Masterpieces Of Old Norse Literature: Sagas, Eddas, And Skaldic Poems

The Old Norse literature comprises a variety of masterpieces, some of which have been well preserved to these days. These manuscripts have influenced many writers in the passing of time, most notably perhaps the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (specifically the well known ‘Lord of the Rings’ high fantasy trilogy and its predecessor, ‘The Hobbit’). Moreover, the Norse influence on the writings of Tolkien is also emphasized by mythical beings (such as dwarves, elves, or trolls) and adapted place names from the real world.

Through the sagas, eddas, and the skaldic poems we dispose of elderly knowledge regarding the way of life of the Norsemen during the Viking Age. While some historians tend not to regard these literary creations completely accurate from historical standpoints, others have a mixed trust concerning them. Subsequently though, it was demonstrated (thanks to modern archaeological tools and research) that some of the events recounted in the sagas were, to a certain extent, real, after all.

11th century depiction of a Norse fleet from ‘The Life of Saint Aubin’. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

However, it must be mentioned that the information stemming from these primary medieval sources is the result of

Excerpt from Flateyarbók (‘The Flatey Book’), the most voluminous Icelandic medieval manuscript. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

an oral tradition that was passed on from generation to generation since Ancient times, both in continental Scandinavia and in the North Atlantic colonies of the Norsemen. Bearing in mind this aspect, derivations from ‘original’ literature (whatever they might be in the end) were inevitably made by the vastly anonymous authors of these manuscripts.

The sagas, eddas, and skaldic poems were written in Iceland after the end of the Viking Age. It was during the High Middle Ages that the oral tradition of the Norsemen evolved into written records mentioning their milestones with respect to exploration, navigation, settlement, society, technology, art, and culture.

The identities of the authors who made possible this transition remain, to these days, largely obscure. Yet there is a particular case in which the identity of a sole author is somewhat credited, namely Snorri Sturluson, who might have written ‘Egil’s saga’, a saga focused on the life and deeds of one of his forefathers. A tremendous poet just like Egill Skallagrímsson, Snorri would later on become critically acclaimed for writing the ‘Prose Edda’ and the ‘Heimskringla’ (which details the history of the Norwegian kings, transitioning between legend and historical facts).

But what exactly are the sagas, eddas, and skaldic poems? In order to explain their origins and briefly detail their literary structure we need to take them one at a time.

Icelandic poet and historian Snorri Sturluson, as imagined by Norwegian painter Christian Krohg in the 1899 illustrated edition of Heimskringla. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Firstly, the sagas (overall) are semi-historical accounts penned by anonymous authors in Iceland throughout the High Middle Ages (from the 12th century to the 14th century). They are written in prose and preserve both legendary and factual events. Such prominent sagas include those of the Icelanders (with such noteworthy creations as the saga of Egill, the saga of Grettir, the saga of Gísli Súrsson, the saga of the people of Laxárdal or the saga of Njáll and Gunnar).

One of them (namely the one recording the life and deeds of the outlawed poet Gísli Súrsson) was eventually made into an Icelandic film which was well received by the critics.

Secondly, the eddas are similar manuscripts but should be divided into two distinct categories as follows:

  • Prose Edda (or Younger Edda) – created by Snorri Sturluson in early 13th century
  • Poetic Edda (or Elder Edda) – created anonymously during late 13th century

The distinction between younger and elder edda applies for chronological reasons (as it is noticeable in the classification above) as well as given older materials used in the second work (the Poetic Edda, specifically). The first edda (i.e. the prose one) is a critical medieval manuscript on the art of poetry whilst the second edda (i.e. the poetic one) comprises a variety of old Icelandic poems related to heroic, legendary, and mythological circumstances, events, and people.

Thirdly, the skaldic poems represent, in some directions (such as style, metre, and diction), the opposite from the Eddic poetry. Initially created in early medieval Norway and then subsequently developed in Iceland after the Norse settlement of the island (also contemporary with the Eddic poetry), the skaldic poems were composed by Icelandic poets known as ‘skalds’.

These poems were designated for court poetry in early medieval Norway but some were given a mythological background. Known skaldic poems composed so as to honour prominent Norse leaders include ‘Glymdrápa’ for King Harald Finehair (of Norway) or ‘Knútsdrápa’ for King Cnut the Great (of Denmark). A well known skald is Egill Skallagrímsson, the forefather of Snorri Sturluson.

Literature, documentation sources, and external links:

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4 Responses to Masterpieces Of Old Norse Literature: Sagas, Eddas, And Skaldic Poems

  1. Gigja Fridgeirsdottir says:

    Some were most probably written in monasteries as Icelanders were Catholic from the year 1000 till 1550. Before the Norse settlers came to Iceland Irish hermits lived here. I sometimes wonder why all the sagas were written in Iceland and not in other Nordic countries.

