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Reviews of

The Complete Sagas of Icelanders

Joe Allard in New Comparison, 26: 1997

"It has become more and more common in recent decades to ignore or marginalize Icelandic literature in the English-speaking world. A few of the sagas about the Norse/Celtic settlers of Iceland in Ihe ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries, which were written largely during the thirteenth and fourteenth, have enjoyed some vogue in English translation. William Morris's often quirky and archaic translations in the Saga Library between 1869 and 1892 were part of a fashion that brought seldom more than ten of the sagas to an English-reading audience. A century ago interest and enthusiasm were genuine. [...]

The recent publication of The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales in co-ordinated English translation is, therefore, an event of profound literary significance. It will give a huge population access to a major literature previously available only in dribs and drabs. And it will facilitate a revaluation of the nature of Northern Europe a thousand years ago. The work will force many of us to rethink old assumptions about oppositions between the polished classicism of Mediterranean Greece and Rome and Northern barbarism. It also should surely add some measure of balance to certain recent and parochial debates about Europe, especially in England. Finally it should lead many of us to consider other phases of Iceland's literary history. It has been the most literary European country virtually since the settlement began in 874, and the most literate since the introduction of writing in the eleventh century. Many of its conventions and traditions remain unbroken. Having the entire canon for the first time allows the English reader more readily to understand certain qualities of the saga style that seem curious or obstructive when read in a piecemeal fashion.

In both narrative method and literary intention The Sagas of Icelanders have interesting parallels with aneient Greek traditions and conventions. [...] My contention here is that the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth century Icelandic scholars and historians had earlier access to Greek sources and traditions which may have been used in ways that give a particular cast and shape to the saga enterprise. We know from the sagas and many other sources that the Norse were in constant contact with the Byzantine Empire. The Imperial Guard, the Varangians, was alternately Norse or English. Harald Sigurdsson the Stern, who fell at Stamford Bridge in 1066 and was a great patron af Icelandic poets (as well us a fine poet himself), was a member of the Varangian Guard; and later its leader, from c. 1035 to I044. The final episode of The Saga Of Grettir The Strong is set in Constantinople, during which Grettir's brother, Thorstein Drumond, himself a Varangian, lakes revenge for his brother's slaying. Thorstein later marries and settles there, ultimately renouncing worldly things and devoting his life to God. Many others of the saga characters, like Halldor Snorrason, did service there. Halldor also features in King Harald's Saga in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla. In the ninth chapter Snorri remarks: "there were two Icetanders in Harald's company (in Constantinople); one of them was Halldor Snorrason, who brought this story to lceland, and the other was Ulf Ospaksson" (my emphasis). [...]

It comes as something of a shock to have the entire canon in good translation for the first time, and to realize what the English-reading world has been missing. The first revelalion is the sheer scope of the literature. There are forty full sagas - some, like Njal's Saga, of truly epic proportion - and forty-nine shorter tales and anecdotes. They were written between the very late twelfth century and the tate fourteenth century by a number of anonymous Icelandic clerics and scholars. The best and most enduring of them, which are on an equal footing with any world literature, are composed in the middle to late thirteenth century, during and after the period when the old Commonwealth plunged deeper and deeper into social und political crisis - the so-called Sturlung Era - and collapse, to be taken over by Norway in 1262/3.

[...] Although there are certain qualities of the sagas that are difficult or alien to us, Iike the fascination with genealogy and the poetic forms which are manifold and central to the saga fabric (to which I will return), other qualities are immediately accessible and familiar as part of our shared European heritage. The interest in, and treatment of, family, love, marriage, heroism, law and society are all of surprising familiarity. We have changed beyond recognition in some ways; but are deeply the same in many others. Saga Style Genealogy and poetry aside, the saga narrative style is straightforward. New readers are usually struck by a prose that is laconic, terse and succinct. Events dominate the narrative, and characters, once introduced, are shown in significant action. The sagas are often concerned with disputes and feuds, so there are many bloody episodes. One misapprehension that results is that the settlement years in Iceland were almost constantly chaotic and bloody; the people always feuding. This perception of turmoil and violenee is the result of the telescoping of years, sometimes even decades. - Once we realize this, the vioience and bloodshed become only one, albeit very exciting, feature of the portrait of an era that was otherwise productive and largely harmonious. My point is not that the sagas are lacking in violence and bloodshed, but that the era was by any reckoning less violent and horrific than our own. Few of us reach middle age without pretty dramatic exposure to man's bÍood and worse.

