The Viking Sagas


The Viking Sagas

Dr Janina Ramirez travels across glaciers and through the lava fields of Iceland to find out about one of the most compelling of the great Viking stories - the Laxdaela Saga.


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Transcript


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Every country has its treasure trove of beloved tales,

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but one nation has an unrivalled passion for storytelling.

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For ten centuries Icelanders have been enthralled by a series of homespun stories.

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They're some of the most wonderful tales ever told.

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How they came to be written is one of the great mysteries of the Dark Ages.

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1,000 ago, at the edge of the Arctic Circle, there was an explosion of

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creativity, which remains pretty much unparalleled in history.

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When the Vikings came here to Iceland one of the first things they did,

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strangely, was to settle down and begin telling each other tales.

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These Sagas, as they're now known, are some of the greatest stories ever told.

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They're haunted by ghosts and plagued by witches.

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Mighty heroes ride to the rescue wielding magical swords.

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The Sagas captivated audiences ten centuries ago

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and they're still entertaining millions of people today.

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They're about money and sex and, you know, and death.

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And this is just, you know, the essence of a good story - sex and death.

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It is probably the greatest book ever written,

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you know, this is a magnificent storybook, it has everything good novels is supposed to have

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because it has love and battle and great poet and everything, it has everything in them.

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The Sagas are not only great works of fiction,

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they're based on the lives of real people and they challenge many of the stereotypes of the Viking Age.

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They reveal the power Scandinavian women wielded.

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They were explorers and colonisers.

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They may even have written some of the Sagas.

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Iceland's ancient tales also had a profound effect on us.

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The Sagas influenced many of Britain's

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greatest writers and inspired some of our most treasured stories.

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HE SPEAKS IN NORSE

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This is how great stories begin.

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With a journey, a quest, a search for a promised land.

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And so it is with the Sagas.

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They recount the moment when Norwegian exiles set sail in their longships.

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They defied the wild oceans to found a brave, new world.

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They named it Iceland.

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I wonder what the first settlers here in Iceland thought when they arrived.

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It's the least likely of promised lands.

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Certainly the strangest place I've ever been to.

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It feels primeval, like a woolly mammoth should come lumbering along the horizon.

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There's nothing growing here, there's no trees or crops

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and under the ground there's no iron ore or gold

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and yet these hardy pioneers didn't just turn tail and sail off in their longboats,

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they stayed and tried to create something out of this extraordinary landscape.

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And what they created was truly magical - words.

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VOICES SPEAK IN NORSE

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Iceland is where Europe ends and the Arctic begins.

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It's more than 700 miles north-west of Scotland - remote,

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far-flung, isolated.

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But when it comes to the world of words,

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this country has always been one of the centres of literary activity.

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One in ten Icelanders is a published author

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and this love of letters began long ago with the writing of the Sagas.

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I think all modern Icelandic writers, they have their background in this, one way or the other.

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During the centuries we didn't have any universities, no academies

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and we didn't have many...types of arts,

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no architectures, no theatres, no music, no opera,

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no sculptures, no ballet, of course.

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Maybe if you look at our history,

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this is the only thing that we have ever been good at.

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It's writing stories and telling stories.

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The greatest of these stories are known as the Family Sagas.

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They're set in the first 150 years of Iceland's history,

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from the original settlement in 870 AD.

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The Sagas were written down in the 13th and 14th centuries.

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In just over 100 years, dozens and dozens of stories were composed.

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It's a creative outpouring that has few parallels in history.

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Well, it was very, very remarkable that such a lot of, such a large

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volume of literature should come out of this relatively tiny island,

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with, you know, really a very small population.

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But remarkable too is the genres, the forms of this literature.

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While the rest of medieval Europe was writing courtly romances about knights and princesses,

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the Icelanders were creating dramas about real families in real locations, doing real things.

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The thing that they're most like actually is much, much later 19th century novels.

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They're in prose, they're naturalistic,

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they deal with social issues,

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so they're big, expansive narratives.

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You see something that is so much in common

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with our time and this time.

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So you feel, wow, this is really human, that's how human being is, you know.

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You get something and you're, like, ah, we have not changed, in a way.

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I know this.

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It's like peep into a hole, into a class and say "They're doing the same thing."

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They are, of course, about, in essence,

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always about the very primitive thing,

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they're about the inner-circle in human action, about, you know,

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lust and power and fight and they're about the glue

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that binds us.

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Out of the many Sagas that were written, four or five are classics,

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but there's one in particular that's always intrigued me.

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We all love a good story, but who'd have thought when you're flicking through a book at bedtime

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or lying, reading on the beach, that this is where it all began, one of the first great works of fiction.

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The pages may be blackened by the passage of time,

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but despite being over 700 years old,

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the story still leaps out at you.

