Masterpieces Of Old Norse Literature: Sagas, Eddas, And Skaldic Poems

The Old Norse literature comprises a variety of masterpieces, some of which have been well preserved to these days. These manuscripts have influenced many writers in the passing of time, most notably perhaps the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (specifically the well known ‘Lord of the Rings’ high fantasy trilogy and its predecessor, ‘The Hobbit’). Moreover, the Norse influence on the writings of Tolkien is also emphasized by mythical beings (such as dwarves, elves, or trolls) and adapted place names from the real world.

Through the sagas, eddas, and the skaldic poems we dispose of elderly knowledge regarding the way of life of the Norsemen during the Viking Age. While some historians tend not to regard these literary creations completely accurate from historical standpoints, others have a mixed trust concerning them. Subsequently though, it was demonstrated (thanks to modern archaeological tools and research) that some of the events recounted in the sagas were, to a certain extent, real, after all.

11th century depiction of a Norse fleet from ‘The Life of Saint Aubin’. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

However, it must be mentioned that the information stemming from these primary medieval sources is the result of

Excerpt from Flateyarbók (‘The Flatey Book’), the most voluminous Icelandic medieval manuscript. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

an oral tradition that was passed on from generation to generation since ancient times, both in continental Scandinavia and in the North Atlantic colonies of the Norsemen. Bearing in mind this aspect, derivations from ‘original’ sources (whatever they might be in the end) were inevitably made by the vastly anonymous authors of these manuscripts.

The sagas, eddas, and skaldic poems were written in Iceland after the end of the Viking Age. It was during the High Middle Ages that the oral tradition of the Norsemen evolved into written records mentioning their milestones with respect to exploration, navigation, settlement, society, technology, art, and culture.

The identities of the authors who made possible this transition remain, to these days, largely obscure. Yet there is a particular case in which the identity of a sole author is somewhat credited, namely Snorri Sturluson, who might have written ‘Egil’s saga’, a saga focused on the life and deeds of one of his forefathers. A tremendous poet just like Egill Skallagrímsson, Snorri would later on become critically acclaimed for writing the ‘Prose Edda’ and the ‘Heimskringla’ (which details the history of the Norwegian kings, with transitions between legend and historical facts).

But what exactly are the sagas, eddas, and skaldic poems? In order to explain their origins and briefly detail their literary structure we need to take them one at a time.

Icelandic poet and historian Snorri Sturluson, as imagined by Norwegian painter Christian Krohg in the 1899 illustrated edition of Heimskringla. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Firstly, the sagas (overall) are semi-historical accounts penned by anonymous authors in Iceland throughout the High Middle Ages (from the 12th century to the 14th century). They are written in prose and preserve both legendary and factual events. Such prominent sagas include those of the Icelanders (with such noteworthy creations as the saga of Egill, the saga of Grettir, the saga of Gísli Súrsson, the saga of the people of Laxárdal or the saga of Njáll and Gunnar).

One of them (namely the one recording the life and deeds of the outlawed poet Gísli Súrsson) was eventually made into an Icelandic film which was well received by the critics.

Secondly, the eddas are similar manuscripts but should be divided into two distinct categories as follows:

  • Prose Edda (or Younger Edda) – created by Snorri Sturluson in early 13th century
  • Poetic Edda (or Elder Edda) – created anonymously during late 13th century

The distinction between younger and elder edda applies for chronological reasons (as it is noticeable in the classification above) as well as given older materials used in the second work (the Poetic Edda, specifically). The first edda (i.e. the prose one) is a critical medieval manuscript on the art of poetry whilst the second edda (i.e. the poetic one) comprises a variety of old Icelandic poems related to heroic, legendary, and mythological circumstances, events, and people.

Thirdly, the skaldic poems represent, in some directions (such as style, metre, and diction), the opposite from the Eddic poetry. Initially created in early medieval Norway and then subsequently developed in Iceland after the Norse settlement of the island (also contemporary with the Eddic poetry), the skaldic poems were composed by Icelandic poets known as ‘skalds’.

These poems were designated for court poetry in early medieval Norway but some were given a mythological background. Known skaldic poems composed so as to honour prominent Norse leaders include ‘Glymdrápa’ for King Harald Finehair (of Norway) or ‘Knútsdrápa’ for King Cnut the Great (of Denmark). A well known skald is Egill Skallagrímsson, the forefather of Snorri Sturluson.

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