AskDefine | Define saga

Dictionary Definition

saga n : a narrative telling the adventures of a hero or a family; originally (12th to 14th centuries) a story of the families that settled Iceland and their descendants but now any prose narrative that resembles such an account

User Contributed Dictionary



From Old Norse saga. Cognate with English saw.



  1. An Old Norse prose narrative, especially one dealing with family or social histories and legends
  2. Something with the qualities of such a saga; an epic, a long story.


  • Spanish: saga

Crimean Tatar


  1. saga



Useinov-Mireev 2002}}



Common Oceanian *sanga





Extensive Definition

The sagas (from Icelandic saga, plural sögur), are stories about ancient Scandinavian and Germanic history, about early Viking voyages, about migration to Iceland, and of feuds between Icelandic families. They were written in the Old Norse language, mainly in Iceland.
The texts are epic tales in prose, often with stanzas or whole poems in alliterative verse embedded in the text, of heroic deeds of days long gone, tales of worthy men, who were often Vikings, sometimes Pagan, sometimes Christian. The tales are usually realistic, except legendary sagas, sagas of saints, sagas of bishops and translated or recomposed romances. They are sometimes romanticised and fantastic, but always dealing with human beings one can understand.


The term saga originates from the Icelandic saga (pl. sögur), and refers to (1) "what is said, statement" or (2) "story, tale, history". It is cognate with the English word "say", and the German sagen. Icelandic sagas are based on oral traditions and much research has focused on what is real and what is fiction within each tale. The accuracy of the sagas is often hotly disputed. Most of the manuscripts in which the sagas are preserved were taken to Denmark and Sweden in the 17th century, but later returned to Iceland.
There are plenty of tales of kings (e.g. Heimskringla), every-day people (e.g. Bandamanna saga) and larger than life characters (e. g. Egils saga). The sagas describe a part of the history of some of the Nordic countries (e.g. the last chapter of Hervarar saga). The British Isles, northern France and North America are also mentioned. It was only recently (start of 20th century) that the tales of the voyages to America were authenticated.
Most sagas of Icelanders take place in the period 930–1030, which is actually called söguöld (Age of the Sagas) in Icelandic history. The sagas of kings, bishops, contemporary sagas and so on, of course have their own time frame. Most were written down between 1190 to 1320, sometimes existing as oral traditions long before, others are pure fiction, and for some we do know the sources: The author of King Sverrir's saga had met the king and used him as a source. The Mythology theory of saga origin maintains that the plots and characters were heavily influenced by mythological material associated with the local landscape.

Plot and writing style

Some of the sagas live between Christianity and Paganism and fate plays a central role, a key line in Grettis saga (ch. 69) is
... she spoke thus: "Now you are going, my two sons, and you are fated to die together, and no one can escape the destiny that is shaped for him.
The civilization of Norse sagas is complex, many-layered, with often-contradictory agents sometimes acting as forces for good, sometime evil, and always human.
The writing style tends towards the impersonal, terse, with no explanation of why's. Things happen; no one questions fate. Characters are often but briefly introduced, There was a man named ..., followed by brief biographies, genealogy, and all-important relations to other figures in the saga. Personalities are shown through action, seldom through analysis any deeper than offhand lines like He was an utter scoundrel, or, He was a powerful chieftain. Often a prominent agent figures in other sagas, and one may draw information from them, which saga writers simply assumed. Relationships between individuals are complex, by friendship, blood, marriage, and immediate geography.
One must often and at disadvantage overcome fantastic enemies. Life is short, uncertain, and men's worth is determined by glory in arms.
Critical concepts to the saga technique are honour, luck (or destiny), and fate, the supernatural, and character. Behavior is often not explained, as within the world of the saga it is what must be done, and early listeners of sagas had no need of questions.
Any slight to one's honour (or that of one's family) had to be avenged, by blood or money. Men could easily be goaded to fatal violence over a (real or imagined) slight to their honour.
The concept of luck is simple, certainly in one such as Njáls saga: one is born with a certain store of good luck. When one's good luck runs out, one is doomed.
The supernatural often plays a major role as well. Oneiric (i.e., relating to prophetic dreams) factors may also play a role.
Do agents have the character to surmount their difficulties, or do they succumb to vices such as evil, cowardice and pride?
As a final stylistic point, Magnus Magnusson notes in his introduction to Njáls saga;
In the midst of such economy, one spendthrift sentence can speak volumes: 'two ravens flew with them all the way' (Chapter 79) as Skarp-Hedin and Hogni set out at night to avenge Gunnar ...


Norse sagas are generally classified as:

Kings' sagas (Konungasögur)

These tell of the lives of Scandinavian kings. They were composed in the 12th to 14th centuries.

Icelanders' sagas (Íslendingasögur)

These are heroic prose narratives written in the 12th to 14th centuries of the great families of Iceland from 930 to 1030. These are the highest form of the classical Icelandic saga writing. Some well-known examples include Njáls saga, Laxdœla saga and Grettis saga.

Short tales of Icelanders (Íslendingaþættir)

The material of these sagas is similar to Íslendinga sögur, just shorter.

Contemporary sagas (Samtíðarsögur or Samtímasögur)

These narratives are set in 12th and 13th century Iceland, and were written soon after the events they describe. Most are preserved in the compilation Sturlunga saga.

Legendary sagas (Fornaldarsögur)

These blend remote history with myth or legend. The aim is on a lively narrative and entertainment. Scandinavia's pagan past was a proud and heroic history for the Icelanders.

Chivalric sagas (Riddarasögur)

These are translations of Latin pseudo-historical works and French chansons de geste as well as native creations in the same style.


Different meanings of the word saga

Besides the Icelandic sagas, the Norse word saga in contemporary Nordic languages describes several different kind of stories. Some of them are:
  • a folk tale - in the sense of a fairy tale by an unknown author, "folksaga" (Swedish and Danish)
  • a fairy tale by a known author, such as H. C. Andersen or Astrid Lindgren, "konstsaga" (Swedish only - the Danish and Norwegian terms are eventyr)
  • a work of fantasy fiction. J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series was translated to Swedish by Åke Ohlmarks by the title Sagan om ringen. Tolkien was dissatisfied with the Swedish title, and the 2004 translation was titled Ringarnas herre'', a literal translation from the original.

External links and references

saga in Belarusian: Сагі
saga in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Сагі
saga in Bulgarian: Сага
saga in Danish: Saga
saga in German: Altnordische Literatur
saga in Modern Greek (1453-): Σκανδιναβική Σάγκα
saga in Spanish: Saga
saga in French: Saga
saga in Italian: Saga (letteratura)
saga in Hungarian: Saga
saga in Dutch: Saga (literatuur)
saga in Japanese: サガ
saga in Norwegian: Sagalitteratur
saga in Norwegian Nynorsk: Islendingesogene
saga in Polish: Saga (literatura)
saga in Portuguese: Saga (literatura)
saga in Romanian: Saga
saga in Russian: Сага
saga in Slovak: Sága
saga in Finnish: Saaga
saga in Swedish: Islänningasagor
saga in Ukrainian: Саґа
saga in Chinese: 萨迦 (文学)
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