Storytelling

Fritz Jürgensen's Oldnordisk Scene (1848)
 and August Schiøtt's Hos en islandsk Bonde ved Aften i Badstuen (1871)

There would be no modern reception of Norse antiquities if it were not for the enduring popularity of the sagas, poetry, and ballads that preserve them. Their stories, valued as historical sources or simply as entertainment, were shared, retold, and rewritten until they came to the attention of early modern antiquarians, and continue to inspire artists and thinkers today. The oral and written traditions that kept these stories alive coexisted for hundreds of years, up to and far beyond the painting of the two scenes presented here.

Georg Urban Frederik Jürgensen´s  'Oldnordisk Scene'  (1848)

Fritz Jürgensen's Oldnordisk Scene (An Old Norse Scene), oil on canvas, 38 x 54 cm (1848). The Museum of National History, Frederiksborg Castle.

Fritz Jürgensen's Oldnordisk Scene (An Old Norse Scene), held by the Museum of National History, Frederiksborg Castle, is a romantic's depiction of a living oral tradition. An elderly man sitting at the head of the table speaks, while those around him are seen to listen attentively or doze in the telling. A look at the room's furnishings tells us that the scene does not take place in a contemporary ninteenth-century homestead, but in the distant past. A spear and sword hang crossed on the wall, a drinking horn stands on the table, and a small harp or lyre at the old man's feet proclaims him a storyteller or a skáld ('poet'). The skálds who served at the courts of medieval rulers were celebrated for their ability both to entertain and inform about the past, as we see in many Old Norse-Icelandic sagas and in the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum (Deeds of the Danes).

Absalon had in his entourage an Icelander named Arnold, who [...] was knowledgeable as far as antiquity was concerned, and gifted to tell of its occurrences.

Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum, book 14.

August Schjøtt's 'Hos en islandsk Bonde... (1871)

August Schiøtt's Hos en islandsk Bonde ved Aften i Badstuen; en Saga bliver læst (At an Icelandic farmer’s house in the evening; a saga is read), oil on canvas, 127 x 103 cm (1871). The National Museum of Iceland. 

August Schiøtt's Hos en islandsk Bonde ved Aften i Badstuen; en Saga bliver læst (At an Icelandic farmer’s house in the evening; a saga is read), held at the National Museum of Iceland, depicts a scene common in the long Icelandic winter evenings. The communal reading of sagas and poetry often took place during the long hours of the kvöldvaka ('evening wake'). By the weak light of the room's only oil lamp, a man reads aloud from a book - a story, perhaps, about the early days of Iceland's settlement - while others busy themselves with the kinds of work that can be done in the poor light of long winter nights. 

This portrayal of the Icelandic kvöldvaka is strikingly similar to the description by Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Palsson in their Reise igiennem Island (Journey through Iceland), written around a hundred years earlier. They tell us that 'even today stories are told orally in Iceland, especially in the twilight, when the lamp has been lit, someone [...] is chosen to read, and if the head of the household is a lover of stories, he borrows [...] many sagas to last him the entire winter, and in this way the workers are kept contented and wakeful' (p. 47).

Did you know that already in the Middle Ages, the performance of saga literature may have involved the use of books to support recitation? A famous passage from the Icelandic Sturlu þáttur includes a scene in which an Icelander is asked to 'bring a saga' with him to entertain a queen by his storytelling.