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All That:

Eddas and Sagas in Period and in the Current Middle Ages


Use the Norse, Luke

by Kali Harlansson of Gotland
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I am often asked.... I'm sometimes asked.... When I hear people lump Old Norse literature together as "eddas and sagas," without knowing what they are and what the difference is - even people who know and like the stories themselves - I wish they would ask. So I guess I'll have to do it myself.

What are eddas and sagas, and how are they different?
I'm glad you asked. Briefly, there are only two eddas; they're poetic (one is in poetry, one is all about poetry), and tell myths and legends about gods and heroes. There are hundreds of sagas, all in prose; some are history, some are legend - but even the legends are still about mortal heroes, not gods.

Okay, let's start with the eddas, since there's only two of them. Who wrote them, and when, and why?
All right, you can drop the question & answer format now, thanks.

The Eddas
In the 1220's, an Icelander named Snorri Sturluson composed a monumental guide to Norse poetic literature which he titled Edda. (What did "Edda" mean? No one knows for sure, but probably either "Grandmother" or "Poetics.") This poetic literature - called "skaldic verse" after the skalds, the poets who practiced it - was a complex, highly developed form of poetry characterized by alliteration rather than rhyme, stress-based meter, and elaborate figures of speech. Snorri wrote the Edda, he says, because he feared that the knowledge and practice of this poetry was being lost, and he wished to rescue it.

The work is organized in three parts. The first part, "The Deluding of Gylfi," consists of stories about the gods, presented in an instructional manner. The second, "Poetic Diction," is a catalog of kennings, with supporting background information from myth and legend. (What is a "kenning"? It's a literary device, a complicated metaphor, that often requires a certain amount of background knowledge to understand. For now, let's just say that Cockney rhyming slang is transparent by comparison.) The third part is the "Account of Meter," and consists of a poem in praise of King Hakon of Norway, 102 stanzas long, each stanza in a different meter, with prose commentary. It is the first part that is usually translated as Snorri's Edda; the last part is essentially untranslatable except as an academic exercise.

Years after Snorri's book was "rediscovered" in the 17th century, a manuscript was found that appeared to be Snorri's source: a collection of Old Norse poems about gods and heroes, some of which matched verse fragments quoted by Snorri. On the assumption that this collection was indeed the source for most of "The Deluding of Gylfi," it was called the "Elder Edda" and Snorri's work the "Younger Edda." (In fact, that manuscript appears to have been transcribed about half a century after Snorri wrote his work; nowadays, they are usually called the "Poetic Edda" and the "Prose Edda.")

The heroic tales in the eddas are part of the same cultural milieu as other old Germanic epics (in Old High German or Anglo-Saxon): similar characters, similar memories of the legendary past, similar heroic ethos. The stories of the gods, on the other hand, are unique to the Scandinavian tradition: there are no German or Anglo-Saxon parallels. (Interesting note on the "memories of the legendary past" item: in the German tradition, Attila the Hun is remembered as a good guy, in the Scandinavian tradition as a bad guy. Make of that what you will.)

The Sagas
The sagas, in general, have a historical (or at least pseudo-historical) setting, are the approximate length of a modern novel, have a very distinctive literary style, and are always anonymous. They are usually grouped into three categories: the Family Sagas - set in Iceland, very domestic, very realistic; the Kings' Sagas - set abroad (in Norway, specifically), more formal and self-consciously "historical"; and Sagas of Ancient Times - set long ago and/or far away, ranging from the heroic to the outright fantastic. And besides the full-length sagas, there were shorter pieces called thaettir - short stories rather than novels, if you will. Let me go into each of these areas a little more fully.

The Family Sagas, or Sagas of Icelanders, include the most typical and the most famous sagas, the ones most of us mean when we say "sagas." They are usually presented as local history: the story of an individual, a family, or a district. There may be some low-level supernatural elements - ghosts, prophetic dreams, etc. - but the overall tone is very realistic and down-to-earth. The best and most powerful - Njal's Saga, Laxdaela Saga, Egil's Saga - rank with the greatest world literature. (Egil's Saga is attributed to Snorri Sturluson, he of the Prose Edda.)

One of the great questions about the sagas is how factual they are, whether they should be read as history or fiction. The question arises because of the time elapsed between the events related and the time of writing down: the most famous of the Family Sagas were composed in the 13th century, but take place between 900 and 1050. (There are a few sagas that were written within years of the events they tell of. One of these is the Sturlunga Saga, about Snorri Sturluson and his family - maybe you've heard of Snorri?) While it was once the tendency to view the Family Sagas as examples of the faithful oral preservation of history, it is now recognized that the style is clearly literary; not so much oral history, they are more closely akin to historical novels. As E.V. Gordon says, "the importance of the oral story in the development of the Icelandic saga cannot be ignored, but it can be exaggerated." The anonymous authors doubtlessly drew on some amount of local oral history (and/or family gossip) for the germ of their stories, but they drew as well on written chronicles and genealogical lists, and mostly on their creativity and art. (And on bits they "borrowed" from each other.)

The Kings' Sagas are lives of the kings of Norway. (But written in Iceland, so the recurring theme of Icelanders making a big impression at court should not be taken as literal, historical truth.) The Kings' Sagas include the earliest sagas we know, and established the traditional historical/biographical saga style. They evolved from an earlier (early 12th century) tradition of saints' lives; the transition to the saga genre is generally fixed at a life of St. Olaf (king of Norway 1015-1028), composed in the 1170's, which is historical enough to be considered a secular saga of the king rather than a religious life of the saint.

