Heroic Literature in Medieval Scandinavia

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Heroic Literature in Medieval Scandinavia

Cultural Traditions of the Vikings.

During the ninth and tenth centuries, migrating northern tribes, now referred to as the Vikings, sailing in lightweight but sturdy and swift longships, invaded almost all regions of Europe, including Russia (named for the rus', the redhaired Scandinavians who settled there), northern France (named Normandy for the "northmen" who settled there), England, Scotland, and Ireland. These Norsemen traded as far east as Byzantium and also forayed westward, to Iceland, Greenland, and as far as North America. The threat of the Vikings unified the formerly disorganized group of competing tribes and small kingdoms of Britain under Alfred the Great (871–899), king of Wessex, who successfully resisted the Viking incursions with military force in 878 and created a fleet of ships, the foundation of the British navy, to defend southern England against the seafaring might of the northern invaders. Eventually, an uneasy peace was reached, with the Norsemen controlling the eastern half of England and Alfred and future Anglo-Saxon kings dominating the rest of the country. The extent of Norse influence on England's literary and linguistic development is measured by the fact that the first major literary work, Beowulf, is about Scandinavian tribes, not the original inhabitants of Britain, and there are many Scandinavian loan words in Old English. However, the Vikings did not participate in the mutual imitation of literary forms that took place in other areas of Europe throughout the period. In fact, the literature produced far to the north of central Europe on the remote Scandinavian Peninsula does not parallel whatsoever most of the other medieval genres produced in England and on the Continent. Although some works originated on mainland Scandinavia, the majority of the greatest literary works were produced in Norway's tiny, even more remote, westerly island colony of Iceland, which was settled about 870. By 1000, Iceland had adopted Christianity as its official religion, which had a profound influence on the content of the literary texts produced.

Scandinavian Lyric Poetry.

Like the very early literary works of many other nations, such as those of ancient Greece, some early Scandinavian lyric poems reflected their culture by incorporating polytheistic theological explanations of the world, involving the exploits of gods who were like men, while others tended to emphasize formal concerns, including the intricacies of language itself. Whereas the rest of Europe developed lyric poetry that celebrated courtly love or devotion to the Virgin Mary, the earliest surviving texts in verse written in the Old Norse language are poems of two distinct types: Eddic and Skaldic poetry. Eddic poems, composed in freeform or varying meters, were heroic and mythological lays (songs) based on Germanic legends and mythology about the pagan northern gods. The Eddic poems incorporating these myths and legends include two major works: Völuspá (Sibyl's Prophesy), the history of the world predicted by a sibyl, from creation to Ragnarök, the end of the world when the sun turns black, fire engulfs an earth declining into total darkness, and the gods fall; and Hávamál (Words of the High One), a didactic poem wherein Odin instructs mankind about correct social conduct and interaction between the sexes and explains about runes (mystical sayings inscribed using ancient Germanic script) and magic. Composed before the settlement of Iceland, the Hávamál as well as these other Eddic poems were handed down orally until they were recorded later in Iceland. This process parallels the development of heroic literature in England and on the Continent where oral versions of the Beowulf story or Roland's tragic stand against the Saracens circulated for sometimes hundreds of years before the texts known to modern readers were established in manuscript form. Unlike the less formal Eddic poetry, Skaldic poetry was much stricter in its poetic technique, employing an erudite, specialized vocabulary in a highly complicated syntax. The most talented skald was Egil Skallagrímsson, whose life was celebrated in Egil's Saga (c. 1230), one of the finest Icelandic or family sagas. As recounted in Egil's Saga, good poetry could be literally lifesaving. One of this Viking-poet's most successful poems was Head Ransom, composed around 948, when Egil was imprisoned awaiting execution by King Erik Bloodaxe, who then ruled in York. The night before the execution, this skald composed a poem honoring Bloodaxe which so pleased his captor that he granted him his head as a reward, hence the poem's title. Although they may have been written on the Scandinavian Peninsula, Eddic and Skaldic poems are nevertheless preserved only in manuscripts found in Iceland.

Development of Prose Genres in Medieval Scandinavia.

