Clontarf 1014 and the saga writers of Iceland

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The article in Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia devoted to the twelfth century Irish text Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh (‘The War Between the Irish and the Foreigners’) asserts that the work’s ‘climactic battle … at Clontarf is a fraud. The actual battle of 1014 was merely another clash between Irish provincial kings (with Norse mercenaries) competing for national supremacy’ (Jeffries 1993, 101). Irish nationalists, of course, long saw it in very differently, as a great Irish victory over Scandinavian invaders, with a heroic and pious Irish high king treacherously slain in the moment of triumph. Though this view is unfashionable in Ireland today, there were scholarly efforts in the run up to the millennium commemoration of the battle to suggest it was more important in an Irish and wider European context than Jeffries allows, and the anniversary was marked in numerous ways both in Ireland and elsewhere, including the production of special stamps and a special coin. But perhaps more surprisingly the battle also seems to have been seen as important in Iceland during the period when the sagas came into being. Several sagas mention the battle. Þorsteins saga Síðu-Hallssonar claims it was ‘the most famous battle west over the sea’ (‘hefir sú orrosta frægst verit fyrir vestan hafit’, ch. 2, 301) and Brennu-Njáls saga devotes several chapters to the clash, its leading figures, and the events surrounding it.This paper will consider how and why the memory of Clontarf might have been preserved in the Norse world, and transmitted to thirteenth century Iceland, and the possible reasons why the 1014 battle still mattered to Icelandic saga writers so long after it happened. Arguably Clontarf 1014 mattered so much to the anonymous author of Brennu-Njáls saga that he or she gravely risked the artistic cohesion of the saga with a lengthy digression on a battle of little relevance to the main narrative. Recently William Ian Miller (2014, 296) confessed some desperation in attempting to avoid the view that largely because of the Clontarf episode the end of the saga is seriously flawed. It seems important to consider why the Njála author may have taken this risk, if risk it was, and what the treatment of the battle there and elsewhere might say about saga responses to at least one Norse incursion into the Celtic world.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages2
Publication statusPublished - 2015
EventSixteenth International Saga Conference - University of Zurich and University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland
Duration: 09 Aug 201515 Aug 2015


ConferenceSixteenth International Saga Conference
Abbreviated titleSagas and Space
Internet address


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