Authors: Ben Waggoner (trans)
SIX SAGAS OF ADVENTURE
translated by Ben Waggoner
© 2014, The Troth. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. Exceptions may be allowed for non-commercial “fair use,” for the purposes of news reporting, criticism, comment, scholarship, research, or teaching.
A portion of an earlier version of
The Saga of King Gautrek
was previously published in
The Sagas of Fridthjof the Bold
(Troth Publications, 2009; ISBN 978-0557240203).
An earlier version of
The Saga of Sturlaug the Hard-Working
was previously published privately by Troth Publications.
An earlier version of
The Saga of Hromund Gripsson
was previously published in e-book editions by Troth Publications.
Published by The Troth
24 Dixwell Avenue, Suite 124
New Haven, Connecticut 06511
ISBN-13: 978-1-941136-04-1 (print), 978-1-941136-05-8 (e-book)
Cover emblem: A cynocephalus from the Arnstein Bible (British Library BL Harley 2799), written ca. 1172.
Troth logo designed by Kveldulf Gundarsson, drawn by 13 Labs, Chicago, Illinois
Cover design: Ben Waggoner
To my sister,
teller of sagas and tales
með alls konar strengleika
And in memory of my grandmother,
kvenna vitrust ok vænust
Table of Contents
There was once a tendency for outsiders to view Iceland as a sort of cold-storage facility, where the ancient lore of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples had been perfectly preserved. Jacob Grimm had written in
that “we find a purer authority for the Norse religion preserved for us in the remotest corner of the North, whither it had fled as it were for more perfect safety, — namely, in Iceland.”
The idea was taken up by others: the Victorian authority Alexander Stuart Murray wrote that, “unmeddled with by Christian priests, and disdaining the continental kings who were aping the customs of the new times, the Icelandic Norsemen preserved, for five centuries more, the pure faith of their forefathers.”
Jessie MacGregor informed the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool in 1884 that “fortunately, a pure stream of Scandinavian Mythology has welled up for us from a most unlooked-for source. . . . in Iceland—that sterile isle of the northern sea, buried as it were between lava bed and volcanic rock—the mythical poems and heroic Sagas of our forefathers have been preserved as securely as ever were the cities of the Italian plains beneath the ashes of Vesuvius.”
And in a lecture given in 1887, William Morris described Iceland: “the rugged volcanic mass has become the casket which has preserved the records of the traditions and religion of the Gothic tribes, and collaterally of the Teutonic also.”
It’s quite true that the written Icelandic language has changed relatively little in the past millennium. Modern Icelanders can read their sagas, at least with the spelling normalized, far more easily than most English speakers can read English texts of about the same age, such as
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Ayenbite of Inwyt
. It’s also true that by far the largest corpus of myths and legends of any Germanic-speaking people has been preserved in Iceland. For a number of reasons, generations of Icelanders wrote, copied, and studied prose and poetry containing myths, legends, and history, even into the early 20
—and some of what they copied almost certainly does go back to pre-Christian times. But to call that literary record “pure” is completely wrong.
By tradition, Iceland adopted Christianity as its official religion in the year 1000. At the time, variants of the rune writing system had been in use for centuries, and would continue to be used for centuries afterwards—but the rune alphabet had never been used to record lengthy texts. Christianity brought the Latin language and literature, the church’s educational system, and manuscript culture to Iceland. In turn, literacy in Latin and exchange with the European continent gave educated Icelanders access to medieval literary culture, both Christian and secular. By the mid-13
century, the earlier “sagas of Icelanders” and “king’s sagas” were being written to recount the histories of the Scandinavian royal families and the early settlers of Iceland. At the same time, clergymen at the Norwegian royal court were translating romances of Tristan and Charlemagne and King Arthur’s knights. Foreign missionaries came to teach and preach in Iceland; Icelanders traveled to the Norwegian court, or went on pilgrimages to Rome or Jerusalem or other holy sites; and Icelandic priests studied in continental monasteries and universities. All of these travelers brought books of sermons, moral tales, learned treatises, classical texts, and chivalric romances with them. Presumably, they heard and told oral stories as well, whether their own adventures or tales that they had picked up. All of these influences can be traced in the sagas composed in Iceland, mingling with what must have been a strong native tradition of stories and poems.
