History of the Vikings
country, but many centuries were yet to pass, all the courage, patience, and example of the Catholic Church were required, before the agnosticism and indifference of the Icelander was at last changed into a real and lively Christian faith.
The two centuries following upon the creation of the Althing, the first popularly known as the Saga Period and the second as the Peace Period, together form the grandest and most famous epoch in Icelandic history; yet it was an epoch that was prelude to one of rapid decline and ultimate collapse. But the domestic politics of early Iceland, whether they be of state or of Church, are the small concerns of a lonely and primitive community, and though the failure of the Icelandic experiment in self-government most deservedly possesses much interest for the student of constitutional history, in this book, where all the viking world is under survey, the further story of the remote colony must be compressed into a few words.
But there remain two things still to be told of Iceland in the famous days of the Saga and Peace Periods, the one a brief mention of the activities of Icelanders abroad and the second a reference to the literature that Iceland has given to the world. On the first score it is sufficient to state simply that in spite of the geographical remoteness of their country the Icelanders never held themselves aloof from the world, for always the spirit of adventure burned strong within them. Greenland they found and in Greenland some of their number established a colony; others of them made the long and perilous journey to Wineland the Good, a lovely country in North America. In Norway Icelanders were ever to be found, for many of them had kin, or owned estates, in this their mother-country, while some, even, had been appointed officials of the royal court. Travellers from Iceland journeyed all over the viking lands from Scotland to Constantinople. In Ireland and the Western Isles were they known; there were Icelanders taking part in the battle of Clontarf; with Cnut when he won England there were Icelandic poets; with Æthelstan at Brunanburh there were Icelanders, Egil Skallagrimsson, his brother, and their company; there were Icelanders with Harald Hardradi in the Balkans and in the Mediterranean; there were Icelanders in the Varangian guard of the Greek emperor; with King Sigurd on the crusades there were Icelandic poets who made verses by the waters of Jordan.
Yet however valorous and exciting were the adventures of the Icelanders abroad, however interesting the domestic history
of the colony may be, that which is most wonderful in the story of early Iceland is assuredly the fact that from this lonely country a great literature was given to the world. For from Iceland comes the precious legacy of the sagas.
Not that the saga itself, a narrative in prose, was an Icelandic invention, for the telling of these tales was the common pastime of the unlettered world, German and Celtic, European and Asiatic; but the Icelandic saga, by the time it was set down in writing, was something more than a familiar and often repeated tale such as the other German peoples told; it was a narrative constructed according to a peculiar literary convention, a special treatment of which the Icelander alone had won the secret.
Perhaps the very remoteness of the island was the cause of this remarkable development in the art of saga-telling here in the distant north. For the chieftains, now isolated from their Norwegian kin, were interested not only in local affairs, but in their own aristocratic traditions, and, furthermore, they were avid for news from Norway and the Continent, so that the three needs of preserving genealogical data, of familiarizing themselves with life and politics abroad, and of maintaining a consistent record of past and present Icelandic history, could be best met by the single expedient of combining the necessary information into a saga that was to be learnt by heart and repeated down the ages. There was, therefore, a practical incentive for the composition of these sagas, one that was distinct from that other impelling motive, the wholesome and childish love of all the folk to be entertained by the telling of a tale.
Usually there was some notable central theme throughout the saga, such as the biographies of a family and their neighbours, but a long and rambling tale it was, burdened with tedious tables of descent, and elaborated with accounts of journeys abroad and every discursion and irrelevancy that could possibly be deemed of interest to the listeners. Clearly a story thus encumbered cannot be the highest form of prose narrative, yet this tiresome flavour of the journal or historical record is almost the only fault of the Icelandic saga, and it would be an injustice to a noble literature not to say at once and without hesitation that the typical saga is nevertheless a composition in narrative style that for simplicity and beauty, for honesty, for humour and sympathy, has seldom been surpassed. All the drama, be it comedy or tragedy, in the lives of the central characters is mirrored with a faithfulness and an understanding that both amazes and enthralls, and with a tenderness and a directness
that has won for these simple northern folk the no uncertain honour of immortality. For Njal, Egil, Grettir, Gisli, and the rest, will live so long as men love a fine story bravely told.
The popularity of saga-telling at the things and festivals and during the long winter evenings in the home, and the high esteem in which a clever narrator was held, are sufficient to explain the rapid growth of these Icelandic oral records into a very large collection of stories that formed the material of which the written sagas are composed. For the sagas in their present form are hardly likely to have been copied exactly from the traditional oral version; instead they bear in most instances the stamp of the author's art, being a carefully edited collation of the current stories. This, at any rate, is how the early histories such as Ari the Learned Íslendingabók, written in the beginning of the twelfth century, must have been composed, and it was certainly the method of the more pretentious written sagas of the thirteenth century like those of Njal and Egil, only a very few historical stories such as Hrafnkel's seeming to be free of the author's manipulation and representing the oral tradition in a narrative that is little changed. For this reason the crucial question as to how much of the sagas in their present form can be accepted as exact history is one that only rarely can be answered with any confidence and that demands for the answering a most delicate and critical judgement. Certainly it is not hard to find instances of what must be deliberate fiction or of the insertion of obviously supernatural occurrences in many of the stories, while in others the inaccuracies of certain facts can be plainly proved, and from this it follows that no saga can be accepted at its face value as an entirely truthful tale. Some-Grettir's saga is an example--cannot at the best be ranked in this respect as better than a tale that is based on history, and in these stories realism and wealth of detail must be credited to literary skill rather than to the long memory of tradition. Yet, on the whole, it may be asserted with some confidence that Scandinavian and Icelandic studies are more likely to suffer from an over-hasty denial of saga-evidence than by too great a trust in its historical value.
