Morkinskinna is a thirteenth-century Icelandic saga that portrays the kings who ruled Norway in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It emerged during a particularly fertile period of composition of Icelandic kings’ sagas, and marks a key moment in the genre’s development, being the first extant work in Old Norse in which the reign of many kings is narrated in detail. Its structure has long been considered idiosyncratic among Old Norse kings’ sagas.
The author, Ármann Jakobsson, Professor in Early Icelandic Literature at the University of Iceland, wrote his doctoral dissertation on Morkinskinna (2002) and then went on to edit it in the Íslenzk fornrit series (2011). This book, a thoroughly revised and updated version of his previous books, makes his work available in English to an international audience.
The author describes Morkinskinna as a quest for an identity for both author and audience, an identity in which both the royal court and poetry play a pivotal part. This search binds together a work that moves from King Magnús the Good (d. 1047) to King Ingi Haraldsson (d. 1161) within a courtly society that may be regarded as the main character of the saga. In that society there are two key figures who continually reappear in new guises: a courtier, often an Icelander, and a king. At the same time the saga is concerned with narrative, poetry and language itself. This text can be described as sometimes serious in tone, sometimes adventurous. The tale that is repeated in the saga is about a king who was not alone in the world but rather at the head of a court where there were skalds and other entertainments, and about an Icelander who travelled widely in the world, sometimes with polar bears or with filthy hands, sometimes with wisecracking ditties, but more often with poetry on his lips. It speaks of an Icelander who makes the Norwegian court his own society and the Norwegian king his leader. Thus the Icelandic audience of the saga could hear about Norwegian court life and feel they belonged there.