A Pathfinder for the English-Language Study of Icelandic Sagas at the

San Francisco Public Library



The Íslendingasögur, or Sagas of the Icelanders, represent a great contribution to literary history and are a boon to medieval scholarship.  The literature produced in Iceland in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries stands as a remarkable record of medieval Nordic life in a remote and harsh land.  Over forty written sagas survive this period, most of which are complete.  They are collectively referred to as the "Icelandic Sagas" or "Family Sagas", and the era in which they were written, the "Age of the Sagas".  

The Icelandic Sagas are distinctive in medieval literature for their focus on realism and only limited use of legend, myth and superstition.  Most are concerned with family histories, lawgiving, and blood-feuds and many feature historical figures and events.  The stories are set during Iceland's Commonwealth period, 930-1262 CE.  They are the best representation we have of Icelandic culture in this distinctive era of their history.  Until the Icelanders submitted to Norwegian rule in 1262, their system of self-governance, without a monarch or any centralized authority, is a unique-to-history experiment in self-rule.  The Sagas reflect in great detail the laws and lawgiving tradition integral to this society.  British historian James Bryce wrote that, "In no other literature, is fiction or history, by whichever name we describe the Sagas, so permeated by legal lore" {Tomasson, R.F. (1980). Iceland: The First New Society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, Pg. 13}.

Beyond their historical relevance, the Sagas are exciting to read, with intrigue, betrayals, love and bloodshed, epic in scope with intensely real characters.  There are tales of exploration, with journeys to Constantinople and the New World; and battles in Ireland, Scotland, and in the open ocean.  The Age of Sagas produced works as exciting on the page today as the day they were written.


This pathfinder will outline the most relevant San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) resources to a scholar or enthusiast studying the Icelandic Sagas.  It will indicate the best areas of the library to browse for physical resources, citations and call numbers for the texts of the major sagas included in the SFPL collection, critical examinations and encyclopedic sources, related journal articles accessible via the SFPL databases, and the web resources available to the public.


Egil Skallagrimsson, protagonist of the Egils Saga.  
From a 17th Century Manuscript, "AM  426 Fol." at the Árni Magnússon Institute, Iceland. 

This pathfinder was prepared by Daniel S. Ransom, a Masters degree student at the School of Library and Information Science at San José State University, as part of the LIBR-210, Reference and Information Services course with Professor Lili Luo.