Kinda Epic.
August 30, 2010 12:59 PM   Subscribe

While the rest of Europe was expressing itself mainly in the medium of poetry1, focused largely on romantic exploits of the aristocracy, the people of early Iceland were trying something different. At the Icelandic Saga Database you can read of the explots of the late Viking era, in Icelandic or English translation. If you seek a more direct experience, you can view scans of original collections at Saganet.

Early Iceland was unique in Europe: in contrast to the aristocratic and monarchical governments of Europe, Iceland was a commonwealth from the 10th century until it was brought under the Norwegian crown in 1262, governed by laws with a system of courts for resolving disputes. Each year, a national parliament - the AlÞingi - met at Þingvellir, near Reykjavik. Following the conversion of Iceland to Christianity in 1000 AD, the Icelandic literati began collecting the oral accounts of the pre-Christian era, apparently in an attempt to preserve the historical details of the pre-Christian era. As a result, the sagas are littered with historical markers, including detailed place descriptions and genealogies, and have relatively little supernatural activity, aside from the occasional berserker or shapeshifter. Many of the sagas focus on the uneasy relationship between individuals and society, and protagonists include warriors, poets, lawyers and even outlaws.

Finally, there's a complete English translation of all of the sagas now available, though it's kinda pricey. (Especially if you buy it from Amazon.) Penguin's released a lengthy anthology of selections from this new translation, however, with Njal's saga released in its own volume.

Other major points of interest in medieval Icelandic literature are the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. The Poetic Edda is a verse account of the Norse mythology. The Prose Edda recounts many points of the Norse mythology, but was apparently intended as a kind of text book on how to write bad-ass Iceandic poetry; it is apparently unique in this dual function. The Prose Edda is also one of the few works of the period whose author is known: Snorri Sturluson is considered the greatest Icelandic poet, but also served as Lawspeaker for the AlÞing and played a pivotal role in bringing Iceland under Norwegian rule.

Admittedly, I came across all this while doing historical research for an Ars Magica game.
posted by kaibutsu (28 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
I read Grettir's saga while in a Romantic Literature class (as in, knights in shining armor sort of romance), and it ruled. Comparative lit. department don'tcha know.

Thanks for this!
posted by wires at 1:24 PM on August 30, 2010

I think you'll appreciate Some ludicrous machismo...
posted by fantodstic at 1:37 PM on August 30, 2010

Oops, I linked that incorrectly. Here's that link.
posted by fantodstic at 1:38 PM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I read Njall's Saga a couple of years ago, and it was pretty amazing. It's a combination of courtroom drama and people leaping out from behind things and saying something witty and then cutting a dude. There is also a lot of ironic understatement, which is hilarious.

Thank-you for this post! (And for the link to the five volumes of translated sagas! Not that I needed new books to lust after, but that is a particularly fantastic thing to dream about owning.)
posted by bewilderbeast at 1:40 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Heh, fantodstic's link is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about! Good find.
posted by bewilderbeast at 1:43 PM on August 30, 2010

I like to host a semi-regular saga bonfire night wherein we gather around said bonfire with some locally-brewed mead and read aloud from my copy of that Penguin Deluxe Classics anthology. Massively entertaining.
posted by mayhap at 1:48 PM on August 30, 2010

posted by Devils Rancher at 1:52 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm reading the Penguin anthology right now, it comes with a lot of reference material - lengthy intros, prefaces, glossaries, etc. As a complete noob when it comes to this subject, I found it helpful.

I recently finished Egil's Saga, which is the first one in the anthology. I keep being surprised as I read at how much you can glean about Norse attitudes and societal mores just from reading these stories. Someone will kill some dude for something random, and I'll go "oh, he's in trouble now!" But he's not - usually his father commends him or some such thing. It's pretty interesting.

The anthology sat on my shelf for a long time and I kept thinking, "I really need to make time to read that", and I'm glad I finally did. I find them riveting.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 1:52 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

The "fashionable spears" quip, as rendered in the two public domain translations on

Morris & Magnusson: Then said Atli, when he got the thrust, "Broad spears are about now," says he, and fell forward over the threshold.

Hight: Atli said when he received the thrust: "They use broad spear-blades nowadays."

Based on this extensive research I'm going to opt for Hight's version.
posted by theodolite at 1:58 PM on August 30, 2010

Yeah, the reference material in the Penguin anthology was what made me break down and buy it. There's some great maps, and piles of information in the glossary alone... I also just finished reading Egil's saga. When they actually got to telling of Egil's life (see the warrior/poet link in the post), I was thinking 'Holy shit! And these are the pro-tagonists?'

Egil, age 10 or 12, gets beat up by an older kid, then runs off, borrows a greataxe, comes back and kills the kid, Ender's Game style. Later, wrestling with his dad and a twenty-year-old, his dad kills the 20-year-old and seems to be on his way to killing Egil. A woman wandering by reprimands him, at which point she gets chased into the sea. Egil's dad throws a boulder in after her, sinking her to the bottom of the ocean. Egil, pissed about losing his friend, comes to dinner that night and kills his dad's right-hand man. Egil and dad exchange no words for the entire winter. Then Egil tries to stow away on his brother's boat to escape the country.

And you thought your teenage years were fucked up?
posted by kaibutsu at 2:01 PM on August 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Another quip from Grettir the Witty:

"My prophecies are not generally long-lived," said Grettir, "nor shall this one be. Defend yourself if you will; you never will have better occasion for it than now."

Grettir then struck at him. He tried to parry the blow with his arm, but it struck him above the wrist and glanced off on to his neck so that his head flew off.

posted by theodolite at 2:12 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Awesome, going to get lost in this for a while.

I've just read the Prose Edda, and I love that it's one whole big argument for the importance of storytelling. The protagonist is told that if he wants to make it as a king, he'd better get wise, and so he asks these three king-above-king types (respectively High, Just-As-High, and Third, sitting on staggered thrones) about the stories of the world.

It also has some great stories about just how crap the gods are, both in that they're fairly awful to each other, and that they're not all that good at this whole being gods deal. They're the Greek gods turned up to 11.
posted by Dandeson Coates, Sec'y at 2:24 PM on August 30, 2010

"But when they gave up freebooting, Kari went to his estate at Berdla, being a man of great wealth".

-from, 'Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar' (1. Of Kveldulf and his sons.)

seems there was Aristo exploits going on in Iceland.
hard to give freebooting.

great package, comprehensive stuff. Takk.
posted by clavdivs at 2:29 PM on August 30, 2010

..see it is hard to give up freebooting
posted by clavdivs at 2:30 PM on August 30, 2010

Metafilter: Relatively little supernatural activity, aside from the occasional berserker or shapeshifter.
posted by Danf at 2:30 PM on August 30, 2010

Early Iceland was unique in Europe
One of these þings is not like the others.
posted by Abiezer at 2:43 PM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm glad you posted this; I was thinking of doing the same just recently, but I decided I didn't know enough about ancient Scandinavia.

Some of these have a novelistic depth to them, and suggest a familiarity with both the depths of human emotion and of killing people. A man throwing the teeth of a murdered boy at his father when he sues for justice. A father stepping away from his daughter's dead husband with a bloody axe and saying to her, "I have done that which will allow you to be married a second time."
posted by Countess Elena at 4:44 PM on August 30, 2010

posted by ovvl at 6:53 PM on August 30, 2010

meant to say:

off on to his neck so that his head flew off.

Skalding, like, Illiadic,
posted by ovvl at 6:55 PM on August 30, 2010

It's de rigueur to mention Tattúínárdælasaga (The Saga of the People of the Tattooine River Valley), the Icelandic saga that Star Wars was based on.
posted by XMLicious at 7:29 PM on August 30, 2010

I read a bunch of the Icelandic sagas in college and really enjoyed them. This post reminded me of how much. I'll definitely have to check out the Penguin anthology.

