Auðun of the West Fjords and the Saga Tradition: Similarities of Theme and Structural Suitability

Iceland - West Fjords

Iceland - West FjordsAuðun of the West Fjords and the Saga Tradition: Similarities of Theme and Structural Suitability

Josie Nolan (Trinity College Dublin)

Vexillum: Issue 3 (2013)


This paper evaluates the story of Auðun from the West Fjords, a þáttr dating from the Sturlunga period of medieval Iceland. It compares the short prose narrative to the much longer sagas in terms of their mutual concerns with kings, peace, and the place of Iceland in a larger Christian world, all of which would have been of major topical importance during the probable period of composition. Building on these common themes, a consideration is offered of the stabilizing nature of Auðun on the societies he passes through and how this relates to his identification as a lucky man. It is established that the story is optimistic and even quixotic. The þáttr, therefore, with its highly patterned, happily ended and usually amusing nature, combined with its brief and enclosed structure is the perfect form to carry such a story, in contrast to the longer, more diffuse sagas.


The tale of Auðun from the West Fjords is a þáttr, or short prose tale, about an Icelander’s journey to Denmark to give a bear to the king, after which he goes on a pilgrimage to Rome and subsequently returns to his home country. The major features of the text are four encounters with two kings, during which Auðun conducts himself with utter aplomb and imperturbability. The themes of the text are surprisingly similar to those of the sagas, given the vast differences between the two forms. Concerning kings, for example, the distinct genres share a well-founded ambivalence. Tied up with the theme of kings is an interest in travel and a common project to integrate Iceland into a larger world- history, in an attempt to establish the equality of the younger nation. The text also has a preoccupation with peace and justice, a reflection of the social concerns of the Age of the Sturlungs, when the tale is likely to have been written down, possibly more so than the concerns of the period it depicts. However, a desire for balance and mutual contentment is reflected in the choice of þáttr as a form. This is a concern shared by many of the sagas, but hardly emphasized as neatly by their sprawling structures.

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