The best books on the Icelandic and Norse sagas

William Ian Miller Author Of Hrafnkel or the Ambiguities: Hard Cases, Hard Choices
By William Ian Miller

Who am I?

Purely by accident I stumbled on to a 1961 Penguin translation of Njáls saga and it was a transformative moment in my life. I signed up for Old Norse the next term, and never looked back. The sagas were incomparably intelligent in matters of psychology and politics and interpersonal interaction. And then told with such wit. How could the utter miracle of the fluorescence of so much pure genius on a volcanic island in the middle of nowhere not grab you? And what confluence of friendly stars would allow me to spend a life teaching and writing about them in a law school no less, paid as if I were a real lawyer? 


I wrote...

Hrafnkel or the Ambiguities: Hard Cases, Hard Choices

By William Ian Miller,

Book cover of Hrafnkel or the Ambiguities: Hard Cases, Hard Choices

What is my book about?

A close reading of one of the best known of the Icelandic sagas, showing its moral, political, and psychological sophistication. The saga deals with finely layered irony of who can justifiably hit whom for what, It does this with cool nuance, also taking on matters of torture and pain-infliction as a means of generating fellow-feeling. How does one measure pain and humiliation so as to get even, to get back to equal? They come up with ingenious ways of handling the issue of ‘getting even’. This book flies in the face of all the previous critical literature which, with very few exceptions, imposes simplistic readings on this very subtle saga. A translation of the saga is provided.

The books I picked & why

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Epic and Romance: Essays on Medieval Literature

By W. P. (William Paton) Ker,

Book cover of Epic and Romance: Essays on Medieval Literature

Why this book?

This book, from a fin de siècle Scotsman, is a classic of literature in its own right. It contains a perfectly brilliant reading of the sagas as well as other works of medieval literature. It has never been surpassed and is perhaps unsurpassable. Every sentence is an elegant gem, with one nonobvious insight after another. He just nails it. Ker reminds you that literary criticism need not be pretentious and badly written as it so often is. Treat yourself. 


Njal's Saga

By Magnus and Palsson (translator),

Book cover of Njal's Saga

Why this book?

This is by all estimation the greatest of the sagas. I would even claim that its excellence allows it to be fairly mentioned in the same breath as the Iliad, Don Quixote, and the tragedies of Shakespeare. It is quite complex and I would suggest, if I am allowed to, my Why is Your Axe Bloody? (2014) as a guide. But the present Penguin translation is a travesty and should be avoided. The best English translation available is the older Penguin translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson (1961) and still available from various used booksellers online. Their translation is as good as a translation can get. Hrafnkels saga is a perfect entry to the sagas because it is short and compact and prepares one for the complexity of Njáls saga


The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180–1280)

By Theodore M. Andersson,

Book cover of The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (1180–1280)

Why this book?

This is from the master of saga studies of the past half-century. His knowledge of Old Norse literature is unsurpassed. He takes you through how the miracle of the sagas came about. Moreover, he writes well. His prose is clear and elegant. I also wish to steer readers to a perfect gem of an article Andersson wrote that actually manages to say something quite new about the more than a century-old fight in saga studies as to whether the sagas owe their excellence to an oral culture or to a written one: “Sea Traffic in the Sagas: Quantitative Reflections” in The Creation of Medieval Northern Europe: Essays in Honor of Sverre Bagge, edited by Leidulf Melve and Sigbjørn Sønnesyn (Oslo: Dreyer, 2012), 156–75.


From Gang Leader to the Lord's Anointed: Kingship in Sverris Saga and Hakonar Saga Hakonarsonar (The Viking Collection, Studies in Northern Civilization, Vol 8)

By Sverre Bagge,

Book cover of From Gang Leader to the Lord's Anointed: Kingship in Sverris Saga and Hakonar Saga Hakonarsonar (The Viking Collection, Studies in Northern Civilization, Vol 8)

Why this book?

An excellent account of this supremely intelligent Machiavellian rogue and wit of a Norwegian king by the eminent Norwegian historian and namesake Sverre Bagge. King Sverrir’s saga was written by an Icelander with the king looking over his shoulder and apparently dictating portions of it. Nothing quite captures a medieval insurgency any better than this saga when read through the lens of Bagge’s astute commentary. 


Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film

By Carol J. Clover,

Book cover of Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film

Why this book?

Clover’s book is a cult classic, but Clover is also one of the leading saga scholars of the past half-century and as she notes her insights into and reads of these horror films owes an incalculable debt to her knowledge of the sagas. 

I cannot refrain from recommending an article by Heather O'Donoghue--"What has Baldr to do with Lamech?" The lethal shot of a blind man in Old Norse myth and Jewish exegetical traditions Medium Aevum 72 (2003, 82-107). I loved it when I first read it. It is wonderfully learned and for those who are equally captivated by the Norse world and the tough world of the Hebrew Bible, the piece is a perfect example of penetrating scholarship and insight.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in sagas, Iceland, and Old Norse?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about sagas, Iceland, and Old Norse.

Sagas Explore 26 books about sagas
Iceland Explore 42 books about Iceland
Old Norse Explore 12 books about Old Norse

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas, and The Saga of the Volsungs: With the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok if you like this list.