The Old-Icelandic Sagas
While other nations of Europe take pride in preserving castles, priceless art and great monuments of monarchies and churches, Iceland has not much of that. In fact Icelanders have very little to show in terms of buildings and monuments.
Icelanders lived mostly in turf houses till the beginning of this century made from turf, mud, stones and drift wood. They only built a very few houses out of wood, then mainly churches, because of lack of wood.
Poverty and the harsh nature, along with isolation and colonial rule by the Danish, resulted in a struggle for mere survival for the few people who lived here.
The nation’s treasure and it’s heritage from the past is however of great value. The medieval literature, especially the Sagas of the Icelanders are Iceland’s outstanding contribution to the world’s culture and the nation’s gems from the past consisting of stories of the settlement period, powerful families in Iceland, their feuds and conquests.
Astonishingly modern in style, approach and subject matter, the sagas deal with the lives, characters, daily life and exploits of leading Icelanders of 10th and 11th centuries. They have been translated into many foreign languages and have appeared in numerous English versions; notably Njáls Saga, Egils Saga, the Saga of Gísli, Saga of Grettir the Strong and many others.
Among the Germanic nations, the British are the only nation to preserve literature equivalent to the Icelandic Sagas. The pre-classical English literature is older than our sagas, but very different, mainly because of greater influence from the church. It wasn’t until printing was introduced in Iceland in the 15th century that the churches gained greater control over literature.
The sagas were written in 13th and 14th centuries. Most of their events took place 200 years earlier and some have certainly gone through oral transmission until they were written down.
They were written with herbal ink on calf skin with quills. Calf skin was considered the best material because it was thick and the writers could write on both sides without it being transparent. It was soft and of light colour.
Around 1100 AD, Icelanders began writing in Icelandic. Before that all written material had been in Latin or earlier runes.
In 11th century, the laws of the parliament or Alþingi were documented and can be found in the book of Grágás, the famous book of Icelanders by Ari fróði, written about the settlers. It is the history of the nation during the first centuries after the settlement.
The Book of Settlement by Sturla Þórðarson contains valuable information about the first 430 settlers, where they built their farms and where they came from, mostly Norway.
The chieftain and law-speaker, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), the great Icelandic writer, poet and historian of the Middle Ages, who lived most of his life in Reykholt in Borgarfjörður in West Iceland, wrote the history of the kings of Norway, traditionally called Heimskringla (the circle of the world) and acclaimed as one of the classics of world literature. He also wrote a textbook of poetry known as Prose Edda. He was probably also the author of Egil’s Saga, the story of the Viking poet Egill Skallagrímsson, one of the great innovators in Scandinavian poetry who lived in West Iceland, near what is now Borgarnes, in the 10th Century.
The heroic mythological poetry of the Poetic Edda Cycle is the only extant source of the beliefs, cosmology and outlook of the Germanic peoples in pre-Christian times. The Eddic poems in their present form were composed between ca 800 and 1200, but portions of them might date back to the sixth century. They rank among the great heroic and mythological epics of world literature.
The Old-Icelandic Sagas were scattered around the country and almost lost at the beginning of the 18th century when an Icelander, Árni Magnússon, took on a journey around the island to save the the old manuscripts. He found them in mud cabins and barns and transported them to a museum in Copenhagen Denmark. That museum burned down in 1728 and many of the books with it. But fortunately the majority were saved.
Since the early 18th century most of the Icelandic manuscripts were preserved in Denmark. After Iceland got its independence, they demanded their return and 1965 a treaty was signed to send the books back, little by little over a period of 25 years. The first shipment of 1900 books came to Iceland 1971 and thousands of people were standing on the docks in Reykjavik, cheering when they were carried to the shore.
Certain documents about Danish or Scandinavian history and culture, mainly stories related to the monarchy and the church, will remain in Denmark, even though they are written by Icelanders. Most of the manuscripts covered by the treaty have now been returned.
The old manuscripts are kept at the Árni Magnússon Institute at the University of Iceland and can be seen at The National Centre for Cultural Heritage (Þjóðmenningarhúsi). It was indeed a noble gesture of the Danish people to return the manuscripts, since it rarely happens that nations return such treasures to their former colonies. Old Icelandic literature can also be found in museums elsewhere, such as Britain and Sweden.