairsay. This marks the end of The Viking Age customs, as people other than kings and jarls do no longer go raiding and have no longer need of drinking halls.
  • Heroic Bastard: Einar, later to become Jarl of Orkney, is the son of Jarl Rognvald of Møre with a slave-born woman. Though Rognvald does not deny Einar, he makes clear that he does not care for him and considers him an unworthy offspring on account of his mother's low status. Nevertheless Einar frees Orkney from the vikings that have occupied it, proves to be a capable ruler, and when Rognvald is treacherously killed, ironically Einar is the son who avenges him.
  • Released to Elsewhere: When Jarl Paul is betrayed and captured by his own sister Margaret and her husband Jarl Maddad of Atholl with the help of Svein Asleifarson, Paul offers to give up his jarldom and either travel abroad and never come back, or to enter a monastery for life. Svein spreads in Orkney that thus was the state of affairs when he left Paul in Scotland, implying that Margaret and Maddad accepted the deal. Paul's true fate does not become known, but "according to some people" Margaret instead has him blinded and later murdered in prison.
  • Retirony: Jarl Harald asks Svein Asleifarson to stop his raiding trips and Svein promises to do so, more so as he is "getting on in years" anyways; he only wants to go on one last raiding voyage he has already planned for autumn. On this voyage, Svein is killed in an ambush.
  • Royal Bastard: Einar, later to become Jarl of Orkney, is the son of Jarl Rognvald with a slave-born woman.
  • Sleeping Dummy: Magnus Erlendsson, later better known as St. Magnus, is held hostage by King Magnus of Norway and resolves to bail out. When the king's ship lies off Scotland, Magnus "prepared his bunk so that it looked as if someone were sleeping in it, then slipped overboard and swam ashore." By the time the Norwegians realize Magnus is not actually in his bunk, he has already a good head start.
  • The Un-Favourite: Of the six sons of Jarl Rognvald, Einar is the one he likes least, on account of his slave mother and his ugliness. The argument Einar uses to persuade his father to give him the jarldom of Orkney is that in this way, Rognvald will never have to see him again. This works, although Rognvald makes clear that he thinks Einar will fail and in effect tells his son that he won't care if he dies.
    "I agree; the sooner you leave and the later you return, the happier I'll be."
  • Youngest Child Wins: After the death of his brother Sigurd the Powerful and the failure of his son Hallad, Jarl Rognvald decides to give the jarldom to his youngest and least liked son Einar, mostly to get rid of Einar and although he expects Einar to fail as a leader (like Hallad did). Einar, who has been sent away with a single ship, not only defeats the vikings, but turns out a capable leader who rules a long time. Moreover, it is Einar who eventually avenges the killing of his father, not one of Rognvald's three older, legitimate sons.