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THERE is probably no literary production of the Middle Ages which makes such an impression upon the modern reader as the Icelandic saga. It is true that the saga breathes the cooling breath of times long since gone by, that it tells of people whose thoughts and whose conceptions of honor and of duty differed from ours. The art of the saga, however, is modern, realistic. Its men and women stand before us as if in flesh and blood, as they love and hate, as they live and die. We hear the words they utter, curt, blunt, sharp as a sword, full of pithy humor. We are carried away by the dramatic action.

The saga presents no analysis of conditions of soul, contains no moralizing observations; it is sober and realistic. Conciseness of style and composition is its chief characteristic. The unimportant is never carried into detail-is often barely touched upon. Here the saga fundamentally differs in effect from the moralizing and wordy prose of medieval Latin. What a difference between Snorre and the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, even when both are recounting the same story!

The style of the saga is marked by art and in part even by a very refined art. It has been formed through oral recitation: art has developed nature. The speech of the ancient Norsemen was in fact similar to the language of the saga. Gens breviloqua et veridica, the Icelanders are called by Giraldus Cambrensis. In 1170 Dublin, until then the capital of a northern Viking kingdom, was sacked by the English. The king, Haskulf, took flight, but later returned with a fleet. After an heroic encounter he was captured and was asked whether he wished to be ransomed. He answered proudly: "We came this time with a small company and have just made a beginning. If my life is spared we shall soon come with another and much greater host." After this speech he was beheaded.

The sagas contain, however, many lifeless passages, for instance, the long and detailed genealogies. It is true that genealogies played

1A paper read (in German) at the International Congress of the Historical Sciences at Berlin, August, 1908, by Professor Alexander Bugge of the University of Christiania.

an important part in old Icelandic life, and that every chieftain had to know the names of his ancestors. It is therefore possible that even in the orally narrated sagas genealogies did occur. But the learned saga-writers have, no doubt, further developed this habit, perhaps through the influence of the Biblical genealogies. Even in the best sagas, as for instance, the Njála, the great number of personages and the various parallel lines of action become almost oppressive. This is accounted for by the fact that several originally independent short narratives are blended into a single whole.

But how, where and when did the saga have its origin? All the northern people were accustomed to tell stories (sagen). We find the same Viking stories told by English and Norman, as well as by Russian historians, as for example, the story of the city which was set afire by sparrows, with nut-shells bound under their wings. The Varangians in Russia had perhaps an incipient oral saganarrative, as we may conclude from Nestor's chronicle. The Grand Duke Oleg sailed in the year 907 towards Constantinople and came to the Sound, as Nestor, using a Norse loan-word, calls the Bosporus. The emperor was forced to conclude peace. Oleg said: 'Sew sails of silk for the Russians and sails of linen for the Slavs!" He fastened his shield as a token of victory upon the city-gate and sailed away. The Russians spread their silken sails, the Slavs their linen ones. The wind rent the former and the Slavs said: "Let us keep our sail-cloth; silk sails are not suitable for Slavs."


The Swedish runic inscription of Rök (of the ninth century), which may be called a library in stone, mentions not only ancient songs but also stories, which appear to have had an unmistakable similarity with the legendary hero-saga, the fornaldarsaga. The saga of the Viking chief, mentioned on many Swedish rune-stones, Ingvarr Viðforli, who lived in the first half of the eleventh century, is declared in the saga itself to have been heard by an Icelandic merchant at the court of the king of Sweden and by him brought to Iceland. It may be, therefore, that the Swedes knew sagas orally narrated; written sagas, however, they did not have. The Guta Saga (History of the Gotlanders), composed about 1300, on the island of Gotland, stands quite alone but has the same characteristics as the Icelandic saga, with little verses interspersed. Perhaps, however, the Guta Saga had its origin under foreign influences. I need not emphasize here the difference between saga and sage. [In this translation the word story has been used for sage.]


