Saga Thing: A Podcast Putting the Sagas of the Icelanders on Trial

Saga Thing is a phenomenal podcast [iTunes, Podbean] that is putting the Sagas of Icelanders on trial. It is hosted by two bearded professors of medieval literature, Dr. John P. Sexton and Dr. Andrew Pfrenger—but they are best known to their listeners as prominent chieftains who explain, explore, and judge the content of medieval Iceland’s impressive literature.

What Do They Do?

Inspired by the legal system of the Icelandic commonwealth, Saga Thing serves to read and review the entire corpus of medieval Icelandic literature, one saga at a time, while also subjecting them to various judgements along the way. Their categories for judgement include the following:

Best bloodshed An award for the best kill/injury in a saga–sometimes involving whales or ice skating.
Body count A sometimes controversial category where they tally up the number of untimely deaths in a saga.
Notable witticisms Highlighting the best lines in a saga–often including slander and understatement.
Nicknames A chance for Andy to sleep while John reviews the top nicknames of a saga, crowning the best with a fancy award.
Outlawry Banishing that character everyone hated.
Thingmen A chance for John and Andy to quarrel over the best characters of a saga–typically the category that stresses Andy out the most.
Final ratings A chance for John and Andy to reflect on the saga’s merits, with each of them rating the saga from 1 to 10 (and then adding their ratings together to offer a combined rating ranging from 2 to 20).

But before they judge a saga, they spend a few episodes summarizing it for their audience, and whether you’ve read the saga or not, these are great episodes. Both John and Andy have proven themselves to be excellent storytellers [just listen to this live lecture they gave about Thor in popular culture], and so each summary is not only filled with scholarly details, but are also retold in a humorous and entertaining way so that we can both laugh and enjoy the saga with them. The feeling you get from an episode of Saga Thing is not a formal lecture, but a fun, interactive conversation with great guys who love medieval Iceland as much as we do. In short, every episode of this podcast is a perfect blend of professional academic research with a relaxed conversational atmosphere.

Their Impact

It would not be an overstatement to say that the impact of Saga Thing has been immense (especially for such a niche subject). On the podcasting website known as Podbean alone, they have exceeded a total of 454,000 downloads (which is a number that is rapidly increasing). Furthermore, when I met with them in Reykjavík this past summer (it’s alright to have a beer with professors occasionally), they informed me that each episode reaches at least 10,000 people, which is an audience that far exceeds traditional academic settings.

Universities are important centers for learning—there’s no need to deny or mitigate that. But as humanities departments continue to face low enrollment and budget cuts, changes will eventually need to be made; new methods for engaging potential students and new mediums for teaching the public about the importance and value of the humanities will need to be explored and considered more seriously. As Andy said himself:

Making what we do more accessible is key to the future of our profession. [x]

And when it comes down to accessibility, this podcast has granted these professors with a medium for educating and inspiring thousands of people. As listener Doug Nordwall recently said to them:

Your podcast had more to do with me reading more sagas and maintaining interest in Norse lore than anything for a good long while. … It’s like getting class on the family sagas. It caused me to go and revisit a paper on Icelandic family relationships and how they compare to social networking. That actually helped me in my [work] which doesn’t deal with either! [x]

But this relationship between host and listener has been mutually beneficial, because Saga Thing has even helped John and Andy form new ideas about their own professional studies. Andy, for example, was inspired to research consent theory in Viglund’s Saga [free online translation] after their episodes covering that saga [Summary, Judgements]. This recently culminated in a paper titled “The Intersection of Romance and Politics: Tracing the Consequences of Consent Theory in the Post-Classical Viglund’s Saga,” [abstract] which Andy presented at the prestigious 17th International Saga Conference [program] in Reykjavík this past summer. John also presented a paper there titled “Menn … sem tvau nöfn hefði: Nicknames, difference, and disability in the Íslendingasögur,” [abstract] which interacts with many of the themes and topics that he discusses on their podcast.

Why Saga Thing Matters

So far, Saga Thing has allowed two professors to reach a massive audience, extending an awareness for this literature and its relevant academic research far beyond the traditional settings of classrooms and academic journals. But, on a more personal note, they have had a tremendous impact on our very own Fjörn’s Hall: their master list for the Sagas of Icelanders inspired me to expand upon that idea by creating my own list (which I plan to do for all saga genres, eventually), they inspired me to start my own podcast, and they continue to be important role models for me, both as a graduate student and as a blogger/podcaster.

And so, with the goal of celebrating the greatness of saga literature, I would say that Saga Thing has done a spectacular job at inspiring and engaging thousands of people with a body of medieval literature, its history, and its scholarship.

Thank you, and keep up the fantastic work!


➳ You can support Saga Thing by following them on social media [WordPress, Twitter, Facebook] or leaving their podcast a friendly review on iTunes. You can also reach them via email: sagathingpodcast@gmail.com (they’re quite friendly).


Bonus Content

Here’s a picture of us together in Reykjavík!
From left to right—myself, John, and Andy:

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This was honestly a highlight for me while I was in Reykjavík this past summer. It meant so much to me that they took time out of their busy conference day to meet with me—and it was good fun. Many thanks for your hard work and friendly personalities. Skál!


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