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It's got everything a good book needs - love and lust, violence, betrayal and revenge.

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It's called Laxdaela Saga and, in my opinion,

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it's the greatest of the Icelandic Sagas.

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Laxdaela means salmon river valley,

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and it's in the rich farming and fishing country of north-west Iceland that the story takes place.

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The Laxdaela Saga charts the fortunes of the families who settle in the area.

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It follows their triumphs and tragedies over several generations.

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The love affairs.

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The blood feuds.

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The marriages. The murders.

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The story is rooted in a timeless landscape.

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It's still possible to pinpoint the fells and fjords where key events occurred.

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This sense of place underpins the relationship between Icelanders and their ancient stories.

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This happens in my area.

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These characters are my forefathers and they are still

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in my mind as they... You know, I know the farmers

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who lives on their farm and I found the similarity to them.

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I don't think we have so much changed since this time.

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We are still the same farmers as we were in these days.

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I almost imagine myself when I was, for example, taking sheep

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down from the mountains, I was sometimes thinking about these things that they have done.

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I am in the same steps as they were, and they were there and there and there.

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You start Laxdaela Saga with a portrait of the great

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matriarch Unn and her nickname is the "Deep-minded".

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What does the "Deep-minded" mean?

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Clever, wise, with a huge memory, philosophical.

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What a wonderful epithet, what a surprising, maybe, epithet for a woman in a Saga - the deep-minded.

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SHE SPEAKS IN NORSE

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Many of the characters in the Sagas are real people.

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The moments of high drama can be traced to genuine historical events

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and few moments are more dramatic than the discovery of a new land.

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So who were the first settlers in this area then?

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That was Unn the Deep-minded.

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Unn Djupuoga we call it on Iceland.

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She came sailing up this bay and had settlement over there, by the other end of the bay.

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She settled there on a farm.

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So it was a woman.

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-It was a woman, yes.

-Ahh.

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Tell me a bit about her, then.

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She probably came here around the year of 892.

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She came from Scotland.

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What happened is that her husband went into battle there and he died

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and she had to go away with her crew and she established a crew

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on her boat, made the boat ready, so nobody was supposed to know it and then she sailed away from Scotland.

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She was, what do you say, running away from there.

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But that was magnificent, that a woman could do that in those days.

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So the first settler in this area is a woman.

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-Yeah.

-And she's Scottish.

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-Yes.

-And she's able to control a boatload of men.

-Yes.

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Command.... And then what happened when she got here, then?

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She settled down in this farm

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and what she did is that she gave her crew, all the men got

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independency, they lived here in this area.

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You can imagine that she must have been at least a very big woman, very big-minded.

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You can imagine that she must have been very clever and she must have been very fair,

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she was fair to people, she gave everybody with her.

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So she must have been, as I say, a very big woman in mind, she must have been a great woman.

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Wonderful. Gosh. And she earns the title Unn the Deep-minded.

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-Yes, yes.

-It's a good - it's a very apt one, isn't it?

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-It tells a lot.

-Yeah.

-About her.

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Is it really possible that a thousand years ago, a British woman colonised part of Iceland?

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It sounds like the stuff of adventure fiction, not historical fact.

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But recent archaeological evidence actually supports the story told in the Laxdaela Saga.

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This is a skeleton of one of the first settlers in Iceland.

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She's a woman, only 25 years old when she died.

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She was probably someone's wife, mother, daughter.

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She's here in the position of rest,

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just as she was laid in the ground a thousand years ago.

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And it was at precisely this time that the Laxdaela Saga was being composed.

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But is there any truth to these tales that Iceland was settled by foreign women?

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Well, DNA studies on bones just like this have shown that while the majority of the male

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population were coming over from the Nordic homelands and Scandinavia,

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over 60% of the women were British.

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So this evidence shows us that right from the word go,

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Iceland was a multi-cultural melting-pot.

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The story of Unn the Deep-minded shows us how close the links were

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between Iceland and the British Isles.

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Both countries were staging-posts in a maritime empire,

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which stretched from Norway right across the North Atlantic

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and beyond.

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Here we have a collection of silver coins

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discovered in Iceland and dated to the turn of the 1st Millennium.

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But what's really remarkable about this collection is the majority of coins are English.

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At this point, around the year 1000, over two-thirds of the British Isles was ruled directly by Vikings.

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And here we have a payment known as the Dangeld, which was made by the

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English kingdoms to the Vikings in order to keep them off their land.

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But we've also got coins here from Germany

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and Arabia and the Middle East,

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which shows that the Vikings were also raiding, trading and settling right across the known world.

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The Viking Age began in the 8th century.

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Over the next 300 years they raided, traded and settled,

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leaving a profound mark on Europe and especially the British Isles.

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Well, I suppose the most obvious effects are on place names,

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I mean so many place names in northern and eastern England.

