“Comic Sagas and Tales from Iceland”: Introduced by Viðar Hreinsson

I haven’t posted on any art from Iceland – historical or contemporary – as yet. I was looking for some Icelandic literature when I found several volumes on narratives from the Middle Ages. A good book is the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition The Sagas of the Icelanders – first published around 2000, containing material from the years 1000 to 1500. But it’s too long – 700+ pages so I decided to start with something shorter, another Penguin Classic titled Comic Sagas and Tales from Iceland. The book is introduced by Viðar Hreinsson, an independent scholar at Reykjavik Academy. He grew up on a farm in Northern Iceland and studied Icelandic and literary theory in Iceland and Copenhagen. He has taught and lectured on various aspects of Icelandic literary and cultural history both in Iceland and abroad, in Canada, USA and Scandinavia.

Comic Sagas and Tales from Iceland with an Introduction by Viðar Hreinsson (2013, Penguin Classics)

The book, divided into separate sections of “Sagas” and “Tales”, brings together some very fine Icelandic stories from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries – first transmitted orally, later written down in varied texts. They are set during a time of social upheaval and civil unrest. The publisher states:

With feuding families and moments of grotesque violence, the sagas see such classic mythological figures as murdered fathers, disguised beggars, corrupt chieftains, and avenging sons who do battle with axes, words, and cunning. The tales, meanwhile, follow heroes and comical fools through dreams, voyages, and religious conversions in medieval Iceland and beyond. Shaped by Iceland’s oral culture and its people’s conversion to Christianity, these stories are works of ironic humor and stylistic innovation.

Hreinsson mentions that “humour” is a key element in the Sagas of the Icelanders, even in the most tragic ones. This book, however, is a collection of newer sagas that succeeded those with a particularly dark depth. These fundamentally “comic” sagas have strong parodic elements. Here, “the traditional world view and values of the classical sagas are challenged, scrutinized and, in some instances, turned completely upside down.”


Map of medieval Iceland by Flemish cartographer and geographer Abraham Ortelius (c.1590)


It is important to understand the historical context of these stories. It is believed that Iceland was first settled around 870–930 by independent chieftains wanting to get away from the rule of (pre-Christian) Norse King of Norway Harald Fairhair (c.850 – c.932).


King Harald Fairhair receives “Norway “out of his father’s hands in this illustration from the medieval manuscript Flateyjarbók, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

The Norsemen who arrived in Iceland found a terrain of volcanoes, hot springs and glaciers – without an indigenous population. A general assembly (called “Althing”) and system of local assemblies soon developed but lack of an executive power led to fierce power struggles among clans. The country converted to Christianity around 1000, became a subject of the Norwegian King in 1262 – up till 1380, when it came under Danish rule, which continued till 1918.

Read an excerpt from The Saga of the Confederates about a self-made man Odd Ofeigsson, who, after a disagreement with his father, Ofeig, becomes rich from trading and fishing. Odd is then taken advantage of by the country’s greatest chieftains and loses his wealth. His wise and shrewd father helps him out of trouble. Finally, Odd’s entry into the chieftain class is consolidated by his marriage to one of the chieftain’s daughters. Hreinsson writes that this saga is notable because it stages the politics of manipulation brilliantly – “the reader sees, word for word, how the agents gain power over the victims and entrap them through verbal stratagems”. I liked the part where Odd disagrees with his father Ofeig and leaves home to work for himself. See his entrepreneurial talents:

One day Odd came to talk to his father and asked him to fund him: “I want to leave here. It’s this way,” he said. “You give me little status, and I’m of no use to your household.”


Ofeig answered, “I’ll give you no less than you have earned, and I’ll do it right away, and then you’ll see what support that gives you.”


Odd said that he would not be able to support himself very far on that, and they broke off the conversation.


The next day Odd helped himself to a fishing line and all the tackle from the wall and twelve ells of homespun cloth, and went away without saying goodbye to anyone. He went north to Vatnsnes and there joined a group of fishermen, borrowing or hiring from them what equipment he most needed, and because they knew he was from a good family and he himself was well-liked, they took the risk of lending to him.


North Vatnsnes Landscape, Iceland (Photo: Max Pixel)


So he bought everything on credit, and for the rest of that year he worked with them in the fishery, and it is said that the group Odd was with had the best catches of any. He stayed there three winters and three summers, and by then he had repaid everyone what he owed and had still built up a good trading capital for himself. He never visited his father and they both behaved as if there were no bond between them, but Odd was popular with his business partners.

For more Icelandic sagas check out “Index of the Sagas” available in different languages and maintained by a certain Sveinbjorn Thordarson.