Egil's Saga, often thought to have been written by famed Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson, appears to be a heroic family history.

It differs from other sagas and, indeed, from other work by Sturluson, because it includes a wealth of detail on the Viking legal system as practiced in Iceland. So much detail, in fact, that historians draw on it as a valuable historical resource in its own right.

This is all potentially interesting to the modern reader, of course. However, viewed from a contemporary vantage point it seems somewhat peculiar. The legalese is a distraction from the narrative. And it would, presumably, have been relatively familiar to a contemporary reader. Especially considering that only the well educated of the time would have been able to read it in the first place.

Are there any theories as to why Sturluson chose to go into so much detail in this saga about the laws and legal customs of his time?

(NB - I have added a "history" tag, as I feel there is a place for academic non-literature tags where questions touch on related disciplines.)

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    Have you read this section of the Wikipedia article on Icelandic sagas? I suspect the answer is that these sagas were more than just stories: they had enormous cultural significance, and were the main way for these people to record their history. The details of their legal system would be something they'd want to record for posterity, thus they put it into a saga.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 11:00
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    @Randal'Thor Thanks for that interesting link. But the explanation seems tenuous or incomplete. From the link itself: "It has also been proposed that the Icelandic settlers were so prolific at writing in order to capture their settler history. Historian Gunnar Karlsson does not find that explanation reasonable though, given that other settler communities have not been as prolific as the early Icelanders". Plus, it seems a peculiar focus for one saga, when others lack these details. I think there's still a question to explore here.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 11:23

1 Answer 1


Short answer: Egil's saga is not particularly more interested in legal matters than similar sagas.

I do not know what other sagas are being referenced in the question, but one should recognise that there are several types of sagas. The more important ones are sagas about Icelanders (Íslendingasögur), sagas about Kings (Konungasögur), and legendary sagas (fornaldarsögur). Egil's saga belongs to the first group. These typically focus on one or several conflicts on Iceland, or the travels of Icelanders, during the saga age, ca 870-1065 (which corresponds rather well to what is usually termed the "Viking age" in mainland Scandinavia).

Why were legal matters so important in general? First, it should be noted that Iceland was a free state. Iceland was settled by people a couple of steps down on the societal scale. Unlike e.g. the Orkneys, Iceland had no kings or even jarls until late in its history. It had "chieftains", and free farmers. It had a body for creating laws, and a judicial system, but there was no enforcement beyond what individuals were capable of. The law was a way for self-conscious chieftains and farmers to settle conflicts honourably.

Many saga heroes were sentenced to become outlaws, free for anyone to kill without repercussion. Other sagas tell of how the heroes will go to great lengths to avoid being forced into such positions by those harbouring ill will to the heroes (e.g. Njal's saga). Thus, since "conflict" is almost a genre marker, "dealing with legal matters" is also one.

For Egil's saga, legal matters are actually not very important to the plot; there is the inheritance that sometimes drives the conflict, but that is settled in Norway, and is not inherently important to drive things forward. Other legal matters are dealt with in self-contained episodes. It is in fact noted towards the end of the saga that Egil did not become embroiled in any major legal conflicts.


Robert Kellogg has written an introduction for the recent edition of all the sagas of Icelanders, simultaneously published in all Nordic languages. I have consulted the Swedish translation, i.e. in Islänningasagorna: Samtliga släktsagor och fyrtionio tåtar, first volume, for information about genre matters and Icelandic society. The first volume also contains Egil's saga, which I skimmed through to remind me of the legal episodes, since I could not remember that they featured at all.

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