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Just thinking about where I grew up, there's Thornaby, Ormsby, Normanby.

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The language, of course, that's even more obvious, if you like,

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the Scandinavian long words are very basic words,

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so they're words like husband, window, law, egg.

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And even the pronoun system in English is derived from Scandinavian pronouns.

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So they, then, there - they're derived from

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the Scandinavian pronouns, not from the corresponding Old English ones.

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The Scandinavian settlements resulted in a thorough enrichment of English society.

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The Vikings who settled Britain had to fit in alongside other people,

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but the Scandinavians who sailed to Iceland found an uninhabited land.

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Here, the Vikings had to build a new nation from scratch

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and what they created was unique for the Dark Ages.

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We're in this very significant place, aren't we?

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It's got geographical and political and spiritual significance.

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Can you tell me a little bit more about it?

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This is the site of the Althingi, the early meeting place

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of the Icelandic Commonwealth,

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where people came from all over the country

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to discuss legal matters, formulate the new law and settle disputes.

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So history, more or less, happened in this location.

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This is the parliament that the settlers came up with here

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after a few decades of living in the country as free men.

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And they sit here in a very sort of structured...

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assembly that has a democratic function, in a way,

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for free farmers and males.

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Gosh.

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And, er... And decide by voting.

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Is it unusual in terms of what's going on elsewhere in Europe at this time?

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In terms of European history, this is quite unique,

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because they don't have a king, they don't have a centralised power

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and that is the beauty of the system.

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You have independent chieftains coming together

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and they decide on some things and execute whatever is decided.

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Icelanders set up a nation from about... From 870 onwards

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and they set up a parliament and they set up a legal system.

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In a way, I think, perhaps, that the outpouring of literature

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that you get in Iceland, this huge flowering of not just Sagas

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but also unique kinds of poetry,

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I think maybe that was part of being a new nation,

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that you had a terra nova and you didn't only settle that

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and build it up as a nation socially,

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you also...inscribed a kind of literary culture.

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The first things that were written were family trees,

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tracing the Icelanders back to very noble people in Scandinavia.

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And I think one of the reasons they did this may have been

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that there were rumours in our neighbouring countries

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about the people that moved to Iceland...

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-Right.

-..in the years of 900 to 1000.

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They're mostly anti-social elements -

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thieves, fugitives, murderers,

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people that didn't survive around civilised people.

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So maybe the first reaction was when they had this alphabet

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and could write down, they were building these family trees,

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saying that these were the most noble people,

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because all Icelanders, they can trace their roots back to kings and queens

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and even Odin and Thor and so on.

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For some, storytelling may have served an even more profound function,

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reminding them of the homes and loved ones

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which they would never see again.

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While a few British women, like Unn the Deep-Minded,

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chose to settle in Iceland, others were brought by force.

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One of the next characters we meet in the Laxdaela Saga is a concubine.

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Today, we'd call her a sex slave.

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She's been abducted from Ireland. Her name is Melkorka.

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Most of the women, they were bought either in slave markets in Scandinavia,

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or brought directly from the British Isles, mostly from Ireland.

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Of course, when they came here, they became a part of the population

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and the male...culture, the Scandinavian male culture

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became dominant, the language and so on.

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But they had an experience...

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for generations,

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of telling stories in their own language and even writing books in their own language - the Celts.

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-Of course.

-The Book of Kells and so on.

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There's something really interesting taking place in Icelandic literature, then.

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You've got this male population with the oral tradition of storytelling,

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combined with this influx, this exodus of women coming from Britain.

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So the Celtic influence could be this idea that

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-you take that literature and then write it down. Preserve it.

-Absolutely.

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Foreign women like Melkorka weren't just characters in the Sagas.

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These lonely, literate exiles may have helped create the Sagas

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by writing down their stories.

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THUNDER ROLLS

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In the Laxdaela Saga, we find out that Melkorka, the Irish slave girl,

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is pregnant by her master, a Viking called Hoskuld.

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SPEAKS IN NORSE

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Olaf is a major character in the early part of the Saga.

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He's kind and wise.

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He marries and raises a family.

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Olaf has one child that he dotes upon - a boy called Kjartan.

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SPEAKS IN NORSE

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Olaf also has another lad, a foster son by the name of Bolli.

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Bolli is a gifted child, but he grows up in Kjartan's long shadow.

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Olaf's family and farm are flourishing. All is going well.

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Rather too well, of course.

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It's at this point that a new and sinister character enters the story.

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Sorcery is ever-present in the Sagas,

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reflecting the Viking belief that magic really could transform the lives of ordinary folk.

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SPEAKS IN NORSE

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Today, we modern people, we often look at magic as some kind of superstition.

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It's difficult for us to understand it,

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because we live in another time and, perhaps, in another world, in a way.

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But for them, that was a real thing.

