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Recap / The Icelandic Sagas

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Notable sagas with short summaries, listed by genre. Enjoy.

Sagas of Icelanders (Íslendinga sögur)

  • Saga of Burning-Njal (Brennu-Njáls saga): The longest and probably most famous of all Sagas of Icelanders, Njáls saga is centered around Njal, a wise chieftain and lawyer  who, unusually for his time and place, believes in law, reconciliation and the non-violent solution of conflicts. He is backed in his policy by his neighbor and friend, the prodigious warrior Gunnar. Yet the pair's vision to keep bloodshed at bay is put to hard tests by an ever-belligerent environment.
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  • The Saga of the People of Laxardal (Laxdœla saga): Probably the second-most famous Saga of Icelanders, a multi-generational narrative of the locals of the Breiðafjörður area in Western Iceland. Its main protagonist is the beautiful, intelligent and headstrong Gudrun Osvifrsdottir who gets caught up in a gut-wrenching unresolved Love Triangle with her true love Kjartan and his cousin, foster brother and best friend Bolli which eventually destroys the life of all involved and spawns a blood feud that lasts almost twenty years. — Laxdœla saga is also known for its relative emphasis on female characters, such as the matriarch Unn the Deep-Minded, the enslaved Irish princess Melkorka, and Gudrun herself.
  • The Saga of Egil Skallagrimsson (Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar): The story of a renowned Icelandic clan of chieftains and great fighters, the Myrar-men, and their most famous offspring, the poet, warrior, and berserker Egil.
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  • The Saga of Grettir the Strong (Grettis saga): The story of the exceedingly strong Grettir, who is good at heart but whose hard-headedness, ill temper and the tendency not to know his own strength make him also a social misfit. Grettir eventually makes it his mission to exterminate ghosts, trolls and marauding berserks, but things take a turn for the worse when he is cursed by a draugr or revenant he destroys. Henceforward beset by ill-luck, he is blamed for setting fire to a hall and sentenced to outlawry, which he survives for almost 20 years, when he is finally sniffed out and cornered by his enemies.
  • Saga of the People of Eyrr (Eyrbyggja saga): A saga of the leading clans from the Snæfellsnes peninsula in Western Iceland, spanning the whole Saga Age from the settlement of the region in c. 890 to the death of its main character, Snorri Godi, in 1031 AD. Snorri is a cunning and often devious, but also wise character, who also figures as a supporting character in Njáls saga and Laxdœla saga. Besides, Eyrbyggja saga is noted for its extensive description of pagan customs and rituals, and of supernatural events, such as the hauntings that nearly ruin the farm of Froda.
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  • Saga of Gísli Súrsson (Gísla saga Súrssonar): Farmer and poet Gisli avenges a murder with another murder, and is legally — yet ultimately unjustly — outlawed. Against all odds he survives twelve years as an outlaw on Iceland, until his pursuers finally track him down and confront him in a last stand that proves costly for both sides.
  • Saga of Hrafnkel Priest of Freyr (Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða): A much-discussed saga whose interpretation remains somewhat of an enigma, this is the story of Hrafnkel, an arrogant chieftain whose superstitious pagan beliefs cause him to kill one of his workers for a trifle. Yet he is in for a steep fall when the lowly relatives of the victim, headed by Samur, against all odds enforce Hrafnkel's outlawry. Samur appropriates Hrafnkel's chieftaincy, intending to take up Hrafnkel's position, but he lacks the experience to fill and keep his new-found place of power, and the mercy he shows Hrafnkel when he grants him his life is the first of the mistakes that eventually undo his success.
  • Saga of the Confederates (Bandamanna saga): After his mother's death, the young Odd Ufeigsson is neglected by his father and runs away from home to make his fortune as a merchant. Yet his inexperience in legal matters gets him in trouble when eight greedy chieftains (the eponymous confederates), taking advantage of a minute error of Odd in conducting a lawsuit, conspire together to have Odd outlawed and seize his wealth. However, just in time Odd's cunning father Ufeig leaves his seclusion to save his son and serve the greedy bastards an ample helping of their own medicine.
  • Saga of Gunnlaugr Serpent-Tongue (Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu): A 'poet-saga'. The poet Gunnlaugr and Helga the Fair love each other, but while Gunnlaugr is away in Sweden, Helga's father marries her off to Gunnlaugr's enemy, the poet Hrafn. Gunnlaugr returns and to get Helga divorced, challenges Hrafn to single combat. Hrafn accepts.

