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Wikipedia: Norse saga
Norse saga
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

A Norse saga (also called a Viking saga) is a generally very romanticised, fantastic epic tale (a saga, often epic poetry usually either prose poetry or alliterative verse) of heroic deeds of days long gone, tales of worthy men, who were often Vikings, sometimes Pagan, sometimes Christian, always frightfully real, and not that different from us.

Basic information

The Old Norse word saga is related to the word segja, English to say meaning what is said, or told.

Norse Sagas are prose narratives written in Iceland or Scandinavia in the 12th and 13th centuries (Common Era) of historic or legendary figures and events of Norway and Iceland.

The time covered in most Norse sagas runs from about 930 to 1050. Most were written down between 1190 to 1320, often existing as oral traditions long before.

Some Norse sagas were wholly fiction, others were at least based on real events.

On the plots and writing style

Some Norse Sagas live between Christianity and Paganism (both Beowulf and Njal's Saga are examples; see also Norse mythology.) Aside from Christian influence, the world of the sagas is strongly pagan, and fate plays a central role, a key line in Njal's Saga (chapter 6, as translated by Magnus Magnusson; references below) is

... but each must do as destiny decides.

While Njal's Saga covers the year 1000 when Iceland was Christianized, and Beowulf is entirely Christian, a pagan ethos pervades both sagas.

The civilization of Norse sagas is complex, many-layered, with often-contradictory agents sometimes acting as forces for good, sometime evil, and always grippingly human.

The writing style tends towards the impersonal, terse, with no explanation of why's. Things happen; no one questions fate. Characters are often but briefly introduced, There was a man named ..., followed by brief biographies, genealogy, and all-important relations to other figures in the saga. Personalities are shown through action, seldom through analysis any deeper than offhand lines like He was an utter scoundrel, or, He was a powerful chieftain. Often a prominent agent figures in other sagas, and one may draw information from them, which saga writers simply assumed. Relationships between individuals are complex, by friendship, blood, marriage, and immediate geography.

One must often and at disadvantage overcome fantastic enemies, as in Beowulf. Life is short, uncertain, and men's worth is determined by glory in arms; the code of honor was described in Beowulf as follows:

For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. ...

Critical concepts to the Norse saga technique are honor, luck, and fate, the supernatural, and character. Behavior is often not explained, as within the world of the saga it is what must be done, and early listeners of sagas had no need of questions.

Any slight to one's honor (or that of one's family) had to be avenged, by blood or money. Men could easily be goaded to fatal violence over a (real or imagined) slight to their honor.

The concept of luck is simple, certainly in one such as Njal's Saga: one is born with a certain store of good luck. When your good luck runs out, you're doomed.

Fate (wyrd in Old English) is unavoidable, no matter what an agent does. If one learns through a seer that one is fated to die in a coming battle, one does not run away. It is fate: you go to the battle; you are slain. Part of lines 2421-23 from Heaney's translation of Beowulf (references) follow:

His fate hovered near, unknowable but certain:
''it would soon claim his coffered soul,
part life from limb. ...

The supernatural often plays a major role as well. Oneiric (i.e., relating to prophetic dreams) factors may also play a role.

Do agents have the character to surmount their difficulties, or do they succumb to vices such as evil, cowardice and pride?

As a final stylistic point, Magnus Magnusson beautifully notes in his introduction to Njal's Saga,

In the midst of such economy, one spendthrift sentence can speak volumes: 'two ravens flew with them all the way' (Chapter 79) as Skarp-Hedin and Hogni set out at night to avenge Gunnar ...

It is easy, in our "enlightened" 21st century world to criticize. But how different are we?

The saga as a literary technique

The saga is not strictly a Norse literary technique. Similar styles around the world were either independently developed or were derived from the style of the Norse sagas. For example:

Even some religious writings such as the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita have saga overtones.

Modern parallels

Of Tolkien, the name of Gandalf, is found in the Edda; indeed, Gandalf is reminiscent of Odin, the principle Norse god. Tolkien's name Middle-earth comes from Norse mythology.

Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung drew inspiration from sources including the Norse Saga, Edda, The Saga of the Volsungs and the German epic The Nibelungenlied.

Classification of sagas

Norse Sagas are generally classified as:

  • Kings' sagas; telling the lives of Scandinavian kingss. They date from 1200 to 1235.
  • Icelandic sagas; these are heroic prose narratives written from 1200-20 of the great families of Iceland from 930 to 1030. These are the highest form of the classical Icelandic saga writing.
    • Egils saga
    • Gísla saga, of an outlaw poet.
    • Njal's Saga; the greatest of Icelandic prose sagas; many translations are available and it available on the Internet.
  • Legendary sagas; basically romantic literature, with a romanticized image of the distant past. The aim is on a lively narrative and entertainment. Iceland's pagan past was a proud and heroic history.

Wikipedia links: see also

External links and references


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