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Orkney: A Literary Motif in the Sagas?
Jan Ragnar Hagland

Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 4 (2013): 148–153

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J.R. Hagland 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 4 148 Introduction In a volume like the present one, highlighting cultural and geographical connections between Scotland and the Nordic World, the Icelandic sagas will unavoidably be there as a point of reference for any statement on the early history of such connections. The present contribution does not, however, aim at yet another sifting out of the sagas’ evidence per se for the history of political and cultural interaction across the North Sea. Not that there is anything wrong with such efforts. The focus of the present volume—Orkney—taken into consideration, it might nonetheless be of some interest to take a look at a selection of saga texts in order to investigate if or to what extent this particular locality between Scotland, Iceland, and Norway plays a literary role in these narratives beyond that of being a mere point of geographical reference in the minds of saga authors and saga audiences. The present contribution will focus upon the two saga genres that are commonly, and even in saga studies, seen as the main ones—the kings’ sagas and the sagas of Icelanders, also known as family sagas. Heimkringla (the history of the kings of Norway) is the main text of the former group of sagas, and Brennu-Njáls saga is the primary text of the latter. Supplemented with other texts within the two groups, the findings of the present reading should be sufficiently representative to allow for generalization. How, then, we may ask, is Orkney represented in the types of texts we have chosen to investigate here? What literary purposes, if any, do references to these islands serve in saga literature? Orkneyinga Saga There is, of course, one particular saga which stands apart from all other sagas where references to and awareness of Orkney are concerned, with Orkney being depicted from within, as it were, in this saga having the history of Orkney as its subject matter. We shall, in consequence, not use much time on the Orkneyinga saga in this particular context, but rather concentrate upon sagas in which Orkney is seen from the outside. The importance of Orkneyinga saga and the use of it to create an Orcadian identity even in more recent history, should, however, not be forgotten. This aspect of its importance can be illustrated, e.g., by the following quotation from a literary narrative that at least many Orcadians will recognize, about a young boy called John Fiord, or Eagle John Fiord: “Once, when he was ten, he read in the lamplight a book called The Orkneyinga Saga, a new translation from the Icelandic […] The matter was that a light had broken upon the boy, reading that thick book the night before. Orkney: surely Orkney was and always had been and always would be a backwater in the great ebb and flow of the ocean of world history. A few islands where yokels and fishermen, generation after generation, eeked [sic] out a living! Not a bit of it. Those humble people were descendants of jarls and vikings and sea-kings. In medieval times—and that wasn’t so long ago, considering the vast span of human history—the earldom of Orkney was one of the chiefest centres, politically, in Europe.” (Mackay Brown 1987:50–51) Rather an advanced way of reasoning for a tenyear- old boy, one might think. But even so! This aspect of its reception may well be traced all the way back to the period of this particular saga narrative’s genesis. As has implicitly been suggested by Preben Meulengracht Sørensen (1993), the accentuation Orkney: A Literary Motif in the Sagas? Jan Ragnar Hagland* Abstract – For anyone who deals with cultural and geographical connections between Scotland and the Nordic world, the Icelandic sagas will unavoidably be there as a point of reference for any statement on the early history of such connections. In the present contribution, a selection of saga texts is made in order to investigate if or to what extent Orkney, as a locality between Scotland, Iceland, and Norway, plays a particular literary role in these narratives, beyond that of being a mere point of geographical reference. How is Orkney represented, it is asked, and what literary purposes, if any, do references to these islands serve in saga literature? The results of the investigation indicate that the