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The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180–1280)

Theodore M. Andersson

Publication Year: 2006

In this book, Theodore M. Andersson, a leading scholar of the Norse sagas, introduces readers to the development of the Icelandic sagas between 1180 and 1280, a crucial period that witnessed a gradual shift of emphasis from tales of adventure and personal distinction to the analysis of political and historical propositions. Beginning with the first full-length sagas and culminating in the acknowledged masterpiece Njáls saga, Andersson emphasizes a historical perspective, establishing a chronology for seventeen of the most important sagas and showing how they evolve thematically and stylistically over the century under study.

Revisiting the long-standing debate about the oral and literary components of the sagas, Andersson argues that there is a clear progression from the somewhat mechanical gathering of oral lore in the early sagas to an increasingly tight and authorially controlled composition in the later sagas. The early sagas-including The Legendary Saga of Saint Olaf and Odd Snorrason's Saga of Olaf Tryggvason-focus on conspicuous individuals and their memorable deeds; later works are more apt to formulate the abstract problems and ideas that preoccupied their authors. As the authors begin to impose their views on the inherited narratives, the sagas become more and more critical and self-conscious, to the point where Njáls saga may be considered not only to approximate a novel in our sense of the term but also to comment on the saga form.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. v-vi

A Note on Orthography

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p. vii-vii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-20

This work sets out to clarify how the book-length sagas of medieval Iceland evolved in literary terms from circa 1180 to circa 1280. This approach is a departure from previous practice to the extent that the sagas, in particular those about early Iceland, have seemed to defy chronological treatment.1 The dating indices are normally not clear ...

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Chapter One. From Hagiography to Hero

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pp. 21-42

There is no evidence of professional or quasi-professional saga tellers in Iceland, but there are some indications that historical lore was in the hands of persons with special qualifications. When Ari Thorgilsson began the process of recording Icelandic history in the 1120s, he referred to three of his informants in the very first sentence of his extant ...

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Chapter Two. Sanctifying a Viking Chieftain

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pp. 43-59

There are some indications that the Icelanders had less oral tradition about Olaf Haraldsson than they had about Olaf Tryggvason, although the former ruled longer and later (1015–30) and should have been in more recent memory. The difference may have been that Olaf Tryggvason enjoyed some quasi-official status as the apostle of Christianity ...

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Chapter Three. Creating Personalities

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pp. 60-85

King Olaf Tryggvason and King Olaf Haraldsson were remembered as great promoters of the faith and men of heroic dimensions, but it is difficult for a reader of their sagas to assess their personal qualities beyond the accomplishments required by their roles. They occasionally interact with their wives or their followers, though almost never in a way ...

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Chapter Four. Defining Political Identities

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pp. 86-101

If the estimate of 1200 is about right for the dating of The Oldest Saga of Saint Olaf, there elapsed some twenty years between its composition and the writing of The Saga of King Magnús and King Harald, the first and by far the longest section of the kings’ saga compilation known as Morkinskinna.1 These were the crucial years in the development of saga ...

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Chapter Five. Political Ambiguities

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pp. 102-118

The continuity between the kings’ sagas discussed above and Egils saga has often gone unnoticed because they have traditionally been assigned to different genres and are therefore not studied together. It could be argued, however, that Egils saga merely inverts the paradigm established in the kings’ sagas. The latter are overtly about Norwegian ...

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Chapter Six. Turning Inward

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pp. 119-131

Scholars have traditionally distinguished between kings’ sagas and sagas about early Icelanders. I depart from that tradition with a view to tracing a continuity from three kings’ sagas and five native sagas through the transitional Egils saga to the full-blown and justly famous middle and late thirteenth-century sagas about early Icelanders. I postulate ...

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Chapter Seven. Gilding an Age

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pp. 132-149

Laxdoela saga, like Ljósvetninga saga, is a regional saga, set in the inner reaches of Hvammsfjord on the west coast of Iceland, to the north of the area settled by Skallagrím in Egils saga. Like Ljósvetninga saga it too is organized by generations, but whereas the author of Ljósvetninga saga seems determined to avoid the colonial period in order to focus ...

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Chapter Eight. Two Views of Icelandic History

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pp. 150-161

Laxdœla saga and Eyrbyggja saga are linked, but the relationship between them is notoriously difficult to disentangle. The difficulty mayperhaps be of our own making, because toward the end of Eyrbyggja saga the text refers in so many words to Laxdœla saga and Heiðarvíga saga. The editor Einar Ólafur Sveinsson took the latter reference at face ...

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Chapter Nine. Pondering Justice

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pp. 162-182

The three sagas under study in this chapter are among the most elegant of the shorter texts. They are generally dated in the middle or late thirteenth century, although the criteria are, as usual, tenuous.1 To the extent that we see saga writing as having evolved and improved over time, we may be tempted to think that the sharp contours and narrative ...

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Chapter Ten. Demythologizing the Tradition

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pp. 183-203

By common agreement, Njáls saga occupies a transcendent place in the Icelandic tradition as the greatest, if not quite the latest, of the classical sagas.1 It represents such a pinnacle of style, range, and drama that it tends to overshadow the earlier sagas and relegate them to the status of preliminary attempts at a form that matures only in Njáls ...

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pp. 204-210

It should come as no surprise that the Icelandic sagas are centrally about Iceland, more particularly about stages in Icelandic self-consciousness. The first sagas appear at the end of the twelfth century, a century literarily dominated by the appropriation of Christian writings. They capitalize on that tradition by exalting the conversion kings, ...


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pp. 211-225


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pp. 227-237

E-ISBN-13: 9780801460302
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801444081

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2006

Edition: 1