Oleg, i. e., Old Norse Helgi.

The word Sund is used only two or three times by Nestor and always in cases where he is treating expeditions of the Swedish conquerors of Russia (the "Russ") to Byzantium.

The Gotlanders indeed were, as merchants, acquainted with all northern and western Europe. In Denmark hardly as much advancement was made as in Sweden.

The saga belongs to the Norwegian and to the Icelandic people. Stories and legends have been narrated among the Norsemen since the earliest times. The Icelandic Landnámabók (the Book of the Settling of Iceland) contains stories which must date from the first period of Iceland's settlement." Even in very early times different stories were often loosely joined together. Seamen who sailed along the coast of Norway contributed much toward spreading these stories and connecting them together. Similar stories live on until this day in the Norwegian valleys, especially in the secluded Sætersdalen (in southern Norway). They are dramatic, are frequently told with genuine art and even contain scattered bits of verse. A real saga, however, has never been created in the Norwegian valleys. We learn how stories of that kind originate, from the Fóstbræðrasaga (Saga of the Foster-brothers). The poet Þormóðr is lying at midday alone in a booth at the assembly of the Greenland

Someone comes and says: "You are losing great pleasure. I was at the booth of porgrímr Einarsson. He was relating a saga. The men are sitting around him and listening." Þormóðr asks: "Can you give me the name of any person in the narrative?" The other answers: "porgeirr was a great hero in the story. porgrímr also had something to do with it. He defended himself man fully as might be expected." pormóðr understands that porgrímr is relating how he killed pormóðr's foster-brother. He takes his axe, slays the narrator and makes his escape. This narrative is indeed called a saga, but this word in Icelandic signifies any kind of narrative. That related by porgrímr Einarsson was not yet a real saga. Even where several stories are joined together we have as yet no saga. There is still lacking that which makes the individual narratives into the artistically completed whole which we call a saga.

The märchen and not the story (sage) is the mother of the saga. The style, the humor of the saga is borrowed from the märchen. The story (sage) treats only a single episode in the life of the hero. E. g., the story of Hjorleifr who was killed by his Irish slaves. The latter to preserve their own lives knead meal and butter together and call it minnþak, a genuine Irish word occurring with the same meaning in the Lex Adamnani. Iceland was found by Norwegians about the years 860-870, and was settled from Norway during the next fifty or sixty years.

Cf. Axel Olrik, Kilderne til Saxos Historie, II. 280 ff., and Landnámabók (Islendinga Sögur, I. 326), where a Norwegian merchant, sailing on a ship along the western coast of Norway, tells the story of King Vatnar and his grave-mound. The stories of Sætersdalen have been collected by Johannes Skar, Gamalt or Sætesdal, I.-III.

The fairy-tale (märchen) and the saga, however, narrate the whole life of the hero in a series of episodes. The märchen is dramatic; its language is curt and blunt, just like the saga. All märchen and all sagas resemble each other, without being all equally well narrated. Märchen have been told by the Norwegians from the time that they settled in the Scandinavian peninsula. The saga narrators could likewise recount märchen. The sagas related at an Icelandic wedding in 1117 were regarded as märchen by the contemporaries; they were fictitious sagas, so-called lygi-sogur. Odd the Monk, the oldest biographer of Olaf Tryggvason, says in the introduction to his work, "It is better to hear this than the stepmother tales the herdsmen tell." The word soga means in Norwegian dialects not only narrative but likewise märchen.

Many sagas, especially those parts of them which treat of the hero's youth, are entirely or partially built upon märchen. The tale of the later Faroese chief Sigmundr Brestason, who comes as a boy to a lonely Norwegian farm, and is hidden by the wife when the farmer comes home and smells the stranger, is nothing but the märchen of the Boy at the Giant's Court. The märchen of Aschenbrödel, who lies idle by the fire, but suddenly rises, bathes, combs and trims his hair, seizes weapons, becomes a great warrior, and finally gains the kingdom and the princess, was a story in great favor with the old Norwegians and Icelanders. Sagas like the Svarfdælasaga and the early history of Harald the Fairhaired, who unified Norway, are to a great extent built upon this tale.