The six sagas in this book are traditionally considered
, “legendary sagas” or “sagas of ancient times.” This is not a name that medieval Icelanders used: the group was named and defined when Carl Christian Rafn published a collection of sagas under that name in 1829-30. Several others were later added to what has become a traditional
canon of thirty-three sagas and tales. The
are primarily set in Scandinavia (although with frequent excursions to the British Isles, continental Europe, Africa, Arabia, India, or realms not found on modern maps). Most are set in a rather nebulous past, and they deal with larger-than-life kings and heroes. Aside from that, they are a very diverse group, and there has been some controversy over whether the
can be called a “genre”, and if so, how best to define it.
Stephen Mitchell has proposed a working definition, which excludes some sagas in the traditional canon:
are “Old Icelandic prose narratives based on traditional heroic themes, whose numerous fabulous episodes and motifs create an atmosphere of unreality.”
Yet this definition still encompasses sagas in multiple literary modes. Even a single saga may switch from, say, the heroic mode to a wonder-tale, or from tragedy to comedy, or from archaic legends to the world of medieval chivalry.
It’s common to divide the
into three main types—with the caveat that many sagas blur the distinctions between types, or contain elements of more than one.
“Heroic legends” or
contain very old material, often attested in texts in other Germanic languages; the plot encompasses several generations; the heroes are high-born and noble; and the ending is frequently tragic.
Hrólfs saga kraka
are clear examples: variants of the material of
, for example, appear in both
, as well as in other Norse sagas, Norse poems, and Viking-era art. A heroic
often contains a sizable amount of poetry in Eddic meters, usually older than the prose; such sagas may have “grown up around” the poems.
“Viking sagas” or
often contain old poetry as well, but they generally lack the tragic sense of the “heroic sagas”. They are generally set in or just before the historical “Viking age”, and the milieu is typically “Viking”, with plenty of battles on sea and land, quests for marvelous treasures, and assorted adventures leading up to a triumphant climax.
Ragnars saga loðbrókar
is perhaps the best-known “Viking saga”; the “Hrafnista saga” cycle, whose best-known member is
, is also typical of the type.
The third class of
, the “adventure tales” or
, have neither deep legendary roots nor an especially historical setting. An “adventure tale” might have characters who are the very models of “Viking heroes”, and plenty of Viking color such as dragons, dragon ships, hoards of gold, and so on—but these sagas were created after the Viking Age was a distant memory. There is generally no poetry in these sagas, or at most a few isolated stanzas (
), and the action spans a single generation, although the hero’s father and/or sons may have supporting roles. On the other hand, there is a great proliferation of motifs from folk and fairy tales. The “adventure tale” hero may or may not be of noble birth, but he is generally either a splendid paragon of all manly virtues, or a “coal-biter” who does nothing but lounge by the fire. In either case, some danger or villainy forces the hero to set out on a quest, where he will face many foes and perils, but also get help from uncanny beings such as giants, dwarves, and/or witchy old crones. He will also make human allies (whom he often has to fight before they end up allying with him). The hero may win his first great conflict—the “first pivot”—but then have to rest and be healed, go off on a side adventure, or discover that his victory was not complete: there is still a greater deed that must be done or a greater prize to be won. These will lead him by various narrative twists and turns to the “second pivot,” usually a colossal battle. The happy ending has the hero winning great wealth, a kingdom to rule, a friendly reconciliation with any surviving enemies, and a long-awaited marriage to a beautiful and wise princess.
The happy couple’s descendants may be enumerated at length; some of these may figure in other legendary sagas, or else their lineage may be traced to a royal house of Norway or to a prominent Icelandic family. Or the saga may simply state that “many famous men are descended from them.”
