The sagas (from Icelandic saga, plural sögur), are stories about ancient Scandinavian and Germanic history, about early Viking voyages, about migration to Iceland, and of feuds between Icelandic families. They were written in the Old Norse language, mainly in Iceland.
The texts are epic tales in prose, often with stanzas or whole poems in alliterative verse embedded in the text, of heroic deeds of days long gone, tales of worthy men, who were often Vikings, sometimes Pagan, sometimes Christian. The tales are usually realistic, except legendary sagas, sagas of saints, sagas of bishops and translated or recomposed romances. They are sometimes romanticised and fantastic, but always dealing with human beings one can understand.
The term saga originates from the Icelandic saga (pl. sögur), and refers to (1) "what is said, statement" or (2) "story, tale, history". It is cognate with the English word "say", and the German sagen. Icelandic sagas are based on oral traditions and much research has focused on what is real and what is fiction within each tale. The accuracy of the sagas is often hotly disputed. Most of the manuscripts in which the sagas are preserved were taken to Denmark and Sweden in the 17th century, but later returned to Iceland.
There are plenty of tales of kings (e.g. Heimskringla), every-day 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 actually called söguöld (Age of the Sagas) in Icelandic history. The sagas of kings, bishops, contemporary sagas and so on, of course 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.
Norse sagas are generally classified as:
These tell of the lives of Scandinavian kings. They were composed in the 12th to 14th centuries.
These are heroic prose narratives written in the 12th to 14th centuries of the great families of Iceland from 930 to 1030. These are the highest form of the classical Icelandic saga writing. Some well-known examples include Njáls saga, Laxdœla saga and Grettis saga.
The material of these sagas is similar to Íslendinga sögur, just shorter.
These narratives are set in 12th and 13th century Iceland, and were written soon after the events they describe. Most are preserved in the compilation Sturlunga saga.
These blend remote history with myth or legend. The aim is on a lively narrative and entertainment. Scandinavia's pagan past was a proud and heroic history for the Icelanders.
These are translations of Latin pseudo-historical works and French chansons de geste as well as native creations in the same style.