literary function of references to Orkney in the narratives studied surpasses that of a geographical outline of an itinerary. These references may also be seen as turning points, signalling the advent of a change in these narratives, thus giving reason to answer in the affirmative the question posed in the title of the present article. Across the Sólundarhaf: Connections between Scotland and the Nordic World Selected Papers from the Inaugural St. Magnus Conference 2011 Journal of the North Atlantic *Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Dragvoll. NO-7491 Trondheim, Norway; jan.ragnar.hagland@ ntnu.no. 2013 Special Volume 4:148–153 149 J.R. Hagland 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 4 of an Orcadian identity can be observed in the saga text as such, in as much as the initial story of Gói and Hrólfr of Bjarg, the origin-myth of the Orcadian earls, seems to be intended as a counterpart of the otherwise prevailing origin-myths of the royal dynasties of Scandinavia: The mythical origins in the Orkneyinga saga may be there to provide an explanation of the special status of the Earls of Orkney in relation to the Norwegian kings. The origin-myths of the Orcadian earls, then, may be seen as a literary expression of their independence in relation to those kings, the kings to whom they owe their title as earls, but by no means their aristocratic status, Sørensen argues (1993:220–21). To a certain extent, then, the Orkneyinga saga could be seen as a counterpart to Heimskringla where the history of the Orkney earls is concerned, a saga in which, of course, the awareness of these islands in the minds of any audience makes the Orkneyinga saga special in the corpus of medieval saga literature. Therefore, we shall not consider this particular saga further for the present purpose. Kings’ Sagas There are, needless to say, differences between the kings’ sagas and the sagas of the Icelanders when it comes to the literary use, the depiction or sometimes the mere mentioning, of Orkney. In the sagas about the Norwegian kings, such as Heimskringla, Fagrskinna, and Morkinskinna, there is, for instance, what we may call an implicit Norwegian perspective involved when it comes to this particular location and the way in which the narrated events are placed or fixed to it. This perspective is apparent even when the saga author is known to be Icelandic, as is the case with Snorri Sturluson and Heimskringla. In the sagas of the Icelanders, the events are, not surprisingly, usually seen from the other side of the ocean, as it were—from Iceland rather than Norway. We shall return to that later. In Heimskrigla, chronologically structured according to the line of kings in medieval Norway, Orkney is frequently mentioned, much of the time more or less just in passing, from the history of Harald Hairfair onwards. Orkney is first referred to in ch. 19 of this particular section of Heimskringla, in which chapter it is told about the unrest caused by Haraldr’s efforts to subdue all the land of Norway and the subsequent settlement of the the Faroes and Iceland. At that time, it said: Þá var ok mikil ferð til Hjaltlandz, ok margir ríkismenn af Nóregi flýðu útlaga fyrir Haraldi konungi ok fóru í vestrvíking, váru í Orkneyjum eða í Suðreyjum á vetrum, en á sumrum herjuðu þeir í Nóreg ok gerðu þar mikinn landzskaða (Finnur Jónsson 1911 [1966]:53). There was a great exodus to the Shetlands, and many of the nobility fled King Harald as outlaws and went on Viking expeditions to the west, staying in the Orkneys and the Hebrides in winter, but in summer harrying in Norway where they inflicted great damage (Hollander 1964:76). This first reference to Orkney, and to the Shetlands and Hebrides for that matter, is made with no further ado or introduction—a geographical reference apparently conceived of by the narrator as common knowledge to all. Seen from a compositional point of view it is, nevertheless, interesting to note that the introduction of Orkney and the relation of these islands to Norwegian history is found in the middle of this big collection of sagas about the Norwegian kings—in Saint Óláf’s Saga, in which Orkney is presented as follows: Svá er sagt, at á dögum Haraldz ins hárfagra, Nóregs konungs, byggðusk Orkneyjar, en áðr var þar víkingaboeli. Sigurðr hét inn fyrsti jarl í Orkneyjum, hann var sonr Eysteins glumra ok bróðir Rögnvaldz Moerajarls … (Finnur Jónsson 1911[1966:265). We are told that in the days of Harald Fairhair, king of Norway, the Orkneys were