“Adventure tale” sagas overlap with the indigenous
, “sagas of knights,” composed in Iceland but inspired by Norse translations of continental chivalric romances (“translated
”). In fact, a number of “adventure tale” sagas could be classified as either
Such hybrid sagas, sometimes referred to simply as “romance” or “legendary fiction,” may be set in ancient Scandinavia peopled with giants, dwarves, and even the pagan gods—and also feature knightly heroes, jousting and tournaments, and a generally chivalric atmosphere. Alternately, it may be set in ancient Greece or Babylon or France, and yet feature heroes with Viking names, sailing off in dragon-ships to battle giants and dragons right out of the
The most eclectic legendary fiction sagas draw on still more sources: medieval scholarly works, secular histories, and saints’ lives.
Despite the diverse materials that these “adventure tale” sagas draw on, a relatively small number of narrative patterns and themes tend to recur. The unpromising “coal-biter” who is roused to great deeds; the lady who outshines all other maidens of the Earth; the “maiden-king” who casts off the trappings of femininity and spurns all suitors; the monster who can only be killed by one magic weapon (and the fortunate appearance of said weapon in the nick of time); the helpful dwarf and the lascivious female giant; and at the end of it all, a wedding feast of roast fowl, washed down with spiced claret to the music of viols and harps—these appear in saga after saga. What Finnur Jónsson said about the indigenous
could be said about most of the “adventure tale”
as well: they are “like a kaleidoscope; every time it is shaken new configurations and patterns appear, but the component parts are the same.”
And yet. . . .
More than one scholar has pointed out similarities between
and modern genres such as Bollywood films, murder mysteries, and Westerns.
For example, classic Western movies and television shows are set in a limited region and time period, and use a limited store of characters and scenes—the gang of masked outlaws robbing the stagecoach; the wisecracking brothel madam with a heart of gold; the lonesome cowboy with his code of honor and trusty steed; the U.S. Cavalry appearing over the hill just in time to fight off the Indians in warpaint—these have played their assigned parts in hundreds of movies and television series. Westerns do have a historical basis—the 19
-century American frontier did exist, as did Western heroes and villains from Kit Carson to Jesse James to Crazy Horse—and Westerns range from historically accurate depictions of the past to sheer fantasies. Yet despite its limitations, the Western genre was enormously popular at one time, and is still drawn on by modern filmmakers. Some patterns of the kaleidoscope simply “work better” than others. Even when turning the kaleidoscope yields lackluster results, good cinematography and strong acting can make up for less-than-novel or even less-than-coherent plots. A number of movies hybridize the Western genre with others;
Wild Wild West
films, and the television series
, for example, blend Western themes and motifs with science fiction. All of these observations
the limited setting, the constant reuse of character types and motifs, the easy blending with other genres—could be said of the
A final point of comparison is that some Western films and series operate within the conventions of the genre, while at the same time commenting on the genre itself, or on contemporary society. Some of these are “serious” commentaries on American militarism, racism, and ecological devastation, from
The Wild Bunch
Dances With Wolves
Other Westerns, such as
, parody the Western genre itself; such parody Westerns may be quite funny, but at the same time may have serious points to make. In much the same way, the
may be entertaining, but they were not written as purely “escapist” entertainment. Many of them comment directly on issues that were very much on the minds of their medieval Icelandic writers and listeners.
They provided a space in which issues and problems could be discussed and solutions envisioned. Finally, many of these sagas have humorous moments—and more than one makes a point of parodying scenes and characters from more “serious” sagas.
The six sagas in this volume form two sets connected by genealogy.
Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar
cover three generations of a kingly family in Gautland, while
deals with another branch of the family, although the main hero is not descended from it. The heroes of
are father and son, while key characters in
Hrómundar saga Gripssonar
(although, again, not the hero) are said to be descended from Gongu-Hrolf. These six sagas include some of the best
, and some of the
most popular sagas in any genre: there are currently 74 known manuscripts of
Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar
is preserved in 69 manuscripts at last count, squeaking past its prequel
which appears in 63 copies. Assuming that the number of surviving manuscripts accurately reflects the number that were once written and circulated, these three are among the most popular sagas of any kind.
Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar
were the first sagas of any kind to be printed, at Uppsala in 1664;
followed in 1666, and
may well be in line for a Lifetime Achievement Award; known in a respectable forty-six manuscript copies at last count, it also has appeared in eight print editions between 1666 and 1996, and has been translated into nine languages.