The saga of King Olaf Tryggwason

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The translation of the Saga of King Olaf Tryggwason has been made from the text of the Fornmanna Sögur, printed at Copenhagen, in 1825. Occasionally a reading has been taken from the Flateyjarbok, printed at Christiania, in 1860. The text of the many verses of the poets, introduced in order to furnish contemporary evidence for the facts related in the Saga, is very variable. Messrs. Vigfusson and Powell, in their invaluable edition of the Northern Poetry, the “Corpus Poeticum Boreale”, draw attention to the present condition of the Court poetry, and the alterations it has undergone ; see especially the Preface, vol. i. pp. lxxxii to lxxxviii ; vol. ii. p. 28. In many cases their text has been adopted. In others the Fornmanna text has been followed reluctantly, because the author of the Saga seems to have had the corrupt text before him when engaged on his work.

In the Prolegomena to the Oxford Edition of the Sturlunga, the present Saga is called Great O. T. Saga, to distinguish it from the Heimskringla life of the King. It is to a large extent a compilation of other Sagas. King Olaf, the Apostle of Christianity to Iceland, held an important place in the Icelandic literature of the first part of the thirteenth century, and one of his admirers thought it desirable to collect into one complete story, and weld together, the notices respecting him. First and foremost of the author’s sources is the Heimskringla life, by Snorri, which gives what may be called an historical picture of the hero. Next to this is a life written by Odd Monk at the close of the twelfth century. This work, written originally in Latin, is lost, but two free translations of it exist, and these give what may be called a legendary picture of the King. Both these lives fully described King Olaf’s great work of bringing heathen Norway within the Christian fold, but only cursorily dealt with the conversion of Iceland and the other outlands, the Orkneys and Shetlands, the Faroes, and Greenland. Whatever matter the author of the present Saga found in Icelandic literature which bore upon the latter work, he has used and incorporated ; and in particular has embodied a full account of the discovery of Iceland, and notices of those of the early settlers who where favourable to Christianity. Thus he has inserted several extracts from the Landnamabok, and has largely expanded those parts of Kristni Saga which precede, and those which describe the establishment of Christianity by law. Again, there were two famous Icelanders, contemporaries of King Olaf, who were brought into close connection with him – the poet Hallfred and Kiartan. The author of the Great O. T. Saga has included in his work almost the whole of Hallfred’s Saga, and such a part of the Laxdæla Saga as gives a full view of Kiartan’s life, his relations with Gudrun, and his death. In a similar manner the intimacy of Sigmund Brestison with King Olaf has caused the author to include to his work a large portion of the Fareyinga Saga, so as to give Sigmund’s life in full. Also, in imitation of the Heimskringla, he has inserted quotations from three late poems, the Rekstefia, the Jomsvikinga Drapa, and the Bui Drapa, in order to furnish evidence, though it is not contemporary evidence, for additional facts which he has introduced. To complete his view of King Olaf, the writer of the Great O. T. Saga has included many episodical stories, which not being now found elsewhere, would otherwise have been lost to us, such as the Saga of Thorwald Kodranson, the stories of Rognwals of Ærwick, of Swein and Finn, of Thorwald Tassel, of Eindridi Broadsole, of Gunnar Half, of Gaut, and others. And as he began his work with an account, taken from the Hemiskringla, of the Kings preceding King Olaf ; so he has concluded it with a slightly sketch, mostly from the same work, of succeeding Kings, that he might relate the fate of two great barons, favourites of Olaf ; and he also introduce to the reader, in chronological order, the legendary notices respecting the King after his disappearance at the battle of Swold.

In comparing the Great O. T. Saga with its sources, and especially with the Heimskringla life, marked peculiarities show themselves. Its writer introduces long speeches and sermons, which he puts into the mouth of King Olaf and others, the simplest abridged statements given by the Heimskringla in the Third Person being expanded into long discourses in the First Person. He is not fond of the Historic Present Tense, much used in the Heimskringla, and very frequently changes it into the Past Tense. Where the Heimskringla passes without notice from indirect to direct narration, the Great O. T. Saga writer is careful to mark the transition by “said he”, “said they”. He avoids positiveness in his statements, using “many” where the Heimskringla has “all”, “very often” instead of “always”, “slowish” instead of “slow” ; and he makes more frequent use of the figure of speech, litotes. He is much given to the use of long adjectives and adverbs ending in “ly”, and he qualifies harsh expressions and tones them down. His style, upon the whole, I more copious than that of the sources he has used, and his rounded periods give an appearance of richness when compared with the original passages, that are often bald and meagre. But we are obliged to confess that the writer is not always so happy in his expression as his originals are, and that his insertions sometimes cause his narrative to lack force in dramatic circumstances. Compare, for instance, his account of Thangbrand’s escape, when the earth opened under him, in ch. 216, with the original passage in Kristni Saga. Again, in ch. 117 the insertion of “almost” quite spoils the original passage in Landnamabok. And when, in ch. 264, Hallfred first hears the news of the King’s fall and is “deeply moved”, Hallfred’s Saga says that “he was struck as with a stone”. The different stories which he weaves together do not always agree well. For example, the narrative of the battle of Hiorunga Bay, ch. 90, in which the Wickings of Jom were defeated by Earl Hakon, is a piece of clear and precise writing in Heimskringla. This narrative the Great O. T. Saga writer has enlarged by quotations from later poems, and in attempting to weave the new matter of these poems into the Heimskringla account, he has rather injured its clearness and precision than otherwise.