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They knew that they could achieve something

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by doing some rituals

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and with that, they could affect the world around them

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both in good and bad ways, of course.

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In a way, it was very much practical.

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Magic to let the cow milk more, magic to let the grass grow faster.

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And therefore, people had some kinds of magic

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that could help them to look more positive in the coming days

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and have extra power to...

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survive.

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But sorcery could also be used to maim and kill.

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For Vikings, curses were weapons of malign magical power.

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The word, in Iceland,

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has always been the most important thing in the whole culture.

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People believed that if you had the power to control...

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the language and put the words in...

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Out of your mouth in the right order, then it could give you, actually...

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more power.

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SPEAKS IN NORSE

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Bolli inherits the cursed sword

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and with the handing over of the weapon, the story takes a new turn.

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The focus shifts to Kjartan and Bolli

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and a beautiful young woman with whom their fate will be intertwined.

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SPEAKS IN NORSE

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There are many leading ladies, but towering above them all is Gudrun -

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a complex and tempestuous beauty.

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The number of strong women characters is a striking feature of the Laxdaela Saga.

0:31:040:31:10

So, too, is the delight the writer takes in clothes and jewellery, love and romance.

0:31:100:31:17

And this has led some historians to question the authorship of the Saga.

0:31:170:31:21

So we think that, probably, the traditional view of the Sagas

0:31:210:31:25

is that they're very heroic tales, they're written by men for men and starring men.

0:31:250:31:31

Is that the case with Laxdaela Saga?

0:31:310:31:34

No, I think it's the other way around.

0:31:340:31:36

An Icelandic scholar, Professor Helga Kress,

0:31:360:31:39

has suggested that the writer, the one who wrote down Laxdaela Saga, was a woman.

0:31:390:31:45

There are so many scenes in that book that tell you about women's lives,

0:31:450:31:49

it must have been told by women and listened to by women.

0:31:490:31:53

And you see up to the time of television, probably,

0:31:530:31:56

you would have storytelling evenings in Iceland, in the farmhouse.

0:31:560:32:00

You have these long winter months,

0:32:000:32:02

eight or nine months and you have to pass the time.

0:32:020:32:05

There is no telly, so you tell stories.

0:32:050:32:09

You would have people sitting on these benches on both sides of the long house

0:32:120:32:17

and you would have one person in the middle reading or telling stories.

0:32:170:32:21

The women's domain is within the house, the man's domain is without the house.

0:32:240:32:28

-So storytelling must have been a great part of life with women, just as men.

-Absolutely.

0:32:280:32:34

So we have this Saga centred on women,

0:32:340:32:37

possibly told by women about women, women's roles within society.

0:32:370:32:42

Definitely. I would say so. Yes.

0:32:420:32:45

This is the site of one of the greatest romances in all of Icelandic literature.

0:32:500:32:55

It's the hot spring at the tiny hamlet of Laugar.

0:32:570:33:01

Laugar is Gudrun's home and it's at this spa that Kjartan and Gudrun begin their courtship.

0:33:020:33:08

Gudrun falls passionately in love, but Kjartan is a true Viking.

0:33:100:33:15

He's consumed not by love, but by lust.

0:33:150:33:19

Wanderlust.

0:33:190:33:20

With marriage beckoning, he ups sticks and leaves Iceland.

0:33:220:33:26

Kjartan and Bolli sail away to Norway.

0:33:390:33:42

They arrive in Scandinavia at a pivotal moment in European history.

0:33:420:33:48

Take a look at this amazing little object.

0:33:520:33:55

This man just oozes character.

0:33:550:33:58

He's got a flamboyant moustache, deep, penetrating eyes

0:33:580:34:02

and really strong features.

0:34:020:34:04

He's wearing this conical hat

0:34:040:34:07

and he's sitting on a chair, holding a very weird-looking object.

0:34:070:34:12

But when we take a closer look,

0:34:120:34:14

you can see that the hat is, in fact, a crown.

0:34:140:34:18

He's seated on a throne.

0:34:180:34:19

And the object could be either an upside-down crucifix,

0:34:190:34:22

or the hammer wielded by the pagan god, Thor, as he creates thunder.

0:34:220:34:29

This wonderful little man encapsulates the moment

0:34:290:34:34

when the Viking world has one foot in the pagan past

0:34:340:34:37

and one in the Christian future.

0:34:370:34:39

SINGING IN NORSE

0:34:410:34:45

This is a ceremony to mark the end of summer and the beginning of winter.

0:34:580:35:03

It's the last remnant of a once-mighty faith,

0:35:030:35:07

the religion of Odin and Thor - Norse paganism.

0:35:070:35:10

The word "paganism" comes with many negative connotations.

