The Saga and Tháttr Analysis


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The term “saga” (pl. sögur) is Old Norse in origin and means “a saw” or “saying.” After written language supplemented oral language in the North, the word “saga” was extended to include any kind of legend, story, tale, or history written in prose. As a literary term, “saga” refers more specifically to prose narratives written in medieval Iceland. The sagas are traditionally classified according to their subject matter. The main types of sagas are Konungasögur (kings’ sagas), Íslendingasögur (sagas of the Icelanders or family sagas), Sturlunga saga (saga of the Sturlungs), Byskupasögur (bishops’ sagas), Fornaldarsögur (sagas of past times), Riddarosögur (sagas of chivalry), and Lygisögur (lying sagas). In general, family sagas and kings’ sagas are of highest literary merit. Their excellence ranks them among the finest work of the European Middle Ages.

Closely associated with the saga in medieval Icelandic literature was the tháttr (pl. thættir), a shorter prose form which is related to the saga in roughly the same fashion as a short story is to a novel: The most evident difference between the two is length. Tháttr literally means “a single strand,” as of rope. The Icelanders early extended this meaning metaphorically to refer to parts of written works. Episodes of narratives, chapters of histories, or sections of law were thus known as thættir....

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Origins of the Saga and Tháttr Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Evidence of the strong ties and shifting boundaries between the saga and tháttr forms has provoked ongoing speculation about the original relationship between the two. The once-held belief that thættir were oral tales recorded by scribes and then linked into sagas has been discarded. Sagas and thættir represent a sophisticated confluence of numerous sources both written and oral and are dependent as well on the genius of their individual authors. While the origin of saga and tháttr writing is a matter of speculation, it can be said that the two are related emanations of the deeply rooted storytelling traditions of Northern Europe.

Storytelling, poetry recitation, and their descendant written forms have historically been the most favored of all arts in Scandinavia and particularly in Iceland. This affection for and mastery of the literary arts in Iceland has been attributed to strong urges of an emigrant culture to preserve knowledge of its European ancestral history. Medieval Icelandic manuscripts are the single preserve of certain heroic Germanic myths and tales which were part of a shared tradition of the Northern peoples. The old literature was lost in Germany and England, where Christianity arrived early. In Scandinavia, where Teutonic mythology and religion held sway for centuries longer (Sweden did not have a Christian bishop until the twelfth century), some of the old myths and stories were preserved, mainly in two Icelandic texts known as the Eddas. The Poetic Edda (ninth to twelfth century; English translation, 1923) contains heroic, didactic, and mythological poems which allude to events, legends, and beliefs of the Teutonic tribes. The Prose Edda (c. 1220; English translation, 1916) relates mythological and heroic stories of the pre-Christian North and provides an elaborate poetics for the poetry associated with the legends.

Medieval Icelanders had material as well as patriotic motives for their literary efforts. Those who note the preponderance of writing and the relative absence of other artistic endeavors in Iceland point out the lack of native materials necessary for practicing other arts. Those who engaged themselves in such vigorous literary activity on a remote and rural island several hundred miles from the European mainland were by majority Norwegian emigrants who came to Iceland during the reign of Harald I. Harald’s ambitious rise to power during the later decades of the ninth century clashed with the Norwegian landed gentry whose livelihoods and properties were threatened by the young monarch’s expansion. Rather than suffer servitude or death many chose emigration westward. Various other causes, including hope for a better life and need to escape the law, brought more settlers.

From all accounts, the Icelanders were industrious and enterprising farmers, exceptionally literate and particularly skilled in self-government and law. Those who could argue the law and bring cases to just settlement were highly regarded. The Icelandic pioneers organized assemblies called “Things” which ruled the country by democratic process. They...

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Kings’ Sagas

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The first document to which the name “saga” is attached is the fragmentary Oldest Olafs saga helga (St. Olaf’s saga) from about 1180. Although primarily a hagiographic account of King Olaf Haraldsson (St. Olaf, c. 995- 1030), the saga does contain several thættir made lively by verbal exchanges. Oldest Olafs saga helga was likely composed at the Benedictine monastery in northern Iceland. Such monasteries carried on a wide range of literary activities, not all of them religious in nature. Translations of European histories were undertaken and biographies of kings were written with an eye to more than the kings’ saintly virtues. Most of these early works are lost.

