By Yoav Tirosh
So you‘ve decided to read an Icelandic saga – probably Njáls saga – but not sure what is going on? Here are some neat tips and tricks that will make your lives easier and your reading of sagas much more enjoyable.
Location, Location, Location
If I could give a single tip for a better understanding of any Icelandic saga, it would be to bring out a map and figure out all the places where the action is happening. This will teach you a lot about the symbolic meaning of the landscape mentioned, but also from a very practical side, knowing where things happen explains a lot about the geopolitical dynamics that unfold in the sagas. Mapping the Icelandic Sagas is an amazing resource for exactly this. It allows you to choose a saga and see where everything described there goes down.
See also Emily Lethbridge’s The Icelandic Sagas and Saga Landscapes
One good thing to do when reading the sagas is to keep a pen and paper at hand and try and figure out who is related to whom. This might seem like a waste of time, but the saga’s main character (if there even is one…) usually takes time to appear, and by the time they do you are expected to have a PhD in that person’s entire lineage. The sagas create a lot of meaning using genealogies, and you learn much about a person’s destiny by looking at the paths of their ancestors. Admittedly, the sagas have too many men named Þorsteinn for their own good, but you can write down their place of residence and that will hopefully help you figure out who’s who.
See also Margaret Clunies Ross’ The Development of Old Norse Textual Worlds: Genealogical Structure as a Principle of Literary Organisation in Early Iceland
The manuscript context of the Icelandic sagas is important for getting the best picture of how medieval and post-medieval Icelanders framed these narratives. Sometimes these are organized by where the saga takes place, sometimes according to themes, and sometimes a seemingly random assortment that says much about the interest of the manuscript‘s owner or compiler. Handrit.is is a valuable resource with information about the ownership, texts, secondary literature and edited editions that also contains the scanned images of many medieval and post-medieval manuscripts.
Old Norse Words
If you’re daring enough to read the Icelandic sagas the way that God intended (in Old Norse), or at least checking the Old Norse alongside a translation, one of the most powerful tools out there is the Dictionary of Old Norse Prose. There you can check where certain words appear, and figure out whether or not these words are common, rare, and if their use indicates something special. It even has its own Old Norse version of Wordle! Another great website for this is corpus.arnastofnun.is, but note that it requires navigating through the Icelandic interface.
If you want to go even deeper into the rabbit hole of the Icelandic sagas, it’s worth noting that websites like Archive.org offer many copyright-free editions in Old Norse. While they hadn’t integrated the latest in late 20th and early 21st-century philological developments, many of them had a penchant for marking manuscript variations that help you realize how complex the textual transmission could actually get. Íslenzk fornrit is great, and justifiably considered the standard edition of the Icelandic sagas. But when using these editions it’s important to remember that the early 20th-century saga editions, in particular, tended to underplay individual manuscript variations in the name of creating a definitive version of some of the sagas.
See also Judy Quinn and Emily Lethbridge’s edited collection Creating the Medieval Saga: Versions, Variability and Editorial Interpretations of Old Norse Saga Literature
Monsters and the paranormal are everywhere in the Icelandic sagas. Their presence makes the sagas much more fun texts; farmers letting their cows graze in other farmers’ land and then killing each other can get tedious sometimes. Beyond spicing things up, the appearance of the paranormal can mean many things, including trauma from violence, complex gender issues, and social exclusion. Whenever a paranormal being appears in the sagas it is important to ask ourselves: what is the author trying to tell us by using this motif?
See also Ármann Jakobsson’s The Troll Inside You
Saga scholarship is full of debates about who wrote what saga and why. This often ignores the fact that these texts were in fact dynamic stories that were regularly retold and rewritten with each of these retellings. While authorship is curious and important in a modern context, and the word “author” is a very convenient shorthand, we should always remember the oral origins of these texts, which were changing even as they were written down.
See also Jürg Glauser’s The Speaking Bodies of Saga Texts and Stefanie Gropper’s The ‘Heteronomous Authorship’ of Icelandic Saga literature. The Example of Sneglu-Halla þáttr
Gender – “Oh, yeah, women were Vikings, right?”
This is something that I hear a lot as someone who researches the Icelandic sagas, to which I usually reply “I don’t know, and I don’t care” (but you should check out, for example, Judith Jesch’s blog post on the topic and Johanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir’s Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World.
Gender dynamics in the sagas have been a source of much disagreement and debate in the last few decades, sparked by Carol Clover’s controversial argument that there was only one gender in the age of the sagas. These days the most interesting stuff in saga research is happening in the realm of gender and sexuality. When I read about masculinity in the sagas, for example, I understand much about my own life and the issues that I have been dealing with in my own life.
See also Masculinities in Old Norse Literature, edited by Gareth Lloyd Evans and Jessica Clare Hancock
Research into disability in medieval Iceland and in the sagas, in particular, is ever-growing. Especially noteworthy is the University of Iceland’s Disability before Disability project that offered a history of disability in Iceland from its settlement to modern times (see the open access book produced by this project). The idea that disability is a major factor in the sagas might come as a surprise to people, but considering the amount of injuries that are sustained in battle and the fact that the sagas often deal with the lives of ordinary people means that we can see much more “real life” issues trickling into these texts. John P. Sexton’s work on the topic is quite fascinating though tricky to find online.
See also Edna Edith Sayers (as Lois Bragg), Oedipus Borealis.
The online resources for the sagas are endless. One good place to start is Christopher Crocker’s website, which provides some useful bibliographies, links to other online resources, and saga editions with free access online. Also, check out Luke John Murphy’s and Alaric Hall’s websites. For those who want to go deeper into the sagas, you could also check out the EdX course run by the University of Iceland researchers Hjalti Snær Ægisson and Beth Rogers.
This is obviously just the figurative tip of the proverbial iceberg, and I will definitely need to do a “10 MORE tips to reading an Icelandic saga”, but I hope I left you with some new stuff to read and, more importantly, consider when approaching these marvelous texts!
Dr. Yoav Tirosh is an independent scholar and an external member of CVM (Center for Vikingetid og Middelalder) at Aarhus University. He creates comics about Iceland and Vikings and is looking for an academic position (so please hire him). You can learn more about his comics on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.