0:35:210:35:25

It might seem odd, peculiar, perhaps even a little sinister,

0:35:250:35:29

but that's because, for 2,000 years,

0:35:290:35:31

Christians have been writing tracts and treaties that damn these so-called pagans to hell.

0:35:310:35:37

In fact, for thousands of years, this Norse paganism was the religion of the Scandinavian people.

0:35:370:35:43

It helped them make sense of the universe,

0:35:430:35:46

it acted as a comforter to them in times of need

0:35:460:35:49

and it even helped them chart the passage of time.

0:35:490:35:52

It's a mark of its influence that it's still doing this today.

0:35:520:35:56

1,000 years ago, this ancient religion was under attack from a new, crusading faith.

0:36:140:36:20

Christianity.

0:36:220:36:23

The man who was driving the conversion of the Vikings

0:36:260:36:29

was Olaf, the King of Norway.

0:36:290:36:31

Were there reasons then, for converting to Christianity?

0:36:350:36:38

-What were the benefits?

-It was basically joining the European Union!

0:36:380:36:43

-It's basically the same thing.

-Yeah. Right. So it was trade and...?

0:36:430:36:47

Yeah, it was trade, because the markets were closing down.

0:36:470:36:49

We could no longer do trade with England,

0:36:490:36:52

because they would not accept pagans.

0:36:520:36:55

And for a period of years,

0:36:550:36:58

people could do what they called prime signing,

0:36:580:37:00

which was basically crossing yourself before you did commerce,

0:37:000:37:05

but that was no longer accepted.

0:37:050:37:08

Denmark was basically very strongly Christian.

0:37:080:37:12

Norway had become Christian after a long, bloody battle.

0:37:120:37:16

Sweden was about to become Christian.

0:37:160:37:18

So it was, basically, everything was closing down.

0:37:180:37:22

So it was a very practical business decision.

0:37:220:37:25

But many people didn't want to give up the faith of their ancestors.

0:37:300:37:35

The Icelanders resisted Christianity.

0:37:350:37:38

To make them convert, the Norwegian monarch, King Olaf,

0:37:390:37:43

decides to keep Kjartan as a sort of VIP hostage.

0:37:430:37:47

The King's sister, Ingibjorg, keeps Kjartan...entertained.

0:37:470:37:52

In medieval courtly romance, the hero would have escaped from Norway

0:37:560:38:00

and returned to his true love.

0:38:000:38:03

But what sets the Family Sagas apart is their realism.

0:38:030:38:06

What's so surprising is that the characters are archetypal kind of humans.

0:38:090:38:15

It's so easy to identify with the characters.

0:38:150:38:17

Sometimes deceptively easy -

0:38:170:38:19

we forget how very different their circumstances and beliefs

0:38:190:38:22

and cultural traditions were.

0:38:220:38:24

But the characters in Family Sagas

0:38:240:38:27

are their feelings and their failings,

0:38:270:38:30

their hopes and their fears, their passions and their weaknesses.

0:38:300:38:35

They're very easy to identify.

0:38:350:38:36

Kjartan is not only beautiful and good, you know, he's also...

0:38:400:38:44

come on, he is doing the princess in Norway

0:38:440:38:48

and he's not a holific or a holy guy.

0:38:480:38:52

All the literature in Europe is very Christian

0:38:520:38:54

in that sense that there are matches,

0:38:540:38:56

there are good guys and there are bad guys

0:38:560:38:59

and good things happen to good guys and bad things happen to bad guys.

0:38:590:39:03

In the Sagas, this is not so.

0:39:030:39:06

The Sagas can be about a bad guy,

0:39:060:39:08

an arsehole that does something very bad to everybody

0:39:080:39:12

and has success with it.

0:39:120:39:13

Kjartan is happy to stay in Norway, but Bolli wants to go home.

0:39:190:39:24

Before he leaves, he criticises Kjartan for the way he's treating Gudrun.

0:39:240:39:30

SPEAKS IN NORSE

0:39:330:39:35

Bolli arrives home.

0:40:160:40:19

He tells Gudrun about Kjartan's affair with the King's sister.

0:40:190:40:24

The reason for his anger with Kjartan now becomes clear.

0:40:240:40:28

Bolli is in love with Gudrun.

0:40:280:40:30

A few months later, he takes a fateful step and proposes.

0:40:320:40:36

In the year 1000, Iceland finally converts to Christianity.

0:40:470:40:51

Kjartan is free to return home.

0:40:520:40:56

He brings with him a wedding gift -

0:40:560:40:58

a priceless head-dress for his fiancee, Gudrun.

0:40:580:41:03

Kjartan has the bridal gift, but not the bride.

0:41:030:41:08

He marries another woman, but he's consumed by what he sees as a double betrayal.

0:41:080:41:15

There were regular feasts in the area, so the two couples -

0:41:150:41:19

Bolli and Gudrun and Kjartan and his new wife - couldn't avoid each other.

