The Icelandic / Old Norse word saga means, basically, story. note 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 surprising as, in its basic meaning, the term saga can encompass almost all narrative prose of medieval Norse-speaking Europe.note 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 lives 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 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 legendsnote .
- Sagas of Icelanders (Íslendinga sögur). Narratives about early inhabitants of Iceland, mostly set in the period between 930, when the Alþing (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.
- 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.
- Chivalric Sagas (Riddarasögur), also called Sagas of Knights or Sagas of Chivalry: A collective name for translations or rather, retellings of contemporary continental literature of the High Middle Ages: Chivalric Romances of King Arthur and his Knights, French chansons de geste, but also popular medieval versions of the defaults of classical legend and (pseudo-)history, such as The Trojan War, Alexander the Great, and Roman history.
- 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 than 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, The Saga of the People of Laxardal, The Saga of Grettir the Strong, 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 Gréttla by Icelanders — has been published in English as Gréttir's Saga or The Saga of Gréttir 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:
Icelanders, Greenlanders and Faroese
- Njal's Saga
- Egil's Saga
- Eyrbyggja Saga
- The Saga of the People of Laxardal
- The Saga of Grettir the Strong
- The Saga of the Faroe Islanders
- The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal
- The Saga of the Sworn Brothers
- The Tale of Einar Sokkason
- The Vinland Sagas (The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders)
Kings and Earls
- Orkneyinga Saga
- The Saga of the Jomsvikings
- The Tale of Styrbjörn
- The Saga of Yngvar the Traveller
Heroes of Legend
- Gautrek's Saga
- Fridthjof's Saga
- Half's Saga
- Ragnar Lodbrok and His Sons
- The Saga of Arrow-Odd
- The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek
- The Saga of Hrolf Kraki
- The Saga of the Volsungs
- Sorli's Tale
- The Tale of Norna-Gest
- The Saga of Yngvar the Traveller note
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.
- 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.
- Armyof Lawyers: Inverted: nearly everyone is a lawyer, but to be successful you not only need a deep knowledge of the (unwritten) Icelandic law code, but in the absence of any kind of executive, also an army of followers to back you up.
- 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.
- 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: "The Tale of Thorstein Staff-struck" starts with a horse-fight in which both Thord and Thorstein strike their opponent's horse with their horse-prods, and when finally Thord's horse runs off, Thord strikes at Thorstein in anger and wounds him on his forehead. The wound leads to a feud that costs the lives of three men.
- 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, seiðr), 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.
- Blade Below the Shoulder: In the Saga of Egil One-Hand and Asmund the Berserkerslayer, the young warrior Egil loses his right hand in combat with a giant, but later he earns the gratitude of a dwarf who heals his wound and then forges a special sword for him which has a socket instead of a hilt so it can be fixed on Egil's arm stump. With this device Egil can fight as before, and in fact becomes a feared swordsman.
- 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' (fóstbræðralag).
- 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. Leif's father, Erik the Red, did not discover Greenland, but he was the first settler.
- 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.
- Born Unlucky: The natural counterpart to Born Lucky. Gréttir Ásmundarson is an example.
- Buy Them Off: Weregild, literally meaning man fee or man debt, was a perfectly acceptable way to deal with someone who killed a member of your family or household.
- Catch and Return: Catching a spear from mid-air and throwing it back is the distinctive mark of the best of the saga heroes.
- Chekhov's Gun: There is very little Narrative Filigree in the sagas. Consequently, any character introduced or piece of information given will sooner or later play a significant role.
- The Clan: Much of this is centered around clans.
- 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
- Combat Pragmatist: Protagonists in fights use such moves as throwing clothes over their opponent, pulling his trousers down, yanking his head by the beard, throwing rocks, and don't hesitate to overpower the enemy by the number.
- 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 (þing), both the 13 local assemblies of Iceland (vorþing) and the Althing or general assembly (alþing).
- Cranky Neighbor: Many a feud is started by one of these.
