Viking Travellers of the Sagas

Viking Travellers of the Sagas

Shafer, John (University of Durham)

North and South, East and West: Movements in the Medieval World: Proceedings of the 2nd Postgraduate Conference of the Institute for Medieval Research, University of Nottingham (2009)


Introduction: In accordance with the Icelandic sagas’ tendency to show rather than tell, it is rare for saga characters to say explicitly what motivates them to travel from their homes in Scandinavia and Iceland to distant lands. One character who proves an exception to this rule is Bolli Bollason, who in Chapter 72 of Laxdœla saga says, ‘Þat hefi ek lengi haft í hug mér, at ganga suðr um sinns sakar; þykkir maðr við þat fávíss verða, ef hann kannar ekki víðara en hér Ísland’ – ‘I have long had it in mind to one day travel to the south; a man is thought to grow foolish if he never explores more widely than just here in Iceland.’ Later, when Bolli has travelled to Norway and spent some time there, he replies to a query about whether he intends to return to Iceland or stay in Norway: ‘Ek ætla mér hvárki, ok er þat satt at segja, at ek hafða þat ætlat, þá er ek fór af Íslandi, at eigi skyldi at spyrja til mín í öðru húsi’ – ‘I mean to do neither, and it is fair to say that when I set out from Iceland I did not intend that any should hear of me being just next-door.’ Bolli’s words reveal a key aspect of medieval Scandinavians’ imaginative geography of the world: a distinction between lands that are near and familiar and those that are far and exotic. The distant, exotic place to which Bolli ultimately travels is the great, southern city of Miklagarðr, Byzantium (Constantinople). There he finds the experience and general self-advancement he left Iceland seeking. Bolli wins renown with great military deeds in the service of the Byzantine emperor, and when he returns north he and his men wear the most resplendent southern finery, carry gold-edged weapons and bring an air of exotic, southern chivalry to the homely, familiar landscape of Iceland (Ch. 77). All three main sub-genres of saga-literature – sagas of Icelanders, kings’ sagas and sagas of ancient times – feature episodes in which Scandinavian characters travel from their homelands across the boundary between lands of Norse familiarity to these lands distinctly ‘outside.’ These saga-characters merit the name of far-travellers.

It is clear that the Byzantine Empire is conceptually ‘distant’ from Iceland in a way that Norway is ‘next-door.’ The fact that Byzantium was also geographically far from Scandinavian lands is less important to the city’s characterisation as ‘distant.’ Conversely, Finnmörk (Lapland), which is part of mainland Scandinavia, serves in the sagas as a ‘distant’ location by virtue of its many monstrous and magical inhabitants – giants, trolls and semi-human Lapps. To saga-writers and -readers, Finnmörk and the lands beyond it are clearly exotic locations in which fantastic episodes may be expected to occur, and frequently do. Indications that the Greenland and Vínland (Newfoundland) of the sagas are conceptually distant from Scandinavia and Iceland include the initial ambiguity of their locations (and even their existence) and accounts the hazardous and difficult passages there (Eiríks saga rauða, hereafter Eir., Chs. 2, 5; Grœnlendinga saga, hereafter Grœ., Chs. 1-2; Flóamanna saga Chs. 21-22). The Russia of the sagas, Garðaríki, often serves as the eastern gateway to the southern court of Miklagarðr, and indeed saga-characters interact with Russian monarchs much as they do with the Byzantine emperor (cf. Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar Chs. 2-3). Other indications of Russia’s conceptual distance from Scandinavia include various expressions of homesickness by saga characters exiled to Russia, and journeys to and from Russia progressing in stages due to specific geographical features of the region, such as ice-blocked ports (Hálfdanar saga Eysteinssonar Ch. 24; Óláfs saga helga Chs. 1, 186; Knýtlinga saga Ch. 70).

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