1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Saga

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SAGA (literally a story committed to writing), a word derived from Icel. segja, to say. The term is common to most of the Teutonic languages, where we find Eng. say, Ger. sagen, the O. Eng. secgan, Dan. sige and Swed. segja, all identical in meaning. A saga, therefore, was originally something reported, segin saga, a tale told, in English a saw. But the earliest literature of Scandinavia goes back to an age before writing was invented, and when the legends were first put down they were called sagas because they were things which had been told or repeated from mouth to mouth. The early books speak of sagas which, apparently, had never been written down and were in consequence lost; but, as soon as the art of writing was understood, the word saga began for the future to be used exclusively for written historical books. A volume made up of such histories was known as a sögubòk or book of sagas. They were not rigidly historical; any story which was written down, and repeated according to the literary formula, was called a saga. The telling of tales was a recognized form of entertainment at Icelandic banquets, and in Haraldssaga Harðráða there are very interesting details regarding these public saga-tellings; the person who repeated or read the tale being known as the sögumaðr or saga-man, and being held in high honour at the feast.

The saga was properly a creation of the peculiar conditions under which Icelandic society was constituted in the earliest medieval times. The aristocratic Icelander had no diversions, except games of strength and skill out of doors and the listening to professional story-tellers indoors. As has been often pointed out, the saga is a prose epic, and in its various kinds it follows strict laws of composition. The lesser epic, in its original form, was the biography of some heroic Icelander who had lived in the 10th or 11th century. It was composed with great regularity, so as to proceed uniformly from the birth of the hero to his death, and indeed from before the one date until after the other. The style is brief, clear and conversational; the hero was often a distinguished poet, and in that case some of the best of his verses are interwoven into the narrative, being put in his mouth on striking occasions. Alliteration takes a great part in the ornament of the style. The skill with which the story is told, the high romantic sense of honour and courage which is displayed, the quick turns of the dialogue, the brilliant evolution of the plot, all these give enduring charm to the more successful and ample of the sagas, and in the earlier examples these qualities are very rarely missing. It is to be remembered, however, that the saga was intended to be listened to, not read, by an audience which was mainly interested in three subjects, namely fighting, litigation and pedigree. It was illegitimate for the saga-man, in the preparation of his epic, to allow himself to stray for any length of time from one of those three themes; since even love must be considered in the light of an episode.

The period of the saga-age, as it was called, the sögu-öld or epoch celebrated in the sagas, is now confined between the years 890 and 1030, and opens with the original colonization of Iceland. The deaths in 1030 of two great statesmen, Snorri and Skapti the Lawman, mark its close; almost immediately afterwards, before the end of the 11th century, the actual age of saga-composition is in full action; and lastly comes the rit-öld, or age of writing when the sagas were preserved in their present literary form, the blossoming time of which was the 13th century. According to the definite statement of the great historian, Sturla, the first man who wrote down in the Norse tongue, in Iceland, “histories relating to times ancient and modern,” was Ari Fróði (1067-1148), who was therefore the earliest of the saga-writers. He, as we know, was the author of three works of vast importance in the history of Icelandic literature. These were Konunga-bók or the Book of King, Landnama-bók or the Book of Settlements and Islendinga-bók or the Book of Icelanders. The second of these, in which Ari was assisted by Kolsegg Asbjornsson, survives and is of priceless value. Of the first and third, we possess abbreviations and summaries. It is believed that the admirable style in which the sagas are composed was the invention of Ari, to whose individual genius the form of classic prose tradition is attributed. He has no rival in this respect, and is the true father of the Icelandic saga. The works of Saemund Vigfusson (1056-1133), who succeeded Ari as a writer of the lives of kings, are unfortunately lost.

We now pass to what are called the Greater or Islendinga sagas, which are of a more intense and romantic character than the historical biographies. Among these the greatest is Njalssaga (or Njala), which few critics will question to be the most eminent masterpiece of Icelandic literature. There is no clue to the name of the author, who was evidently a lawyer; extensive as is the work, it is evidently written by one hand, for peculiarities and felicitous originalities of style recur throughout the whole saga. It must have been composed between 1230 and 1280. Vigfusson has described Njala as being, par excellence, the saga of law, and adds, “the very spirit indeed of Early Law seems to breathe through its pages.” The scene in which Njal, the Lawman of judgment and peace, is burned in his homestead by his enemies is perhaps the most magnificent passage which has been preserved in the whole ancient literature of the North. The story of Njala is placed at the close of the 10th and the first years of the 11th century. Eyrbyggiasaga deals with politics as Njalssaga deals with law; it is a precious compendium of history and tradition handed down from heathen times. It has been suggested that it may be, at all events in part, the work of Sturla the Lawman, who died in 1284. Extremely beautiful in its relation to external nature, a matter often ignored in the sagas, is Laxdaelasaga, which is also the most romantic in sentiment. It was probably written about 1235, but by whom is unknown. The aristocratic spirit of the great Icelandic families finds its most characteristic exposition in Egilssaga, a very vigorous tale of adventure, the central figure of which, Egil, is depicted with more psychological subtlety than is usual in the sagas; it probably belongs to about 1230. Into Grettissaga there enter biographical and mythical elements, curiously mingled; it is also confused in form, and is probably a recension, made about 1310, of two or more earlier sagas now lost, the finest parts of which it is thought that Sturla may have written. These are the five famous groups of anonymous narrative which are known as the Greater Sagas.