    • Victor Rouă says:

      Hello Gigjia and thank you very much for your readership! This was a very interesting point of view that you made about some of the sagas being written by Icelandic Catholic priests, yet I don’t know whether this can be 100% true. It is a possibility nevertheless. Most of the sagas are anonymous, right? As for why were the sagas written down in Iceland as opposed to any other Nordic country: I think the answer here is just the fact that Iceland had steadily developed and further cultivated a tremendous literary tradition over a long time far more than any other country from Scandinavia during the High Middle Ages, all the more with respect to recording realistic oral stories in well documented chronicles. I hope this is a plausible answer for your dilemma. All the best! 🙂

      • A very good overview of the sagas. I just want to elaborate a bit on the accuracy of oral tradition. The sagas were written from the beginning of the 12th century till around 2350. The events they describe happened from about 800-850 till about 1250 for the most part. But the later sagas are nearly contemporary with the events they describe, such as Sturlunga saga. The span from the time the older sagas were written to the time when the events they describe happened, is generally 250 to 300 years. Imagine that we don’t have radio, let alone TV or smartphones, and that our “news” and history is taught to you orally by you grandparents. Fist, they would not make a habit of lying to you, but you know that they would also not tell you the ugly parts, or dwell on them more than necessary. Your grandparents will be telling you stories their grandparents told them that’s already a span of about 180 to 200 years i .e. there may be as few as two prior sources from the people that lived what the stories tell. Honesty is supposedly a value in Christian tradition, and it certainly was a value in the pagan tradition. However many values changed drastically when Christianity took hold in Iceland as it did elsewhere. The good thing is that it is mostly relatively easy to spot the Christian colouring on the pages of the sagas. We can read them critically just like Snorri Sturluson taught us to read scaldic poetry critically, because the poems were performed in front of the person that they are about, and the aim is to be rewarded. This setts the tone for “no criticism, all deeds are magnified slightly (to magnify too much risks becoming a parody), etc. in other words the poems are basically true, but they don’t tell the whole story and what they tell is through rose-coloured glasses. / Yes the sagas have been used to broadly guide archeological excavations (Smithsonian Institution’s excavations in Mosfell and the excavations of Gudrid’s chapel in Glaumbær). In both cases the excavations revealed even details in the sagas to be accurately described. / In other instances utterances in the sagatext can tell stories that have not been written. For example Í personally have stumbled across such an utterance. “ The following summer Thorfinn returned with his men to Greenland and later to Iceland after a trading trip to Norway where they stayed over winter. In the spring when Thorfinn prepared his ship for Iceland a ‘Southerner’ from Bremen in Saxland offered ½ a mark of gold for a timber chest that Thorfinn had with him from Vínland. Thorfinn did not know the name of the timber but it was ‘mössurr’ a Vínland timber. “ When the scribe in the 13th century writes “en það var Mössur” (but it was Mössur), he ís writing for an audience that will understand what Mössur ís. If that was not the case it would be nonsense writing, and not much nonsense will have been written on velum for a very good reason. In order to produce these books, anywhere from 100 to 120 calf skins had to be used for each one of them. The skins first had to be prepared to create “velum”.
        “Vellum is derived from the Latin word “vitulinum” meaning “made from calf”, leading to Old French “vélin” (“calfskin”). Veal in English (from medieval French) for calf-meet. The term often refers to a parchment made from calf skin, as opposed to that from other animals. It is prepared for writing or printing on, to produce single pages, scrolls, codices or books. The manufacture involves the cleaning, bleaching, stretching on a frame (a “herse”), and scraping of the skin with a crescent shaped knife (a “lunarium” or “lunellum”). To create tension, scraping is alternated with wetting and drying. A final finish may be achieved by abrading the surface with pumice, and treating with a preparation of lime or chalk to make it accept writing or printing ink. / From Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia”
        Velum was therefore a very expensive commodity and the scribes will have chosen their words and constructed their sentences for maximum economy of language and maximum information. In other words, this passage tells us that timber resources in Vinland were used long after the descriptions of settlement attempts happened, even if we have no other written accounts of this. / / What I am advocating here is, that even if we know / suspect that the sagas are embellished to make them more entertaining for the audience, they are still valuable historical sources.

        • Victor Rouă says:

          Thank you very much for your appreciative and well developed comment! It adds very much value to the article! Thank you for your time, readership, and comments on The Dockyards, Magnus! All the best and much respect!

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