Friday, 28 May 2010

Is a saga romantic fiction?

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary tells us that the word saga is Old Norse. ‘A narrative composition in prose which embodies the traditional history of Icelandic families.’ And ‘A mythical story which has been handed down by oral tradition.’

I love to use memories of a life now gone which people share with me. A saga is often a generational story, or one about relationships. Families lived close together in the past, often living in the same place for generations and forming close-knit communities. This is something we have perhaps lost in the modern world. Look at this picture of my mother as a young girl enjoying an afternoon out with her Aunt Sarah. Judging by the busy scene around them it's clearly taken in the late twenties, early thirties. They look so engrossed in their conversation, happy to be together. Yet her family was very poor with an invalid father who couldn't work, and a mother who was the family bread winner. What are they talking about, I wonder?

 The dictionary also states that a saga can be ‘A story of heroic achievement or marvellous adventure.’ A sweeping tale of courage and bravery, good pitted against evil. Robin Hood, Star Wars, David against Goliath, as our hero battles against all odds to win. The saga’s we write are stories about ordinary people dealing with extraordinary events in their lives. Our main characters too must win through against all odds.
But can we class the saga as romantic fiction, or is it something different, a genre in its own right? Is it historical fiction? Or could it, perhaps, be a combination of both?

Catherine Cookson, considered one of the greatest saga writers of all time, certainly didn’t claim to be writing romance. Her novels are more often involved with cruelty, violence and savagery, the hypocrisy of religion, poverty, despair and of course her chief obsession, illegitimacy.

The ingredients of a saga might include:
Strong characters.
Multi-layered viewpoint
Fast paced plot
The position of women.
Universal issues
Social and domestic history
Local industry and economics of the region
Strong emotions
A sense of place
A view of a wider world

Maybe we can look at some of these in later blogs.
Best wishes,


  1. I really think that a saga deserves a genre on its. These novels might have a romance but it isn't quite a "fairy tale romance," there might be an historical element but it could be fairly modern.I agree with your list, Freda,a good saga has all those a "can't put it down" element.

  2. There are a lot of family sagas listed on my historical novels website at, and I tend to agree with Margaret Blake, that these really fit into their own genre. While there may be an element of romance in most, because sagas usually show the men and women of different generations courting and marrying, the main emphasis in most family sagas is a bit deeper, showing how social conditions and family dynamics impact the children of one generation and are then carried on over time to impact the children of following generations. There's a lot more to this than "the girl getting the guy," and sometimes family sagas are not romantic at all, if the author's aim is a rather dark one of showing how tragedy can be carried from generation to generation. I recently read the first novel in the Poldark saga (Jeremy Poldark, which is reviewed on my website), and one of the important themes in this multi-novel series is the way the hatreds between families develop and are carried down through the generations. Whatever genre one puts them in, though, there's no denying that a really good family saga makes fantastic reading!

  3. I agree, it is a genre of its own, or perhaps a sub-genre of the historical novel. And a powerful one at that, with many branches and sub-genres of its own. Poldark is one of my favourites. Winston Graham was a brilliant writer. I shall check out your website Margaret.