The World West of Iceland in Medieval Icelandic Oral Tradition
By Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough
The 14th International Saga Conference Uppsala, 9th–15th August 2009, edited by Agneta Ney, Henrik Williams and Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist (Gävle University Press, 2009)
Introduction: The abstract for this paper drew attention to the unusual way in which the Íslendingasögur depict the world west of Iceland (with particular emphasis on Greenland), and the implications of this representation for the construction of a ‘world view’ of the geographical sphere as it might have been viewed by medieval Norse society. The Greenland of the sagas was a unique and at times strange place, lying somewhere on the boundary between the known, familiar Norse world, and an unfamiliar, exotic sphere beyond. An analysis of any saga is enhanced by a consideration of its oral dimensions, but the issue is especially important in the case of texts with Greenlandic episodes, where the provenance and nature of these underlying oral elements is particularly difficult to ascertain. Yet the degree of consistency throughout various sagas’ portrayals of the region suggests some stability within the oral traditions connected with the country. This is particularly the case with regard to the Vínland sagas (Eiríks saga and Grænlendinga saga), where their similarities led early scholarship to favour a literary relationship between the two, although more recent research has concluded that they are unrelated literary texts with common oral elements. By examining the strands of oral traditions and common literary themes that reoccur throughout the sagas, this paper will attempt to construct a ‘mental map’ of this geographical and social sphere as it might have appeared to medieval Icelandic society. It will examine the place of Greenland in the Norse world view, considering why the sagas set in the region tend to focus on the more negative aspects of landscape and life in the country.