Between Fiction and Falsehood: The Ethics of Lying in the Sagas of Icelanders
By Brian McMahon
Scandia: Journal of Medieval Norse Studies, Vol. 1 (2018)
Abstract: This paper discusses a series of episodes from the Sagas of Icelanders in which one character attempts to deceive another. In each case the presentation of the incident is explored to establish whether the deception can be justified according to the internal ethics of the semi-fictionalised Saga Age depicted. On the basis of these examples, drawn from a range of sagas but with a particular emphasis on Grettis saga and Njáls saga, it goes on to argue that the saga authors consistently distinguish between the ethical justification for different attempts to deceive based on: the circumstances in which they take place, the degree to which they might be described as audacious, and the level of success which their instigators enjoy.
It posits a distinction between “active” deception (incorporating slander, oath-breaking and níð) and “passive” deception (entrapping an interlocutor into deceiving himself), and concludes with a comparison of the saga hero’s skill in bending the truth and the saga author’s attempt to be truthful to his source material while also sustaining his reader’s interest.
Introduction: The society depicted in the Íslendingasögur (“sagas of Icelanders”) is an honour-based culture in which characters regularly announce their recent deeds and demand acknowledgement for them from their peers and the wider public. Even when such openness is bound to provoke intergenerational feuding and sustained ill feeling, it is typically presented as preferable to secrecy and omission on the basis that the proper functioning of society depended in large part on everyone knowing where he or she stood in relation to everyone else. Yet despite this emphasis on a Saga Age culture of openness, the surviving medieval law codes make clear that dishonest conduct incurred a heavy penalty, thus indicating that truth-telling was no more a given in the Middle Ages than it is today.
Top Image: An image from Njals saga by Andreas Bloch (1860–1917)