settled, which before had been a haunt of Vikings. Sigurth was the name of the first earl in the Orkneys. He was the son of Eystein Glumra and the brother of Rognvald, earl of Moer … (Hollander 1964:50–51). This apparently late or postponed introduction in the saga narrative makes sense when we take into account the commonly accepted view that initially there was a saga of Óláfr Haraldsson, or Saint Óláfr, onto which the histories of the kings before and after Óláfr were added so as to constitute the entire Heimskringla. Seen from the saga composer’s point of view, then, we may think, there was no need to make any introduction as to the relevance of Orkney when references to this place first occur in the enlarged version of kings’ sagas. In his mind, it was a locality already introduced and known to the audience within the narrative. Instances such as this in the text of Heimskringla are there also to underpin the common view of the chronological steps in the genesis of this particular text. Orkney does, as we have touched upon already, frequently occur, particularly in Heimskringla, but also in other collections of kings’ sagas such as Fagrskinna and Morkinskinna, and recurrently so in variants of the following sentence: “fór hann fyrst til Orkneyja” (First, he went to the Orkneys) in Hollander’s (1964:98) translation of Heimskringla J.R. Hagland 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 4 150 (The History of Hacon the Good, ch. 3). Just a few more examples will suffice to illustrate the point in question: Heimskringla’s Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, ch. 16, “fara [þeir] fyrst til Orkneyia ok dvöldusk þar un hrið” (Finnur Jónsson 1911 [1966]:115) (going first to the Orkneys, where they remained for a while [Hollander 1964:154]); Heimskringla’s Saga about Magnús berrfoett, ch. 8, “helt hann liði því vestr um haf ok fyrst til Orkneyja” (Finnur Jónsson 1911 [1966]:522 ) (With this force he sailed west across the sea, first to the Orkneys [Hollander 1964:674– 675]); Fagrskinna, ch, LXIII, “Nu sigldi Haraldr konongr fyrst til Orknoeyja” (ÍF 29:278) (Now King Haraldr first sailed to Orkney[Finlay 2004:221]); Morkinskinna, ch. LIII, “Haraldr konungr siglir fyrst vestr til Orkneyia” (Ármann Jakobsson og Þórður Ingi Guðjónsson (Eds.) 2011:303) (King Haraldr [Hardrule] sailed first west to Orkney [Andersson and Gade 2000:264].) We also find it in Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar, which is often thought to stand close to the kings’ sagas. Egils saga, ch. 59, “fóru fyrst vestr um haf til Orkneyia” ( ÍF 2:176) (First they went west across the sea to the Orkneys [Fell 1975:103].) A closer look at the contexts in which these references occur to voyages to (and from as we shall see eventually) Orkney brings to light something more, some textual meaning beyond the mere geographical references implied. A closer look at the first reference mentioned above—the one from ch. 3 of The History of Hacon the Good in Heimskringla—may, I hope, help us see the contours of something more general than a mere geographical reference onto which the flow of narrative is pinned: It is told as follows about Eiríkr, also known as Eric Bloodaxe: En er hann sá engi efni til mótstöðu í móti her Hákonar, þá siglði hann vestr um haf með því liði, er hann vildi fylgja (Finnur Jónsson 1911 [1966]:71). And when he saw he had no means to resist Hákon’s army, he sailed west across the sea with such troops as wished to follow him (Hollander 1964:98). And then, the saga goes on to tell: Fór hann fyrst til Orkneyja ok hafði þaðan með sér lið mikit; þá siglði hann suðr til Englandz ok herjaði um Skotland, hvar sem hann kom við land. (Finnur Jónsson 1911 [1966]:71) First, he went to the Orkneys, and from there he led away a great force. Then he sailed south to England, harrying along the Scottish coast wherever he touched land. (Hollander 1964:98) This voyage ends up in Northumbria, where Eiríkr made an agreement with King Athelstan to hold Northumbria and protect it against Danes and other Vikings as the saga tells us, and so on. The reference to Orkney is, of course, there to account for Eiríkr’s itinerary from the homeland to his new position in the world across the sea, in Northumbria. Not much is said about Orkney. It is mentioned in passing as a place for strengthening and reorganizing Eiríkr’s combat power: “ok hafði þaðan með sér lið mikit” (and from there he led away a great force). Apart from that, Orkney is depicted as just a transitional