The Northern Way

Viking Tales of the North

The Sagas of Thorstein, Viking’s Son, and Fridthjof the Bold.

Translated from the Icelandic

by

Rasmus B. Anderson, A.M.,

Professor of Scandinavian Languages in the University of Wisconsin, and Honorary Member of the Icelandic Literary Society,

and

Jón Bjarnason.

Also.

Tegnér’s Fridthjof’s Saga

Translated into English

By

George Stephens.

Chicago:

S. C. Griggs and Company.

London:

Trübner & Co.

1877

The Legend of Fridthjof the Valiant is the noblest poetic contribution which Sweden has yet made to the literary history of the world.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

        “No poetical work of modern times stands forth so prominently and peculiarly a representative of the literature of a race and language as the Fridthujof’s Saga of Esaias Tegnér.” – Bayard Taylor.

        “In der Fridthjof’s Sage verehrt das schwedische Volk seine leiblischste und berühmteste National-dichtun.” – Gottlieg Mohmike, in the preface to the ninth edition of his German translation of the poem.
Preface.

 Icelandic Sagas are but little known to the American public, and this being the first volume of saga-translations ever published in this country, we trust it will not be found out of place to give a short sketch, first of the Icelandic saga-literature in general, and then of the special interest attaching to the sagas contained in this volume.

 The Icelandic word saga (saying) implies anything presented in narrative prose, and is a term used in reference to strictly historical records of persons and events of the past, but it also includes a large amount of half-fabulous and purely fictitious tales which are told in the same narrative form as the genuine historical sagas.

The composition of Icelandic literature in general and the writing of sagas began about the close of the eleventh century. Soon after the complete introduction of Christianity in that country (A.D. 1000). Priest Are Thorgilsson the Learned, who was born in the year 1067 and died 1148, has the honor of being the father of Northern history and Icelandic saga-writing. He is the Herodotos of the North and his “Icelander Book” (Íslendingabók) is the oldest literary monument in the Norse language, excepting the runic inscriptions that are found risted on stone and wood in great numbers throughout the Scandinavian countries of the continent and occasionally in Great Britain and elsewhere. Of these runic inscriptions a large number date back to a time far earlier than that of the birth of Are the Learned; but runes are not known to have been used in writing books. With Are’s saga works which embraced a general history of the Northern peoples and a special history of Iceland down to the time of the author, the foundation was laid of the saga-literature and henceforth, during the twelfth, the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries one work after the other was produced, forming together a collection which, both as regards quantity and quality, has been looked upon with wonderment by the scholars of all lands who have turned their attention to Icelandic studies, and which is admitted to be an achievement so remarkable as to be without a parallel in the literary history of the world.

The writings of Are the Learned are not extant in their original form, with the exception of his “Íslendingabók,” which is a component, prepared by himself, of his large saga-work on Iceland. But they are far from being wholly lost, for the famous Heimskringla (home-circle) of Snorre Sturlasson (Snorri Sturluson), who died in the year 1241, and probably also the history of the Jomsvikings (Jómsvíkinga Saga) and of the Knytlings (Knytlinga Saga), embracing a history of Denmark, by Olaf Thordsson Kvitaskald, and also, so far as Iceland is concerned the “Landnámabók” (Book of Land-Taking; comp. The Eng. Domesday Book,) are based on Are’s great historical works. The saga-writers especially the older ones, preserved the historical records of hte past without stripping them of that popular and colloquial form in which oral tradition, from grandsire to grandson, had preserved them, –a form which had so naturally been given to them by the creative power of the people’s imagination. The form of the oldest Icelandic sagas is in this respect not unlike the writings of Herodotos, and thus history repeats itself. Its chief characteristics are the same in the frozen North as beneath the genial rays of a Southern sun. Thus it also happens that even the best of these old sagas have more or less superstition interwoven with the historical facts, and that historical persons sometimes have their characters embellished with supernatural traits. Without impairing the historical value of these sagas, the peculiarity just mentioned serves in a pleasing and naive manner to enhance their artistic value, making, as it does, an historical drama out of every one of them. Examples of this kind are Njal’s Saga. Laxdæla Saga, Grettis Saga, Egil Skallgrimsson’s Saga, etc. Some of the events that became the subject of Icelandic saga-writing took place, so to speak, under the very eyes of the saga-man, so that he had an opportunity to investigate the facts; while others had existed a much longer time in popular tradition, and the circumstances upon which they were originally based were so remote as to be almost or entirely beyond the reach of the historical eyes of the saga-man on account of the mystic could in which they had become enveloped by tradition. Thus two distinct kinds of sagas were produced. The one was the strictly historical and the other the fabulous, of which the latter, though often of little or no historical value, may, in other respects, be considered just as genuine as the former.

