Icelandic Medieval Sagas

Introduction

Svarfdӕla saga is a saga that has been cursed with issues, such as missing sections of its manuscript and unexplainable -or unreasonable acts of violence within the storyline.  Even for an Icelandic family saga, 1 the violence demonstrated in Svarfdӕla saga can easily overpower the intent of the storyline.  The saga’s lack of success among scholars of Old Norse-Icelandic literature has been notable. 2  Svarfdӕla appeared to lack solid themes, purpose and motivation, disallowing its inner mechanisms to come to life.  The very text itself appeared unruly and unmanageable, just like the valley and the people it is describing.

Freyja_and_Svipdag_John_Bauer

The Medieval Manuscript

The original version of Svarfdæla saga, translated from Old Icelandic to English by Fredrik J. Heinemann, is based on text in the Íslenzk fornrit series, IX or what is called the anthology of Icelandic sagas.  The original manuscript no longer survives, leaving a flawed 17th century paper manuscript 3 as the only foundation for contemporary versions. It was written in the late 14th century, but the saga itself takes place between 875 and 980 CFE.

The core principle of Literature and its rules is to impart an understanding of the conditions under which its dialogue and events are formed, as well as how the writing is received.  Or put in another way, the communication between author and reader.  For the process of this communication to work, interpretation by the reader relies on their own basic story structure knowledge in order to engage the story’s meaning.  The author of the story can only indicate meaning to guide the reader in various ways, but it is mostly left up to the audience to ‘pull out’ the story’s content.

As the original version of the sagas were most likely oral renditions, the flexibility needed to bring the story and characters to life relies chiefly upon the presenter, or “poet”.  Once, however, the sagas were put into written form, the dramatic interaction between audience and poet became lost, making characters and events appear flat when read outright. 4  It should also be said that not until the more recent decades was reading considered something to do silently, or even on one’s own.  Possibly due to the high level of illiteracy in the world, but reading became an event, bringing people together for learning or entertainment.   Reading was a group activity and conducted in full voice.  Even as monks and scholars began reading texts individually it was still done while sitting together in the same room and speaking the written words.

The Northern Diaspora

Icelandic sagas are part literature, part history.  Scholars have decided that they are neither all fiction nor all non-fiction.  This is because some parts of the sagas recount, or can be connected to real historical events —while other parts remain unsubstantiated as fact.  An example of this is, after you have read one or two Icelandic sagas, you will find they very often begin during the reign of the Norwegian King Harald Finehair.  Finehair resolved to replace the country’s petty states and chieftains with his one monarchy to conquer and rule the whole of Norway, causing a natural upheaval among the people.

This part of Norwegian history is one of the characteristic responses to the question why the medieval Norseman immigrated to Iceland-and other lands. Stories come to life surrounding real historical events to more richly describe how the old ways were being challenged by current times. So when a large portion of eastern Norway came under Harald Finehair’s control, enabling him to politically restrict the activities of those who refused to submit to his demands of leadership, it was time for some individuals to move on to less constrained parts of the world.  For others, it had simply become too crowded on the continent—with way too much government.  It is believed and known that Harald Finehair had the tenacity and strength to bring his fellow countrymen around to his way of thinking, but it was when he won the battle at Havsfjörd 5 that many western Norwegians first immigrated to the British Isles —to in turn, make raids on their own homeland of Norway (Íslendingabók, 26).

And yet, there is another known, broader scale of emigration occurring throughout the northern countries during the Viking Age. This movement is inspired through different circumstances.  Explanations of the northern diaspora originate with the area’s booming population growth, creating a quickly growing shortage of land. Along with this boom comes prosperity and Scandinavians begin to show a rising skill in craftsmanship and as tradesmen.  This together with their natural capability as seafarers, they cultivate into brilliant, ruthless, and expert explorers. 6 And so the sagas begin.

