The Northern Way

The Icelandic Sagas

Chapter 1

Page 2

Although isolated by their position in a remote island of the Atlantic, the Icelanders did not allow themselves to become a secluded people, with no interest in the lands beyond the sea and no knowledge of their affairs. For several generations close relations were maintained not only with their original home in Norway, but also with Sweden, Denmark, and the British Isles. Apart from the risks involved in crossing the wide stretch of ocean, risks which were reduced as far as possible by sailing only in summer, there was no difficulty in keeping up an intimate connexion with these countries. The Icelander, in fact, had exceptional qualifications for doing so. He spoke a language which at the beginning of the eleventh century was still in use over the whole of Scandinavia and in part of Russia, which had also extended its range to the north and west of Scotland, to the north and east of England, to the chief sea-ports in Ireland, and even to the greater part of Normandy. Over the whole of this great area, with its complex nationalities, its varied culture, and rapidly changing history, the Icelander could range with little difficulty, and converse with men of his own tongue. If he were still more adventurous, he could make his way down the great Russian rivers and so reach the court of the Byzantine Emperor, whose bodyguard he would find composed of men of his own race and speech. Many Icelanders did avail themselves of these opportunities, and everywhere met with the most encouraging reception. Their reputation in general stood very high, either as good and faithful fighting-men, honest and enterprising merchants, or skillful poets and story-tellers. In Scandinavia and the British Isles they were usually welcome at the courts of kings and earls, and many of them obtained high positions of trust under these, or received from them special marks of favour or esteem.

These exceptional opportunities of acquiring information about foreign lands were not neglected. The Icelander who went abroad, and sooner or later returned home, brought back with him a well-filled budget of instructive or entertaining matter, which he soon communicated to eager ears and retentive memories. The information thus gained might have quickly spread from man to man by means of ordinary intercourse, but its diffusion was further assisted in no small degree by special circumstances. Within a short time after the settlement began, local assemblies (called things) had grown up in various parts of the island, and formed regular meeting-places for all the men of the district. Later on, in the year 930, a general assembly for the whole country (the Althingi) was established, and met every year in the tenth week of summer for the transaction of legislative and legal business. The local gatherings were also regulated, and were held annually in spring and autumn. Both the smaller and the greater assemblies formed natural centers for the exchange of the latest news, Icelandic and foreign, and the opportunities they afforded were fully taken advantage of. Those who had an interest in such matters took care to learn all they could from the newly returned voyagers, and by doing so year after year gradually acquired a store of knowledge relating to the history of the neighbouring countries and their great men. This they put together in the best form they could; and the narrative as told by them was learned by others, and so handed on the later times. It is to these instinctive historians, whose diligence in collecting the facts was equaled by their power of remembering and skill in recounting them, that we owe practically all our knowledge of Scandinavian history prior to the twelfth century, together with much that throws light on the early history of the British Isles.

This branch of historical tradition also gained immensely in fulness and accuracy by the existence of a large body of poetry which was closely connected with it. This partly consisted of single verses called forth by particular incidents, as in the case of the purely Icelandic traditions already mentioned, but also included a large number of shorter or longer poems, in which the exploits of some king or earl were celebrated. From an early period it had been a regular practice among the poets in Norway to recommend themselves to the notice of some noble patron by a poem of this kind, and many poets enjoyed the special favour of the great man to whom they attached themselves. In the second half of the tenth century the art of poetry began to decline in Norway itself, and thenceforward, with few exceptions, it was by Icelanders only that the profession of skáld was followed. For the young Icelander, going abroad for the first time, one of the surest ways to attract attention, and lay the foundations of his fortune, was to have his poem ready when he arrived at the residence of the king or earl whom he visited, and obtain permission to recite it as soon as possible. This first poem was necessarily based upon information which he had collected in Iceland, but this subsequent work often recorded only what he had seen with his own eyes, as he followed his leige-lord by sea and land and took part in his battles. The number of such poets during the tenth and eleventh centuries was very great, and their poems were naturally still more numerous. Their importance as historical as historical evidence is strongly emphasized by the great Icelandic historian, Snorri Sturluson, in the prologue to his Heimskringla, written about 1225. "There were skalds with Harald (the Fairhaired)," he says, "and men still know their poems, and the poems about al the kings who have since ruled in Norway. And we take our statements most of all from what is said in those poems which were recited before the rulers themselves or their sons. We accept as true all that is found in these about their exploits or battles. It is certainly the custom of poets to praise most highly the person they are addressing, but no one would have dared to recite to the man himself exploits which he and all the hearers knew to be false and feigned; that would have been mockery and not praise." Although the poems thus referred to by Snorri mainly relate to Norwegian kings, many of the events recounted in them bore upon the history of the other Scandinavian countries and the British Isles. Moreover, there were also Icelandic poets who made their way to Sweden and Denmark, to the Orkneys, to Ireland, and even to the English court, and composed poems in which they recounted the exploits of the kings and earls whom they found there. These poems, no less than the others, were in due time carried back to Iceland, and helped to maintain and increase a knowledge of the affairs of these countries. The total number of such poems known and repeated in Iceland during the eleventh and twelfth centuries must have been very great. It is recorded of one man, Stúf the Blind, who was himself a poet, that he could recite more than thirty long encomia (called drápur) and as many shorter ones (flokkar); this was about the year 1060.

Out of all these materials there gradually grew up in Iceland a rich body of genuine historical tradition, beginning from at least the days of King Harald and the settlement of the island, and becoming fuller and more accurate in proportion as the events were more recent. To know as much of this as possible, and to be able to relate it in an interesting way, was an object of ambition to many Icelanders, whose fame as saga-men came in time to equal their reputation as poets. For mere entertainment, however, it was not necessary that the narrative should be strictly historical or perfectly in accordance with fact; fiction also had its admirers and cultivators, and legend was no less in demand than veracious history or biography. The stages by which this species of saga-telling developed are by no means clear, but its beginnings were probably every early. Among its favourite subjects were persons and incidents belonging to early periods, form which only vague traditions had been preserved; here the fancy of the narrator had free scope, and troubled itself very little as to whether the incidents were probably or even possible. Unfortunately this type of saga tended to encroach upon and vitiate the other; fictitious elements came to be introduced into genuine traditions, and often in such a manner that it was no longer possible to separate the one from the other. This feature of the sagas may easily be misunderstood, and the fact has not always been sufficiently recognized that deliberate invention had its share in the work, and is the source of much that might seem to indicate an uncritical tradition or ignorant credulity.

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