0:41:190:41:23

Whenever they met, Kjartan publicly humiliated Gudrun

0:41:230:41:28

and he spurned Bolli's attempts at reconciliation.

0:41:280:41:31

With each sleight, the hatred grew.

0:41:310:41:34

The precious head-dress that was supposed to have been Gudrun's

0:41:340:41:38

was now the property of Kjartan's new wife

0:41:380:41:41

and this head-dress became the focus of the feud.

0:41:410:41:44

One particular feast, the head-dress goes missing.

0:41:440:41:49

Everyone suspects it's Gudrun's doing -

0:41:490:41:51

if she can't have it, then no-one can.

0:41:510:41:54

With the destruction of the head-dress, Kjartan's pent-up fury explodes.

0:41:560:42:01

He barricades Bolli and Gudrun in their home,

0:42:010:42:05

cutting them off from the toilets which are outside.

0:42:050:42:08

He's deliberately inflicting maximum humiliation.

0:42:080:42:11

Revenge is the kind of engine of quite a lot of Saga narrative,

0:42:160:42:20

because obviously if you get a feud, for instance,

0:42:200:42:25

that's going to kind of keep on through generations.

0:42:250:42:30

Resentments build up.

0:42:300:42:31

In a number of Family Sagas,

0:42:310:42:33

it's these proud, independent women who are pushing the vengeance

0:42:330:42:38

and it's quite often the men who are trying to kind of damp it down

0:42:380:42:42

by due legal process and make settlements.

0:42:420:42:45

And the women are inciting the violence. As in Laxdaela Saga,

0:42:450:42:48

Gudrun provoking Bolli to kill Kjartan,

0:42:480:42:51

because she can't bear not to be married to him.

0:42:510:42:53

Goaded on by his wife, Bolli and his men ride out to confront Kjartan.

0:42:580:43:04

So the tension is really mounting in the Saga now, isn't it?

0:43:240:43:28

Gudrun has goaded her brothers and Bolli to ambush Kjartan.

0:43:280:43:34

And then what happens?

0:43:340:43:36

This is the place where everything happened.

0:43:360:43:39

Kjartan was coming from this direction with his friend.

0:43:390:43:42

And Bolli and the brother of Gudrun, they came from this direction

0:43:420:43:46

and probably they picked up this place because the valley is slimmest here.

0:43:460:43:50

Probably they were staying,

0:43:500:43:52

or we think that they were staying up there on the hill,

0:43:520:43:55

on the ridge there, there is a hole down there, a very deep hole

0:43:550:43:59

and they could hide themselves with the horses

0:43:590:44:02

and having looked to both directions easily.

0:44:020:44:05

So when Kjartan is in this direction,

0:44:050:44:07

they saw that they could fight him.

0:44:070:44:10

And then they went down here and attack him, of course.

0:44:100:44:13

They were attacking him, three or four attacking one person,

0:44:280:44:31

so there must have been a lot of noise with weapons,

0:44:310:44:33

there were three, four attacking one person.

0:44:330:44:36

A lot of sweat, probably some blood,

0:44:360:44:38

because Kjartan was punishing them a little bit with his swords.

0:44:380:44:41

And it was a bad sword, so you can imagine that he got tired,

0:44:410:44:45

for example, you can imagine that it was a lot of high breathing,

0:44:450:44:49

and they were tired.

0:44:490:44:51

Kjartan fights bravely but, finally, he weakens.

0:44:540:44:57

With his strength failing, he turns and addresses Bolli.

0:44:570:45:01

VOICE SPEAKS IN NORSE

0:45:280:45:32

HE SPEAKS IN NORSE

0:46:250:46:28

Blood has been shed.

0:46:570:46:59

The curse of Leg-Biter has been fulfilled.

0:46:590:47:03

All this sorcery and violence and vengeance has led to this -

0:47:030:47:08

a bloodied corpse lying on the ground.

0:47:080:47:11

Bolli has killed his brother and his best friend.

0:47:110:47:16

He's broken two of the great Viking taboos,

0:47:160:47:19

by severing the sacred bonds of friendship and family.

0:47:190:47:24

What must he be feeling right now?

0:47:240:47:26

Intense guilt?

0:47:260:47:28

Profound shame?

0:47:280:47:29

Or, perhaps, a sense of deep foreboding,

0:47:290:47:32

because the wheels of revenge have now been set in motion.

0:47:320:47:38

A posse tracks down Bolli and slaughters him.

0:47:410:47:44

Gudrun sends her son to avenge his murder.

0:47:460:47:49

Both families are trapped in a bloody spiral of revenge.

0:47:510:47:57

It seems that the feud might go on forever,

0:47:570:48:00

but then the Saga takes an unexpected twist.

