What Is the Meaning of the Old Norse Word Saga?
The main meaning of the Old Norse word saga (plural sǫgur) are ‘what is said, utterance, oral account, notification’ and the sense used in: ‘(structured) narrative, story (about somebody)’, a dramatic and often complicated story or series of events. It usually also has wider meanings such as ‘history’, ‘tale’.
Saga means “to say.” It can also be used of a genre of novels telling stories spanning multiple generations, or to refer to saga-inspired fantasy fiction.
Swedish folksaga means folk tale or fairy tale, while konstsaga is the Swedish term for a fairy tale by a known author, such as Hans Christian Andersen. In Swedish historiography, the term sagokung, “saga king”, is intended to be ambiguous, as it describes the semi-legendary kings of Sweden, who are known only from unreliable sources.
The Icelandic Sagas, part history, part legend, are medieval accounts of the early history of Norway and Iceland, written in prose (a narrative recorded in Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries of historic or legendary figures and events of the heroic age of Norway and Iceland).
There are plenty of tales of kings (e.g. Heimskringla), everyday people (e.g. Bandamanna saga) and larger than life characters (e. g. Egils saga). The sagas describe a part of the history of some of the Nordic countries (e.g. the last chapter of Hervarar saga).
The British Isles, northern France and North America are also mentioned. It was only recently (start of 20th century) that the tales of the voyages to America were authenticated. Most sagas of Icelanders take place in the period 930–1030, which is called söguöld (Age of the Sagas) in Icelandic history. The sagas of kings, bishops, contemporary sagas have their own time frame.
Most were written down between 1190 to 1320, sometimes existing as oral traditions long before, others are pure fiction, and for some we do know the sources: the author of King Sverrir’s saga had met the king and used him as a source.
That gives a clue to the origins of these sagas. These are stories told and retold, passed down through the generations. But that doesn’t make them pure fact. Stories change, they adapt, they’re embellished, facts drop out of them, pieces of information are added. So by the time they are written down, it’s very hard to separate the facts from the fiction.