The Origins of the Sagas
“Saga” comes from the Old Norse-Icelandic verb segja, meaning to "tell" or "say." Although sagas are literally "tales," the term in literature is reserved for a particular kind of story: sagas are prose works of some length, a mix of history, myth, and biography about Scandinavians during the Viking age between roughly 900–1050 AD.
The sagas were written down by anonymous compilers some generations later, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. By that time, the people of Norway, Sweden, and Iceland had converted to Christianity. But there was much interest in the previous "heroic" age, helping to preserve the stories of Scandinavian pagans. Unlike most medieval European literature, which was written in Latin, the sagas were written in the vernacular, Old Icelandic or Old Norse.
The Inimitable Saga Style
The quality of the sagas is arguably the highest of any vernacular literature of the middle ages. They are written in a sparing, economical style that is very straightforward. Despite this, they brim with subtext, as many of their protagonists have a surprisingly modern psychological complexity. Some sagas are short, but others often have an epic sweep with huge casts of colorful characters caught up in historical events.
Bone-dry wit also makes the "saga style" rightly famous. Much like in an action movie, many saga heroes deliver snappy comebacks to insults or violence. For example, when in Grettis saga the hero's brother, Atli, is impaled, he looks down at the weapon that's mortally wounded him and quips that “Broad spears are the fashion these days."
Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar (sometimes nicknamed Grettla) is one of the most famous sagas. It recounts the legend of Grettir Ásmundarson, an eleventh-century outlaw, who has incredible strength, but plenty of bad luck too. He does good by slaying monsters across the countryside, but is killed by treacherous men, later becoming a cultural hero.
Egils saga Skallagrímssonar is equally renowned, and also has an unlikely hero. Egill Skallagrímsson was famous as a warrior and as a poet (or skald) with a notoriously difficult personality. Though based in Iceland, he runs afoul of the King of Norway and his vengeful Queen, and has numerous adventures and battles in England.
Njáls saga is perhaps the closest saga in length and content to a modern novel. While there is plenty of bloodshed in the saga – including the famous burning of Njáll and his family inside their home – Njáls saga is noteworthy for a long and dramatic courtroom battle, as litigiousness was also surprisingly dear to the Viking heart.
One of the shorter sagas, Gísla saga describes a blood feud with tragic consequences. Gísli kills his brother-in-law out of a stubborn sense of honor, and he is eventually slain by his family, though his stalwart wife never deserts him. Gísla saga was made into a 1981 film, Útlaginn (The Outlaw).
This is just a short sample – there are dozens more sagas that have survived. Taken together, they immortalize a world that, though lost, had a great impact on European history and the Western imagination.