In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sagas and Tales of Icelanders

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies on Sagas of Icelanders
  • Reference Works and Encyclopedia
  • Editions
  • Translations
  • Introductions
  • Orality, Book Prose–Free Prose
  • Dating the Sagas
  • Authorship
  • Studies on Narrative, Structure, and Genesis of the Sagas of Icelanders
  • Thematic Studies
  • Skaldsagas
  • Tales of Icelanders

Medieval Studies Sagas and Tales of Icelanders
Annette Lassen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0296


The sagas of Icelanders deal with the life of wealthy farmers in Iceland in the period from 930 to 1030 CE, in the so-called Saga Age. They were recorded over a long period of time in the Middle Ages. The term “saga” commonly designates an epic prose narrative from medieval Iceland that includes a vast number of persons and events, but some sagas focus on only one conflict. A “tale” (Icel. þáttr; plural þættir) is a short prose narrative embedded in a larger work, most often in sagas about kings (konungasögur), as a kind of interlude in the action. The sagas of Icelanders depict the emigration of powerful people from Norway and the settlement of Iceland. The sagas belonging to the group are manifold: there are classic and tragic narratives about love, grief, and feuds; accounts of farmers who fight one another; and tales about skalds (poets), trolls, and fateful expeditions to Greenland and the unknown world of North America (Vínland). Many sagas of Icelanders, such as Gísla saga Súrssonar and Grettis saga, focus primarily on one person, while others, such as Eyrbyggja saga, deal with a specific family or people in a certain geographical area. The plot often revolves around one or more feuds. The saga describes the cause of the feud, its development, and its resolution. This is the case, for example, in Njáls saga and Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða. Some sagas, such as Laxdœla saga, tell of conflicts, not all of which are interrelated. The events take place primarily in Iceland, but most sagas give accounts of the travels of young heroic men to Norway, Sweden, England, Ireland, the Orkney Islands, or places even farther away. While abroad, the young man obtains wealth on Viking raids and honor from kings. When he is back in Iceland, a conflict with other farmers generally erupts about power, women, land, fishing rights, or stranded whales. The female heroes generally remain in Iceland, though a few depart the country for good or go on a pilgrimage, such as Gísli’s widow, Aud, at the conclusion of Gísla saga. The guiding principle of the conflicts are the heroes’, both male and female, enormously sensitive feelings of honor. There are a great amount of articles and monographs on the sagas of Icelanders and it is, of course, impossible to include it all. This article has been, with a few exceptions, prioritzed to include monographs and anthologies instead of single articles in journals.

General Overviews

General overviews of and introductions to Old Norse/Icelandic literature present the sagas and tales of Icelanders in their literary and sociohistorical context, which is of relevance for the sagas of Icelanders. Ármann Jakobsson and Sverrir Jakobsson 2017 is a guide to formal concerns and ideology of the sagas. Bekker-Nielsen, et al. 1965 focuses on the importance of ecclesiastical writings, while Clunies Ross 2000 also focuses on the social background and orality. Jónas Kristjánsson 1988 contains synopses of some of the sagas, while McTurk 2005 gives background information on a wide variety of subjects related to the sagas and also contains introductory chapters on sagas and tales of Icelanders.

  • Ármann Jakobsson, and Sverrir Jakobsson, eds. The Routledge Research Companion to the Medieval Icelandic Sagas. Oxford: Routledge, 2017.

    Is not structured around saga genres but is instead divided between formal concerns and ideological turns that are of value for the study of the sagas of Icelanders. The first part contains chapters on the concepts of genre, dating and origins, literacy, style, structure, history and fiction, performativity, and tales. The second part contains chapters on a variety of notions, such as space, time, fate, travel, heroism, gender, emotions, marginality, the paranormal, Christian themes, feud, class, and worldview.

  • Bekker-Nielsen, Hans, Thorkil Damsgaard Olsen, and Ole Widding. Norrøn fortællekunst: Kapitler af den norsk-islandske middelalderlitteraturs historie. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1965.

    Stresses learned and ecclesiastical writings in order to counterbalance the emphasis on secular literature of their time. The book contains chapters on sagas of Icelanders, kings’ sagas, sagas of holy men and women, courtly literature, writing, and the early period and the late medieval period of Icelandic literature, and it gives information about the manuscript transmission and foreign influences along the way.

  • Clunies Ross, Margaret, ed. Old Icelandic Literature and Society. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Focuses on background information (social institutions and belief systems, orality and literacy, poetry, myth) and on specific saga genres (kings’ sagas, sagas of Icelanders, modern sagas, mythical-heroic sagas, courtly romances, sagas of saints) and finally on the Bible and biblical interpretations in the Icelandic Middle Ages.

  • Jónas Kristjánsson. Eddas and Sagas: Iceland’s Medieval Literature. Translated by Peter Foote. Reykjavík, Iceland: Hið íslenzka bókmenntafélag, 1988.

    Introduces the literature of medieval Iceland. Among much else, it contains a valuable synopsis of the narrative of the sagas of Icelanders. The book also contains a chapter on the most-prominent tales.

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

    Contains, apart from a chapter on the sagas of Icelanders and tales, chapters on a wide variety of themes that are relevant for the study of sagas of Icelanders: historical background, law, manuscript and paleography, language, orality and literacy, and myth and religion. The chapter on tales (þættir) is a very good introduction to that genre.

  • Schier, Kurt. Sagaliteratur. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1970.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-476-03816-6

    Gives a short descriptive survey of the different subgroups of the sagas, with bibliographical information for further reading. It contains basic information on the manuscript preservation and dating of the sagas.

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