As grandly epic as Homer, rich in tragedy as Sophocles, compellingly human as Shakespeare, and psychologically keen as Chekhov—the sagas of Icelanders are the crowning achievement of medieval Scandinavian narrative and rank among the world’s greatest literary treasures. They describe a world of a millennium ago that nevertheless rings familiar with perennial human struggles.
The forty-plus narratives of adventure and conflict that comprise the sagas are set in Iceland’s 9th- and 10th-century Age of Settlement, when a handful of families fled the oppressive kingship of Norway to set up new lives on an island in the middle of the Atlantic. It was in Iceland the era of a unique commonwealth of free chieftains with no king, clerical hierarchy, or armies, ruled by Viking traditions of honour and blood vengeance. Written down anonymously several hundred years later, the sagas look back on a pioneer generation struggling to forge and maintain a self-governing community in a harsh environment at the edge of the known world.
With economy of style and astute insight into character, the sagas portray poets, warriors, statesmen, farmers, and outlaws —strong and determined men and women who strive for power, wealth, fame, respect, and love in a frontier society that wavers between the rule of law and vengeance. In this seminar we will read three of the finest examples of the Icelandic family sagas, Egil’s Saga, the Laxdaela Saga, and the Saga of Burnt Njal, along with two shorter tales.
“With law shall our land be settled, and with lawlessness wasted.”
– Njal’s Saga