In addition to poetry, prose genres developed in medieval Scandinavia to a greater degree and earlier than they did on the Continent or in England, apparently out of a desire to record significant historical events, especially accounts of the settlement of Iceland and the reigns of Norwegian kings. For example, the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements) details the history of the settlement of Iceland, while Heimskringla (Orb of the World), written by Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241), recounts the history of the kings of Norway up to 1184. This writer also composed the Prose Edda, a handbook on the use of literary language, which is an important source of heroic tales of Germanic pagan gods and the human heroes of northern legend. However, the most distinctive literary form that developed in Scandinavia was the saga, a unique kind of prose narrative invented in Iceland (hence they are often referred to as "Icelandic" sagas) during the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. The Old Norse word saga literally means "something said," an indication of the ultimate oral origins of most of the narratives that comprise the body of the sagas. As in other national cultures in Europe in the period, accounts of the exploits of noteworthy men or events have always supplied subject matter for orally delivered entertainment or instruction. From such oral narratives, which were amplified, embellished, and transmitted by skilled tale-tellers over the course of several centuries, the written saga evolved.

The Influence of Christianity.

With the coming of Christian missionaries to Scandinavia, the more advanced Latin culture provided the tools for further development of indigenous literary forms. Although "runic letters" (from a Teutonic alphabet of characters composed of straight lines suitable for inscriptions in stone, metal, or wood) had been employed to convey information in Scandinavia from very early times, runes had not been used to record any lengthy story or even poem since this mode of writing was too cumbersome for communicating anything of considerable length in a manuscript. This situation changed, however, when, after some initial resistance by those favoring the old pagan Germanic faith, Christianity was legally adopted as the state religion of Iceland in 1000, bringing with it the Latin alphabet and manuscript tradition. Following conversion, the clerkly culture, featuring the use of Latin, the language of the medieval Christian church, was introduced into Iceland. Inhabitants of Iceland quickly absorbed the newly adopted ecclesiastical and secular literature. Aided by the far-flung travels of the Vikings, the newly literate Icelandic writers were further exposed to literary genres practiced and themes depicted in other vernacular languages of Europe. The new learning did not eliminate interest in the old largely heroic saga-themes; rather, elements from Continental romance, hagiography (accounts of the lives of the saints), and other forms were grafted onto the traditional saga-lore. Even the pre-Christian mythology, which earlier had been an essential ingredient of the work of Icelandic poets, was not entirely replaced by the imagery of the new religion. Although the Icelandic sagas effectively superimposed Continental Christian influences upon traditional local subject matters, there was always a tension between the pre- and post-Christian materials.

The Icelandic Sagas.

If the sagas, which are the crowning literary achievement of medieval Scandinavia, shared some elements with other medieval heroic texts, their style and content nevertheless stood apart from any other heroic literature produced in medieval Europe. Sagas give the impression of being reliable historical or biographical accounts. However, fact and fiction often are seamlessly blended in these prose narratives, and many sagas resemble modern historical novels more than any expected medieval genre. Moreover, exploiting a variety of influences from abroad, saga style was quite elastic, making possible the development of various sub-genres. Kings' sagas present imaginatively constructed biographies of medieval Norwegian monarchs. "Sagas of Ancient Times," such as the Saga of the Volsungs, recreated in prose the kinds of traditional heroic legends from mainland Norway that had been treated by the Eddic poets and the Skalds. Exposure to Continental genres resulted in new hybrids: sagas inspired by characters from the chansons de geste, such as Charlemagne's Saga; sagas influenced by romances about Arthurian characters like Tristan and Isold, such as Tristan's Saga; and Ecclesiastical sagas, inspired by Continental religious writings and hagiography, that deal with the conversion of Iceland to Christianity and the biographies of various Scandinavian bishops.

The Icelandic Family Saga.

