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The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, including 49 Tales

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The Sagas of Icelanders are forty narratives of adventure and conflict, set in the Viking Age but written down in the vernacular by anonymous authors in Iceland several hundred years later, during the 13th and 14th centuries. Their action spans the whole world known to the Vikings, but the stories mainly center on the unique society they founded in Icleand, depicting the men and women who settled there and their descendants. For sheer narrative artistry and skill of characterization, the fiest Sagas rank with the world's greatest literary treasures—as epic as Homer, as deep in tragedy as Sophocles, as engagingly human as Shakespeare. The Sagas of the Icelanders form a unique literary genre and have served as a source of inspiration for many outstanding writers of later times—such diverse authors as Walter Scott, Jorge Lius Borges and W.H. Auden.

Deeply rooted in the real world of their day, concise and straightforward in style, the Sagas explore perennial human problems and conflucts: love and hate, fate and freedom, honor and feud, crime and punishment, travel and exile. In saga narrative we may identify the budding of a literary technique that, centuries later, would develop into the great European novel. While steeped in the spirit of Viking age oral tradition, the Sagas tell of the lives and deeds of Icelanders during the decades immediately before and after the year 1000, when they abandoned the Germanic gods such as Odin and Thor and adopted Christianity. In this period, too, Icelanders ventured farther westwards, to explore and settle Greenland; the culmination of this venture was Leif Eiriksson's voyage to North America.

Despite their traditional origins, the Sagas are first and foremost works of consciously created literary art. They are also, in a sense, frontier literature, in which the descendants of settlers reflect on their writers, the origins, identity, legends and myths, whilst grappling with troublesome contemporary realitites, not least a 13th century civil war. For the saga writers, the settlement period was something of a Golden Age, the era of a unique commonwealth of free chieftains with no king, dominated by Viking traditions of honor and blood vengeance.

The Sagas of the Icelanders are not typical heroic literature, but rather stories of flesh-and-blood humans burdened with a heroic legacy. These were steely-minded men and domineering women in search of worldly wealth and power, fame and love. Typically, a feud could start with a minor slight to a man's honor and escalate into a chain of revenge and counter-revenge, culminating in a major battle or in the heroic death of a great champion. For the modern Saga reader, it is the psychological intensity and depth of the characters as much as the codes of honor and ethics which capture the imagination. And though strong men dominate teh Saga stage, it is often clever and beautiful women who manipulate the course of events behind the scenes and outspokenly voice their opinions on the players involved in it.

The horizons of the saga writers extended to the limits of the Viking world: westward to Greenland and Vinland, east to Russia and north to Lappland, south and east to Constantinople and Jerusalem. Iclenaders and other Vikings sailed to the shores of Ireland, upriver to the cities of Rouen and London, all along the Baltic coast. Everywhere we see that the world lies at the feet of saga heroes: witty poets become the companions of kings and earls, fierce and successful fighters never lack the attentions of noble ladies. But though these champions reign victorious on foreign shores they almost always turn their backs on the honors heaped upon them, in order to return home to their Icelandic farms nestled under towering mountains in lonly fjords and valleys.

If the Sagas can be compared to novels, the Tales are the medieval equivalent of short stories. Their narrative may have a smaller scale, but there is no loss of dramatic force, humor or deftness of character protrayal. Preserved either as independent narratives or as parts of larger works, most Tales tell of young Icelanders journeying abroad where they have a variety of encounters with men of power and influence. Their journeys represent a kind of rite of passage which tests the mettle of a potential hero. Tales range from brief anecdotes, sketched with a few masterful narrative strokes and terse dialogue, to light-hearted comedies in which royalty is gently mocked.

In The Complete Sagas of the Icelanders, the Sagas and Tales have been grouped on broad thematic principles and divided accordingly among the five volumes of the set. Although overlapping is inevitable in a genre of such diversity, a central distinction can be established between Biogrpahies and Sagas of Feuds. The Biographies tell of exceptional individuals—poets, outlaws and champions—and the stories spotlight these "odd men out" as they pit their strength against a society they stand out from and defy. At the heart of the Sagas of Feuds are wealth, power, regional status, and the inevitable conflicts that result from life in a singular society which sets its own laws and metes out a hard justice. Each of the five volumes, then, is thematically self-contained and offers a particular angle of approach for exploring and navigating the vast and fascinating world of the sagas.