place—a turning point, perhaps, to a new chapter in Eric Bloodaxe’s political life. The transitional function of this narrative part is underscored by the temporal adverb fyrst, “first”: “... fór hann first” – (He went first to the Orkneys): First Orkney, then the final goal, as it were. And this is not a one-off when it comes to the function of references to Orkney in these narratives. If we look at the kings’ sagas and the sagas of Icelanders at large, a common pattern seems to occur. In the History of Óláfr Tryggvasonr (ch. 16) in Heimskringla it is told that Queen Gunnhildr and her sons, after having failed to gather an army against earl Hákon, took again the same plan as before, to sail west over the sea with such men as would follow them, the saga says. And then they “fara fyrst til Orkneyia ok dvöldusk þar um hríð” (Finnur Jónsson 1911 [1966]:115) (They went first to the Orkneys and stayed there for a while [Hollander 1964:154].) The only thing worth telling, it seems, about Orkney is that Arnviðr, Ljótr and Skúli, the sons of Þorfinn Hausakljúfr, were now earls there. Again the literary function of the reference to Orkney in the narrative seems to be something beyond that of the mere geographical outline of an itinerary. It may also be seen as a turning point in the narrative to signal the advent of a change, of something new; this time, it is evidently the son of Gunnhildr, Ragnfrøðr, who matters. He sailed eastwards from Orkney after having spent the winter there, the saga tells us, and gained some sort of foothold in Western Norway in his combat for power against earl Hákon. We shall not here go through all the instances in the kings’sagas where references to Orkney such as these occur. Their recurrent appearance in the sagas makes them acquire the status of a common literary motif—or perhaps we should call it a topos or a locus in literary terms. That is, however, probably of minor importance. It is pertinent, nonetheless, to point to one more instance in the Heimskringla in which the literary reference to Orkney evidently serves the function of implicitly marking a transition, a foreshadowing of something important in the text. This foreshadowing can be so even if this 151 J.R. Hagland 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 4 function is not signalled by any overt variant of the expression “He went first to the Orkneys”: Ch. 47 of Heimskringla’s Saga of Óláf Tryggvason tells about Óláfr’s return to Norway, from Dublin, in part at the cunning instigation of Þórir Klakka. Óláfr began, as a result of this, longing to go to the kingdom of his fathers. He sailed first to the Hebrides, about which islands nothing is told―”síðan sigldi hann til Orkneyia“ (Finnur Jónsson 1911 [1966]: 39) ([f]rom there, he sailed to the Orkneys) it is told [Hollander 1964:188f.]), where earl Sigurðr Hlöðvissonr was in power. Óláfr almost by chance comes upon the earl, and then, it is told: Þá lét hann jarl kalla til tals við sik; en er jarl kom til tals við konung, þá höfðu þeir áðr fátt talat, áðr konungr segir at jarl skyldi skírask láta ok alt landzfolk hans, en at öðrum kosti skyldi hann þá deyja þegar í stað, en konungr kvezt mundu fara með eld ok usla yfir eyjannar ok eyða land þat, nema folkit kristnaðisk (Finnur Jónsson 1911 [1966]:139). He requested him to come and confer with him. And when the earl came it was not long before the king commanded him to accept baptism, together with all his people, or else suffer death at once; and the king said he would devastate the islands with fire and flame, and lay the land waste unless the people accepted baptism (Hollander 1964:189). As we can well imagine, such was the position of the earl that he chose to take baptism; he was then baptized and so too were all the people who were there with him. And so on. This is, evidently, an important first step in Óláfr Tryggvason’s severe missionary activity—with the sword. After the Orkney episode, the saga goes on to tell us: Siglði Óláfr þá austr í haf ok siglði af hafi útan at Morstr, gekk þar fyrst á land í Nóregi ok lét hann messu þar syngva í landtjaldi. En siðan var í þeim sama stað kirkja gör. (Finnur Jónsson 1911 [1966]:139) Then Óláf sailed east across the sea and sighted land at the Island of Morstr, which was the first place for him to come ashore and where he had mass sung in a tent. In after times a church was built in that same place. (Hollander 1964:189) This is, then, the great transition, the beginning of Christendom in Norway, on which we need