WHEN THE ICELANDIC SAGAS were first recognized as great literature by European critics of the romantic era, it was not their realism that was praised but rather their mythical horrors and sublime imagination. Mythical-heroic fornaldarsogur like Volsunga saga or Hervarar saga were thus at first considered the most artful among sagas. As the realistic novel became the dominant literary genre of the Victorian era, however, critics and scholars became enthused with the apparent realism of family sagas like Njals saga or Egils saga, which have since then been regarded as the great classical sagas, while the more fantastic fornaldarsogur have, on the whole, been relegated to second place and often dismissed as expressions of a post-classical and inferior, not to say decadent, taste.
Yet even those who tend to value the realistic mode of the classical family sagas to the exclusion of everything else have had to admit that these apparently sober stories about the farming, feuding, and family life of Icelandic settlers indeed contain some mythical and fantastic elements, which seem to undermine the apparent realism of the narrative. In recent years, these elements have attracted the attention of some scholars who are unwilling to read sagas primarily or exclusively as works of realism. (1) For my own part, I shall, in this brief essay, confine myself to one such element: dreams, which occur in most sagas and kinds of sagas including family sagas.
One obvious function of saga dreams is to anticipate future events, for a dream in a saga, usually reported by the dreamer to a confidant, is always a concealed warning to the dreamer, a warning that the proper confidant will be able to interpret correctly: the meaning of the dream is always that this or that--usually something horrible--is going to happen to the dreamer, his kinsmen, or the neighborhood where he lives. But dreams have other functions as well, as noted by most scholars who have studied them: (2) they may signal the presence of some metaphysical force--a blind destiny or possibly a god--operating behind the stage. Dreams may also, at least in some cases, tell us something about the character of the dreamer, although such disclosures are not as common in the sagas as in the modern novel. Unlike psychoanalysts, saga narrators do not primarily see dreams as a key to the inner soul but as a key to the future.
Here I would like to make three points about dreams in family sagas: first of all, they are in certain respects different from dreams in the Edda or the fornaldarsogur; secondly, dreams in family sagas are sometimes so extraordinarily complex and ambiguous that their precise meaning will remain unclear; thirdly, dreams in family sagas have an effect on narrative structure that is both stabilizing and unsettling: they make us glimpse an existential or metaphysical pattern behind the events, and this pattern tends to counteract the rationality and the apparent realism of the saga as a whole.
My first point can be demonstrated by simple statistics based on the extensive textual material compiled in Georgia Kelchner's Dreams in Old Norse Literature, still the most convenient survey of saga dreams in English. Dreams in the Edda and the fornaldarsogur are not only generally shorter and simpler than dreams in family sagas, but the content of the dream is also different, as seen in Table 1.
Thus in the Edda and fornaldarsogur, the function of the dream is usually to warn the hero against some impending danger at the hand of an enemy, who will appear in the dream as a wild bear, boar, wolf, snake, eagle, hawk, raven, dragon, or some other threatening beast. In the Eddic poem "Atlamal," for example, the doomed hero Hogni is warned by his wife about King Atli because she had seen Atli in her dream in the shape of a wild raging bear breaking up the benches in the hall. Dreams of this sort occasionally occur also in the family sagas. …