The sub-genre for which the sagas are best appreciated and most famed is the "family" saga. These largely thirteenth-century narratives skillfully shaped the traditional oral accounts of the social, legal, and religious practices of Icelandic clans (who had originally settled Iceland in the tenth and eleventh centuries) into tightly structured, complexly orchestrated written texts. In general, saga style is plain and terse. Sentences are short, vocabulary is limited, syntax is simple, the plot moves quickly, and the expected repetitive embellishments of other European medieval heroic narratives are noticeably absent. With little extraneous depiction of places or people, the use of descriptive adjectives is quite sparing. Yet character development is typically vivid, relying on revealing statements made by the individuals themselves in the sagas' extensive use of dialogue, on the actions of the characters, and on brief but pointed summary characterizations made by the usually disinterested narrator. Even these instructive pieces of dialogue, used solely to further the action, are themselves characteristically and disarmingly pithy, exemplifying the literary figure of litotes (ironic understatement). A good example of this stylistic feature is the statement made in Njál's Saga by Skarp-Hedin when he is about to be burned to death by his enemies and admits casually that his "eyes are smarting." In sagas, the mundane details of daily life are never extraneous, but always anticipate some important event or the climax of the plot, which is almost always gruesomely violent. The sagas feature extremes in behavior and emotional range. Plots rarely recount great, history-changing events. Rather, they create moving tragedy out of the petty banalities of everyday life—breaches of loyalty and friendship that result in family feuds and ensuing vengeance, which in turn lead to the tragic destiny of one of the protagonists. Characters either intensely love or hate one another, with little neutral feeling in-between. By showing how ordinary events can unwittingly be pushed to an extreme that provokes significant consequences, sagas express marked sympathy for and understanding of human tragedy.


introduction: This passage reveals the complex chain of violence provoked in Icelandic blood feuds, the wry, ironic understatement [litotes] employed in the discourse of saga heroes like Skarp-Hedin, and the impact of Christianity on both the history of Iceland and the content of the sagas.

[Flosi said], "There are only two courses open to us, neither of them good: we must either abandon the attack, which would cost us our own lives, or we must set fire to the house and burn them to death, which is a grave responsibility before God, since we are Christian men ourselves. But that is what we must do."

Then they kindled a fire and made a great blaze in front of the doors. Skarp-Hedin [Njal's son] said, "So you're making a fire now, lads! Are you thinking of doing some cooking?"—"Yes," said Grani, "and you won't need it any hotter for roasting."—"So this is your way," said Skarp-Hedin, "of repaying me for avenging your father, the only way you know; you value more highly the obligation that has less claim on you."…

[B]efore those inside knew what was happening, the ceiling of the room was ablaze from end to end. Flosi's men also lit huge fires in front of all the doors. At this the womenfolk began to panic.

Njal said to them, "Be of good heart and speak no words of fear, for this is just a passing storm and it will be long before another like it comes. Put your faith in the mercy of God, for he will not let us burn both in this world and in the next." Such were the words of comfort he brought them, and others more rousing than these. Now the whole house began to blaze. [Njal negotiates for the release of women, children, and servants from the blazing house. He, his wife Bergthora, and their grandchild lie down on their bed beneath an ox hide and are not heard again. Skarp-Hedin climbs along the wall, looking for an escape.]

Gunnar Lambason jumped up on to the wall and saw Skarp-Hedin. "Are you crying now, Skarp-Hedin?" he said. "No," said Skarp-Hedin, "but it is true that my eyes are smarting. Am I right in thinking that you are laughing?" "I certainly am," said Gunnar, "and for the first time since you killed [my uncle] Thrain."—"Then here is something to remind you of it," said Skarp-Hedin. He took from his purse the jaw-tooth he had hacked out of Thrain, and hurled it straight at Gunnar's eye; the eye was gouged from its socket up to the cheek, and Gunnar toppled off the wall.… [T]hen, with a great crash, the whole roof fell in. Skarp-Hedin was pinned between roof and gable, and could not move an inch.

[The next morning, upon learning that one man, Kari Solmundarson, had escaped from the burning building, Flosi, the leader of the burners, speaks:] "What you have told us," said Flosi, "gives us little hope of being left in peace, for the man who escaped is the one who comes nearest to being the equal of Gunnar of Hlidarend in everything. You had better realize, you Sigfussons, and all the rest of our men, that this Burning will have such consequences that many of us will lie lifeless and others will forfeit all their wealth."

source: "The Fire in which Njal and his Family are Burned to Death," in Njal's Saga. Trans. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson (Baltimore: Penguin, 1960): 265–270.

