Chaos & Love: The Philosophy of the Icelandic Family Sagas

Chaos & Love: The Philosophy of the Icelandic Family Sagas

Chaos & Love: The Philosophy of the Icelandic Family Sagas

Chaos & Love: The Philosophy of the Icelandic Family Sagas


The Icelandic Family Sagas -- major medieval prose epics such as Egil's Saga, Laxdaela Saga, Njal's Saga, Hrafnkel's Saga -- present detailed sophisticated images of a society in which man acts and suffers the consequences of his actions -- or have them visited upon others. Feuds rage and disaster triumphs. The book introduces the reader to a number of such narratives, studies the notions of guilt and causes embedded in them, and, as a result of the study, suggests that reckless erotic desire, is often at the root of the evil. When love is practised within the boundaries set by family and tradition, peace prevails. When love is pursued as a means of individual satisfaction, regardless of the views of others, disaster prevails. The rules of society, notably the rules of feud, designed to balance competing forces, tend rather to aggravate the disasters, sometimes, as in Laxdaela and Njala, to the extent that only Christian divine grace can restore the peace.


As starting point one might choose the poet and critic Carsten Hauch, who gave a series of lectures on the sagas of Icelanders at the Uni- versity of Copenhagen in 1848-49.

Hauch argued that where an artistic structure or design might be discerned in a narrative – in the weaving together of events and deeds – the working of an artistic spirit could safely be inferred (Hauch 1855, 423). Such was the case in Njal's Saga, he maintained, and in other sagas of Icelanders too. Hence, he asserted, they were the work of authors.

This was new. No one disputed that other works included in the compass of Icelandic saga literature were fabricated – [lying sagas] as some called the old romantic sagas, a name leaving no doubt as to what one is dealing with. But not the sagas of Icelanders, which only a few years earlier had been published under the title: Historical Narratives Concerning the Icelanders' Deeds at Home and Abroad.

Certainly it was well understood already at the time that these narratives could scarcely have been written down less than one or two hundred years after the events they related. But at the same time scholars had come to believe that events had been given narrative form immediately and then passed down unchanged from generation to generation as a kind of [free prose,] until writing arrived in Iceland and they were committed to parchment.

But since the events related in the stories were supposed to have taken place in the period 930-1030, and the business of writing cannot have begun much before the year 1200, others doubted that such could have been the case. The texts we know are not free prose, transcribing a non-existent tape recording, but [book prose,] which emerged from the hands of creative writers at the moment of writing. This was the perception that Hauch shared in forming.

Every introduction to the sagas of Icelanders – as well as many works that set themselves more ambitious goals – begins with an examination of the relative merits of [free prose] and [book prose.]

Such a balancing will not be presented here. The last chapter will return briefly to the question, that is all. The purpose of what follows is not to give a first introduction to the large and remarkable literature . . .

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