The Viking Sagas (BBC The Viking Sagas Documentary)
During the High Middle Ages, in a relatively remote part of the world, some of the most renowned historical manuscripts of all time were written. As opposed to what contemporary authors wrote about in mainland Europe throughout the Middle Ages (stories about brave knights and princesses for instance), it was in Iceland that the first manuscripts involving the lives of common people were written by the Icelandic chroniclers.
These stories of common people who lived their lives by herding, fishing, farming, and settling along the coastlines of Iceland starting from the late part of the 9th century are documented in the old Norse sagas. The Norse sagas were written by medieval Icelandic authors, but their real identities remain a mystery to this day.
Only the identity of an author who is believed to have written ‘Egil’s saga’, namely Snorri Sturluson, is somehow credited, as he was the descendant of the saga’s heroic figure. Nonetheless, whether or not Sturluson wrote ‘Egil’s saga’ remains a debatable matter among many scholars.
Regardless of the debated authorship, the main goal of the sagas was to share, from generation to generation, the ancestral stories of the Norsemen based on historical events and major milestones achieved by them in regards to exploration, mapping, and colonisation (as well as other heroic deeds or even family feuds as it was the case of the Vikings in Iceland in e.g. Njáls saga). These stories were also largely based on real people and their deeds over a certain period of time.
The sagas were as such written for historical reasons and relied significantly on genealogy as well as on the conflict and the struggle that arose in early medieval Iceland among the second and third generation Icelanders during the 10th and 11th centuries. These descendants were a Norse-Gaelic mixture actually which resulted from the admixture of Norwegian settlers from present-day south-western Norway and their Gaelic thralls (i.e. slaves) from Scotland and Ireland. However, there were not only thralls among the Gaelic settlers of Iceland. On the contrary, there were also noblemen, noblewomen, and their free men/women companions who joined them over the North Atlantic from the British Isles to Iceland.
Nowadays, this literary heritage is still present among Icelanders, as one tenth of Iceland’s population already published a book. The Icelandic language is descended from the Old West Norse dialect of the Old Norse language that the first Norwegian settlers brought with them in Iceland during the end of the 9th century when they started to colonise the coastal areas. At the same time though, it is important to mention that Icelandic also has a considerable amount of Gaelic words (not only limited to place names).
Furthermore, to date, given its geographic isolation from other idioms or languages, the Icelandic language is one of the two North Germanic languages that are the most closely related to Old Norse, on par with Faroese.
For the purpose of understanding the early Icelandic literature, below you can watch a documentary made by BBC Four on the Norse sagas, their main points of interest, and how they were conceived:
- BBC Four – The Viking Sagas on www.bbc.co.uk
- BBC – Iceland: Where one in 10 people will publish a book on www.bbc.com
- Icelandic Saga Database on www.sagadb.org
- View on Iceland: Medieval Sagas, Travel and Viking Wrestling on www.icelandmonitor.mbl.is