The Place of Greenland In Medieval Icelandic Saga Narrative

The Place of Greenland In Medieval Icelandic Saga Narrative

By Jonathan Grove

Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 2 (2009)

Abstract: This paper explores the accounts of Norse Greenland in the medieval Icelandic sagas, looking past the Vínland sagas to examine ways in which Greenlandic settings are employed in the “post-classical” saga-tradition and other texts. The style and content of these tales varied over time, but the recurrence of certain conventional patterns indicates that stories set in Greenland retained important thematic continuities for Icelandic saga audiences. From as early as the 12th century, Icelandic writers identified Greenland as a peripheral space in the Norse world, connected with Iceland, but markedly distinct and remote. This marginalization is evident in the Vinland sagas and developed further in the post-classical tradition, which made Greenland a place of exile in which Icelandic heroes were tested by extreme adversity in the settlements and wilderness. Embodying the preoccupations of Icelandic writers and audiences, these writings tell us little about historical realities in Norse Greenland; but they do show how details of geographical and historical lore were subsumed and transformed in the Icelandic narrative tradition.

Introduction: The Íslendingasögur (Sagas of Icelanders) andthe related shorter narratives, or þættir, composed in medieval Iceland contain a number of tales and episodes set in Greenland in the late Viking Age. These stories incorporate a range of observations and truisms regarding life in Norse Greenland, including allusions to the special environmental and economic circumstances of the colony, the disposition of the settlements and central sites, and the importance of foreign trade and connections with Norway. The texts were mostly composed in the 13th and 14th centuries, and although they build partly on oral traditions that may in some cases have originated as early as the 10th and 11th centuries, they do not constitute primary sources for the history of early Greenland; nor yet do they compensate for the lack of equivalent textual remains from Greenlandic contexts. The outlook of these stories is resolutely Icelandic, and from a modern perspective much of their content is ahistorical at best. The Íslendingasögur fulfilled and extended literary conventions that formalized the experience and identity of the Icelanders as a distinct people. Geographical settings developed within them are not unproblematic representations of physical and historical realities, but ideological constructions that assimilated hierarchical perceptions of locality and spatial relations in a set of conventional narrative arrangements. Pseudo-historical and grotesque accounts of activities in Greenland during the formative period of the Icelandic Commonwealth mark the boundaries of the stylized conceptual world of Iceland and Icelandic identity in saga literature. By examining the treatment of Greenlandic settings in medieval narrative texts producedin Iceland, we may identify how the imaginative writings of this historically marginal society embodiedits preoccupation with its own perceived place at the heart of the medieval North Atlantic world.

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See also: Vikings in Greenland

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