Combat in Saga Literature: Traces of martial arts in medieval Iceland
By Sixt Wetzler
PhD Dissertation, University of Tuebingen, 2017
Introduction: Bændur flugust á – ‘farmers came to blows’. The words of 18th century saga compiler Jón Ólafsson are famous among the scholars of Old Norse literature. Intended as an ironic comment on the content of the sagas of Icelanders, they express quite adequately most novices’ first impression of this type of literature.
On a first glance, the Íslendingasögur can seem like a never-ending chain of feud killings, and many of the best known and most noteworthy saga scenes are scenes of combat. We may think, for example, of Gísli Súrsson’s last stand, when he is both fighting and reciting stanzas while struggling to hold his entrails in his slit-open body; of Skarpheðinn Njálsson’s trick of decapitating an enemy while sliding over a frozen river; or of the near mythic wrestling match of hero versus revenant in Grettis saga.
The images these scenes evoke appear in vivid colours before the reader’s inner eye. They are often crucial for a saga, and tend to be among the first things associated with a certain text. Physical combat is the condensation of the principal of conflict that the sagas thrive on. However, it is as if Jón Ólafsson’s words had laid a spell on generations of scholars, and their attitude towards the combat scenes in saga literature. Of all the metres of bookshelves which have been written on the genre, next to nothing covers the topic of combat. This is astounding. If not for their importance in the stories, the number of combat scenes alone would have justified a closer look.