0:48:000:48:03

Gudrun, the woman who has helped send Kjartan and Bolli to early graves,

0:48:080:48:13

converts to Christianity and becomes Iceland's first nun.

0:48:130:48:17

It's an unlikely act of repentance.

0:48:190:48:22

Was it genuine or not? I'm not sure, I don't know.

0:48:250:48:28

But I do think that, you know,

0:48:280:48:30

perhaps those who told the story, the audience liked the flair of that.

0:48:300:48:34

Perhaps it's a way for the author, or the authors if you can say that,

0:48:340:48:40

that this perhaps this woman was just,

0:48:400:48:43

there was no-one worthy of her but the king of kings.

0:48:430:48:46

Gudrun's repentance sent out an important social message.

0:48:550:49:00

In the 13th Century, when the Laxdaela Saga

0:49:000:49:03

was being written down, the republic had disintegrated.

0:49:030:49:07

Iceland was wracked by civil war and this may have persuaded the writers

0:49:080:49:13

to pen an overtly Christian ending.

0:49:130:49:16

There are some chieftains that are getting more powerful than they should be

0:49:180:49:21

according to the quota system for power and influence

0:49:210:49:24

that was set up in the beginning.

0:49:240:49:27

And they seemed to long for peace in the texts that we have,

0:49:270:49:31

so the Saga texts, they are written with the idea

0:49:310:49:34

in mind to show how Christianity brought peace to the country.

0:49:340:49:38

What gets them into problems is the pagan ethics.

0:49:380:49:42

-Right.

-And the code of ethics that tells you

0:49:420:49:44

that you have to take revenge

0:49:440:49:46

and one revenge after another and leads to more death.

0:49:460:49:49

And in the texts you see that Christianity

0:49:490:49:53

is believed to bring peace and forgiveness into society,

0:49:530:49:57

finally calming down the feuds,

0:49:570:49:59

the family feuds that have been going on for generations.

0:49:590:50:03

And you can just stop and go to Rome

0:50:030:50:06

and be blessed and live happily ever after.

0:50:060:50:09

Peace came in 1262, but at a heavy price.

0:50:170:50:22

The Icelanders were forced to accept the rule of the Norwegian king.

0:50:240:50:29

It was the prelude to centuries of suffering.

0:50:290:50:32

Things went downhill for the Icelanders.

0:50:350:50:39

We were almost extinct,

0:50:390:50:43

because of diseases, starvation, isolation and so on.

0:50:430:50:50

At that time maybe one of the reasons that we survived -

0:50:540:50:58

the few who did -

0:50:580:51:00

was because they had this mythology based in the literature.

0:51:000:51:06

We were taking all our courage and all our identity from the Sagas.

0:51:060:51:13

This was what we based our hope and ambitions on.

0:51:130:51:18

Ironically, just when Iceland's pain was most acute,

0:51:210:51:25

Britain was discovering the great stories Iceland had produced.

0:51:250:51:29

In the 18th century, the Sagas reached our shores.

0:51:310:51:35

They had a profound influence on one of our greatest poets.

0:51:370:51:41

I think it's a very, very big influence actually on Blake's work.

0:51:420:51:45

I mean, perhaps one of the most characteristic things about

0:51:450:51:50

Blake's poetry and one of the most notoriously difficult things, really,

0:51:500:51:55

is that he has created this huge and hectic mythological world,

0:51:550:52:01

he's created a kind of alternative, Blakean mythology.

0:52:010:52:05

So many of Blake's poems contain elements derived from Old Norse myth.

0:52:050:52:10

That's very significant, I think.

0:52:100:52:13

By the 19th century,

0:52:160:52:18

more and more writers were borrowing from Norse literature.

0:52:180:52:22

Britain was hooked on the romance and heroism of the Viking age.

0:52:250:52:31

Victorian entrepreneurs, industrialists and explorers

0:52:310:52:35

had a kind of fellow feeling with what they saw as the Viking achievement.

0:52:350:52:40

That is the exploring, the white heat of technology, the new ships,

0:52:400:52:44

the seafaring, the great ships of the Vikings.

0:52:440:52:48

And that sense of independence

0:52:480:52:50

and taking your fate in own hands and getting ahead and so on.

0:52:500:52:54

The influence of Icelandic literature reached its high water mark

0:53:010:53:05

in the 20th century in the work of one famous Oxford academic.

0:53:050:53:09

Tolkien taught Old Norse, Tolkien published on Old Norse

0:53:120:53:16

and Tolkien's imaginative world

0:53:160:53:18

was surely shaped by his reading of Old Norse.

0:53:180:53:21

And The Lord Of The Rings,

0:53:210:53:22

he definitely uses names that he's culled from his Old Norse reading.

0:53:220:53:26

Actually, The Silmarillion, which people don't read so much,

0:53:260:53:29

echoes more some of the themes of the Sagas,

0:53:290:53:33

this betrayal and darkness in The Silmarillion.

