“The Sagas of Icelanders have been the foundation of Icelandic culture, forged the nation’s identity and inspired people to bold deeds in times of adversity.”
*from the foreword to Páll Bergþórsson’s The Wineland Millenium, by the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson
The oldest surviving Icelandic literature is poetry, some of it almost certainly composed before the settlement of Iceland, either in Scandinavia or Scandinavian settlements elsewhere. However, these poems are only preserved in Icelandic manuscripts, and nowhere else.
The poems can be divided into two categories, the Eddic and the Skaldic poems. The Eddic poems are composed in free variable metres. There are two distinct classes of Eddic poetry: the heroic lays and the mythological lays. The form of the Skaldic poetry is much stricter than that of the Eddic poetry. The syntax is very complex, and the skalds used highly specialized vocabulary.
The greatest of all the skalds was Egill Skallagrímsson. One of his best known poems is Höfuðlausn (Head Ransom), composed in York c. 948. Egill was being held captive by Erik Bloodaxe, then ruling York, and was to be executed. During the night before the intended execution, Egill composed this poem in honour of his enemy, and was granted his own head as a reward.
Völuspá and Hávamál
The heroic lays are based on legends, many of which derive from continental Germany, and even from the Goths of south-eastern Europe. The mythological lays are about northern gods, and of wisdom attributed to them. The most famous of the latter are the Völuspá (Sibyl’s Prohecy) and the Hávamál (Words of the High One). Völuspá is spoken by a sibyl who tells the history of the world, of gods, men and monsters, from the beginning until the Ragnarök (Doom of the gods), when the gods will fall, the sun become black, smoke and fire will gush forth and the earth sink in total darkness.
The Hávamál is a didactic poem in which the god Óðinn (Odin) gives instructions about social conduct and speaks of runes and magical powers. The Hávamál was almost certainly composed before the settlement of Iceland, and handed down orally until it was written down in Iceland.
Iceland’s medieval chronicles
During the 12th and the 13th centuries there were some great historians at work in Iceland, concentrating on Icelandic history and the histories of the kings of Norway. The most important works of this genre are Íslendingabók – The Book of Icelanders, composed around 1125 by Ari Þorgilsson the Learned (Ari the Wise), Landnámabók – The Book of Settlements, a detailed history of the settlement of Iceland, and Heimskringla – Orb of the World, a history of the early kings of Norway. Heimskringla was written by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Snorri also wrote the Prose Edda, a handbook of prosody and poetic diction. In it are many tales of pagan gods and heroes.
The major categories of sagas include: histories, saints’ lives, Icelandic family sagas, kings’ sagas, contemporary sagas, chivalric romances and legendary sagas.
The Sagas of Icelanders
Islendingasögur – The Sagas of Icelanders (the “Family Sagas”) written in the 13th century, are the crown of Icelandic literature, and can be considered the first prose novels of Europe. Remarkably, the sagas were written in the vernacular Old Norse. These sagas are family chronicles, describing the events that took place during the period of the Icelandic Commonwealth in the 10th and 11th centuries AD. They were written by anonymous authors.
Around 40 family sagas are preserved in the manuscripts from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. The artistic values of the best of the sagas are indisputable and they are amongst the most important European literary works of the past millennium. Most of the sagas bring together historical and fictional elements in a unified narrative. Their characterization is vivid and they show deep sympathy and understanding of human tragedy. The style is plain, unpretentious and concise, with adjectives used sparingly, and with great emphasis on dialogue.
The sagas are about love and hatred, family feuds and vengeance, loyalty and friendship, conflicts due to matters of honour, warriors and kings, and destiny. Some of the best known sagas are Grettir’s Saga, about the outlaw Grettir the Strong; Laxdaela Saga, a delicately woven tragedy, covering four or five generations, with women playing prominent roles; Egil’s Saga, about the defiant Viking warrior poet Egill Skallagrímsson; and Njal’s Saga, generally considered the greatest of them all, about two heroes, Gunnar, a noble warrior without equal, and Njáll, a wise and prudent man with prophetic gifts; their friendship and heroic deaths.
The greatest collector of Old Norse manuscripts was the Icelander Árni Magnússon (1663-1730).
In 2009, Árni Magnússon’s manuscripts collection, the Arnamagnaean manuscript collection, was inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, world cultural heritage list, with a special mention of the major significance of the Sagas of Icelanders for the wider world.
The sagas remain an intrinsic part of Icelanders’ identity today, and lie at the heart of Iceland’s modern culture. They have also had an enormous impact on world literature, and were admired by writers from around the world, including William Blake, William Morris, JRR Tolkien and Jorge Louis Borges, to name just a few.