The Icelandic Family Saga: Fact or Fiction?
with Professor Heather O’Donoghue
(Professor of Old Norse, Linacre College, University of Oxford)
at Sutton Hoo on Saturday, April 28th 2018

The Old Icelandic family sagas are a unique and quite extraordinary body of literature, described by the poet Ted Hughes as “one of the great marvels of World Literature”. Set in the period 870 -around 1030 AD, they recount – in appealingly naturalistic detail – the lives, deaths and passions of the first settlers in Iceland and their descendants. They seem to offer a remarkable window on to the world of Viking age Scandinavians. But how historically reliable are they? The society they depict is at the same time both strange and familiar, with its law courts, and a democratic parliament, and events play out against the dramatic actual landscapes of Iceland. Characters are described with what looks very like modern psychological realism. These are medieval narratives as absorbing and engaging as contemporary novels. Today’s talks are designed to introduce you to these texts, to explore the boundary between history and fiction in them, and to find out more about both life in medieval Iceland, and the literary genius of saga authors.

Provisional Programme

09.50 – 10.15:                Coffee on arrival

10.15 – 11.15:                Chronicles of daily life in Viking Age Iceland

In this introductory talk, we will look at the settlement of Iceland, the origins of its literary traditions, and its history and society as described in the sagas.

11.15 – 11.40:                Coffee break

11.40 – 12.40:                Some samples of the saga writer’s art

In this session, we will read some extracts from actual family sagas (in translation!) to get a sense of what saga narrative can offer, and experience at first hand its delicate balance of history and fiction.

12.40 – 14.00:                Lunch break

14.00 – 14.50:                 Are family sagas medieval novels?

In the afternoon, we will pursue the history/fiction borderline, and measure the literary techniques of saga authors against the conventions of contemporary novels.

14.50 – 15.10:                Tea break

15.10 – 16.00:                How to read a family saga

Finally, we shall focus on one saga narrative, Hrafnkels saga, exploring its ambiguities and testing the hypothesis that saga authors deliberately leave their narrative open for discussion and analysis.

c.16.00:                            Thanks and Close

About Heather O’Donoghue

Heather O’Donoghue is Professor of Old Norse at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Linacre College. She has written on many aspects of Old Norse literature, including its post-medieval reception, as in, for example, From Asgard to Valhalla: the Remarkable History of the Old Norse Myths (IB Tauris, 2007) and English Poetry and Old Norse Myth (Oxford University Press, 2014). She is also involved in reviewing and judging (though not writing) crime fiction, especially Nordic noir. Her current project is an analysis of the narrative art of Icelandic family sagas.


At a previous Study Day by Heather, when asked ‘What was best about the day?‘ people said:

  • It was our first study day and it was a tremendous privilege to be able to hear such a distinguished speaker in such amazing surroundings
  • The quality of the lecturer
  • Informed and interesting presentations i/c some rumour
  • Very interesting introduction to sagas
  • Very interesting. Good speaker
  • Very good day. Very instructive and clear
  • Heather’s knowledge and enthusiasm and her willingness to digress in order to answer questions. Another great day, great atmosphere, good company and engaging tutor
    First visit, fascinating, will be back for more.


Some Suggestions for Optional Background Reading:

Sagas in translation

  • Gisli Sursson’s Saga and The Saga of the People of Eyri, with an Introduction by Vésteinn Ólason, and various translators (Penguin Classics 2003)
  • Laxdaela Saga, translated with an Introduction by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson ((Penguin Classics, 1969)
  • Njal’s Saga, translated with an Introduction and Notes by Robert Cook (Penguin Classics, 2001)
  • Grettir’s Saga, translated with an Introduction and Notes by Jesse Byock (Oxford World’s Classics, 2009)
  • Hrafnkel’s Saga and other stories, translated with an Introduction by Hermann Pálsson (Penguin Classics, 1971)
  • (or any of the sagas in the 5 volume Complete Sagas of Icelanders, General Editor Viðar Hreinsson (Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), or any saga in any English translation published since the middle of the twentieth century).

Secondary reading

  • Byock, Jesse L, (2001) Viking Age Iceland (Penguin Classics).
  • Clunies Ross, Margaret, (2010) The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga (C.U.P)
  • O’Donoghue, Heather, (2004) Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: a Short Introduction (Blackwell)
  • Vésteinn Ólason, (1998) Dialogues with the Viking Age, trans.  Andrew Wawn.  Reykjavík: Heimskringla.