saga, in Old Norse literature, especially Icelandic and Norwegian, narrative in prose or verse, centering on a legendary or historical figure or family. Sagas may be divided into sagas of the kings, mainly of early Norwegian rulers; Icelandic sagas, both biographical and historical; contemporary sagas, which were also Icelandic and were written about living persons; legendary sagas of the distant past; and sagas that were translations of foreign romances. Sagas were composed from about the early 11th to the mid-14th cent. and were first written down c.1200. Scholars disagree as to the extent to which written versions borrowed from earlier oral compositions. The sagas vary greatly in length. The greatest attention has been given to the history sagas (e.g., Sturlungasaga), the family sagas (e.g., Njála, tr. by G. W. Dasent, 1861; M. Magnusson and P. Palsson, 1960), and the mythical heroic sagas (e.g., Völsungasaga, tr. by William Morris, 1870). In all these the epic element is strong, and the milieu of a heroic society is made vivid. Historical accuracy was often a major aim of the saga, although reworking, interjection of the supernatural, and other changes caused distortion. The historical approach is felt in the careful selection of events and the great emphasis on cause and effect. Among other noted sagas are the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson (tr. by L. Hollander, 1964); the Laxdœla, translated in Earthly Paradise by William Morris; the Grettla, translated by the same author; the Frithjof, translated by Esaias Tegnér; and Gisli, translated by R. B. Allen.
See The Sagas of the Icelanders (2000) for a selection of the sagas. See also S. Einarsson, A History of Icelandic Literature (1957); P. Hallberg, The Icelandic Saga (tr. 1962); L. Lönnroth, Njáls Saga (1976); C. Clover, The Medieval Saga (1982); P. Schach, Icelandic Sagas (1984).
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