2313 pages, Hardcover

First published August 10, 1997

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Displaying 1 - 12 of 12 reviews
Profile Image for Neil.
293 reviews44 followers
December 16, 2013
This is one of the most desirable publications on Old Norse literature to ever be published in the English language. The five volumes come in leather binding and are housed in a tidy little slipcase for added protection.

This is not a translation of every Icelandic Saga to be written but is a complete translation of the genre known as the Íslendingasögur. The Íslendingasögur are noted for their stark realism and are the most popular genre of Icelandic Saga literature amongst modern readers. Scholars of the past often took the realism of these works to be an a indication that they were a reliable source of medieval Icelandic history, but more recent interpretations of these sagas by authors such as Carol Clover and Theodore Andersson have noted similarities with medieval continental literature of the time, such as their structure and intertextuality. Scholars are now more inclined to treat these works as a kind of medieval historical novel, but even so, the reader will still marvel at the exploits of the Odin worshiping poet Egill Skallagrímsson, the realism of Njáls saga and the Beowulfian romp in Grettis saga. The Sagas are mostly set in Viking Age Iceland, but were mostly written down in the 13th century and trace the family history of certain Icelandic families from their Scandinavian origins, their settlement of Iceland and their feuds and adventures in Baltic trading ports to their voyages to Northern America.

The Sagas included in these volumes are;
Bandamanna saga
Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss
Bjarnar saga Hítdœlakappa
Brennu-Njáls saga
Droplaugarsona saga
Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar
Eiríks saga rauða
Eyrbyggja saga
Færeyinga saga
Finnboga saga ramma
Fljótsdæla saga
Flóamanna saga
Fóstbrœðra saga
Gísla saga Súrssonar
Grettis saga
Grœnlendinga saga
Gull-Þóris saga
Gunnars saga Keldugnúpsfífls
Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu
Hallfreðar saga
Harðar saga ok Hólmverja
Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings
Heiðarvíga saga
Hrafnkels saga
Hrana saga hrings
Hænsna-Þóris saga
Kjalnesinga saga
Kormáks saga
Króka-Refs saga
Laurentius Saga
Laxdæla saga
Ljósvetninga saga
Njáls saga
Reykdœla saga ok Víga-Skútu
Svarfdœla saga
Valla-Ljóts saga
Vatnsdœla saga
Víga-Glúms saga
Víglundar saga
Vápnfirðinga saga
Þorsteins saga hvíta
Þorsteins saga Síðu-Hallssonar
Þórðar saga hreðu
Ölkofra saga

The collection is nicely supplemented by the inclusion of fifty short stories known in Icelandic as Íslendinga þættir. The editors select mostly only the more popular ones or those that have a relevance and supplement the main collection of Íslendingasögur.

The editors divide the collection into genres such as epic and warrior poets and preface each Saga with a short introductory chapter. My only real complaints about this work is that I would have liked a more extensive introduction to the individual Sagas and a better print layout. But all in all this is a purchase that any lover of Old Norse literature will treasure and read for a life time.
Profile Image for boogenhagen.
1,982 reviews710 followers
July 16, 2016
I got lucky and picked these up in a second hand book store several years ago- these are the complete translation of The Icelandic stories (so some sagas and ettas aren't here cause they weren't based on the Icelanders.)

There is a lot of scholarliness to this series but there are some very good tales too. If you really want to learn about the legends of the Icelanders, this is the set to have.

Technically these stories aren't actually historically factual, but there are so interesting who cares? I like my history with monsters and larger than life heros and even so called factual histories rarely tell the complete picture.
Profile Image for Ben.
6 reviews2 followers
August 17, 2015
"The Complete Sagas of Icelanders" is a collection of stories set in medieval Iceland and Scandinavia, around the period of the settlement of Iceland which occurred relatively late due to its geographic isolation. For the most part, we don't know who first imagined the stories, who wrote them down, or why they felt the need to do so. Despite being only loosely based on historical events, the stories do reflect somewhat the character of the people of Iceland, portrayed in oft idealized and exaggerated, though entertaining, terms.

This particular collection is the first comprehensive English translation of the extant corpus, drawn from a handful of sources. It's not so much a history of Iceland as a mythical age of heroes and tyrannical kings, magic, superstition, monsters, and the triumph of a new god over old beliefs. These ideals form a backdrop for myriad farmers and settlers determined to rule their own lives - often recklessly. As a newly settled land, Iceland had only minimal governing structures, mostly a system of chieftains, which suited the independent spirits of its people. Farmers didn't merely grow food, they were the landholders, politicians, and elite of their day.

