The fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda (literally ‘ancient sagas of the northern lands’, but often referred to in English as ‘mythical-heroic’ or ‘legendary’ sagas) are a group of some 35 Icelandic prose narratives relating the exploits of kings and heroes of late iron-age and early Viking-age Scandinavia – before the unification of Norway under Haraldr hárfagri and the settlement of Iceland in the late ninth century, and hence before the dawn of ‘reliable’ historical writing.
In their present form, the fornaldarsögur are generally presumed to date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and thus represent one of the younger, ‘post-classical’ genres of saga literature, but most have at least some basis in significantly older tradition. Although many, with their stock characters and fondness for the fabulous, have been dismissed as historically unreliable and of scant artistic merit, their great and lasting popularity is attested by the very large number of manuscripts in which they are preserved—over a thousand in all, the earliest from the beginning of the fourteenth century, the latest from the beginning of the twentieth. Most were also recast in verse, either as rímur, lengthy poems in complex metres, or in ballad form, and they have also served as sources of inspiration for writers as diverse as Adam Oehlenschläger and J.R.R. Tolkien.
The essays in the present volume emanate from the research project Stories for all time: The Icelandic fornaldarsögur, based at the University of Copenhagen, the principal aim of which was to survey the entire transmission history of the fornaldarsögur. In keeping with the focus of the project, the essays presented here deal with various aspects of the transmission and reception of the fornaldarsögur, from their earliest manifestations until the present day.