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«How to cite: SHAFER, JOHN,DOUGLAS (2010) Saga-Accounts of Norse Far-Travellers. Doctoral thesis, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses ...»

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Saga-Accounts of Norse Far-Travellers


How to cite:

SHAFER, JOHN,DOUGLAS (2010) Saga-Accounts of Norse Far-Travellers. Doctoral thesis, Durham

University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/286/

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Academic Support Office, Durham University, University Office, Old Elvet, Durham DH1 3HP e-mail: e-theses.admin@dur.ac.uk Tel: +44 0191 334 6107 http://etheses.dur.ac.uk Saga-Accounts of Norse Far-Travellers by John Douglas Shafer Thesis submitted for the degree of PhD University of Durham Department of English Studies 2009 ii Table of contents Abbreviations used v Dedication vi Acknowledgements vii Chapter 1 – Introduction 1

1. Purpose and parameters 2 i. Far-travel to distant lands 2 ii. Saga-literature 9

2. Scholarship survey 15 i. Geography and travel 15 ii. Directions 17

3. Methodology 23 i. Motivations 23 ii. Patterns 25

4. Miscellany 28 i. Translation and terminology 28 ii. Chapter organisation 31 Chapter 2 – West 34

1. Introduction 34 i. Grœnland 34

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The copyright of this thesis rests with the author. No quotation from it should be published without his prior written consent, and information derived from it should be acknowledged.

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My academic education in general and knowledge of medieval literature in particular are the results of the labours of many teachers and colleagues, to each of whom I am grateful. More specific debts of gratitude have been incurred during the production of this thesis. Thanks are due to Paul Shafer, Dr Donata Kick and Maja Bäckvall, each of whom provided me with information or assistance that would otherwise have been very difficult to obtain. The providers of the greatest and most constant assistance and support with this thesis have of course been my supervisors, Professor John McKinnell and Dr David Ashurst. For their hard work for and with me, for the knowledge they shared out of their vast stores, and for their unfailing encouragement I am most grateful. What errors remain in this work are my own.

Finally and most importantly, I thank my wife Amy for her practical sense, her penetrating proofreading eye and above all for her patience.

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This thesis originated in a question: what did medieval saga-writers think about the Viking travellers who sailed west across the ocean without knowing the way to the lands they sought, or even whether or not these lands existed? Those who set out across the open sea discovered and settled new lands while other travellers went only short distances, hugging coast-lines all the way.

This contrast leads to more specific questions. Did saga-writers consider the Norse travellers who sailed far across the open sea braver than others? More foolish? Did they respect the fortitude of men seeking new lands to settle, or did they think the discoverers just got lucky? Or of these maritime feats did the medieval story-tellers think anything at all?

The medieval saga-writers tell many stories of westward far-travel, but they do not write “These voyages were amazing feats of seamanship, and far-travellers were braver than neartravellers.” To find the answers to these questions the travel-narratives must be placed in the contexts in which they appear, and thus my questions about travel westward quickly led me to the broader study of saga-accounts of far-travel in all directions. Skalla-Grímr’s wisdom regarding

travel would seem to be relevant to the study of travel: Er ýmsar verðr, ef margar ferr (Egla 38:

96) – “Many journeys lead to many directions.” 1 Within this broader context, stories of far-travel westward across the ocean are just one type of saga-narrative dealing with the journey from the familiar to the “other”, a theme manifested in many different ways in the various sagas in which 1 As Bernard Scudder translates it: “The more journeys you make, the more directions they take” (CSI I 65). Egla, CSI, and the other abbreviations I use are listed after the table of contents to this thesis. In citations from individual sagas, the number before the colon denotes chapter and the number after denotes page number. In citations from CSI, ÍF, Fritzner’s dictionary, and other multi-volume works, the Roman numeral indicates volume.

Chapter 1 – Introduction 2

it appears. The sagas’ Vikings encounter in the distant west a race of savages speaking an unintelligible language; if the same characters had gone north, they might have encountered trolls reciting verses in Norse or giants feasting in a kingly hall. In the distant south they might find wealthy, noble, Christian men willing to employ them in battles against dark-skinned Saracens, while in the distant east they might meet similarly civilised Christian rulers, but beyond them dragons. Far-travel is clearly a narrative device valued by the medieval saga-writers, and there is therefore no shortage of material to explore for enlightenment. Interest in the courage of the Vikings who travelled the physical world has led me to the inventiveness of their descendents, who in their literary works travel through the geography of an imagined world.

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To state my purpose succinctly and clearly: in this thesis I examine saga-accounts of travel by Scandinavian saga-characters from their home countries to distant lands, noting narrative patterns and themes associated with far-travel in each of the cardinal directions. Special attention is given to the characterisation of far-travellers, and to the motivations for far-travel ascribed to them by saga-writers. It is therefore essential to define from the outset what precisely is meant by “fartravel” as I use it in this thesis, as well as which lands are “distant” and which are not.