Sagas that are usually grouped with the Sagas of Icelanders, even if they are technically not about Icelanders:

  • The Saga of the Faroe Islanders (Færeyinga Saga): Starting as a historical recounting of the Norse settlement of the Faroe Islands, it soon moves on to the main story, the life of Villain Protagonist Thrand of Gotunote , a shrewd Faroese chieftain who resents the intrusion of both Christianity and Norwegian overlordship on the Faroe Islands, both embodied by his heroic antagonist Sigmundur Brestisson.
  • Saga of Erik the Red (Eiríks saga rauða) and Saga of the Greenlanders (Grœnlendinga saga): Often referred to collectively (with a modern expression) as the Vinland Sagas, these sagas relate the Norse settlement of Greenland led by Erik the Red, and the subsequent expeditions of Leif Eriksson and Thorfinn Karlsefni to a land they called Vinland, in other words, the American continent. Though the "Vinland Sagas" have comparatively little to offer artistically, they get a lot of attention for their historical subject matter. That there is a true core to them was proven in 1960 by the discovery of the Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.
  • The Tale of Einar Sokkason (Einars þáttr Sokkasonar): Another story set in Greenland, a kind of Wild West even in the eyes of the Icelanders. To bring a bishop to Greenland, Einar vows loyalty to bishop Arnaldr, which comes to bite him in the ass when the bishop's greed foments a dispute over a salvaged wreck into a blood feud, in which Einar and ten other men perish.

Kings' Sagas (Konungasögur):

  • Heimskringla: A compendium of 17 individual sagas, covering the history of Norway from the mythic past up to 1177 AD. Attributed to the single most famous medieval Icelandic author, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), it recounts the history (or maybe the legend) of such rulers as Harald Fine-Hair, Erik Bloodaxe, Hakon the Good, Olaf Tryggvason, Olaf Haraldsson a.k.a. Saint Olaf, Magnus the Good, Harald Hardreign, Magnus Barefoot and Sigurd the Crusader.
  • Sverrir's Saga (Sverris saga): Saga detailing the unprecedented climb to power of Sverrir, a renegade priest from the Faroes, who claimed to be a long-lost bastard of Norwegian royal blood, and usurped the kingdom in 1184 at the head of a rebellious faction, the Birkebeinar ('Birchlegs'). Sverrir was the first king who realized the benefits of having a saga about his life written while he was still alive, and Sverrir's descendants, who continued to rule Norway until 1319 AD, followed in his footsteps by commissioning several other sagas, among them Heimskringla, which was probably written as a prequel to Sverris saga.
  • Saga of the Knytlings (Knýtlinga saga): A chronicle of the Danish kings from the 10th to the 13th century and a counterpart to Heimskringla. The eponymous Knytlings (also known as the line of Jelling) are the royal line supposedly founded by one Harthacnut, whose son Gorm 'the Old' is held to be the first king of all Denmark and from whom all subsequent Danish kings up to today are descended.
  • Saga of the Earls of Orkney (Orkneyinga saga): History of the Earls of Orkney, from the Norse conquest of Orkney in the 9th century to 1206 AD.
  • Saga of King Edward the Holy (Saga Játvarðar konungs hins helga): A saga about an English king, namely, Edward the Confessor.

