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Nordic FAQ - 5 of 7 - ICELAND
Section - 5.5 The sagas, Eddas, and subsequent Icelandic literature.

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The first Icelandic literature was written down some two centuries after the
island was settled in the 9th century. It can be divided into three
categories:

  1. Eddic poetry, i.e mythological and heroic poems
  2. skaldic poetry, or court poetry in praise of some event or person
  3. saga literature -- prose works ranging from fairly factual history
     writing to pure fiction.



5.5.1 The Sagas

The sagas are without doubt Iceland's most important contribution to world
literature. They are medieval prose narrative, abounding in paradox and
iron. Violence is abundant, but the style is subdued. Heroism is praised,
but moderation is more highly prized. Much is said of fate, but the complex
characters seem to control their own destinies. The world of the saga is
pagan, but its sentiment is humanitarian.

Among the more historical saga literature, based on both oral and written
sources, the best known are Ari Ţorgilsson's Íslendingabók (a history of
Iceland), Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla ('The Disc of the World', a
history of Swedish and Norwegian kings), and the anonymous Knytlinga Saga (a
history of Danish kings). An excellent example of the fictional saga
literature is Hrafnkels Saga, a short bildungsroman. The family sagas, such
as Egils Saga (the story of Iceland's greatest skald, Egill Skalla-
grímsson) and Njáls Saga, fall somewhere in between the fictional and
factual varieties of sagas.

Heimskringla is the most celebrated of the sagas, but the dramatic Egil's
Saga (c.1220) comes close. The more ornate Laxdćla Saga (c.1250) elaborates
tragic themes from the poems of the Edda. In Grettis Saga (c.1300), which
shares motifs with the Old English poem Beowulf, the hero succumbs to pagan
sorcery. Njáls Saga (c.1230-90) both glorifies and repudiates the Saga Age
(870-1050), and provides an important description of ancient Icelandic legal
system. The most important of the legendary sagas is Völsunga Saga (c.1250);
it was a major source for Wagner's operas, and retells parts of the Edda.



5.5.2 The Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda

The Eddas are two collections of Old Icelandic writings, and together they
form the most important source of Scandinavian mythology. The Poetic Edda is
a collection of 34 Icelandic poems, interspersed with prose dating from the
9th to the 12th century. The poems were composed by anonymous poets and they
deal mostly with mythological themes. Among the most important of these are
the poems Völuspá (The vision of the Seeress) and Hávamál (The Speech of the
High One). To give some taste of the nature of this poetry, here's a famous
quote from Hávamál, where Odin ('The High One') speaks of how he acquired
the art of casting runes by being sacrificed on a branch of the World Tree:

     I know I hung
     on the windswept Tree
     through nine days and nights

     I was struck with a spear
     and given to Odin,
     myself given to myself

     They helped me neither
     by meat nor drink
     I peered downward,

     I took up the runes,
     screaming, I took them -
     then I fell back.

The Younger, or Prose, Edda (c. 1220) is the work of the Snorri Sturluson.
It was probably intended as a handbook for novice poets who wished to become
skalds, or court poets, in a time when the old pagan tradition was already
beginning to fade from men's minds but was still appreciated. Snorri was a
brilliant stylist, writing in his native Icelandic; his Edda is no dry
antiquarian treatise, but a witty, imaginative and lively account of the old
tales of the gods. Despite his being a Christian, there is little doubt that
Snorri has given us a faithful picture of heathen mythology as it was known
in his day; there are few attempts at rationalizing or pointing towards some
Christian moral teaching. It is difficult to know to how far removed
Snorri's stories are from the living faith of the pagan era, but despite its
limitations, the Prose Edda is the best introduction to the world of
Scandinavian mythology there exists. (For a summary of the basic aspects of
Norse mythology, see section 2.2).



5.5.3 Later Icelandic literature

The epic Icelandic tradition climaxed in the 13th century. Pre-Reformation
literature also includes Eysteinn Ásgrimsson's religious poem Lilja (14th
century), a number of popular ballads, and the rímur, which were cycles of
epic poetry.

After the Reformation, Iceland experienced three centuries of poverty, which
also affected its literature, although in the 17th century Hallgrímur
Pétursson wrote his important Passion Hymns. Romanticism bloomed in the 19th
century in the poetry of Jónas Hallgrímsson and Grímur Thomsen, while the
novelist Jón Thoroddsen foreshadowed realism. In the early 20th century some
Icelanders began to write in Danish; the most important of them was the
novelist Gunnar Gunnarsson.

After World War I, Icelandic literature experienced a renaissance,
especially in form of the poetry of Stefán frá Hvítadal, Davíđ Stefánsson,
and Tómas Guđmundsson. Of the prose writers of this era the most prominent
were Ţórbergur Ţórđarson and the Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness, the
most important figure of modern Icelandic literature. After World War II
another generation of poets took over, introducing modernist features into
the heavily traditional Icelandic poetry. Among the leaders of this
avant-garde were Steinn Steinarr and Jón úr Vör. Some of the writers active
in Iceland today are the poets Hannes Pétursson and Snorri Hjartarson, and
the novelists Ólafur Jóhann Sigurđsson (who is also a poet), Thor
Vilhjálmsson, and Indriđi G. Ţorsteinsson.

