I caught a programme on BBC4 last night about the Icelandic Sagas. The Sagas are a collection of stories written down in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, describing events in the tenth and eleventh centuries. They are one of the earliest examples of prose literature, the foundation of the Icelandic literary tradition, and a big influence on authors like William Blake and JRR Tolkein.

I bought a volume of all the sagas after visiting Iceland a couple of years ago, and the programme inspired me to actually read one!  So far, there’s a lot of description of who’s who (“Their son was Hlodver, the father of Earl Sigurd, who was the father of Earl Thorfinn….” etc etc), but I’m assured it becomes a gripping tale of jealousy and revenge.

The word saga comes from Old Norse and has the same root as the Old English secgan, meaning to say or tell.

In the programme they had Icelanders reading bits of the saga in Icelandic. It’s such a cool-sounding language!

It also brings to mind the whole area of the oral tradition of storytelling: The sagas had been told around fires for years and years until they were written down, most likely by immigrants to Iceland from Ireland and Britain where there was a culture of literacy.

When I was a student in the United States I did a course on Native American literature, which emphasised its oral background and focus. At the beginning of each class, somebody had to tell a story; I think I managed to get out of that by being a shy foreigner.

I don’t know much else about oral traditions like this, but I’m sure it’s a rich and interesting area – I must find out more!