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1.i.a. “Distance” in this context does not refer to geographical distance: it is rather an imagined, literary concept of distance. Sagas are literary creations, and the lands featured in them likewise serve literary purposes, a concept readily illustrated by saga-writers’ treatment of the regions north of Scandinavia, Finnm†rk in particular. It is commonplace for saga-writers to populate this

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fantastic fornaldarsögur as well as the more realistic Íslendingasögur and konungasögur. 2 Yet the geographical region corresponding to the literary Finnm†rk was closer to the habitations of medieval Scandinavians and much simpler to travel to than, say, Byzantium in the distant south, a place the saga-writers populate with recognisably human characters. It is therefore clear that the “Finnm†rk” of these fantastic episodes is not the one to which the saga-writer and his neighbours could travel, and its monstrous and magical inhabitants are not the people they would interact with once there. The literary north is instead a “distant” place filled with “others”, a place in which fantastic tales take place, where valiant Vikings engage in magical adventures. Distant lands in different directions, naturally, correspond to different literary purposes and themes. The key factor in all directions is the idea of an imaginary border being crossed in the saga-writers’ mental, imagined map of the world, from “inside” to “outside.” Far-travellers are not those who sail for two months rather than two days, but those who travel from inside this area of Norse familiarity, which I call “northern” or “Scandinavian” Europe, to outside (see §1.i.b. below).

This distinction between near- and far-travel is not an artificial, academic construct: some medieval saga-writers clearly sense or create the distinction themselves. There are, for example, some saga-characters given the byname víðf†rli – “widely travelled” or “far-travelling.” “Widely travelled” seems the better interpretation when the byname is applied to Ñrvar-Oddr (“ArrowOddr”, “Oddr the archer”), who visits many lands during his 300-year life-span, while the “fartravelling” interpretation fits Yngvarr víðf†rli, who leads a single expedition, but further east into Asia than any Norseman has gone before. A notion of Scandinavian nations occupying a single “neighbourhood” – despite long sea-journeys separating some of them – is evident in Laxdœla saga, when the Icelander Bolli Bollason decides to leave his homeland and see the world. In

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Norway Bolli replies to a query about whether he intends to stay there or return to Iceland: „Ek ætla mér hvárki, ok er þat satt at segja, at ek hafða þat ætlat, þá er ek fór af Íslandi, at eigi skyldi at spyrja til mín í †ðru húsi“ (Lax. 73: 213) – “‘I mean to do neither, and it is fair to say that when I set out from Iceland I did not intend that any should hear of me being just next-door.’” Bolli then travels south to Constantinople and distinguishes himself in the service of the Byzantine emperor. Norway is thus “next-door” to Iceland, while Constantinople is not: to the writer of Laxdœla saga, the difference between near- and far-travel is clear.

It is important to note that “far-travel” as I use the term does not correspond exclusively to the cognomen víðf†rli. Though the saga-characters given this epithet are also far-travellers by my definition, they form too small a group to properly represent the many travellers who spread out in all directions to distant lands. Leifr Eiríksson, for example, is never called “Leifr víðf†rli”, despite his undeniable status as a far-traveller westward. Indeed, as Sverrir Jakobsson points out, “A common characteristic of the persons called by the byname víðf†rli is that their journeys took them partly or exclusively to the East” (2006: 936). The collection of far-travellers named by the saga-writers therefore forms only a subset of mine.

1.i.b. The area characterised in the sagas by Norse familiarity is not exclusive to Scandinavia.

Though the saga-episodes I examine concern only travel by Scandinavian characters – that is, Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Icelanders, Faroese people, Shetlanders and Orcadians – across a near-far border, the border itself is not merely the outer edge of Scandinavia. The British Isles and much of northern and central Europe are also “inside.” As indicated above, the goal of defining this area of inclusion – which I call “northern” or “Scandinavian” Europe – is to separate

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considered “other”, and, ultimately, to determine how they characterise travel and travellers who move from these familiar lands to those distant ones. “Northern Europe” encompasses not physical landmasses and their historical inhabitants but imagined, literary locations in which recognisably Scandinavian characters move with freedom and familiarity.

Though saga-writers do not often verbalise explicitly this inclusion/exclusion of lands and peoples, it is nevertheless possible to detect such a separation within some saga-texts, and sufficient evidence exists for a reasonably stable definition of this area of Norse familiarity.

Judith Jesch observes that Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld’s description of the travels and military exploits of King Óláfr Tryggvason in Óláfsdrápa “usefully outlines the various arenas for Viking activity in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries” (2007: 124). Hallfreðr relates that after returning from Russia in the east, Óláfr defeats in various battles the inhabitants of Jamtaland, Gautland and Skáney (Jämtland, Götaland, Skåne); Denmark; Saxony and Frisia; Walcheren and Flanders; and finally England, Northumbria, Bretland (Wales, Cornwall and possibly Brittany) and Cumbria (Kock 81). The writer of Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar outlines a similar area when describing the diaspora of Norwegians following the violent consolidation of Norwegian

states by Haraldr hárfagri (“fair-hair”, “fine-hair”):

En af þessi áþján flýðu margir menn af landi á brott, ok byggðusk þá margar auðnir víða, bæði austr í Jamtaland ok Helsingjaland ok Vestrl†nd, Suðreyjar, Dyflinnar skíði, Írland, Norðmandí á Vallandi, Katanes á Skotlandi, Orkneyjar ok Hjaltland, Færeyjar. Ok í þann tíma fannsk Ísland. (Egla 4: 12) But because of this oppression, many people fled the land and settled widely in many uninhabited places, both to the east in Jamtaland and Helsingjaland, and to the west in the British Isles, the Hebrides, the pale of Dublin, Ireland, Normandy in France, Caithness in

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