The average saga begins with a genealogy, typically describing powerful men who found themselves at odds with a Norwegian king and left for the freedom and promise of Iceland. Their descendants are then followed, proud and strong men who find themselves at odds with other equally proud and strong men. Feuds develop and are settled, only to re-ignite in rash acts of aggression. The telling is plain, simple language, straightforward and to the point - the authors followed more or less a standard template for writing the sagas.

It takes some adjustment for the modern mind to understand and enjoy these stories. There are many interrelated characters introduced in each tale, some minor and some significant, and the action spreads out over numerous districts, farms, and natural settings. To a foreigner, most or all of these names will be unfamiliar and potentially disorienting. However, I quickly found myself identifying and focusing on the main characters, hoping for or against them depending on their nature and actions.

The introduction is quite lengthy and detailed, it should answer any questions you have. The sagas each have a brief introduction which describe the essence of the plot and unique features to that particular saga, as well as noting the original source and estimated dates. They are sparsely annotated - when there's a note it's most helpful (the verses in particular would be almost impossible to understand otherwise). The last volume contains also maps, a glossary, and other relevant info which you'll find yourself returning to frequently. The overall presentation of the collection is one accessible to the casual reader rather than the pedant.

My personal favorites were Egil's Saga (probably the most dramatic, well-written, and easily accessible), Njal's Saga (the longest, very dramatic, lots of action, tragedy and emotion), and the Vinland and Greenland sagas, which are relevant to me as an American :) I actually read the books cover-to-cover, but in reverse order as my goofy library provided them individually starting with the last volume.

If you're interested in medieval literature, Norse history or mythology, Iceland, vikings, or the earliest European exploration of the Americas, this collection will appeal to you on some level. I won't go so far as to say everyone can enjoy it, that's not true, the same goes for any great work of literature. But if you're willing to put in the effort and accept the sagas for what they are, they can be a very rewarding read.
Profile Image for SmokingMirror.
373 reviews
March 26, 2013
Read this set from the library, except for volume five, which was missing. Only one of the sagas is therefore not read by me, for which I mourn, because I do not have $500.00 or whatever the price now to buy the set, much as I would like to. I commend the editors and translators for all their diligence and skill in putting together these books in English for readers like me. Besides Njal, Laxdaela, and Egil, I recommend The Sworn Brothers, Eyrbyggja (in v. 5 but I found a single volume copy to read)and the sad Hrfnalkel saga. I scorn Svardarfadal and its despicable protagonist (but I still might reread it). Thanks to the author Elizabeth Hand, for the recommendation link on her website of Grettisaga, also my favorite. The transition from pagan culture to Christian culture has not been better depicted in the sagas, plus it's a very fun read.
Profile Image for Kate.
350 reviews4 followers
September 9, 2016
The problem with taking almost a year to read this is that by the time I finished volume 5 I wanted to re-read 1-4 again now that I had an idea of all the interweaving characters, this time without interruptions for other books.

But I'm not sure that's humanly possible.

Excellent collection, excellent work by the translators.
1 review
December 9, 2019
An incredible achievement by ancient man, but the narratives are nothing like our storytelling methods. A fascinating and imperative journey into the minds and lives of our ancestors.
Profile Image for Franklin.
6 reviews
February 6, 2017
I only read Njal's Saga, so this isn't a rating for the entire series. Overall was disappointed, though I didn't think too much when starting and came at it mostly through a modern lens. I think I'm not a huge fan of feuds.
Profile Image for José Toledo.
50 reviews15 followers
October 29, 2016
Finished reading Volume I --Vinland, Warriors and Poets-- from the splendid set of five tomes published by Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, Reykjavík. The poetry and the adventure are conveyed in modern language exquisitely.

Pacing myself, Volume II sometime next month. Must allow for other books that claim my attention. Just not enough lifetime to read everything, is there?

Done with Volume II, which I didn't like as much as the first one. While there is more poetry, and more lore, the fighting scenes become repetitive.
Profile Image for Peter.
Author 2 books5 followers
August 7, 2013
I had been reading the sagas here and there for many years. Mostly the popular one's: Najal's and the like. However I read this collection from beginning to end over the period of about a year in 2001 or 2002. It changed my life.
Displaying 1 - 12 of 12 reviews

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