The Icelandic Sagas

The Sagas are exciting and dramatic, once you get past the first pages of genealogy.
February 12, 2019
Inga Rós Antoníusdóttir

The Icelandic Sagas

The Icelandic Sagas are considered to be the most genuine glimpse into Viking settlement available. The Viking Age refers to the 9th, 10th, and 11th century, the time of the settlement of Iceland. This is the period that Icelanders refer to as the “Saga Age”.

The Sagas of Icelanders (“Íslendingasögur” in Icelandic) are said to be the best-known specimens of Icelandic literature.
They are prose narratives and mostly based on historical events. Most of the stories took place in Iceland but some of them tell tales of stories that happened across other Viking lands as well.

The Sagas are exciting and dramatic, once you get past the first pages of genealogy. They tell stories of farmers and families, love and betrayal, life and death, and are, for the most part, believable and credible. You might feel like skipping these first pages or chapters, but keep in mind that they were written for a reason. They are there to give a much needed glimpse into the family tree of the main personas as well as important information about events that happened prior to when the particular saga takes place.

A viking in full armor
A viking warrior focusing

Women play a strong role too and were highly respected in the Viking community, especially when compared to other European societies of that era. They were powerful and usually managed the finances of the family and ran their farms in the absence of their husbands. Even widows were often rich and important landowners.

Since the sagas were originally passed on according to oral traditions, and weren’t written under centuries after the events happened, historians have had difficulty to assess their historicity. Ultimately this means that there is no definitive way for us to know exactly how much of the Icelandic Sagas is history as it happened and how much is fabrication.
Let’s just say there is reason to believe some events might have been poetically adjusted, for the sake of a good story. Despite this, the sagas are the cornerstone of Icelandic culture.

With more than 40 sagas to choose from you might be wondering where to start.
The following are some of the most known and widely read sagas and are actually taught in schools in Iceland as part of every students curriculum.

Brennu-Njáls saga is the longest as most well known Icelandic saga. It has a wide range of complex characters and is said to portray the most comprehensive picture of Icelandic life in the heroic age. The saga’s two heroes—Gunnar and Njáll are both men of peace, but living in a society and era in which the ties of blood can not be ignored and memories of past injuries will not be forgotten.
When Gunnar’s wife, the beautiful Hallgerður, refuses to give him a strand of her hair to string his bow, as a result of a feud between the two, it costs him his life in battle.
Njáll is drawn into a feud through the actions of his sons. A feud so big that he and his family are burned to death in their home. The third part of the saga deals with the vengeance of Njáll by his son-in-law Kári, the sole survivor of the family.

Laxdæla saga is the thrilling and heart wrenching story of a love triangle of the formerly best friends Kjartan and Bolli and the beautiful Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir. Almost a soap opera, this is a saga of love and betrayal, friends and foes and focuses on the love Kjartan and Bolli had for Guðrún. Did Guðrún follow her heart or her pride? Were they all mere pawns of fate? Find out how this dramatic love story resulted in the untimely death of both men.

Egil's saga tells the story of Egill Skallagrímsson, a farmer and a poet. Egill was a morally ambiguous character, a fierce fighter and clever poet with severe anger management issues. Capable of writing some of the most beautiful poetry and also capable of exercising grotesque brutality. The saga follows Egill's progression from rebellious youth to mature wisdom as he struggles to avenge his father's exile from Norway, defend his honour against the Norwegian King Erik Bloodaxe, and fight for the English King Athelstan in his battles against Scotland. It also tells the tale of two brothers who love the same woman and it explores deeply human character issues, such as loyalty, brotherhood, love, lust and the power of poetry.

So called saga travel has become increasingly popular among tourists in Iceland. On a private tour you can trace the footprints of your favorite vikings, with pit stops at the viking museum Vikingaheimar and/or the Iceland settlement center and can also easily be combined with other sightseeing such as a trip to langjökull glacier or whale watching. Our tour guides will drive you safely through the lava fields while you read up on Erik the red and Snorri Sturluson.


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