For electronic versions of some of the works of Nordic literature, see the
collection of Project Runeberg:

   * <http://www.lysator.liu.se/runeberg/>
   * <ftp://ftp.lysator.liu.se/pub/runeberg>
   * gopher.lysator.liu.se ;  path: /project-runeberg



5.3.2 Greenland

Greenland is said to have been discovered by a man called Gunnbjörn whose
ship had gone off course. It was, however, Eiríkr Ţorvaldsson (a.k.a Eric
the Red) who explored and named the island, and ruled the first colony of
settlers. He who was born in Norway in the mid-10th century, but went to
Iceland as a child after his father was banished from Norway. A violent man
as he was, Eiríkr himself was banished from Iceland, and set forth on an
expedition westward from Iceland. In 981 he got to Greenland (a name he gave
to encourage settlers to go there), and spent the next three years exploring
it. After that he returned to Iceland and led an expedition of 25 ships to
settle (c.985) in southwestern Greenland. This settlement survived until the
late 15th century. Eiríkr himself settled at Brattahliđ (Tunigdliarfik) in
Greenland, where he died sometime after the year 1000.

The most important written sources recounting the discovery and settlement
of Greenland are Ari Ţorgilsson's Íslendingabók and Landámabók. There are
also two colourful sagas, Grćnlendinga Saga (The Saga of the Greenlanders)
and Eiríks saga rauđa (The Saga of Eric the Red), but these were composed
only in the early 13th century and are often fanciful and contradict each
other in places.

Greenland's attraction was that it had better pasture for sheep, goats and
cows than Iceland, where the soil had already become poor after about a
century of heavy exploitation. Farmers had never lived there, the climate
was probably a bit milder than today, and some of the fertile lowlands which
now have have disappeared under sea were above surface at that time. There
was probably also quite a lot of driftwood in Greenland at that time. Catch
was plenty in the sea, and there were reindeer, bears and birds to hunt on
land. Pelts of polar bears and arctic foxes, whalebone and walrus tusks were
used to pay for the essential imports, such as metal, timber and grain, as
well as luxury goods. But the colony was vulnerable if there were epidemics
among animals or people or even small climactic changes, and it died out
sometime in the 15th century -- the exact reason isn't known. In 1712,
centuries after the links between Greenland and the rest of the world had
been broken, the king of Denmark-Norway sent an expedition to Greenland with
pastor Hans Egede to nurture the Christian faith among the Viking
descendants, but none had survived. The Eskimos had long since penetrated to
the southernmost point of the country, and these were the Greenlanders Egede
met.



5.3.3 Vinland; L'Anse aux Meadows

According to the sagas, Vinland was discovered when ships went off course
during one of the long journeys from Iceland or Norway to Greenland. The
Saga of the Greenlanders attributes the first sighting of America to Bjarni
Herjólfsson who had emigrated with Eiríkr the Red to Greenland, although
Bjarni didn't actually set foot on Vinland; the Saga of Eiríkr the Red, on
the other hand, says that the discovery was made by Leifr the Lucky,
Eiríkr's son. Leifur grew up in Greenland but in ca. 999 he visited Norway,
where he was converted to Christianity. According to one saga, he was then
commissioned by King Olaf I to convert the Greenlanders to Christianity, but
he was blown off course, missed Greenland, and reached North America (this
story, however, is now known to be fiction, made by up by an Icelandic
priest called Gunnlaugr in the 13th century). The other, more probable
version of the story describes Leifur sailing on a planned voyage to lands
to the west of Greenland that had been sighted 15 years earlier by Bjarni.
He landed at places called Helluland and Markland and wintered at Vinland,
and returned back to Greenland.

After Leifr's journey an expedition led by Ţorfinnr Karlsefni, a wealthy
Icelandic trader, returned to settle Vínland in c.1010 and wintered there.
The Scandinavians, both men and women, first traded but then fought with the
native Skrćlings. The descriptions of Skrćling culture in the sagas are
consistent with American Indian life. Because of Skrćling attacks, the
settlement was abandoned after three winters.

There is some disagreement on where exactly the places visited by Leifr
were. Vinland (Vine Land) was presumably Newfoundland, Markland (Wood Land)
Labrador Island and Helluland (Flat Rock Land) Baffin Island. The only firm
evidence of Scandinavian presence in North America has been found in
Newfoundland at L'Anse aux Meadows, where excavations begun in 1961 have
revealed the remains of eight turf-walled houses, one of which was a
longhouse 22 m by 15 m (72 ft by 50 ft) containing five rooms including a
"great hall," and a smithy, where bog iron was smelted. Several of the
houses had stone ember pits identical with those found in Norse houses in
Greenland. Among the artifacts unearthed was a soapstone spindle whorl
similar to those discovered in Norse ruins in Greenland, Iceland, and
Scandinavia; this find suggests that women as well as men were present at
the site, which is also consistent with the sagas. Other artifacts point to
a brief, much earlier occupation of the site by Maritime Archaic Indians and
a later occupation by Dorset Eskimo. L'Anse aux Meadows may have been the
place of Ţorfinnr's settlement. The site was a good one for a pioneer
community; the soil was fertile, there was plenty of fish and game, the
climate was mild and there was iron ore available, but the area wasn't
previously uninhabited; the local Indians seem to have made long-lasting
settlements impossible.

The journeys to Vinland continued into the Middle Ages, but apparently only
to obtain raw materials for the Greenland colony. Some scholars have
suggested that L'Anse aux Meadows was a transit station to journeys further
south, but apart from a Norwegian coin from King Olaf Kyrre's reign
(1066-80) found on an Indian settlement in the state of Maine, there are no
traces early Scandinavian presence further south. The various rune stones,
such as the Kensington Stone, and other similar Víking objects 'found' in
North America are all faked. Similarly, the New World portions of Yale
University's Vinland map, a world map supposedly made about 1440 which
includes Vinland and Greenland, was in 1974 revealed as a modern forgery.

 -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- END OF PART 5 -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

© Copyright 1994-96 by Antti Lahelma and Johan Olofsson.
You are free to quote this page as long as you mention the URL for the
original archive (as: <http://www.lysator.liu.se/nordic/index.html>), where
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