0:53:330:53:37

So I think Tolkien was really steeped in Old Norse literary culture.

0:53:370:53:41

Through Tolkien, the world had woken up

0:53:470:53:50

to the power of the ancient stories.

0:53:500:53:52

But in Iceland, the Sagas had never gone away.

0:53:530:53:56

Generation after generation had fallen in love with these strange, otherworldly tales.

0:53:570:54:04

It's very unusual in Britain for people to read such old literature

0:54:080:54:12

and find it exciting still.

0:54:120:54:14

Why is it the Sagas are so exciting?

0:54:140:54:17

Just the drama and the action.

0:54:170:54:18

You know, a girl can choose who she marries,

0:54:180:54:21

if she wants someone and the brothers don't like him

0:54:210:54:24

and they say no, and if he doesn't understand, they kill him, so...

0:54:240:54:29

I think it's the events in what they believe in,

0:54:290:54:33

because they believe in very strange things.

0:54:330:54:36

-Very strange things?

-Yeah.

-What sort of things?

0:54:360:54:39

Like when someone cheats on their wife,

0:54:390:54:42

they like have to kill him and burn him and something like that.

0:54:420:54:46

-So that's enjoyable to read now, as well?

-Well, sometimes, yeah.

0:54:460:54:50

I think it's just very interesting that we live the way they lived,

0:54:500:54:54

or around the places that they did.

0:54:540:54:56

-So like, learning about your ancestors and what they did in the past.

-Yeah.

0:54:560:55:00

Somebody cheats on your wife and they kill him, it's just creepy.

0:55:000:55:05

It's fun to read, actually!

0:55:050:55:09

The Sagas were written to help the Vikings make sense of a bewildering new world.

0:55:220:55:27

1,000 years later, they still serve the same purpose.

0:55:290:55:33

As Icelanders come to terms with a country transformed

0:55:330:55:37

by financial crisis, they're turning once more to their stories.

0:55:370:55:41

Some years ago, we decided that we were the most brilliant international bankers of the world.

0:55:430:55:49

It turned out to be not so good.

0:55:490:55:52

-A myth!

-Yeah, it turned out to be a myth.

0:55:520:55:55

But we have 800 or 1,000 years of tradition

0:55:550:56:00

of making literature, so... And...

0:56:000:56:07

And me, like other writers, we go back to the Sagas to find our ideas

0:56:070:56:12

for how to tell stories and even what to tell stories about.

0:56:120:56:17

We are, of course, a small island in the north,

0:56:250:56:28

that's what we are famous for,

0:56:280:56:29

are the writers and the books, the old books.

0:56:290:56:32

I think that's right in the heritage of the Icelanders, to read these books.

0:56:340:56:39

The language and the words and the poetry, that's what our country is,

0:56:440:56:47

it's about having control over the word and the language.

0:56:470:56:52

So, therefore, the language for Icelanders, for example,

0:56:520:56:57

is the most important thing in the whole world.

0:56:570:57:01

You feel that you are discovering something,

0:57:060:57:09

you are seeing something, it's like mind-openers.

0:57:090:57:12

And you, like, you get a window into another world.

0:57:120:57:15

And for me, it's a great thrill because this is a true window.

0:57:150:57:19

There's something about the backgrounds of the stories

0:57:240:57:27

and just the magic of good story, how a good story works.

0:57:270:57:31

A good story becomes a classic because it works.

0:57:310:57:34

I feel really inspired being here in Iceland.

0:57:400:57:44

I've been trying to work out what it is

0:57:440:57:46

and I think the thing is that it's such

0:57:460:57:48

a sparsely-populated country - just a third of a million people.

0:57:480:57:53

And it does feel very distant from the heart of Europe

0:57:530:57:56

up here on the edge of the Arctic.

0:57:560:57:59

But despite that, the people haven't developed an island mentality

0:58:020:58:06

or turned in on themselves.

0:58:060:58:08

In fact, they've done the opposite, they've gone out into the world.

0:58:080:58:11

They've embraced the world and they've given something back.

0:58:110:58:15

For ten centuries, they've been welcoming us into their homes

0:58:150:58:19

and settling us down around their hearths

0:58:190:58:22

and entertaining us with their stories.

0:58:220:58:25

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:58:450:58:48

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0:58:480:58:51

Hundreds of years ago in faraway Iceland the Vikings began to write down dozens of stories called sagas - sweeping narratives based on real people and real events. But as Oxford University's Janina Ramirez discovers, these sagas are not just great works of art, they are also priceless historical documents which bring to life the Viking world. Dr Ramirez travels across glaciers and through the lava fields of Iceland to the far north west of the country to find out about one of the most compelling of these stories - the Laxdaela Saga.


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