"Sagas" Portray Iceland's Viking History

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
May 7, 2004
Filled with larger-than-life heroes and epic battles, they may be the
most accessible of all medieval literature and a source of inspiration
to classic authors like J.R.R. Tolkien.

Yet many people have never heard of the Icelandic sagas.

Written by unknown authors in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries, the sagas contain 40 narratives, describing the life of Icelanders in the Viking age immediately before and after the year 1000. This was a time when they abandoned ancient gods and adopted Christianity.

The early Icelanders also traveled westwards, culminating in what many believe is the true first voyage by a European to North America: Leif Eiriksson's expedition, described in the sagas as having taken place a thousand years ago.

Although the Vikings themselves did not write the Icelandic sagas—the stories were constructed centuries after the end of the Viking age—the sagas may provide the most detailed accounts of Viking life.

Today the sagas are part of Iceland's daily consciousness, and they are celebrated both for their historical record and their narrative artistry.

"The sagas of Icelanders, being renowned as outstanding masterpieces of literature, rank with the world's greatest literary treasures, such as the epics of Homer, the Greek tragedy, and the plays of William Shakespeare," said Alma Gudmundsdottir, curator of the Icelandic Saga Center in Hvolsvöllur, a village in southern Iceland.

Fact and Fantasy

Iceland has no pre-historic era. It was not settled until around A.D. 900, when the Scandinavians arrived in search of new farmland. Shortly after, an influx of people from the British Isles brought Celtic influences to Iceland, though the language remained predominantly Nordic. Before long, the Icelanders saw themselves as a separate nation.

The only written monuments of the Vikings themselves are runic inscriptions, which are often brief and laconic, and not very informative. British and French clergy, who were attacked by the Vikings, described the raiders as savages.

The sagas, on the other hand, portray the settlers in a favorable light. A blend of fact and fantasy, their actions span the whole world known to the Vikings, but center on the unique settler society they founded in Iceland.

Steeped in Viking lore, the "heroic sagas," which gained popularity in Europe in the 19th century, chronicle the actions of powerful Viking warriors. Honor, glory, and revenge are central features in these narratives.

But the stories of Viking exploits are just one part of medieval Icelandic literature. The "family sagas" involve ordinary people, though the central characters even then tend to come from the ruling class.

"The vast majority of the settlers were farmers, who wished to live in peace, free from pirates and taxation by kings in their homes," said Arni Björnsson, the former head of the ethnological department of the National Museum in Reykjavik and an expert on the sagas. "In the Middle Ages, Icelandic society was highly unusual. The main class of society comprised independent farmers, rich or poor, and there was no king, no government, no hereditary aristocracy and no taxes."

Wealthy Farmers

A distinctive characteristic of the sagas is the objective narrative approach. Often the sagas describe events in great detail, including what was said by those involved. But they do not describe their inner life. Instead, the characters of the sagas reveal themselves through their words and actions.

"This narrative technique was unknown in the literature of other countries, until the great European novel of the 19th century," Gudmundsdottir said.

The art of writing arrived in Iceland with the Christian Church in the 11th century. Most priests were employees of wealthy farmers, who were interested in writing both for practical purposes and for entertainment. They did not understand Latin, the language of the learned at the time, so most books came to be written in the Icelandic vernacular.

"The difference in social status between farmers in Iceland and in Europe appear to be the main reason for Iceland's unique medieval saga tradition," Björnsson said. "Another reason for the sagas might be that [in a young country] there was a need to preserve the story of how Iceland was settled."

At the Icelandic Saga Center in Hvolsvöllur, which was established in 1997, visitors learn about the creation of a parliament in 930; about the conversion to Christianity; and the strong role of the women in medieval Iceland.

The exhibition focuses on Njal's saga, or the story of Burnt Njal, perhaps the greatest and best known of the Icelandic sagas. The epic story of a 50-year-old blood feud, Njal's saga features memorable characters like Gunnar Hamundarson, a brave and noble hero.

Guided tours from the Saga Center take visitors to the places of special historical interest in Njal's saga.

Archaeological Support

Historians in the 19th century accepted the sagas as more or less accurate accounts, except where they clearly ventured into mythology and fantasy. But in the 20th century many historians began looking at the sagas more critically. Some dismissed them as fiction, and would not accept that they had any historical value at all.

Today, many historians view the sagas as a romanticized but crucial piece of history. Some say they are basically family stories relating the ancestry of individual characters.

"But archaeology is actually proving that a lot of these stories have a good basis in fact, so much so that [archaeologist] Helge Ingstad could use them to find the L'Anse aux Meadows site," the archeological site in Newfoundland believed to have been a Viking settlement around in the 11th century, said William Fitzhugh, the director of the Arctic Studies Center at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. and the curator of a major Viking exhibit at the museum in 2000.

Among Icelanders, the sagas remain enormously popular.

"Excerpts from [the sagas] are part of our curriculum in primary school," Björnsson said. "Pagan gods … were like our personal buddies, similar to Tarzan or Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings."

For links to related sites and stories about Iceland, the Vikings, and the Icelandic sagas, please scroll to the bottom of the page.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.