In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Old Norse-Icelandic Sagas

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Encyclopedias
  • Dictionaries
  • Journals

Medieval Studies Old Norse-Icelandic Sagas
Jana K. Schulman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0090


Medieval Iceland produced vernacular prose narratives of various sorts from the early 12th century through the 14th century. These narratives, called sagas, fall into groupings, for lack of a better term, based on their subject matter and/or their generic features. For the most part, scholars recognize saints’ lives, which tell of the lives of holy men and women; bishops’ sagas (biskupasögur), which narrate the lives of Iceland’s bishops; kings’ sagas, which tell of Norway’s kings and Icelanders’ interactions with those kings (konungasögur); the sagas that tell of Icelandic settlers and their descendants who lived between 930 and 1050 (íslendingasögur); sagas of mythical heroes and heroines (fornaldarsögur); sagas of knights and tales of chivalry, often translated from European languages into Icelandic (riddarasögur); and contemporary sagas, which tell of 13th-century men and the authors’ own society.

General Overviews

While works by some scholars include introductions to medieval Icelandic literature that provide a brief overview of all or the majority of these sagas (Clunies Ross 2010, O’Donoghue 2004, Hallberg 1962, Turville-Petre 1953), most works focus on specific issues such as composition and style (Clover 1982) and saga or narrative types. Probably the two investigations that remain most significant in 2013 are the dating of the sagas, which is motivated by a desire to understand the relationships of sagas one to another and to establish a chronology (Andersson 2006), and genre studies (Andersson 2010). For a survey and review of scholarship on some of the sagas (specifically, the sagas of Icelanders, the kings’s sagas, and romances), see Clover and Lindow 2005. McTurk 2005 contains essays on each saga genre as well as on background material and cultural contexts.

  • Andersson, Theodore M. The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas, 1180–1280. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226036236.001.0001

    Outlining some of the issues involved with the dating of the sagas and analyzing the conventions of oral tradition and their influence on written narrative, Andersson attempts to establish a chronology of the sagas based on their literary development. Very interesting, but it would be nice to have more in-depth discussions of what underlies Andersson’s interpretations.

  • Andersson, Theodore M. “The Sagas in the Straitjacket of Genre.” In The Hero Recovered: Essays on Medieval Heroism in Honor of George Clark. Edited by Robin Waugh and James Weldon, 142–149. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2010.

    A brief overview of the history of genre classification for sagas, this essay summarizes the problems inherent in the present system of classification and calls for changes to that system.

  • Clover, Carol J. The Medieval Saga. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982.

    Examines the composition of Icelandic sagas not merely as a product of native tradition, but also in relationship to European literary developments of the 13th century. Clover’s argument that the sagas interweave more than one story line, indicating composition influenced by Latin literature, was both innovative and yet controversial.

  • Clover, Carol J., and John Lindow, eds. Old Norse–Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide. Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching 42. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

    First published in 1985, this book provides comprehensive bibliographies on six areas of medieval Icelandic literature and, even more important, critical summaries of scholarship in these areas. The new preface by Theodore M. Andersson updates the bibliographies, but it is limited. Regardless, this is still the best book to get a sense of what critical issues, approaches, and methodologies preoccupy scholars in the field.

  • Clunies Ross, Margaret. The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse–Icelandic Saga. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    Clunies Ross’s emphasis on what she calls the “mixed modality” of the sagas makes this volume particularly good; this term allows for better comparison of, and appreciation for, the different subgenres of sagas. Very good introduction to sagas and the research in the field; the chapter on the reception of the sagas outside of Iceland is fascinating and complements Kennedy 2007 (cited under Bibliographies).

  • Hallberg, Peter. The Icelandic Saga. Translated with Introduction and Notes by Paul Schach. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962.

    Focuses on substance and form of the sagas of Icelanders, but the book is a good introduction to medieval Icelandic history, the literature of Iceland, and saga writing. Swedish edition published by Svenska Bokförlaget under the title Den Islänska sagan.

  • McTurk, Rory, ed. A Companion to Old Norse–Icelandic Literature and Culture. Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture 31. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

    This essay collection includes thirty-two short essays on the culture and history of medieval Iceland, its literature, and that literature’s reception in post-medieval Iceland. The essays frequently survey their subject, offering summaries, evaluations (of texts and scholarship on them), and suggestions for further reading. A comprehensive and useful text.

  • O’Donoghue, Heather. Old Norse–Icelandic Literature: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

    Provides a very readable introduction to medieval Iceland, its literature, and the impact of that literature on later European literature from the 18th century to the 20th century.

  • Turville-Petre, Gabriel. Origins of Icelandic Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953.

    Considers pre-classical age literature, i.e., literature written prior to the 13th century, for its impact on the later sagas and to show how Iceland’s literature connected to that of Europe. Pays particular attention to early religious literature, kings’ sagas, and bishops’ sagas.

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