Orkneyinga Saga

I bought the Penguin Classics edition of Orkneyinga Saga a couple of years ago at the big Vikings exhibition at the the British Museum, but have only just gotten around to reading it. The exhibition itself was pretty mediocre, but it had a fantastic gift shop: drinking horns, Hnefatafl sets, and lots of obscure books.

Orkneyinga Saga is the history of the Earls of Orkney from around 950–1200 AD, a time when the islands were still part of the viking world. Like most of the sagas we have, it was written down in Iceland some time in the 13th century, and is an intriguing mix of historical record and legend. Roughly the story goes like this. Every generation there is an Earl who governs the islands. The Earl has three sons, and some daughters who are only mentioned when the saga-teller notes who they are married off to. When the Earl dies the sons share the rule of Islands among them. This works for a short while until they fall out over some small matter or other, and then there is a lengthy power struggle. Eventually one of the sons gains the support of the King of Norway, or sometimes Scotland, kills his brothers,1 and assumes control. When he dies his three sons…

There’s lots of good stuff here for people like me who are interested in the old Norse world. But what I really like about Orkneyinga Saga is how unintentionally funny it often is. A sample:

“Einar had three sons, one called Arnkel, the next Erlend, and the third Thorfinn Skull-Splitter.”

This is a story that features Harald Goodwinson, King Canute the Great, and also somebody called Einar Buttered-Bread. That’s pretty hilarious. Or consider the way that going ‘viking’ seems to be a bit like going for a cheeky lads-on-tour. Everybody in Orkney, Shetland, the Faroes, and mainland Scandinavia spends their summers going viking, and everybody hates it when other vikings turn up and raid their own lands:

“Two Danish vikings, Thorir Tree-Beard and Kalf Scurvy, set up camp on the islands. When Earl Rognvald heard about it he flew into a rage and summoned Thorir and Hrollaug, his sons – Hrolf was away at the time on a viking expedition.

Or there’s the comedic way that in the islander’s version of Christianity, blood-feuds and burnings are acceptable, but paganism is beyond the pale:

“On account of him, Ingi [a ‘devout Christian’] was forced into exile and went to West Gotaland, but eventually managed to trap Svein inside a house and burn him there.2 After that he brought the whole country under his control and put an end to many of the barbaric practices [worshipping nature gods].”

In the dream where I receive a windfall and don’t have to have a job, I go back to university to study Old Norse and become the first person to do serious scholarship on unintentional comedy in the sagas. I think I’m onto a winner.

  1. Killings in medieval Orkney are perplexingly often carried out by sneaking up on the victim’s house, barricading the doors, and burning it down; what’s wrong with an axe? ↩︎

  2. See? ↩︎

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© Tom Harris 2015–2018.

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