But here it is as literature that the saga is above all to be commended, and under this heading those that most deserve the attention of the reader are the tales of the Icelanders themselves, such as that of the Laxdale Men or of the Ere Dwellers, or that of Egil Skallagrimsson, or that (perhaps best of all) of Njal, or (another masterpiece) that of the morose and sarcastic giant Grettir whose death as a hunted and pitiful outlaw on
Drangey is related with a stark and savage simplicity that has made of this awful climax one of the most remarkable and moving examples of the saga-teller's art. Such sagas as these do not, of course, represent the whole scope of early Icelandic literature; for there are the great histories, such as the noble Heimskringla of Snorri Sturlason, and there are besides many duller works, of both local and foreign interest, and also tales of the heroic age, to say nothing of certain late fictitious compositions or of mere translations of continental mediaeval romances and legends. But it is in the tales of the Icelanders, fortunately a large and lovely series, that the art of the native story-teller is seen at its best; for here, in describing his own folk, the narrator's uncanny gift of effortless yet vivid presentation of character brings an added life and zest to the story he has to tell. It may be true that for the most part these sagas of Iceland are made up of the grim stuff of tragedy, but wit and humour are in no wise lacking, and of the whole great body of these tales, all of them written down in unadorned and simple prose, it may be truly said that their naive Icelandic authors have made a rich and memorable contribution to the literature of Europe. (1)
The dismal affairs of Iceland in the years following the Peace Period, the brave days of Bishop Gizur, need only short mention here. It has already been said that the Althing lacked executive power and that it depended for its successful functioning upon the goodwill and loyalty of the chieftains whose united godords formed the state; it follows then that the warring of these chieftains, or the too great power of any one of them, would quickly put an end to the authority of the courts, and it was, indeed, the quarrels between the godar and the contempt of the victors for constitutional government that brought the existence of the Free State to an end. The period of the decline begins shortly after the death of Bishop Gizur (1118), for then it was that these quarrels first became serious, and though perhaps in the beginning they did not seem likely to shake the foundations of Icelandic society, yet they rapidly assumed the alarming characteristics not merely of family feud but of civil strife. Especially in the first half of the thirteenth century was Iceland torn by civil war, for this was the time when the Sturlungs, the kin of the great chieftain
1. When I wrote this chapter I included some short extracts from English translations of the sagas, but I have since omitted them as the inexperienced reader anxious for a first taste of saga literature can now turn to an excellent little book that has recently been published; this is The Northern Saga, by E. E. Kellett (London, 1929).
and historian Snorri Sturlason, had grasped so large a power and so dominated Icelandic affairs that the period and its horrible wars are named after them. The long struggle between Snorri and his brother Sighvat and Sturla Sighvatsson, with its many battles, ended, after a temporary triumph that left Sturla supreme in Iceland, in the defeat and death of Sighvat and Sturla at the battle of Orlygsstadir in the year AD 1235 where an army of 1,680 men had collected to overthrow these ambitious and dangerous chiefs. Whereupon Snorri, who had previously fled to Norway, returned to Iceland; but now another chieftain, Gizur Thorvaldsson, was his rival for the supremacy among the godar, and by the hands of this man's assassins Snorri was slain in 1241. Starlungasaga, the story of these factions and conspiracies, is a tale of Iceland torn by the struggles of lawless chiefs, of a chaos and an anarchy far worse than the conditions at the end of the landnáma Period before the setting up of a central government.
Under such conditions there was only one remedy and that was to place this unhappy country under the protection of the Norwegian crown. For many years the kings of Norway had sought to lay Iceland under their dominion, knowing that the Free State was in origin but a colony of their own countrymen. Harald Fairhair had sent Uni Gardarsson to establish his authority; Olaf Tryggvason in his brusque missionary zeal had treated the Icelanders exactly as his own subjects; King Olaf the Saint, after making a treaty in 1022 with the Icelandic leaders whereby Norwegians and Icelanders were given full rights of citizenship in each other's countries, two years later definitely invited the Althing to recognize him as the overlord and ruler of Iceland. But the Free State had maintained its independence, and for another hundred years and more the interference of the Norwegian king was resisted; yet at the end of this period the passing of the Icelandic Church under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Nidaros brought the ultimate union with Norway perceptibly nearer, while the chaotic condition of domestic affairs in the early thirteenth century made the guidance of a strong royal hand more and more welcome to the Icelanders. Nevertheless many of them, even in their most desperate straits, were reluctant to surrender their independence, and King Haakon Haakonsson (1217-1263), great monarch though he was, had long to occupy himself in negotiations and intrigue before the king's party in Iceland was of one purpose and large enough to force an issue at the Althing. Perhaps the deciding factor was the arrogance of Gizur Thorvaldsson, Snorri's slayer, who