The Minor Sagas must be treated more briefly. Hensaþorissaga, belonging to the south-west of Iceland, deserves attention because of its extreme antiquity; it has been dated 993. Gunnlaugssaga Ormstungu (The story of Gunnlaug Worm-Tongue) is a love-story of great sentimental charm. In Gislasaga the gloom of the Icelandic outlaw-life is strikingly depicted in the adventures of Gisli, who is under a ban and is hunted from place to place. A very unusual specimen of the minor saga is Bandamannasaga, a comic story of manners in the north of Iceland in the 11th century, in which an intrigue of the old families banded against the pretensions of a wealthy parvenu, is told in a spirit of broad humour. The most archaic of the minor sagas is Kormakssaga, the story of the loves of the dark-eyed Kormak and Steingerda; this is, according to Vigfusson, the most primitive piece of Icelandic prose writing that has come down to us. Another very ancient and very simple saga is Vatzdaelasaga. Among sagas which deal with the earliest history of America in the chronicles of Greenland and Vinland, a foremost place is taken by Floamannasaga, which possesses peculiar interest from its description of the shipwreck of colonists on the coast of Greenland; this belongs to the close of the 10th century. We possess a late (13th century) recension of what must have been equally important as a record of the Greenland colony in the 11th century, Fostbraedrasaga. Vigfusson formed a class of still shorter sagas than these, thaettir or “morsels” of narrative. At the close of the great period of the composition of all these anonymous sagas, of which few can have been written later than 1260, a work of enormous length and value was composed or compiled by a poet and historian of great eminence, Sturla Thordsson (1215-1284). About the year 1270 he began to compile the mass of sagas which is now known by his name as Sturlungasaga. The theory that Sturla was the author of the whole of this bulky literature is now abandoned; it is certain that Hrafn Sveinbiornssaga, for instance, belongs to an earlier generation, and the same is true of Guðmundar Saga Góða. Vigfusson distinguished these and other sagas, which Sturla evidently only edited, from those which it is certain that he composed, and gathered the latter together under the title of Islendingasaga. It is certain that it is to Sturla that we owe almost all our knowledge of Icelandic history from 1200 to 1260. Islendinga is divided into two main sections, the former closing in a general massacre of the characters of the story in about 1240, the latter dealing much more minutely with new persons and subsequent events. To Sturla also are attributed two saga-biographies, the Hakonssaga and the Magnussaga. It is a remarkable fact that while Icelandic saga literature begins and ends with a definite figure of a writer, all that lies between is wholly anonymous. Ari was the earliest and Sturla the latest of the saga-writers of the classical period, but in the authors of Njala and Laxdaela we have nameless writers whose genius was still greater than that of the pioneer and of the rear-guard of Icelandic literature. These unknown men deserve a place of honour among the best narrative-writers who have ever lived. The elder brother of Sturla was called Olaf Hvitaskald, or the White Poet (1209?-1259); he was a learned man, who worked at the arrangement and compilation of the sagas which form the mass of Sturlunga. In another class are the stories of bishops, Biskupasögur, which are not sagas in the true sense, but have considerable value as biographical material for reconstructing Icelandic social life in the 12th century. The admirable saga of Bishop Laurence (1266-1331) was composed by his private secretary, Einar Haflidason (1304-1393), who also wrote Annals, and is the latest Icelandic biographer. After his time a long silence fell on the literature of the country, a silence not broken until the revival of Icelandic learning in the 17th century.

It is evident that a vast number of sagas must be lost; when we consider how many are preserved, we can only express amazement at the fecundity of the art of saga-telling in the classic age. The MSS., on which what we have were preserved, were all on vellum, and there were no sagas written on paper until the time of Bishop Odd, who died in 1630; there was an enormous destruction of vellums during the dark age. After 1640 it became the practice to make transcripts on paper from the perishing vellum MSS. The best authority on the history of the sagas is the copious prolegomena to Dr Gudbrandr Vigfusson's edition of the text of Sturlungasaga, published in 2 vols., by the Clarendon Press at Oxford in 1878. See also the edition of Biskupasögur, issued by the same author, at Copenhagen, in, 1858. Möbius and Vigfusson published the Fornsögur or archaic sagas in 1860, and all the work of Vigfusson calls for the closest attention from those interested in this subject. In connexion with the descents of Northmen on the shores of Britain particular interest attaches to the four volumes of sagas edited for the “Rolls” series (1887-1894). William Morris, who had done much to interpret the spirit of the sagas to English readers, and who published a translation of Grettissaga in 1869, started in 1891 the “Saga Library,” in conjunction with Mr E. Magnusson; of this a sixth volume appeared in 1906. Mr Sephton has published versions of several of the purely historical sagas. No account has been given above of the famous Heimskringla or “Round of the World,” of Snorri Sturlason, because this great work, although it contains stories of the kings of Norway, hardly belongs to the same class as the biographical sagas of Iceland. The Heimskringla is purely a storehouse of primitive Norwegian history.

See also Jónnson, Der oldnordiske og oldislandske Literaturshistorie (Copenhagen, 1893-1902); F. W. Horn, Geschichte der Literatur des skandinavischen Nordens (Leipzig, 1879).

(E. G.)