Saga-Accounts of Norse Far-Travellers

Saga-Accounts of Norse Far-Travellers

By John Douglas Shafer

PhD Dissertation, Durham University, 2010

Abstract: The thesis examines the medieval Icelandic sagas’ many accounts of travel taken by Scandinavian characters to lands in the distant north, south, east and west. These Norse far-travellers have various motivations for their journeys, and particular motivations and motifs are associated with each cardinal direction. Travel to the distant west and north, for example, is typified by commercial motivations: real estate and settlement schemes in the west, trade and tribute-collection in the north. Travel to the distant east frequently takes the form of royal exile, and piety is often the central motivation for journeys to the distant south. Other sorts of narrative patterns are also discussed. It is shown, for example, that there is a sort of “moral geography” evident in the literature, whereby journeys towards “holy” regions (east and south) are more spiritually beneficial than journeys in the opposite directions. The study systematically identifies and discusses saga-accounts of far-travel, surveying the various purposes and themes associated with each of the cardinal directions.

The first chapter introduces the material and key terms and provides a survey of the relevant scholarship. The following four chapters cover far-travel in each of the four directions, west, south, east and north respectively. The primary-text examples cited throughout support literary observations, and the conclusions drawn are all focused on literary aspects of the texts. Additionally, some historical observations are occasionally made, though these are never the main focus of the arguments.

The sixth and final chapter supplements the concluding sections of these four main chapters and draws additional conclusions. The concluding chapter also offers a diagrammatic representation of the relationships between the various motivations for far-travel in the different cardinal directions.

This thesis originated in a question: what did medieval saga-writers think about the Viking travellers who sailed west across the ocean without knowing the way to the lands they sought, or even whether or not these lands existed? Those who set out across the open sea discovered and settled new lands while other travellers went only short distances, hugging coast-lines all the way. This contrast leads to more specific questions. Did saga-writers consider the Norse travellers who sailed far across the open sea braver than others? More foolish? Did they respect the fortitude of men seeking new lands to settle, or did they think the discoverers just got lucky? Or of these maritime feats did the medieval story-tellers think anything at all?

The medieval saga-writers tell many stories of westward far-travel, but they do not write “These voyages were amazing feats of seamanship, and far-travellers were braver than near-travellers.” To find the answers to these questions the travel-narratives must be placed in the contexts in which they appear, and thus my questions about travel westward quickly led me to the broader study of saga-accounts of far-travel in all directions. Skalla-Grímr’s wisdom regarding travel would seem to be relevant to the study of travel: Er ýmsar verðr, ef margar ferr – “Many journeys lead to many directions.” Within this broader context, stories of far-travel westward across the ocean are just one type of saga-narrative dealing with the journey from the familiar to the “other”, a theme manifested in many different ways in the various sagas in which it appears.


Click here to read this thesis from Durham University

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