Icelandic Sagas are works of prose written in Iceland between the 12th and 14th centuries. The Sagas of Icelanders, or Family Sagas, are mainly set in the 10th century as the new country is being organized. The sources used by the saga writers were early histories and other writings, and the oral stories and family traditions passed down through generations. So the writers began with factual information that they recast or organized into literature. People and situations in the sagas are presented without judgments -- the reader must make his own decision about the rights and wrongs of the story, these are the facts as the author has them. Sagas were part of a living literature for centuries -- read aloud as entertainment on long winter nights or studied as history by monkish scholars -- and today are still read and enjoyed by Icelanders who recognize the characters as their own forebears. I have tried to maintain the straight-faced flavor and factual air of these stories, while presenting accurate visual representations of the people and their lives.
Why Read the Sagas? The sagas offer a glimpse of ordinary life in Europe a thousand years ago. Iceland's settlers were Norse -- Vikings, some of them, and their Gaelic slaves. These are the last of the Germanic barbarians whose interactions with the Roman empire created Europe. Here is a look at a society in transition; the cultural clash as Iceland transforms from a heathen society to a Christian one is a major saga topic. Iceland was empty of indigenous peoples when colonizing began in 874 and people were able to create a society entirely from scratch. The result was a unique political system: "Among them, there is no king," says a medieval chronicler, "but only law." The notion of a society without rulers has attracted interest through the years right to our own day. But beyond the lessons of history, anthropology, and political science, the sagas merit reading as stories. Whatever their social and cultural differences, the saga characters are recognizable to us. And that recognition of shared feeling enlarges and enriches our own experience.
Eyrbyggja Saga describes the "byggja" -- the builders or founders -- of Eyr and nearby area in the west of Iceland. The first generation of settlers are linked by blood and marriage. They are generally peaceable and friendly to one another and there are only a few incidents which suggest flaws in this social arrangment. But when the first generation passes away, the bonds of friendship loosen and the children of the second generation begin quarreling amongst themselves. All-out violence is avoided and, in 930, a set of laws and rules of procedure -- a constitution, in effect -- issues in a new political system. The third generation's attempts to work with that system form the bulk of Eyrbyggja Saga. With the acceptance of Christianity in the year 1000, Iceland achieves a stable social order and the saga comes to a close.
Eyrbyggja Saga was probably written about 1220. It draws on earlier written histories of Iceland, some now lost. These histories drew on oral accounts and recollections including those of Thurid the Wise, daughter of Snorri the Priest, a major character in the Saga. Icelandic sagas became known outside of Scandanavia in the 18th century. Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson both admired Eyrbyggja Saga, and social theorists have discovered political lessons in it.
The Witchfeud begins in 978. A young man comes to serious harm -- through witchcraft, it is believed. The incident is not resolved; bad feeling festers until an outburst of violence destroys several families. Yet the tension is not fully released and we are left with the sense there is more trouble to come.
Two characters introduced in this story are Snorri the Priest and his rival, Arnkel. Their conflict continues for years until one finally kills the other. Snorri is a master politician who isolates his enemies before destroying them -- as, in The Witchfeud, he isolates Thorarin and leaves him no option but exile. Courageous and honorable, Arnkel embodies all the virtues of the old ways -- and their flaws as well. In fact he is literally haunted by the barbarian past... But that is another story.