The Saint and the Saga Hero

The Saint and the Saga Hero

Hagiography and Early Icelandic Literature

by Siân E. Grønlie

SIÂN GRØNLIE is Associate Professor and Kate Elmore Fellow in English Language and Literature at St Anne's College, Oxford.

If you would, we like to start with an overview of our contributors’ careers to date and what drew them to their particular fields of research.
I did Course II (Medieval) English at Oxford, and then spent a year in Norway before returning to Oxford to write my doctoral thesis on literary depictions of Iceland´s conversion to Christianity. I read my first saga when I arrived at university, and immediately fell in love with the strangeness of the saga world and its rootedness in the volcanic landscape of Iceland. Now I teach Old English, Middle English and Old Norse at St Anne’s College, Oxford.

How many languages do you have to know to undertake this work?
Well, the obvious ones are Latin (for the saints’ lives) and Old Norse (for the sagas). I do also speak Norwegian and modern Icelandic, which are important for much of the secondary literature. Modern Icelandic is actually quite similar to Old Norse, as the language has been conserved both through government policy and literary tradition. However, being able to read a saga in Old Norse is not the same as being able to order a cup of coffee in modern Icelandic!

Were the sagas unique to Iceland?
It depends what kind of saga you mean. Most of the time, when we talk about the sagas, we mean the sagas of Icelanders (or family sagas), and these are unique to Iceland in the sense that they are defined by where they take place (in Iceland) and when (between the originary points of settlement and conversion). But the word saga in itself simply means story, so any kind of prose narrative in Old Norse can be called a saga, whether or not it’s translated.

What were their most popular subjects and themes?
What’s so exciting about the sagas of Icelanders is that they’re not, like so much of medieval literature, about kings or the aristocratic élite or allegorical figures. Iceland didn’t have a king or aristocracy until it came under Norwegian rule in 1263-65. Instead, the sagas are about farmers and chieftains living in Iceland in the tenth and eleventh century, and the challenges of building a new society on previously unsettled ground. They’re foundation legends, stories about how the families of thirteenth-century Iceland ended up where they did. I suppose the subject most people associate with the sagas is feuding, and there’s a fair amount of that, but the ethic isn’t straightforwardly heroic: the law is just as central to many sagas as the imperatives of honour and revenge.

Is it possible to identify any authors?
That’s an easy one: no. People speculate, of course. But the sagas are anonymous, and not simply because someone failed to record the author’s name. Most sagas concern real people and quasi-historical events, so they’re not the invention of any one individual, although some of the later sagas can feel quite novelistic. Probably many of the stories circulated in oral form before they were written down, and some exist in more than one version.

Now onto the saint’s life. Did it pre-date the sagas? Was it always written in Latin?
Saints’ lives were written continuously from the third century on: they had one of the longest lives of any medieval genre. The sagas of Icelanders were written down for the first time in the early thirteenth century. So yes: saints’ lives do predate the sagas. However, many of the stories in the sagas must have taken shape long before they were written down, and sometimes before the arrival of Christianity in Iceland. The very first saints’ lives were translated from Latin, but it wasn´t long before the Icelanders began to write saints’ lives of their own.

I assume it spread with conversion, so was it in some way a tool of conversion? Yes, saints’ lives came with Latin literacy and the Christian liturgy. As elsewhere in Europe, the Icelanders celebrated saints’ lives as part of the Christian calendar, and some would have been read out in church on saints’ days, or used for private reading in monasteries and cathedrals. One of the very earliest poems about a saint (King Óláfr Haraldsson) was delivered in the cathedral in Níðaróss in 1153 on his feast day. It was addressed to three kings and the archbishop. But saints’ lives often figure ordinary people too. It’s one of the few genres to which everyone had access.

In what main ways do sagas and saints’ lives differ in terms of construction?
They don’t necessarily differ in terms of construction, in the sense that both can be biographical in form. Saints’ lives, of course, include miracles, and sagas don’t, although they do sometimes deal in the supernatural. Still, the saint’s life is a type of heroic biography and, as such, it could have been a model for the first written sagas.

Your book contends that the saint’s life had a powerful impact on the sagas. When did they first ‘meet’ or share an audience?
Saints’ lives and sagas were written down and copied in the same monasteries and often by the same scribes. So we can only assume that the same audiences would have enjoyed them, although not necessarily in the same contexts.

And in what ways was the impact of the saint’s life so dramatic? Did it lead to a permanent change?
The saint’s life was one of the major genres of the Middle Ages: there are over three times as many medieval manuscripts containing saints’ lives as sagas. So it would be surprising if there weren’t an impact. Typically, it’s been situated at the beginning of the saga-writing period, but I argue that it continued far beyond. After all, the saint’s life had a lot to offer the saga, like, for example, expertise in moral psychology, and the framing of human life within the totality of salvation history. It allowed the sagas to generate new perspectives on social conflict and human action.

Did influences travel in both directions? How long did the saga persist beyond this point?
That remains to be seen! Some of the later saints’ lives are certainly influenced by the genealogical interests of the saga authors, as well as their tendency to interweave verse and prose.

It’s clearly an intriguing subject but what led you to decide to focus in such depth?
I’d been thinking about it for a long time, and suddenly the book took shape in my head. I just sat down and started writing. Not many people work on saints’ lives in Old Norse; the unspoken assumption is that they’re just not as good as sagas. I realised that I had something new to say.

And what of your research – many trips to Iceland?
I´ve just come back from three months in Iceland, which was wonderful. It’s the first time I´ve been there over the autumn and experienced how dramatically the days shorten. I think it’s only in Iceland that you truly experience the importance of place in the sagas. In the middle of a lava field, with glaciers at your back, you really feel that you´re on the edge of the world.

Do you remember a eureka moment or a point when your research uncovered something particularly exciting?
The chapter that absorbed me most was on the desert saint and inner worlds. I was looking at the poetry of Gísli, who is outlawed to a deserted fjord after killing his sister’s husband. Sagas don’t typically tell us much about the emotional lives of characters, but through poetry, this one opens up for us the interior world of someone who is profoundly conflicted by his actions and continually relives in a series of vivid dreams the imagined moment of his death. Astonishing.

Your book seems to have a wide potential readership but who do you hope might enjoy it most?
Not just experts in the field! There´s nothing else quite like the sagas – I hope to encourage more people to read them.

And now it is out, as part of our new Studies in Old Norse Literature series, what’s next for you?
I´m looking at the stories in the Old Testament now, which are sometimes also called ‘sagas’. I’m convinced there’s a link there to be explored.

Finally, we’re asking all our contributors how they by their books: online, favourite bookstore, conferences? Don’t buy, borrow? Electronic or print?
Online, usually, and bookshops for a treat. I still prefer print.

Buy the book

The Saint and the Saga Hero
by Siân E. Grønlie

The Saint and the Saga Hero 1 colour illustration;
320 pages
978 1 84384 481 5
hardback, £70/$120
978 1 78744 160 6
ePDF download, £70/$120
Studies in Old Norse Literature
D.S. Brewer

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