The Naming of the Land

There is an Icelandic ancient book of naming the land called Landnámabók. In this book the island’s original settlements and settlers are described.  It tells us that for the most part the early settlement years of Iceland were relatively peaceful. Of course, there were conflicts of many kinds, but overall there is little implication of an overly violent beginning.  Regarding Christians and pagans, they appear to have co-existed with little religious conflict, and more often in respect of one another. 7

Landnámabók also tells us the original settlers were allowed to   take as much of the new land as they wanted.  Often they claimed vast areas to gain control of the area’s resources and the settlers who would later come there to live and work.  Such is the case of Helgi the Lean 8 who settled most of the area of Eyjafjörður in north central Iceland, and where Svarfdӕla saga takes place.  It is through him and from the pages of Landnámabók that the history of Thorstein svarfað (the unruly), the grandson of the Norwegian King’s agent and father of Karl the Red, emerges to unite Svarfdӕla saga to the settlement myths of Iceland —as told in this excerpt:

219.  Thorstein Svarfað

There was a man called Thorstein Svarfað, son of Rauð Rugga of Namdalen.  He married Hild, daughter of Thrain Black-Troll. Thorstein went to Iceland and took possession of Svarfadardale with Helgi’s approval.  His children were Karl the Red of Karl’s River and Gudrun, wife of Hafthor the Viking; and their children were Klaufi and Groa, who was married to Gris the Gay.

There was a man called Atli the Evil.  He killed Hafthor and put Karl in shackles.  Then Klaufi came up unexpectedly, killed Atli and set Karl free.   Klaufi married Yngvild Fair-Cheek, daughter of Ásgeir Red-Cloak and sister of Olaf the Witch-Breaker and Thorleif.  He slit the bag of dyeing moss they’d collected in his land.  Then Thorleif made this verse:  Boggvir cut//my short-haired bag, //and Olaf’s belt//and cloak besides.//He’ll never be safe//from the slayer’s hand//as long as we live, //this man of mischief.

This led to events in Svarfdæla saga. 9

This is how Svarfdæla saga came about.  After years of re-telling, of combining myth with fact in a refinement of story and characters, the events originally found in the Landnámabók passage have turned into the vivid and lively version told today.  The historical innovation, purpose and design that altered Svarfdӕla saga away from—or possibly towards—this passage in Landnámabók to its final writing of the medieval manuscript are a part of the mysteriously wonderful oral story-telling past, Svarfdӕla saga, and all of the medieval Sagas of Icelanders.

Notes:

  1. Anderson & Miller, 1989, 3.  Svarfdæla saga is part of the Sagas of Icelanders, or Íslendingasögur. They tell stories about leading Icelandic figures and families from the time of the islands’ colonization around 900 to the middle of the eleventh century. Or  in terms of English chronology, from the time of King Alfred to a few years before the Norman Conquest (1066).
  2. Fredrik J. Heinemann, Svarfdæla saga: The Swedes versus the Norwegians, 1998, 56-72.
  3. Velum or animal hide would have been the original material used for writing.
  4. For further reading, see Torfi H. Tulinius, “The Matter of the North: The Rise of Literacy Fiction in Thirteenth-Century Iceland”, Translated by Randi C. Eldevik. Odense University Press, 2002, 35-37.
  5. In Snorri Sturluson’s epic, Heimskringla (circle of the earth), written 300 years later, the battle of Havsfjörd becomes the defining naval battle in the year 872, resulting in Norway’s unity as one kingdom.
  6. Farms in the ‘village’ of Scandinavia underwent very slight alterations from the third to the sixth century. After the sixth century, archeological observations denote “a sort of dividing line which has been termed the Migration period crisis.” For a detail discussion, see The Scandinavians from the Vendel Period to the Tenth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective, ed. Judith Jesch. The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, 2002, 10-25.
  7. Iceland did not wholly accept Christianity until the year 1000 CFE.
  8. Mentioned in Landnámabók and famous because he “believed in Christianity, and yet made vows to Thor for sea-voyages…” Gwyn Jones, 2001, 277.
  9. Landnámabók, 1968, 97-98.