The popularity of sagas about kings is evidenced by the compilation of the Morkinskinna (rotten skin) c. 1220. Morkinskinna is a collection of biographies of eleventh and twelfth century Norwegian kings which incorporates thirty thættir, among them “Halldor Snorrason,” “Ivar’s Story,” and the most famous tháttr, “Audun and the Bear,” one of the most beautiful pilgrimage stories in world literature. When the Icelandic biographers of kings set to documenting the lives of long-dead Norwegian monarchs, they turned to the skaldic verse which celebrated their subjects. The fixity of the verse patterns and the conventionality of the kennings (elaborate metaphors) made the poetry a more reliable medium for accurate preservation of the kings’ lives than oral tales.

Skaldic verse had its origins in Norway, but Icelanders became its greatest practitioners. Several of Iceland’s pioneers were skalds, including the most famous of all skaldic poets, Egill Skallagrimsson, whose two beautiful poems, Hofuðlausn (c. 948; The Ransome of Egill, the Scald, 1763) and Sonátorrek (c. 961; lament for my sons), are centerpieces in Egils Saga (c. 1220; Egil’s Saga, 1763). Many kings’ sagas are liberally interspersed with skaldic poems, but it would be a mistake in most cases to think of kings’ sagas as merely prose expansion of the tighter verse forms. The numerous histories which grew out of the skaldic tradition seem to have directed attention to the art of biography for its own sake. These kings’ sagas, especially those found in the Morkinskinna and Flateyjarbók manuscripts, are also host to dozens of thættir which feature as their subject a meeting between an Icelander and a Norwegian or Danish king. These short stories probably gave rise to...

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Family Sagas

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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...

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Sagas of Past Times

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The most notable of the sagas of past times is the Völsunga saga (c. 1270; The Saga of the Volsungs, 1930), which opens by recounting the earliest days of the tribe of the Völsungs. The flower of the clan is Sigurd, the most popular of all Northern heroes. Sigurd kills the dragon Fafnir and comes into possession of the Nibelungen wealth. Later he is betrothed to the Valkyrie Brynhild, but the affair comes to tragedy when Sigurd, under a witch’s spell, forgets Brynhild and marries another woman. Brynhild is married into the same family and eventually urges her husband to kill Sigurd. When the deed has been accomplished, Brynhild throws herself on Sigurd’s funeral pyre. The remainder of the saga follows the...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

One hundred short stories are usually named as thættir. Approximately forty-five of these fall into a group which features an Icelander as protagonist, and among this group are the most distinguished of the stories. Tháttr length runs from a single page to about twenty-five pages, the average being between ten and twelve standard printed pages.

While the family sagas typically take as heroes famous men or families, the thættir usually choose a common man. Thættir about Icelandic farmers cluster around the lives of saints, historic heroes, folklore heroes, or kings. By far the most popular subject matter is the Icelander who travels to the court of a European king; these thættir outnumber all others by approximately...

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Audun and the Bear

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Audun is a Westfjord man of very modest means who gives all of his money for a Greenland bear that he wishes to present to King Svein of Denmark. When Audun lands in Norway, King Harald, having heard about the precious bear, invites Audun to court, hoping to buy it or have it given to him. In a graceful show of honesty and naïveté, Audun tells Harald he wishes to deliver the bear to Svein. Harald is so startled by the man’s innocence that he sends him on his way even though Norway and Denmark are at war. Audun finally makes his way to Svein, but not without begging for food and selling half of the bear to do so. Svein is pleased and supplies Audun with silver for a pilgrimage to Rome. When Audun returns to Svein’s court after...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Andersson, Theodore M., and William Ian Miller. Law and Literature in Medieval Iceland: “Ljósvetninga saga” and “Valla-Ljóts saga.” Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1989. Written by a literary critic and a legal historian, this study combines methodologies to the study, translation, and annotation of two relatively unknown family sagas. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Clover, Carol J. Óláfs Saga Helga, Runsivals Tháttr, and Njáls Saga: A Structural Comparison. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. Clover compares three sagas in this historical study. Includes a bibliography.


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