From the frying pan of oral tradition into the fire of saga writing : The precarious survival of historical fact in the saga of Yngvar the Far-Traveller

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Dokumentart: ConferenceObject
Date: 2002
Language: English
Faculty: 5 Philosophische Fakultät
Department: Sonstige - Neuphilologie
DDC Classifikation: 839 - Other Germanic literatures
Keywords: Saga , Island
Other Keywords:
Ingvars saga víðförla , historical tradition , saga writing
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The Saga of Yngvarr used to be classified as a Legendary Saga (Fornaldarsaga) on account of its vague and distant geographical setting and unrealistic subject matter, despite its being set in the 11th century - with Swedish Vikings as champions of Christianity in the East. Lacking the mythological or heroic connections of the more “classical” Legendary Sagas, it was considered late and obviously devoid of any historical value. Research of the last quarter century, philological (Hofmann) as well as historical (e.g. Larsson), has turned all of this upside down. The saga’s own dating of its main events to around 1040 is credible. So is its account of its own composition. It is a translation into Icelandic of a Latin saga, written by the Benedictine monk Oddr Snorrason, better known as the author of a Latin history of King Óláfr Tryggvason of Norway (like Yngvar’s Saga only preserved in translation). The translator or editor summarizes a letter by the author where he accounts for his three different oral sources (one of them representing a Swedish tradition) and his doubts regarding certain points. The letter was addressed to the two leading aristocrats of South Iceland, both of them respected for their clerical education. The saga must have been finished before the death of one of them in 1197 – i.e. some 150 years after the events took place. For they did take place. Not only is Yngvarr an historical person, attested to by scores of Swedish rune stones, but his expedition, across the Caucasus from the Black to the Caspian Sea, is mentioned in a contemporary Georgian source, with sufficient detail provided to confirm its identity with the events described by the saga. Yngvar’s Saga, then, represents no less than state-of-the-art historical research in Iceland at a time when Danish and Norwegian historians readily acknowledge the superiority of Icelanders as preservers of historical tradition. A first-rate scholar undertakes, presumably encouraged or recruited by the two Southern aristocrats, to produce an export quality version, in the language of international scholarship, of an oral tale. He approaches the task methodically by finding and tapping oral sources representing different strands of the tradition. Yngvar’s Saga belongs to the period of saga writing which precedes the 13th century constellation of distinct saga genres. Its closest relative may, in some ways, be the Saga of the Jomsvikings (Jómsvíkinga saga), also centered on one unusual event of historical proportions, i.e. the invasion of Norway by a peculiar band of Baltic Vikings, set some 50 years before Yngvar’s expedition. Among the memorable events of those 50 years were the Vineland expeditions, and the Battle of Clontarf in Ireland (Brjánsbardagi) 1014. Both were the subject of codified stories, probably at more or less the same time as Yngvar’s Saga, but now only known as used by subsequent saga writers. Less similar to Yngvar’s Saga, and perhaps a bit younger, is the Saga of the Faeroe Islanders (Færeyinga saga). All of these works represent attempts to reconstruct extraordinary events on the basis of 150–200 years of storytelling tradition. In the case of Yngvar’s Saga, at any rate, the result turns out to be remarkably unhistorical. One may wonder how typical it is as an example of the difficulties involved in preserving historical fact as oral tradition. First of all, to be viable in oral transmission, historical fact has to be given a narrative form, in line with the tastes of a given oral culture. In a single chain of transmission, some content is necessarily lost. Then the tradition either degenerates or is replenished with new content. Only by creative transmission can the story retain its appeal. With multiple and interlocking chains of transmission, content is not necessarily forgotten. The creative inclusion of extra content would occur all the same, at least in some of the chains. A diligent scholar – say Oddr Snorrason in the case of the Yngvarr expedition – might conceivably have access to all the facts related by storytellers 100 years earlier. They would, however, be mixed with fiction in various proportions. His problem would be to tell one from the other, and then to make narrative sense of what he chose to believe. It is Oddr’s superstition which makes his mistakes so glaring to the modern reader. A saga writer with less of a taste for the supernatural would not give himself away so easily. But if the oral story was open to the inclusion of supernatural elements, it would have been equally open to other types of extra content, and the less superstitious saga writer would be no better placed than Oddr to tell fact from that sort of fiction. Similarly, the sense that Oddr gives to his story tends to be ecclesiastical, which strikes some readers as un-sagalike, whereas a different author might lean towards a more political interpretation – without necessarily staying any closer to his oral sources than Oddr. Compared with domestic events, the distant scene of Yngvar’s Saga may have contributed to a more creative transmission. On the other hand, the time span of 150 years is short compared with many sagas with serious historical content. Oddr’s material is oral narrative. Different arguments may apply to the oral transmission of different content, such as poetry, law, and geneology. Even narrative may retain accurate fact for any length of time. But when evaluating saga narrative as an historical source, the crux is not the potential for accuracy but the danger of distortion. The grim fate of historical fact in the Saga of Yngvarr the Far-Traveled is a reminder of that danger.

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