But as soon as historiography was fairly established in Iceland, historical criticisms also was developed, and to a perfection that can scarcely anywhere be found more conspicuous than in the masterly works of Snorre Sturlasson.

 After the writing of semi-mythical, semi-historical sagas had acquired a thoroughly artistic form, and when the material for them had been well nigh exhausted, the composition of fictitious sagas took their place. I these the subject was wholly a creation by the author’s fancy, and was in no respect based on popular tradition. Still, these fictions adhered very strictly to the form of the other sagas, and the colloquial, dramatic form of the later was generally very successfully imitated.

 In the present volume we offer our readers an English version of two old Icelandic sagas, viz., the saga of Thorstein Vikingsoon and the saga of Fridthjof the Bold.

The saga of Fridthjof the Bold belongs to the fabulous class mentioned above. The persons figuring therein may have existed at some far-off time, which it is impossible to determine; and while the dramatic adventures related may have an historical basis, still the mythical element is decidedly the predominating and more conspicuous of the tow. It is a mooted question whether the myths of the Eddas may not, in addition to impersonating the forces and phenomena of nature, to some extent be connected with, or even based upon, historical characters and events. We believe the cycle of myths embraced in the second half of the Elder Edda may have a real historical foundation, and so far as this is true the legend presented in Fridthjof’s Saga must be classed with them. Thus myths may be divided into two classes: the primary myths, in which the thoughts and feelings and actions of the divine are presented in their most human form; and the secondary myths, in which humans ideas and aspirations find their divinest expression. Fridthjof’s Saga will them be classified as a secondary myth. Fridthjog and Ingeborg, the two most prominent characters in it, may really have existed in some far-off time, but in our story they serve as representatives of the highest and most godlike type of male and female character, according to heathen conceptions of men and women in the Teutonic North; while Balder and Freyja, for instance, in the purely mythological portion of the Eddas, in an ethical sense, represent attributes of the Supreme God, elaborated in such a manner as to adapt themselves somewhat to the longings of the human soul.

Who the author of Fridthjof’s Saga is, is not known. The same is true of a large majority of Icelandic sagas. The saga-writers did not , as a rule, attach their names to their literary works. With Íslendingabók, for instance, it is a matter of mere accident that a statement is found in it showing that Are the Learned is its author. And, as has already been indicated, the individuality of the writer is scarcely noticeable in most of the sagas. the old Icelanders seemed to care but little for personal fame as authors. It was their custom to present all ancestral narratives in the name of the whole people, and not in the name of a single individual or author. In spite of this fact, it is evident, when we compare the various sagas one with the other, that the saga-man was not, as has sometimes been asserted, a mere transcriber of popular traditions, but he was an author, and as such would rank favorably with Herodotos or Lify. The great superiority of some sagas over others in respect tot he form of narrative will convince any one, who will take pains to look into the matter, of the correctness of this view, and it becomes especially apparent in cases where the same tradition is found recorded in ore than one of the sagas. In one we may find it presented in an easy, natural and unaffected manner, while in another the same story may be told in a clumsy, dull and dry style, with more or less affectation.

Nor can the time when Fridthjof’s Saga was put in writing be fixed with precision. All we can say of it is, that is is usually ascribed to the twelfth or thirteenth century.

 The Saga of Thorstein Vikingsoon is very intimately connected with Fridthjof’s Saga. The latter may be regarded as a continuation of the former, the principal characters treated in Thorstein’s Vikingssons Saga being the ancestors of those figuring in the saga of Fridthjof the Bold. In another sense Thorstein’s Saga may be considered as an introduction to Fridthjof’s Saga, for while the latter is a genuine semi-mythological story based on some popular tradition, the former belongs to the class of purely fictitious viking romances which became so fashionable in the latter part of the saga-period in Iceland. It dates from the fourteenth century, and represents an average tale of the medieval North. The most prominent characters in it purport, as already explained, to be the forefathers of the heroes in Fridthjof’s Saga; but aside from this nominal relation they differ widely in their general character, and belong to two distinct saga-classes.

