In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Fornaldarsögur

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Editions/Collections
  • Editions of Individual Sagas

Medieval Studies Fornaldarsögur
Matthew James Driscoll
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0316


The fornaldarsögur norðurlanda—literally “Stories of ancient times in the northern lands,” but generally known in English as “Mythical-heroic” or “Legendary” sagas—are a group of Icelandic prose narratives dealing with the early history of mainland Scandinavia, before the unification of Norway under Haraldr hárfagri (fair-hair) and the settlement of Iceland in the late ninth century. Although many of them have demonstrably older roots, there is no manuscript evidence for their existence before around 1300, and in their present state they are presumed to date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They remained popular throughout the late medieval and early-modern period, and continued to circulate in manuscripts into the first decades of the twentieth century. Although there has been much debate as to whether they can be said to constitute a genre in their own right, they do share a number of formal characteristics: they are formulaic, making extensive use of stock characters and motifs; they are episodic in structure, and are often found in multiple recensions though the addition of new episodes; they are unrealistic, with a strong element of the fabulous; most are prosimetric, incorporating verses in the narrative; and they are, in comparison with other types of sagas, relatively short, the longest being only about thirty thousand words, the shortest scarcely six to seven thousand. Within the corpus there are identifiable subgroups comprising, on the one hand, heroic legends based in traditional lore that focus on successive generations of heroes and are in the tragic mode, ending with the deaths of the protagonists, and, on the other, Viking romances that follow individual protagonists and are in the comic mode, ending typically with the hero’s marriage and accession to the throne. While the sagas in the former group have received a good deal of scholarly attention, those in the latter group have, until recently, been largely dismissed as tasteless, derivative, and devoid of literary merit. Individual sagas appeared in print in the second half of the seventeenth century, chiefly in Sweden. The first complete edition of the fornaldarsögur, published by the Danish scholar Carl Christian Rafn in 1829–1830, included texts of thirty-one sagas, three of them in two recensions. Subsequent scholarship has identified a number of other sagas not included by Rafn but which certainly could have been, as they also fit his criteria of place (greater Scandinavia) and time (the late Iron Age).

General Overviews

There are many general introductions to the fornaldarsögur available in English and other languages. These can take the form of monographs, entries in dictionaries, encyclopedias and similar reference works, and individual articles and book chapters. A selection of these is presented here.

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