not elaborate in any detail here. It is worth mentioning, however, that up to this day, the Church of Norway has used this very incident related by the saga to symbolize the introduction of Christianity in Norway. According to the chronology of the saga narrative, the mass sung at Moster happened in 995. In 1995 the Church of Norway celebrated the millennium of Christianity in Norway at Moster. The important point to note here is, again, that this enormous cultural transition is anticipated in the saga narrative by the events that took place in Orkney immediately prior to the symbolic mass sung at Moster, the literary symbol of the introduction of the new faith in King Óláfr ’s homeland. Sagas of Icelanders We shall leave the kings’ sagas and direct our attention also to the great corpus of Icelandic family sagas, or sagas of Icelanders, as they are now commonly called. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Orkney is referred to in some, but not all of these texts, and generally to a far lesser extent than in the kings’ sagas. Even so, it seems that references to Orkney carry much of the same symbolic value as they do in the sagas of the Norwegian kings. Egils saga Skalla- Grímssonar, tells, as already touched upon, how Eric Bloodaxe saw no other choice than to flee the country because of Hákon the Good’s supremacy— much in the same way as does Heimskringla. That is to say, using Orkney for an intermediate stop, giving the reference to these islands exactly the same literary function as in the kings’ sagas. It has been argued that Egils Saga was written by Snorri Sturluson. This is, of course, a very complex problem, about which we shall not make up our minds here and now. The literary use of Orkney in Heimskringla and in Egils Saga may, all the same, be a possible argument in a discussion about a literary relationship between the two. In the sagas of Icelanders, references to Orkney occur in narrative passages about saga protagonists going either way across the North Atlantic—crossing both to and from Iceland. And it is possible, it seems, to conceive of these references as literary signals or foreshadowings of new and important events whenever they occur in the texts. Even if not as obvious as in the kings’ sagas, we see this, e.g., in Laxdoela saga when, in the beginning of the long narrative, it is told about Unnr the Deep-minded, on her way to her dominant position as mater familias in Iceland, that, her preparations in Scotland completed, Unnr sailed to the Orkneys, where she stayed for a short while. Long enough, we might add, to enable her to arrange marriages, the offspring of whom in the end produced Earl Þorfinnr, from whom all the earls of the Orkneys are descended, as claimed by the saga (IF 5:8). The same pattern is repeated for the Faroes until she finally settles in the Breiðafjörðr area in Iceland with as much land as she wished (ÍF J.R. Hagland 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 4 152 5:9) The literary function of the reference to Orkney may well be said to foreshadow Unnr’s important position as head of the family in the Laxárdalr area. This pattern, however, is not so easy to discern when reading or listening to each saga narrative in isolation. We see it more clearly when bringing together a greater variety of sagas. Sagas as different as, for instance, Kjalnesinga saga (ch. 12, ÍF 14:27) telling about the protagonist Búi on his way to Norway, Fóstbroeðra saga (ch. 13, ÍF 6:190), and Gunnlaug saga ormstungu (ch. 8 and 12, ÍF 3: 76 and 99), all display the pattern which we have tried to pinpoint above. It seems, in short, as if the references to Orkney in the world of saga narratives acquired, after a while, the function of a literary topos—or a common literary motif in more general terms. If we are to choose one saga in particular in which Orkney functions as the kind of literary motif we have tried to identify here, there is, as in many other instances, no getting around Njal’s saga or Brennu-Njáls saga as it is called in Icelandic (ÍF 12). In this particular saga, there are, in the present reading of the text, two main sets of narrated events which involve Orkney and display the literary function that occupies us here. In this saga, in which the chain of events are painted on a broader canvas than any other saga of Icelanders, the Orkney episodes are depicted more elaborately than in the corpus of sagas of Icelanders at large. Orkney is not just a place mentioned in passing in Brennu-Njáls saga. It