The Vinland Sagas


Two sagas have from time to time been called the Vinland Sagas—"Grœnlendinga saga" and "Eiríks saga rauđa". These two sagas belong to that category of medieval Icelandic literary works known as the Islendingasögur. The predominant view in Iceland over the years has been to regard the íslendingasögur as historically accurate sources, reliable accounts of people who actually existed (Jonas Kristjánsson 1997:204).

Of course, there have always been people unwilling to accept as true everything that the sagas state. The first scholar who refused to regard the Islendingasögur as historically accurate sources was the famous manuscript collector Arni Magnusson (1663-1730). Nowadays, I think that all scholars (whether Icelanders or of other nationalities) are agreed that the íslendingasögur should not be used as purely historical sources—they are not historical documents as such. Equally, however, scholars agree that it would be wrong to regard these sagas as pure fiction in which no historical reality is preserved (Jón Helgason 1934:106-107, Turville-Petre 1975:230-231, Clover 1985:241-245, Jones 1986:14-16, Vésteinn Ólason 1993:44-49). Our problems start, of course, when we try to distinguish between history and fiction.

When we ask whether there is anything which can mark out Icelandic saga narratives as historically reliable sources, we must try to understand why any particular saga may have been written—what the intention of its author may have been. Moreover, it is important to take into account how the saga has been preserved, and, where possible, to say when it may have been composed. Other things being equal, we must assume that it may be worth paying more attention to accounts of late tenth-century events as set out in a saga written around 1200, than to accounts of those same events which are to be found in a saga written a hundred or more years later.

No other works have been pored over more closely than "Grœnlendinga saga" and "Eiríks saga rauđa" in the attempt to extract some elements of historical truth. The reason for this is that each saga offers an account of the discovery of Vinland and of the attempts of people from Greenland and from Iceland to create settlements there; and in "Eiríks saga rauđa" we find an account of the discovery of Greenland and of those few Icelanders who settled there. There are older sources for both these events, and I shall refer to these a little later in this paper, but those old sources are so terse as to be of limited use for us today. However, people who have used "Grœnlendinga saga" and "Eiríks saga rauđa" as historical documents have soon run into the problem of trying to cope with two works which deal with the same events in very different ways. This is especially true about the discovery of Vinland, the voyages to Vinland, and the attempts to establish settlements there. These conflicting accounts have generated much discussion as to which of the sagas may be older and more reliable. In this paper I do not intend to examine such arguments. They represent an interesting history of the attempts by learned scholars to solve problems for which no convincing or comprehensive solutions exist. We simply lack the evidence on which to base such judgements. I propose instead to say something about the circumstances under which these sagas have been preserved.[…]

We now come to the question: what was the main purpose of the author in writing this saga? Was he simply reporting as accurately as possible events about which he himself had heard people talk, or which he had read in books—or was there some other reason? I should state straightaway my belief that all the material which the saga author assembled was selected to serve as part of a saga about Guđríđr Ţorbjarnardóttir. I think that the main purpose of the author of "Eiríks saga rauđa" was to write a saga in honour of Guđríđr Ţorbjarnardóttir, who was an ancestor of the twelfth-century bishops; it was not the saga author's intention to write a scholarly account about the discovery of Greenland and Vinland. […] We need to keep this in mind when reflecting on the historical validity of the saga.

When we ask about the likely purpose of the "Grœnlendinga saga" author in writing his saga, the answer will be quite different from that which we came up with when we posed the same question about the "Eiriks saga rauđa" author. The main purpose of the "Grœnlendinga saga" author does indeed seem to be to provide an account of the discovery of Vinland, of the merits of that country, and of journeys there. […]

I indicated at the beginning that in "Eiríks saga rauđa" and "Grœnlendinga saga" the same events are described in very different ways. […]Yet despite the two sagas' sometimes conflicting accounts, it is clear that they have both drawn on the same sources, probably oral accounts, and that there is a considerable amount of material common to both works. […]

I now turn to the Vinland sagas, "Grœnlendinga saga" and "Eiríks saga rauđa". As I have already argued, it is quite clear from the material common to both works that each derives from the same earlier account. I have allowed myself to speculate that accounts of the life of Guđríđr Ţorbjarnardóttir were assembled when an attempt was made to find out whether her descendant Bishop Björn Gilsson would be a suitable future saint for the diocese of Hólar (Olafur Halldórsson 1978:392-394).