- Crossover: Many characters and families appear in multiple sagas. For example, Snorri Godi, the protagonist of Eyrbyggja saga, is also a major supporting character in Laxdoela saga and Njáls saga.
- Cycle of Revenge: Often created by Feuding Families.
- Deadly Distant Finale: The "Tale of Thorstein Shiver", in which Thorstein Shiver tricks a demon with the help of King Olaf Tryggvason, ends with a laconic note that Thorstein died in battle defending King Olaf on his longship a few years later.
- Deadpan Snarker: Pithy, laconic lines of dialogue are greatly appreciated by the sagas, especially when they are witty.
- Death by Despair: Implied in the Saga of Gunnlaug Wormtongue: After Helga's husband Hrafn and her former fiancé Gunnlaug have killed each other in single-combat, she marries another man, Thorkel, "although she did not really love him", but she cannot stop thinking about Gunnlaug ("She could never get Gunnlaug out of her mind, even though he was dead.") Though Helga has several children with Thorkel, her "greatest pleasure" is to a unfold a magnificent English cloak which Gunnlaug gave her as a present at her wedding with Hrafn (implying that he had intended it to be his present for his own wedding with Helga), and then just look at it "for a long time". One evening, when Helga is sick from a disease, she lies in the main room with her head in Thorkel's lap, she has the cloak brought to her and spreads it out. After sitting up and looking at it for a while, she drops back dead into Thorkel's arms.
- Demon of Human Origin: In the "Tale of Thorstein Shiver", a short tale from the Book of Flatey (c. 1390), the Christian Thorstein encounters an imp from Hell who introduces himself as a certain Thorkel the Thin, a warrior of the pagan times who died in the famous Battle of Bravellir. All the same, the demon also relates in conversation that Sigurd and Starkad, two famous heroes of the pagan days, are tortured in Hell.
- Determined Homesteader: When not abroad adventuring, farming was the way of life of almost all Icelanders.
- 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 didn't have much influence in public. Still, she was the one with the "keys", and it was a socially accepted punishment to lock the husband out of the house should she find it necessary.
- Determined Widow
- Disproportionate Retribution : Because everyone knows that an endless cycle of murder and revenge is the most opropriate reaction for stealing some cheese.
- Downer Ending: more than one saga ends with all the main protagonists dead. They might be avenged in the very end though.
- Draconic Humanoid: A few of the tales (for example, "The Tale of Styrbjörn") mention a monster called finngalkn, a gigantic creature with the head and shoulders of a man and the lower body of a dragon.
- Dragon Hoard: The Saga of Halfdan Eysteinsson tells how the viking Valr and his two sons, fleeing from enemies and carrying two chests of gold, jump down into a Cave Behind The Waterfall where they "laid themselves on the gold and became flying-dragons." In The Saga of Gold-Thorir, Gold-Thorir and his companions enter the cave and kill the very same dragons to loot the treasure. When, many years later, Gold-Thorir disappears without a trace, it is suggested that he himself has turned into a dragon to guard his riches in some secret hiding-place.
- Draw Sword, Draw Blood: Downplayed in Kormak's Saga. When Skeggi lends Kormak the famous sword Skofnung for Kormak's duel with Bersi, he tells him numerous rules he must follow in order to benefit from the sword's magic; among them that he must not carry the sword unless he is going for a fight, and to draw it only before a fight. As soon as he comes home, Kormak tries to draw Skofnung to show it to his mother, but is unable to remove it from its sheath despite considerable efforts. On the day of the duel, Kormak is able to draw the sword, but, having disregarded each and every of Skeggi's instructions, loses the duel.
- Dreaming of Things to Come: A common folk belief, and often employed as a Foreshadowing. The dream will be symbolical; sometimes an expert must be consulted to interpret a dream.
- 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.