The Scandinavian Blood Feud.

What perhaps renders sagas most unique compared to heroic literature in the rest of medieval Europe is that their plots are punctuated by a phenomenon endemic to Scandinavian culture: the blood feud. This social practice requires that a slain character's kin either retaliate against a family member of the offending clan—the new victim must be of equal rank to their lost member—or collect substantial financial remuneration for their loss. The blood feud motivates a degree of physical violence that is extreme even for the medieval romances and chansons de geste that were familiar in the rest of Europe, whose audiences were accustomed to exaggerated numbers of anonymous knights being slain on the battlefield. Indeed, sometimes this "eye for an eye" mentality triggers ever-escalating waves of deadly retaliation. In some sagas, this acceleration of violence culminates in a killing that not only exceeds the legal "rules" of blood feud, but also so shocks the local community by its savagery that it is declared "murder." Technically the worst conceivable violent crime in a close-knit community tightly bound by kinship bonds, murder merits a penalty even worse than death—the social ostracizing of the perpetrator as a declared "outlaw." This plot line characterizes some of the best family sagas, such as Grettir's Saga, about the outlaw Grettir the Strong, an analogue of Beowulf; Laxdaela Saga, a romance-influenced multi-generational tragedy whose female protagonist Gudrun is one of the toughest, most desirable, and most vividly realized women in medieval literature; and Egil's Saga, the biography of the cantankerous Viking-skald Egill Skallagrímsson.

NjÁl 's Saga: A New Christian Sensibility.

Both the traditional influence of the blood feud and the impact of European missionary activity can be seen in the longest Icelandic family saga, Njál's Saga (1280), which is now also generally considered the greatest example of the genre. Judging from its survival in 24 manuscripts—the largest number of any of the sagas—this work was also appreciated as a masterpiece in its own age. Its plot revolves around the enduring friendship between two great heroes: Gunnar, a valorous, yet somewhat naive youth, and Njál, a wise older man, highly respected as a community leader, who possesses prophetic gifts. Eventually both of them die heroically. The saga's first third introduces Gunnar of Hlídarend and his courtship and disastrous marriage to the beautiful but proud and fiercely vindictive woman Hallgerd, whose initiation of a series of retaliatory killings between the two friends' households threatens to provoke a breach in the friendship between Gunnar and Njál. However, through their self-restraint and mutual loyalty, the friendship, though extremely strained, never falters. After Gunnar's death, Hallgerd continues to fuel the families' blood feud by provoking her son, son-in-law, and lover to continue to harass and goad Njál's clan. Escalating tensions climax in the intentional burning of Njál's house while he and all his family members, including his wife, adult sons, and little children, are inside it. Since the saga includes an account of Iceland's conversion to Christianity and miracles that occur at the battle waged by the Vikings against the Irish at Clontarf (1029?), the voluntary fiery death of the priest-like Njál suggests the Christian martyrdom characteristic of the medieval saint's life elsewhere in Europe. Indeed, Njál's son, Skarp-hedin—in most respects a Beowulf-like figure—brands crosses into his flesh while he endures the burning, thus introducing Christological motifs into the saga. Ultimately, the deaths of Njál and his family were probably interpreted by contemporary audiences as either a kind of Christian martyrdom, expiation for sins of violence endemic to the old culture, or as the irrational acts of doomed and perhaps despairing heroes. Among the sagas, Njál's Saga is preeminent for its masterly characterization, tight plot structuring, and such memorable scenes as Gunnar's last heroic defense in his house at Hlídarend and the burning of Njál's homestead. These attest to the saga-writer's skill at creating effective fiction. On the other hand, this work can also be appreciated for its presentation of important moments in Icelandic history and its accurate treatment of the development of Icelandic law.


Richard F. Allen, Fire and Iron; Critical Approaches to Njáls Saga (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971).

Theodore M. Andersson, The Icelandic Family Saga: An Analytic Reading (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967).

Stefán Einarsson, A History of Icelandic Literature (New York: Johns Hopkins Press for the American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1957).

see also Religion: Religion in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe