It was during these last chaotic days of the Icelandic Republic (Norway assumed jurisdiction over the country in 1262) that the most sophisticated of all the sagas, the family sagas, were written. These sagas of Icelanders owe important debts to the centuries of interest in law, history, and kings’ lives which preceded them. Yet the blend of national history, genealogy, local legend, and character anecdote gathered into stories with structures and aesthetic values of their own is quite unlike earlier sagas or Continental literature of the same period.
Nowhere else in Europe (excluding the British Isles) had prose been adopted for such clearly literary purposes: The medium of the Continent’s literature was still verse, and the subject matter was heroic and traditional when it did not take up prevailing Christian motifs. In Europe, the thirteenth century was the age of scholasticism, and its literature was written mainly under the inspiration of the Christian faith. Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) stands as the age’s crowning achievement.
The Icelanders knew the heroic tradition well. This hoard of common experience, which found voice in works as diverse as Beowulf (c. 1000), the Poetic Edda, and Nibelungenlied (c. 1200; The Nibelungenlied, 1848), was kept alive mainly by Icelanders. Nor were the Icelanders unaffected by the Christian literature of courtly romance. Thomas of Brittany’s Tristan (c. 1160) was translated into Old Norse as Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar in 1226, and numerous other translations followed.
Such material engaged the imaginations of the family saga writers and supplied them with a storehouse of conventional stories, cosmological schemes, and codes of heroic behavior, but the subject matter and the ethos of the family sagas spring from a native source. Sagamen took their ancestors’ history and their own knowledge of the Icelandic landscape and transformed the Icelandic experience into narratives and stories which, in retrospect, read remarkably like novels and short stories. The high literary merit of the family sagas has made them widely known outside of Iceland and linked the name “saga” with their particular subject matter. The more than 120 sagas and thættir thought to have been written during the thirteenth century provide a remarkable fictional portrait of the tenth and the first third of the eleventh centuries. The sagamen rendered their histories in human terms. They were interested in individual men and women and the drama their lives provoked. By aesthetically arranging these incidents, which often range over a century and involve scores of characters, the sagamen aroused interest in the moral dimensions of their ancestors’ acts and the larger questions which they raised about human destiny in general.
The saga writer’s techniques are those which are often associated with modern realistic fiction. Verisimilitude is of primary importance. Characters are not drawn as types but are faithful portraits of individuals. Characters speak as people do to one another and are revealed through action. Description is minimal and lyrical effusion is absent. The imagery is spare, homely, and solid, free of affectation and exaggeration.
Presumably the authors of the family sagas did not have in mind a literary experiment when they wrote their stories. More likely they sought to reduplicate the actual features of life as they thought it had existed for their ancestors and as they had come to know it. For a long time it was thought that the sagas provided reasonably accurate histories of the Icelandic pioneers and their descendants. Research conducted in the past thirty years, however, has shown that the sagas are not reliable as histories nor as indices to local geography, although they take historical events and lives of historical persons as their subject. It is far more accurate to describe the sagas as well-composed fiction. The manner of presentation is the historian’s, but the effect is literary. Pertinent genealogies are recorded, local customs explained, and place names accounted for as the stories unfold. Use of the authorial “I” is almost totally absent, and point of view is established by selection of detail and juxtaposition of scenes rather than by interpretive commentary.
Saga language also suggests the historian’s objective tone. Concrete nouns are its hallmark. Verbs tend to be generalized and clauses strung loosely by means of parataxis. Interpretive adverbs and adjectives are avoided, and, when employed, they are determining rather than descriptive. Descriptions of landscapes or of persons are consequential. If a river is filled with floating chunks of ice, someone will surely jump from one to another or swim between them. When fantastic elements or dreams break into a realistic account, verisimilitude is not lost. For example, the same language is employed in Grettis saga when the monster Glam attacks Grettir as when the opponent is human or the scene less dramatic.
Language spoken in the family saga is terse and...