Legendary Sagas (Fornaldarsögur):

  • The Saga of the Volsungs (Völsunga saga): Exhaustive narrative treatment of the most famous cycle of Norse legend, the stories of two outstanding hero clans of the distant past, the Völsungs and the Niflungs. Its climax is the life of Sigurd the Völsung (commonly identified as the greatest hero ever), his killing of the dragon Fafnir, the Niflungs' murder of Sigurd and the subsequent destruction of the Niflungs by the evil Atli over the possession of the dragon's hoard. There are, however, several heroes preceding Sigurd that stand somewhat in the shadow of the more famous Sigurd story, such as Sigurd's father Sigmund and Sigurd's half-brothers Sinfjötli and Helgi Hundingsbani. Völsunga saga is also famously the source material for Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung tetralogy of operas.
  • The Saga of Hrolf Kraki (Hrólfs saga kraka): Prose epic of the old-time Danish king Hrolf Kraki and his champions, a kind of Danish King Arthur and his knights (yet without the chivalry and the Christian themes), who reputedly resided at Lejre on Zealand. High points of Hrolf and his warriors' career are the feats of Bödvar Bjarki, Hrolf's best warrior; their adventures in Sweden at the court of Hrolf's devious arch-enemy king Adils; and the battle against undead hordes conjured by Hrolf's evil half-sister, the half-elven sorceress Skuld.
  • Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok (Ragnars saga loðbrókar) and Tale of Ragnar's Sons (Ragnarssona þáttr): Wild and blood-drenched Viking tales about a family of legendary warlord-kings which such wondrous and enchanting names like Ragnar Hairy-Breechesnote , Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside and Sigurd Snake-in-Eye. While works of fiction, the stories of Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons obviously contain legendified memories of major viking battles and conquests of the 9th century, such as the 845 sack of Paris (by a warlord called Reginer in French chronicles), a raid of the Mediterranean 860-862, the Danish capture of York in 866, and the Danish defeat by the Franks at Louvain in 891.

Fairy-tale Sagas (Lygisögur)

  • "The Tale of Norna-Gest" (Norna-Gests þáttr): A mysterious visitor at the court of King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway eventually reveals himself as the immortal storyteller Norna-Gest, a survivor from the fornaldar, the time of heroes.

Chivalric Sagas (Riddarasögur)

  • Saga of the Trojans (Trójumanna saga): Account of The Trojan War, based on Latin sources.
  • Saga of Alexander (Alexanders saga): Icelandic version of the Alexander Romance.
  • Saga of the Jews (Gyðinga saga): Icelandic translation of The Bible's Books of Maccabees.
  • Saga of the Romans (Rómverja saga): Recounts Roman history as told in the works of Sallust and Lucan's Pharsalia.
  • Saga of the Britons (Breta sögur): Icelandic version of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain.
  • Thidrek's Saga (Þiðreks saga af Bern): Compilation of German heroic legend, centered around the hero Thidrek a.k.a. Dietrich von Bern. It was translated from German manuscripts in Norway.
  • Saga of Charlemagne (Karlamagnús saga): Compilation of French chansons de geste of Charlemagne and his paladins, including a translation of The Song of Roland.

Sui generis and crossover sagas:

  • The Saga of the Jomsvikings (Jómsvíkinga saga): Pretends to be a Kings' Saga, but is actually heavily infused with Legendary Saga motifs. It is the most complete account of the so-called Jomsvikings, supposedly an alliance of exceptionally badass vikings which would only accept the best of the best, and was based in a fortress called Jomsborg somewhere on the southern shore of the Baltic in a land called Jom. However, trouble awaits the Jomsvikings when the wily king of Denmark, Svein Forkbeard, tricks them into a suicidal attack on the equally hard-boiled Jarl Hakon of Norway.— A great story of viking battles, and a haunting cautionary tale of the dangers of binge drinking.
  • "The Tale of Styrbjorn" (Styrbjarnar þáttr Svíakappa): Similar in tone and style to Jómsvíkinga saga, the story of Styrbjörn the Strong, an exiled prince of Sweden who is determined to fight his way back to the kingdom ... or die trying. Also, like Jómsvíkinga saga, an embellishment of historical events of the 980s AD.
  • Njorl’s Saga: This little-known Icelandic Saga, written by an unknown hand of the late 13th century, had remained undiscovered until it came to the screens as a BBC collaboration with the North Malden Icelandic Saga Society.