Both "Grœnlendinga saga" and "Eiríks saga rauđa" report that Guđríđr had her fortune told in Greenland; in "Grœnlendinga saga" we are told that her descendants would be 'splendid men, bright and noble, sweet and of good savour', whilst "Eiríks saga rauđa" states that 'a line will spring from you both great and good, and upon your descendants a bright beam of light will shine'. In my opinion these words refer to the fact that a holy man would emerge from the line of Guđríđr. My main argument is that saga writers would not have allowed themselves to use the words 'bright and noble, sweet and of good savour' {bjart, sćtt ok ilmat vel) and 'bright beam of light' (bjartr geisli) unless they were referring to holy men.[…]

[…]moves were also afoot to assemble material for an account of their life (or lives) [vita], and also to assemble a list of signs or miracles which would authenticate their sanctity [miracula]. Without these two elements, the [vita] and the miracula, there could of course be no saint.

[…] it is, I believe, to such material that we may look for the origin of those stories about the life of Guđríđr Ţorbjarnardóttir which the texts of "Grœnlendinga saga" and "Eiríks saga rauđa" have in common. […]

Some of the things which the sagas state about (i) the behaviour of the Skrćlings and (ii) the attractions of Vinland accord very well with the written accounts of sixteenth-century explorers.[…] The saga material which most closely corresponds to the explorers' accounts features more in "Eiríks saga rauđa" than in "Grœnlendinga saga". This indicates that the "Eiríks saga rauđa author may have had more material to draw on than the author of "Grœnlendinga saga". On the other hand in "Eiríks saga rauđa" the sources appear to be treated with a good deal more freedom than is the case with Grœnlendinga saga. Indeed the wry thought occurs to me that if the The Voyages of Jacques Cartier had been written in the twelfth century, scholars would not have hesitated to claim that the "Eiríks saga rauđa" author had known of and drawn on that work. […]

We may also suppose that each author—or both of them—has rearranged his source material in such a way as to align it with the frame and purpose of his saga. For example, there are close similarities between the material in "Grœnlendinga saga" about Leifr's Vinland voyages and what "Eiríks saga rauđa" says about the voyage of Ţorfinnr karlsefni. The author of "Grœnlendinga saga" seems to have thought it better to include descriptions of Vinland along with his account of Leifr's voyage, whereas the author of "Eiríks saga rauđa" includes such material in his account of Ţorfinnr's voyages; and much more is said about his stay in Vinland than about Leifr's voyage, doubtless in order to give as much prominence as possible to the part played by Guđríđr and her kin in the saga.


Clover, Carol J. 1985. 'Icelandic Family Sagas (Íslendingasögur)', in Carol J. Clover and John Lindow, eds, Old Norse-Icelandic Literature. A Critical Guide. Islandica 45:239-315. Ithaca, N.Y and London: Cornell University Press

Jón Helgason. 1934. Norrřn litteraturhistorie. Copenhagen: Levin & Munksgaard.

Jónas Kristjánsson. 1988. Trans, by Peter Foote. Eddas and Sagas. Iceland's Medieval Literature. Reykjavik: Hiđ íslenska bókmenntafélag.

Jones, Gwyn. 1986. The Norse Atlantic Saga. Revised edition. Oxford and New York:

Oxford University Press.

Ólafur Halldórsson. 1978. Greenland i mibaldaritum. Reykjavik: Sögufélag.

Turville-Petre, G. 1975. Origins of Icelandic Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press. [First published 1953; reprint 1975].

Vésteinn Ólason. 1993. 'Uppruni íslendingasagna', Íslensk bókmenntasaga 2:39-52. Reykjavik: Mál og menning.

Source: Ólafur Halldórsson, "The Vinland Sagas" in Approaches to Vínland: A conference on the written and archaeological sources for the Norse settlements in the North-Atlantic region and exploration of America, Edited by Andrew Wawn and Ţórunn Sigurđardóttir (Reykjavík: Sigurđur Nordal Institute, 2001), 39-40,42-44,47-48,50.

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