The Icelandic originals of both these sagas are found in volume II of the “Fornaldarsögur: (Copenhagen, 1829), and Fridthjof’s Saga is also found in Dr. Dietrich’s “Altnordisches Lesebuch.”

We beg the reader not to look upon the famous poem of the great Esaias Tegnér as a mere appendix to our work. Our saga-translations should rather be regarded as two introductory chapters to the poem. These two sagas ware the source from which the celebrated Swedish poet got his material, and we fear that many would fail to appreciate the natural and unadorned poetry of the original, where it not brought out in bold relief by Tegnér’s artistic poem; and hence we repeat, that this gem among modern poetical productions should be looked upon as the interpreter and illuminator of hte original. Tegnér has shown by this poem that our old northern paganism enshrines poetical material of a character profound and sublime enough to be worthy of the attention of the master poets of a Christian age. Tegnér’s Fridthjof’s Saga is the very heart of Scandinavian poetry,–a heart which , though it belongs to the icy North and strikes its deepest roots far down into the traditional legends of ancestral paganism, still has enough of warmth and beauty to delight the readers of the most varied climates and nationalities. It has been translated into nearly every European tongue, and into some of them many times. Thus there are no less than eighteen or nineteen versions of this poem in English,(1) and a few years ago the Icelandic skald, Matthías Jochumsson, gave his countrymen a splendid and truly classical translation.

The English version which is found in the present volume is by Professor George Stephens, of Copenhagen, Denmark, that famous Northern scholar and runologist who has done so much to call attention to the wealth stored up in our own old literary monuments. Professor Stephens has generously granted us permission to make use of his work; and his reputation as a scholar, coupled with Tegnér’s most flattering testimony that the translator has succeeded in reproduction the very spirit of the original, will be to all who may chance to pick up this book a sufficient guarantee that the translation of Tegnér herewith presented is both accurate and excellent.(2)

Professor Stephens’ translation of Fridthjof’s Saga forms altogether a book of more than three hundred pages, octavo. Lest our volume should become too large, we have been compelled reluctantly to omit a considerable portion of his valuable introductory chapters, notes, etc. On the other hand, we have added a few paragraphs to the excellent sketch of Tegnér’s life, written by F.M. Franzén (a countryman of hte poet), so as to bring it down to the poet’s death. We hereby tender our thanks to the venerable George Stephens for his kindness in permitting us to make use of the fruits of his toil; and we also beg his generous indulgence if he should find that, for reasons above indicated, we have abbreviated, selected, rejected and added in our appropriation of his introduction and notes, in a manner that reminds him but too forcibly of the ancient vandals.

Of our own translation of hte two sagas others must be judges. The first one of the two has appeared twice before in English; once in 1839, by George Stephens, as a part of his work mentioned above; the second time in 1875, after we had nearly completed our translation, by those heroic workers among the old sagas, Eírikr Magnússon, and William Morris, of Cambridge, England. We make no pretensions, and humbly ask forgiveness of the reader, where he thinks he could have performed the task better. Of course a criticisms as to the accuracy of our translations must be based on some acquaintance with the originals in the Icelandic tongue.

It should have been stated before, that in addition to the Icelandic Fridthjof’s Saga, which we have made use of, there exists another much shorter one, which may be found in the same volume of “Fornaldarsögur” as the other.

Hoping the time may soon come when the saga-literature may gradually become known and appreciated in this Western world, and wishing for this inestimable heritage from our fore-fathers the fostering care of abler hands, we send these vikings out among the dwellers of Vinland the Good as pioneers to make way for their brothers and friends. Give them a bench at your firesides and let them relate their adventures!

B. Anderson

Jón Bjarnason

ENDNOTES:

1. In reference to the first American translation of the whole poem, see page 361. (Notes section) Back

2. In 1838 Bishop Tegnér wrote a letter to George Stephens, wherein he says: “I am of opinion that no one of all the translators, with whom I have had an opportunity of meeting, have penetrated so deeply into the fundamental spirit of the original, and have so much respected its northern characteristics, as yourself.–Ed. Tegnér.” Back

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