[...] The experience of reading through the entire canon is that of meeting a large proportion of the population of Iceland over nearly three centuries. From a literary point of view most are but names and have no further significance. Many characters, however, appear in more than one saga - well over seven hundred, in fact - and some in many. Gudmund Eyolfsson the Powerful appears in eighteen sagas, Snorri Thorgrimsson the Godi in eleven, Olaf'the Peacock' Hoskuldsson in eight, Hakon Sigurdsson the Powerful, Earl of Lade, in twenty. The effect, finally, is of reading one extended work of epic proportion and intention in which we see any number of characters from a multiplicity of perspectives.[...]

Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Old German are cognate. The prose of the sagas; some specific vocabulary notwithstanding, translates comforlably into twentieth-century English. In the five-year production process thc editorial team - general edilor Viðar Hreinsson, with Robert Cook, Terry Gunnell, Keneva Kunz and Bernard Scudder - co-ordinated the translations of thirty native English-speaking translators from seven countries. They were asked to retain classic saga style characteristics like "economical phrasing, paratactic style, understatement and the limited use of adjectives". Other features of the originals, however - especielly the Icelandic historical present, which is quite alien to modern English - were avoided. Also shunned was the use of archaisms (so much a feature of William Morris's translations). At this point the draft was read by a native-speaking Icelander for accuracy and consistency with the original. The next draft was read for clarity and style by a native speaker of English with a background in the literature, and returned for further revision. Finally the editorial team strove to achieve a linguistic consistency throughout the whole in vocabulary and phrasing.

Inevitably, given the size of the opus, the original sagas vary in quality. It was an editorial decision to avoid 'improving' on the original. lndeed some of the sagas, particularly the sagas of feuds collected in Volume IV, can be pretty dreary. Many othetrs, though, translated into English for the first time, are delightful. Have a look, for example, at "The Tale of Sarcastic Halli", translated by George Clark in Volume I, or "The Saga of the Confederates", translated by Ruth C. Ellison in Volume V. The end result is a consistent, sustained and co-ordinated translation of the whole. [...]

It is the poetry, central to the saga enterprise, that presents almost insuperable difficulties to the translator. The sagas are packed with poems (many of the heroes ace poets) in the 'skaldic' or 'court' form (dróttkvætt). These employ very particular metric patterns. Snorri Sturluson gives examples of one hundred and two in the Háttatal (Account of Metres) section of his Prose Edda. There are also dense alliterative and internal rhyme patterns. This favoured form of the Vikings is sometimes pushed so far as to sacrifice content to form. Also of difficulty for translation are the kennings, particular types of metaphors, which rely, amongst other things, on the Old Norse mythologies of the Elder Edda and other sources. A discussion and explication of these forms the core of the Skáldskaparmál (Poetic Diction) section of Snorri's Edda.

In his introductory essay to Volume 1 Robert Kellogg speculates, sensibly, that these were already a challenge to people in the thirteenth century. This, he concludes, is probably what led Snorri to compose his Edda, "to explain and illustrate it". And, of course, to preserve it. Kellogg's essay contains a one-page explication of the difficulties of the metre, alliteration, half and full-rhymes and the kennings which is the most condensed and concise that I've ever encountered. Because of such difficulties the editors decided to encourage translators to produce works that, whilst retaining as much as possible of the kennings, had poetic validity in English. Literal translation was ruled out "on the grounds of obscurity and incomprehensibility". Any translation of skaldic poetry will be a compromise. The compromises employed in this edition are fairly happy. As with the prose, there is probably more uniformity of voice than in the originals. At the same time many of the poems resonate as poetry and do suggest, at least, qualities of the original. Some of the best, like Egil's Sonatorrek (The Loss of My Sons), translated by Bernard Scudder, capture most fully the majesty and pathos of the Icelandic.

As I said at the start, this translation of the entire Sagas of Icelanders is an event of profound literacy significance. In the next century, indeed millennium, the English-speaking world will be able fully to discover what has remained so remote for so long. They will discover a world remarkably like our own and come to a fuller understanding of who we are and where we come from. I think it will also have some influence upon debates about the development and integration of the European Union, particularly in the North. In the words of Iceland's president, Ólafur Grímsson, "the setting for their action was not only Iceland, but the whole of Europe from the White Sea to the shores of Spain, from Constantinople to the glaciers of Greenland and the shores of the New World. The sagas endowed European culture with new perspectives which, to the modern mind, are far more immediate than much other literature from limes of old." The writers of the sagas, and the settlers, farmers, Vikings, explorers, soldiers and poets about whom they wrote, had a vision of the world extending trom the White Sea to the New World, a heimskringJa which was comprehensive.

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"The recent publication of The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales in co-ordinated English translation is ... an event of profound literary significance."

"Having the entire canon for the first time allows the English reader more readily to understand certain qualities of the saga style that seem curious or obstructive when read in a piecemeal fashion."

"In the next century, indeed millennium, the English-speaking world will be able fully to discover what has remained so remote for so long. They will discover a world remarkably like our own and come to a fuller understanding of who we are and where we come from."