is a place in which the depicted events acquire, in themselves, importance for the ensuing narrative. The first set of events relating to Orkney in Brennu-Njáls saga (ÍF 12, ch. 84 and ch. 89) tells about the first encounter the sons of Njáll, Helgi and Grímr, have with Kári Sölmundarson, an extremely important character to the remaining saga plot—how they fought the sons of king Moldan in the fjords of Scotland. After the victorious fight, the saga tells that “leggja þeir skipin öll út undir eyjar” (IF 12:205) (they sailed the ships into the shelter of the islands [Cook 1997: 97]), the islands being, of course, Orkney. One main saga manuscript adds the more or less conventional phrase “ok hvildusk þar um hrið“ (ÍF 12: 205) (and rested there for a while) when references to Orkney are concerned. That is to say: implicitly pointing forward to further important action. The involved characters stayed the winter in Orkney with the earl—a period of time during which a series of significant events happen. These are all there to deepen and clarify the literary significance of these islands. Again Orkney is there in the narrative to point forward to crucial events in Norway, involving Earl Hákon at Hlaðir and others. These events are framed by a second stay in Orkney on the characters’ return to Iceland (ch. 89), thus pointing forward to and structuring further important action in the saga narrative. The second set of events that involve Orkney in the way that interests us here are depicted in ch. 153–157, telling how, after the burning of Njáll and his household, Flosi Þórðarson and Kári Sölmundarson both leave Iceland and how their paths dramatically cross in Orkney. Even if it will lead too far here to recapitulate the events in any detail, we see in the context of the whole narrative how the events relating to Orkney point in various directions to new and important action in the saga: in the first place to the so-called Brian’s Battle in Ireland, usually thought of as the Battle of Clontarf, but also further on towards the final solution of this long and complex narrative, that is to say towards the final conciliation of Flosi and Kári—the final solution to a long series of killings and revenges and the regaining of something that may imply a lasting peace. The important thing to notice, however, is again that these aspects of the text, at their designed places in the narrative, are signalled or foreshadowed by using Orkney as a recurring literary motif, again substantiating the function of this locality as a literary motif in this type of narrative. Indirectly these examples may be taken to reflect a general awareness of Orkney and an appreciation of the islands as an important place in the minds of saga audiences, the ultimate reasons behind which seem, however, to be open to discussion in broader contexts than that of literary studies alone. Conclusion Where does all this take us in the present context, occupied as we are in highlighting cultural and geographical connections in the North Atlantic area? Do these few observations on literary aspects of references to Orkney in saga literature mean anything, for instance to the history of such connections? I think they do, to a certain extent at least. The fact that Orkney is there as a frequent point of reference in the minds of Icelandic-Norse story tellers and audiences underscores the political and cultural importance of these islands. Orkney was important to the extent that it was possible to make this geographical area in the North Sea a literary motif in the structuring of these great medieval narratives, giving us every reason to answer in the affirmative the question posed in the title of the present contribution. In the world of the sagas, Orkney was not at all “a backwater in the great ebb and flow of world history,” to quote George Mackay Brown once again. That is, I think, an aspect of mental history worth bearing in mind. 153 J.R. Hagland 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 4 Literature Cited Andersson, T.M., and K.E. Gade (Trans.). 2000. Morkinskinna. The Earliest Icelandic Chronicle of the Norwegian Kings (1030–1157). Islandica 51. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, USA and London, UK. 556 pp. Cook, R. (Trans.). 1997: Njál’s saga. Pp. 1–220, In Viðar Hreinsson (Ed.). The Complete Sagas of Icelanders. Vol. III. Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, Reykjavík, Iceland. Fell, C. (Trans.). 1975. 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