(Also, don't be ashamed of having found a lot of cool stuff for a game. I can't tell you how much weird stuff I've picked up and researched randomly for roleplaying purposes over the years.)
posted by immlass at 8:39 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

After reading Thomas Kinsella's translation of the Táin, I'd been wondering what ultra-violent ancient epic to tackle next. Problem solved.
posted by kersplunk at 9:58 PM on August 30, 2010

"the people of early Iceland were trying something different"

Developing a most excellent banking scheme?
posted by Twang at 10:30 PM on August 30, 2010

I've been wondering when the Saga Database would show up here. It was created by a couple of friends of mine. Aðalsteinn is even a MeFite (though completely inactive). It's a wonderful site.

P.S. For something contemporary that's very saga-like, check out the movie Winter's Bone.
posted by Kattullus at 11:26 PM on August 30, 2010

Imlass: No need to worry; I've been gaming far too long to feel anything like shame. In fact, I'm mainly just grateful to the Ars Magica authors for putting together a game that provides such good encouragement for gm's to go out and really learn a historical setting. In fact, if I ever find myself teaching small groups of high schoolers again, I can imagine putting together a term-long curriculum on the notion of choosing a historical setting and learning it well enough to run a game based on it...
posted by kaibutsu at 1:25 AM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love the Icelandic Sagas (Egil, Njal, Grettir and Gisli are all great places to start), but I'm questioning the "no aristocracy" label. First off, I'm not sure that aristocracy, as modern westerners tend to think of it, really existed in the 900's. Secondly, most of the landholders in early Iceland were landholders in Norway who got in to a fight with the king, and took all their slaves and retainers, and buggered off to that new island they'd heard about.
posted by QIbHom at 11:01 AM on August 31, 2010

From the 'governed by laws' link:
In the latter half of the ninth century, King Harald Fairhair unified Norway under his rule. A substantial part of the population left;[21] many went either directly to Iceland, which had been discovered a few years before, or indirectly via Norse colonies in England, Ireland, Orkney, the Hebrides, and the Shetland Islands. The political system which they developed there was based on Norwegian (or possibly Danish[22]) traditions but with one important innovation--the King was replaced by an assembly of local chieftains. As in Norway (before Harald) there was nothing corresponding to a strictly feudal bond. The relationship between the Icelandic godi and his thingmen (thingmenn) was contractual, as in early feudal relationships, but it was not territorial; the godi had no claim to the thingman's land and the thingman was free to transfer his allegiance.

At the base of the system stood the godi (pl. godar) and the godord (pl. godord). A godi was a local chief who built a (pagan) temple and served as its priest; the godord was the congregation. The godi received temple dues and provided in exchange both religious and political services.

Under the system of laws established in A.D. 930 and modified somewhat thereafter, these local leaders were combined into a national system. Iceland was divided into four quarters, and each quarter into nine godord.[23] Within each quarter the godord were clustered in groups of three called things. Only the godar owning these godord had any special status within the legal system, although it seems that others might continue to call themselves godi .
So there was certainly social stratification in early Iceland; there were slaves, paid laborers, farmers, and, finally, the godar. This system differed markedly from feudal aristocracy in that (with the presumable exception of slaves) people were free to take off to another part of the island if they were unhappy with their godi, land ownership seems to have been private (rather than assigned by kings or lords, as we actually see in Norway at the start of Egil's saga), and there's no apparent notion of vassalage.

You have a point w.r.t. the broad label of aristocracy; it was certainly a few holding the bulk of the political power. But the system in place was very different from the arrangements of Norway or the rest of Europe.
posted by kaibutsu at 1:45 PM on August 31, 2010

For background on Icelandic society/governance try Jesse Byock's Viking Age Iceland which includes explanations of some saga problems including the feuds of Snorri the Priest (from the Saga of the People of Eyr aka Eyrbyggja Saga.) The Penguin collection1 includes the two Vinland sagas both featuring the heroine Gudrid Thorbjornsdottir. Eirik the Red's Saga has Gudrid involved in a session of seithr, one of the only accounts of its type. The seeress that Gudrid aids has obviously seen better days and appears to be fleeing Christianity.
1The hardcover edition was remaindered and may be found cheaper than the paperback. Lots of booksellers have Jane Smiley as author (she wrote a preface) and it can sometimes be found under her name.
posted by CCBC at 2:39 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

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