- Empathic Weapon (suggested): When Kormak of Kormak's Saga asks Skeggi of Midfjord to lend him the famous sword Skofnung for his duel with Bersi, Skeggi is reluctant and, though he eventually gives Kormak the sword, warns him that he will find Skofnung "difficult to handle" because "Skofnung is slow and deliberate whereas you are rash and impatient." Kormak subsequently disregards all of the instructions Skeggi gave him for handling the sword, including an incident in which he tries in vain to unsheath Skofnung against Skeggi's injunction to only draw it before the fight, to which the sword reacts by "howling". In the duel with Bersi, Kormak cuts off the point of Bersi's sword with Skofnung, but the split-off sword-point hits Kormak's hand so it bleeds, which means Kormak has lost the duel. This could be accident, or maybe Skofnung (while proving itself superior to Bersi's sword) punished Kormak for his bad treatment.
- 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 appear more rarely.
- Exact Words
- Face Death with Dignity: The protagonists of the sagas are expected to not fear death. Usually accompanying Famous Last Words below.
- "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner: A rare example where the injury comes before the quip: In Njals Saga, a band of Vikings aim to kill folk hero Gunnar Hámundarson, who killed one of their kinsmen. While scouting out his homestead, one of the men encounters him and is mortally wounded. When the posse assembles again, his companions ask if the afflicted man has seen their prey. His answer: "I'm not sure whether he's home, but his atgeir certainly is," and then dies.
- Feuding Families: Generally one of the big topics of the sagas.
- Foreshadowing: The Norse tended to believe in predestination, and premonitions of clairvoyants and prophetic dreams will always turn out to be true. More subtle foreshadowings are seemingly minute happenings that go unexplained by the narrative, but are to be understood as omens. For example, a character stumbling means that there is trouble ahead, and depending on the character's own Genre Savvy he/she may actually realize this.
- Fire and Brimstone Hell: In the "Tale of Thorstein Shiver" from the Flateyjarbòk, the eponymous protagonist has a conversation with a demon who relates to him how the heroes of the pagan past are doing in Hell; namely, that Sigurd Fafnisbani fires the oven, and that Starkad the Old is up to his ankles in burning flames. When Thorstein remarks that these seem relatively mild punishments, the demon calmly clarifies that Sigurd is the firewood, and that Starkad's head is pointing downward.
- 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.
- Human Sacrifice: The Saga of Hallfred Troublesome-Poet: On his journey to Vastergotland in Sweden (which, unlike Norway, is still pagan), Hallfred is seized under false accusations of murdering a farmer, and after convening to judge him, the locals decide to offer the stranger as a sacrifice. However, Hallfred's innocence is revealed before the sentence is carried out.
- Inn of No Return: The Saga of Hallfred Troublesome-Poet: Crossing a sparsely populated forest on his journey to Sweden, Hallfred meets farmer Bjorn who straightaway invites him to stay with him for the night and behaves "most hospitable". In the night, Bjorn suddenly "thrust[s] a weapon into [Hallfred's] bed", but Hallfred, being suspicious of Bjorn, has already left his bed and drawn his sword, and thus kills Bjorn. Bjorn's wife and farmhands then try to frame Hallfred for murder, but eventually fail.
- 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.
- Legendary Weapon: Preparing for his duel with Bersi, and following the advice of his mother Dalla, Kormak of Kormak's Saga asks Skeggi of Midfjord to lend him Skofnung, the sword of the legendary Danish king Hrolf Kraki which Skeggi robbed from Hrolf's gravemound in his youth.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: Especially in the longest Sagas (Njáls, Egils, Laxdæla, 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.
- Love Triangle: Often following on the heels of My Girl Back Home. The most common form is Two Guys and a Girl, see below.
- The Low Middle Ages: Many of the stories, specifically the Sagas of Icelanders (semi-historical, halfway realistic stories set c. 900-1030 AD) and the Legendary Sagas (heroic legends set in a mythic Dark Age Europe, faintly echoing real-life history from c. 400-900 AD).
- 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 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.
