Norse saga

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The Norse sagas or Viking sagas (Icelandic: sögur), are stories about ancient Scandinavian and Germanic history, about early Viking voyages, about migration to Iceland, and of feuds between Icelandic families. One of them, the Gutasaga, was written on Gotland and deals with the early history of the Gotlanders. They were written in the Old Norse language.

The texts are epic tales in prose, often with stanzas or whole poems in alliterative verse embedded in the text, of heroic deeds of days long gone, tales of worthy men, who were often Vikings, sometimes Pagan, sometimes Christian. The tales are usually realistic (except, of course, legendary sagas, sagas of saints, sagas of bishops and translated or recomposed romances), sometimes romanticised and fantastic, but always dealing with human beings we can understand.



The (English) saga , (German) Sage originates from (Icelandic) saga, pl. sögur and refers to (1) "what is said, statement" or (2) "story, tale, history". Icelandic sagas are based on oral traditions and much research has focused on what is real and what is fiction within each tale. The accuracy of the sagas is often hotly disputed, being both overestimated and underestimated by various scholars. Most of the manuscripts in which the sagas were originally preserved were taken to Denmark and Sweden in the 17th century, but later returned to Iceland.

There are plenty of tales of kings (e.g. Heimskringla), every-day people (e.g. Bandamanna saga) and larger than life characters (e. g. Egils saga). The sagas describe a part of the history of some of the Nordic countries (e.g. the last chapter of Hervarar saga). England and North America are also mentioned. It was only recently (start of 20th century) that the tales of the voyages to America were authenticated.

Most sagas of Icelanders take place in the period 930–1030, which is actually called söguöld (Age of the Sagas) in Icelandic history. The sagas of kings, bishops, contemporary sagas and so on, of course have their own time frame. Most were written down between 1190 to 1320, sometimes existing as oral traditions long before, others are pure fiction, and for some we do know the sources: The author of King Sverrir's saga had met the king and used him as a source.

On the plots and writing style

Some Norse Sagas live between Christianity and Paganism ( Njál's saga is an example; see also Norse mythology.) Aside from Christian influence, the world of the sagas is strongly pagan, and fate plays a central role, a key line in Njal's Saga (chapter 6, as translated by Magnus Magnusson; references below) is

... each must do as destiny decides.

The civilization of Norse sagas is complex, many-layered, with often-contradictory agents sometimes acting as forces for good, sometime evil, and always grippingly human.

The writing style tends towards the impersonal, terse, with no explanation of why's. Things happen; no one questions fate. Characters are often but briefly introduced, There was a man named ..., followed by brief biographies, genealogy, and all-important relations to other figures in the saga. Personalities are shown through action, seldom through analysis any deeper than offhand lines like He was an utter scoundrel, or, He was a powerful chieftain. Often a prominent agent figures in other sagas, and one may draw information from them, which saga writers simply assumed. Relationships between individuals are complex, by friendship, blood, marriage, and immediate geography.

One must often and at disadvantage overcome fantastic enemies. Life is short, uncertain, and men's worth is determined by glory in arms.

Critical concepts to the Norse saga technique are honour, luck (or destiny), and fate, the supernatural, and character. Behavior is often not explained, as within the world of the saga it is what must be done, and early listeners of sagas had no need of questions.

Any slight to one's honour (or that of one's family) had to be avenged, by blood or money. Men could easily be goaded to fatal violence over a (real or imagined) slight to their honour.

The concept of luck is simple, certainly in one such as Njal's Saga: one is born with a certain store of good luck. When your good luck runs out, you're doomed.

The supernatural often plays a major role as well. Oneiric (i.e., relating to prophetic dreams) factors may also play a role.

Do agents have the character to surmount their difficulties, or do they succumb to vices such as evil, cowardice and pride?

As a final stylistic point, Magnus Magnusson beautifully notes in his introduction to Njal's Saga,

In the midst of such economy, one spendthrift sentence can speak volumes: 'two ravens flew with them all the way' (Chapter 79) as Skarp-Hedin and Hogni set out at night to avenge Gunnar ...

The saga as a literary technique

The saga is not strictly a Norse literary technique. Similar styles around the world were either independently developed or were derived from the style of the Norse sagas. For example:

Even some religious writings such as the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita have saga overtones.

Modern parallels

Tolkien's name Gandalf is found in the Edda; indeed, Gandalf is reminiscent of Odin, the principal Norse god, though in the Edda the name belongs to a dwarf, Gandálfr. Tolkien's name Middle-earth comes from an Old and Middle English term for the known world for which cognates exist in Old Norse and other Germanic languages.

Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen drew inspiration from sources including the Norse Saga, Edda, Volsunga saga and the German epic The Nibelungenlied.

Classification of sagas

Norse Sagas are generally classified as:


See also

External links and references

Template:NorseMythologybe:Сагі da:Nordisk saga de:Saga (Literatur) ja:サーガ nl:Saga fi:Saaga fr:Saga (littérature) sv:Islänningasagor zh:萨迦 (文学)


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