The account, as told by Odd the Monk, of the childhood of the Norwegian chief Olaf Tryggvason (d. 1000), who with his mother had to flee from the evil queen Gunhild, is nothing but an ordinary märchen-motive. Olaf, like the heroes of the märchen, comes among strangers early in life. His royal descent is discovered by a miracle. Sorcerers had prophesied that a young man had come to Russia, from whose hamingja (guardian spirit) a light would spread over the whole of eastern Europe. The wise queen of Novgorod hears of this and the king on her prayer calls together a general assembly. On the third day the queen comes upon a young boy in ragged clothing, his hat pulled down over his eyes. She looks into his eyes and sees that he is the right one. Olaf is brought to the king and his royal origin is made known. is composed after the märchen of the Youth with the Golden Hair, who hides his hair under a big hat, feigning to be unclean. The light over Olaf's hamingja and the general assembly originate in another märchen. In Brittany the story runs thus: Rome is without a pope. For three days a procession goes through the country

This story

with burning candles. On the third day a guileless boy, Innocent, joins the procession, holding a willow rod. The birds in a willow tree have prophesied to him his future greatness. A flame kindles itself on the point of the rod. Innocent is made pope. In another version of the story, the light kindles on the young man's head.

The earliest sagas now known were written down in the second half of the twelfth century and in the course of the thirteenth, and those recording the lives of the Norwegian kings, especially of Olaf Tryggvason and of St. Olaf, were probably written down before the family sagas. The oral saga, the saga that was only narrated, and not written down, is however much older. Already at the above-mentioned wedding in 1117, sagas were narrated. The Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus (twelfth century) knew a number of hero-sagas (fornaldarsogur) of Norwegian or Icelandic origin. In the second half of the eleventh century we meet with a succession of Icelanders who bear the honorary epithet fróði, that is, “learned in sagas, or in history". Many of these were the authorities for Ari Fróði and the Landnámabók. These "antiquaries" were similar to the Irish senchaidi. Besides the saga-men there were also in Iceland professional scalds just as in Ireland. there were filed or scalds, besides senchaidi or "antiquaries ".

Earlier, however, than in Norway or Iceland the saga developed in the Viking settlements on the British Isles. The first saga to arise concerning a Norwegian king was the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, who fell in the year 1000. Its basis is old tradition and not, as in the case of the lives of his predecessors, as they are found in Snorre's Heimskringla, contemporaneous scaldic poems used by learned saga-men in writing the histories. A saga of Olaf Tryggvason, however, was narrated in the eleventh century, not only in Norway but also in England. Olaf came thither in 991, as leader of the Vikings, compelled the English for the first time to pay "danegeld", was baptized and concluded peace with King Ethelred. Odd the Monk, who lived in the second half of the twelfth century, mentions a saga of King Olaf narrated in England about 1060. His authority was a native of the Orkney Islands.10 In Britain Olaf

My colleague, Professor Moltke Moe, who has had the kindness to go over this lecture with me and whose extraordinary knowledge has been of great advantage to me, has called my attention to this märchen of the Bird of Good Luck, originating from Byzantium. Cf. the exposition of Professor Moe in Helland, Norges Land og Folk, Finmarkens Amt, II. 397-403, explaining the Finnish fairy-tale of the Bird of Luck.

I do not here mention the historian Ari Fróði (1067-1148), the father of Icelandic history, whose work (Islendingabók or Libellus Islandorum) bears a closer resemblance to annalistic writings than to the sagas.

10 This authority is not mentioned by Odd himself, but only in the Flateyjarbók and in the great Olaf's saga, but the tradition goes back to Odd.

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