The definitive book in this category is the Heimskringla, a compilation of separate sagas of individual kings, from legendary prehistory through 1177. Heimskringla was composed ca. 1230, and is attributed to Snorri Sturluson. (Remember Snorri?)

The Sagas of Ancient Times (fornaldarsogur) developed later. They include stories of the Germanic heroic and legendary past: the Volsunga Saga (based on heroic poems in the Poetic Edda), Hrolf Kraki's Saga (a legendary king of Denmark), and Thidrek's Saga (legends of Theodoric the Ostrogoth); later they included stories adapted from the heroic past of other lands: Karlamagnus Saga (Charlemagne), Trojumanna Saga (the Trojan War), sagas of King Arthur and Alexander the Great. By the late saga period, under the influence of the French romances, they included utterly fantastic stories, set in imaginary countries. These fantasies were called "lying sagas," to distinguish them from the more historical ones, so we know the distinction was recognized in period.

The thaettir, or short stories, were often self-contained episodes within longer sagas (kings' sagas especially), or inserted between full-length sagas in big collections. They were in the same literary style, and the same setting, as the longer sagas. The best and most famous example of the genre is, of course, "Audun's Story," a touching story of a young man, his polar bear, and two kings.

The literary style of the sagas is very pronounced. The single most distinctive feature of this style is its strict third-person objectivity: the saga never tells a person's internal thoughts or feelings. Character is portrayed with skill and psychological insight, but objectively, by words and actions, never by authorial comment. (This ties in with the tradition of anonymous authorship.) Other features of the saga style are: realism, to a degree unparalleled in medieval literature; dramatic situations, without lapsing into melodrama; the use of dialogue to further the development of the story; and a bone-dry sense of humor, with heavy use of dramatic understatement.

In the Current Middle Ages

The eddas and sagas are stories; they are wonderful stories - humorous, dramatic, very accessible to the modern mind - and so the most obvious application of this literature to the SCA is in the art of storytelling. Technically, while storytelling as entertainment is well attested within the sagas, saga-telling is not - all the evidence of sagas in period is as written stories, read out of a book. But don't let that stop you: the Icelandic corpus is a rich source and should be mined for all it's worth.

I would advise SCA storytellers to stick with thaettir, isolated episodes from longer sagas, or a single eddic story at a time, until they are very good and they have an audience that is used to the style. (For instance, your local audience has grown with you, or you're at an event with a Norse theme and a well-read crowd.) I once did Njal's Saga in weekly installments at Jongleurs' practice for two months, and then two big, blow-out nights at Pennsic - but the audience at Pennsic was the same one I'd been building up for the two previous months, plus people like Duke Cariadoc who knew exactly what they were in for. I would not recommend just kicking off a bardic circle with it.

Another frequent and obvious use of the literature is for onomastic research (that's documenting Norse names). For this purpose, I suggest the lists of names in the back of Penguin editions of the sagas: looking through the lists from just a couple of sagas will give you a good idea what names were common. But avoid the long lists of names in the eddas: these are names of giants, elves, dwarves, etc., and are not (necessarily) human names.

And obviously, in using the sagas for any purposes of documentation, remember that literally centuries may have gone by between the time the events are reported as happening, and the time the saga was created.

Further Reading

I highly recommend the Penguin Classics editions of the sagas: they are generally excellent translations, the introductions and commentary are useful (but I would say save them for your second reading - for the first time, just plunge right in!), they have maps and the afore-mentioned glossaries of names. For a first introduction to the genre, I particularly recommend the anthology, Hrafnkel's Saga and other stories: Hrafnkel's Saga is short for a full-length saga, the "other stories" are thaettir (including "Audun's Story"), and all are interesting and accessible. The greats like Njal's and Egil's are (of course) the best, but if this article is the first you've heard of them, don't start out with them.

Seven Viking Romances (also a Penguin edition) is a collection of fornaldarsogur, and includes the most fun piece of period erotica I've ever read. Highly recommended as a break from the strict realism of the Family Sagas.

Sir Bela of Eastmarch (writing as Poul Anderson) has done novelizations of a historical saga (The Last Viking, about King Harald Hardradi, perhaps the closest historical prototype to Conan the Barbarian) and of a Saga of Ancient Times (Hrolf Kraki's Saga, full of such basic fantasy elements as curses, shapeshifters, magic swords, etc.). Both are really good reads.

Good luck, ... and may the Norse be with you.

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text copyright 1997 by Caleb Hanson (e-mail)
background illustration is the Picture Stone from Tangelgarda, Gotland

Links to Books
book cover Hrafnkel's Saga and Other Icelandic Stories (Penguin Classics)
(paperback, reprint June 1971, $9.56 at Amazon.com)

book cover Seven Viking Romances (Penguin Classics)
(paperback, reprint January 1986, $10.36 at Amazon.com)
book cover The Golden Horn (The Last Viking, No. 1)
(out-of-print, search through Amazon.com)

Road of the Sea Horse (The Last Viking, No. 2)
(out-of-print, search through Amazon.com)

Sign of the Raven (The Last Viking, No. 3)
(out-of-print, search through Amazon.com)

book cover Anderson, Poul
Hrolf Kraki's Saga
(out of print, search through Amazon.com)

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