- Magical Weapon: Gunnar in Njal's Saga has a magic atgeir that makes its wielder invincible. He took it from a pirate who was invincible until the atgeir got stuck in the boom of the ship.
- However, that's subverted later on: even though Gunnar has his halberd during his last stand, he can't hold his enemies off once his bowstring snaps.
- 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.
- Manly Facial Hair: The male beauty ideal of the Saga Age. Inability to grow a beard was considered a sad disfigurement of the the male appearance, as lack of beard was associated with effeminateness. Becomes a plot point in Njáls saga.
- 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 Heiðarvíga 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.
- Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Killer-Hrapp, owned by more than one character. The "killer" part is a nickname.
- 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.
- One Steve Limit: Quite frequently violated.
- 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 , 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 Gréttir Ámundarson and Gísli Súrsson (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.
- 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.
- Though Njal's Saga is arguably a really effective Deconstruction. Many of the male characters react pathetically to perceived slights to their manly honour and it is quite clear that much of the bloodshed in the story could have been easily avoided if thicker skins and cooler heads prevailed. At one point in the story, a hard-won legal settlement breaks down because a man is sent a silk garment as a gift - it isn't clear if the sender even intended to insult him.
- Reforged Blade: In the Saga of Gísli Súrsson, Gísli Thorkelson and the slave Koll kill each other fighting over the ownership of the sword Greyside, which Gísli borrowed from Koll and never returned, and which he breaks by smasthing it on Koll's skull. Many years later Gísli's nephew Thorkel, who has inherited the pieces of Greyside, has them forged into a spearhead by a sorcerer, with the implication he intends the weapon to kill Vestein (who was having an affair with Thorkel's wife). Later an unknown attacker stabs Vestein with the spear and leaves it at the crime scene; Gísli Thorbjornsson, Vestein's brother-in-law and Thorkel's own brother, takes it and later uses it to murder Thorkel's brother-in-law Thorgrim in retaliation. There is no explanation given for why Thorkel chose to reforge the pieces of Greyside rather than to use any other weapon, but it is transparent that the sword's grim history predestined the spear made from its pieces to become a two-times murder weapon.
- 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.
- Saved by the Church Bell: In "The Tale of Thorstein Shiver" Thorstein, a follower of Norway's missionary king Olaf Tryggvason, enounters a demonic imp while using an outhouse late at night. Fearing for his life, Thorstein cleverly persuades the demon to imitate the screams of the damned in Hell. The screams alert King Olaf, who at once orders the bell of the local church to be rung, the sound of which makes the demon fall to the floor and disappear into the ground, thus saving Thorstein's life.
- Seers: Called "Second Sight": Most sagas have at least one person with this. Since Prophecies Are Always Right, visions and premonitions are always a Foreshadowing. Seers are also frequently very good at interpreting other people's dreams.
- Settling the Frontier: The first part of any Icelandic "family saga" contains this. It usually begins with a farmer/chieftain in western Norway, finding several good reasons to migrate, and then the settling begins. Skallagrim, father of Egill, is a good case in point. So is Thorbjorn Sur, father of Gisli.
- 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.
- Trial by Combat: Duels (hólmganga; see above) were a valid way to resolve legal disputes — up to 1006 AD, when they were banned in Iceland.
- The Trickster: 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.
- Walk on Water: The Saga of Hallfred Troublesome-Poet: When Hallfred is lying ill in the middle of a storm on the passage to Iceland, the people on the ship suddenly see a tall woman in armour following the ship. "She walked on the waves as if on land." Hallfred realizes the woman is his fylgja or guardian spirit, and has come to take her leave from him—meaning that he is about to die.
- 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).
- William Telling: In the Orkneyinga saga, Harald Hardrada challenges the archer Hemingr to shoot a hazelnut off his younger brother Björn's head, which he does.
- You Can't Fight Fate: The idea that everything is preordained was commonplace. Ploys to prevent prophecies or prophetic dreams from coming true won't work.