Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What is a Saga?

From “The Forsyte Saga” in 1906 to “The Twilight Saga” a hundred years later, we’ve grown used to our books (or their movie adaptations) being called “sagas.” But “saga” is an Icelandic word: How did it come to be so popular?

The first sagas were written in Iceland in the Middle Ages. They are bloody and thrilling and filled with a realism we don’t expect from medieval literature. Photographer Einar Falur Ingólfsson, whose exhibition “Saga Sites” is currently showing at Scandinavia House in New York, calls them “the first Scandinavian crime novels.”

Tipped on the southern edge of the Arctic Circle, Iceland earns its name: It holds the largest glacier in Europe. The first sight sailors see, approaching Iceland, is the silvery gleaming arc of the sun reflecting off the ice cap. Closer in, the eye is struck by the blackness of the shore, the lava sand, the cliffs reaching into the sea in crumpled stacks and arches, the rocks and crags all shaped by fire. For Iceland is a volcanic land. Even when an eruption is not in progress, smoke from its hotsprings and steam vents rises high in the air. Fire and ice have shaped this island. Its central highlands—half its total area—are desert: ash, ice, moonscapes of rock. Grass grows well along Iceland’s coasts, but little else thrives. There are no tall trees—and so no shipbuilding: a dangerous lack for island-dwellers. Other natural resources are equally scarce. Iceland has no gold, no silver, no copper, no tin. The iron is impure bog-iron, difficult to smelt. The first settlers, Vikings emigrating from Norway and the British Isles between 870 and 930, chose Iceland because they had nowhere else to go. Nowhere they could live free of a king. At least, that’s how the story goes.

Iceland has many such stories. The arctic winter nights are long. To while away the dark hours, Icelanders since the time of the settlement told stories, recited poems, and—once the Christian missionaries taught them the necessary ink-quill-and-parchment technology in the early eleventh century—wrote and read books aloud to each other.

Three of those books, including the most influential, are linked to Snorri Sturluson. Writers of prose in his day did not sign their works, so we can’t be one-hundred-percent certain of his authorship. He was named as author of the Edda in the early 1300s, of Heimskringla by the 1600s (supposedly based on a lost medieval manuscript), and of Egil’s Saga not until the 1800s.

Egil’s Saga may be the first true Icelandic saga, establishing the genre and granting the word “saga” the meaning we still use today: a long and detailed novel about several generations of a family.

In Egil’s Saga, Snorri created the two competing Viking types who would give Norse culture its lasting appeal. Egil’s Saga begins with a Viking named “Evening Wolf” (reputed to be a werewolf), and his two sons; his surviving son also had two sons, one of whom is Egil. In each generation, one son is tall, blond, and blue-eyed, a stellar athlete, a courageous fighter, an independent, honorable man who laughs in the face of danger, dying with a poem or quip on his lips. The other son is dark and ugly, a werewolf, a wizard, a poet, a berserk, a crafty schemer who knows every promise is contingent. Both sons, bright and dark, are Vikings.

In one famous scene, Egil’s grandfather Kveld-Ulf decides to leave Norway after the murder of his son Thorolf by the king. Out at sea, he took his revenge. Recognizing a dragonship that Thorolf had owned, he attacked. Kveld-Ulf leaped into the stern, his remaining son, Skalla-Grim, leaped into the bow, and both went berserk. They cut down every man in their way, until the deck was cleared. Kveld-Ulf fought with a halberd, a kind of long-handled axe with a spike on it. He hewed at the ship’s captain, we’re told, “slicing through both helmet and head and burying the weapon right up to the shaft. Then he gave it a hard tug towards himself, lifted [the captain] into the air and tossed him overboard.”

With this passage the Viking Hero was born. Kveld-Ulf’s deck-clearing, axe-hewing, bloodthirsty berserk rage has been reenacted countless times in novels and films and comic strips. He and Skalla-Grim didn’t even know whose men they were butchering. Only after more than fifty men died did they catch two and ask who was on the ship, learning that among the dead were the king’s young cousins, boys of ten and twelve. Thorolf’s death was fully avenged.

Skalla-Grim composed a poem about it (true Vikings were also good poets). He told the two lucky captives to go to the king and recite it, telling him “precisely what happened and who was responsible.” Then he and his father sailed to Iceland, where 300 years later, their descendant, Snorri Sturluson would turn their lives into a saga.

This essay was adapted from my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, just published by Palgrave Macmillan. On December 3 at 6:30, I will be giving a lecture at Scandinavia House in conjunction with the “Saga Sites” exhibition. See

Other upcoming events in my book tour are:

11/7: Mount Holly Town Library, Belmont, VT @ 7 p.m. See 

11/8: Cornell University Library, Ithaca, NY @ 4:30 p.m. See

11/9: Bucknell University Bookstore, Lewisburg, PA @ 5:30 p.m. See 

11/10: The Icelandic Jólabasar Christmas Fair, American Legion Post 177, 3939 Oak Street, Fairfax, VA @ 11-3. See 

11/11: Webster’s Books and Cafe, State College, PA @ 6:30 p.m. See 

11/12: Penn State Comparative Literature Luncheon, 102 Kern Bldg, University Park, PA @ 12:15 p.m. See 

11/13: Malaprop’s Bookstore Cafe, Asheville, NC @ 7 p.m. See

Watch the book trailer here: 

Or listen to me discuss the book with Tom Ashbrook on "On Point" from NPR station WBUR in Boston

Learn more at

1 comment:

  1. What a painter with words you are! And thanks for the link to the On Point interview; I looked all over the NPR site for one and didn't find a way to listen. Maybe it wasn't up yet. Bookmarking it for my writing break today!