The Northern Way

The Icelandic Sagas

Chapter 2

Page 1

The Written Saga

So far we have considered the Icelandic Sagas in their original form of stories or oral accounts, told by skilled narrators as a means of instruction or entertainment. It was long before any attempt was made to convert these into written narratives, and thus produce a literature in the ordinary sense of the word. Although the use of letters (in the form known as runes) had been known in Scandinavia from a very early period, there had been no practice of employing them on such an extensive scale as would have been involved in recording a saga, or even a poem. They were used for short inscriptions on stones on articles of metal, or for short messages cut on wooden staves, but there is no evidence that anyone had thought of using them in connexion with pen, ink, and parchment. The suggestion for this use of letters came form without, from the south, along with another change of great importance.

In the year 1000, after a stubborn but short resistance on the part of those who favoured the old faith, Christianity was formally adopted by law as the religion of Iceland. This in time naturally brought with it the culture of the mediæval church, and a knowledge of Latin. Many of the leading Icelanders began to take a great interest in the new learning with which they were thus brought into contact, and became diligent students of the ecclesiastical and secular literature which they found written in the language of the church. Not a few of them studied sufficiently to be ordained as priests, even although they never became real ecclesiastics, nor in any way gave up their temporal position and authority. Fortunately the new learning did not push out the old; the interest in the saga-themes continued to be as strong as ever, and in some respects was even strengthened by the fresh sources of information which reading now opened up. Even the old mythology, so essential to the Icelandic poet, was not suppressed in the interests of the new religion. In course of time the idea very naturally suggested itself that what had been done in Latin could also be done in Icelandic, --- that a written literature was as possible in the one language as the other. The example of Old English may very well have had some share in awakening this idea, for it is quite certain that some of these early Icelandic scholars could read English manuscripts, the handwriting of which they imitated in several respects.

It was in the beginning of the twelfth century that the writing of Icelandic became an accomplished fact. "The first summer that Bergthór Hrafnsson was law-speaker (i.e. in 1117), it was decreed that our laws should be written in a book at the house of Hafliði Másson during the following winter, from the dictation of Bergthór and other learned men who were appointed for the purpose." The proposal was carried out, and the winter of 1117 --- 18 thus became an eventful date for Icelandic literature, as it showed the way for putting down on parchment all that had hitherto lived in the memories and on the tongues of the Icelandic people.

The authority for this statement is a small work written within twelve or fifteen years later by one who may fairly be styled the father of Icelandic history. This was a western Icelander named Ari Thorgilsson, sometimes surnamed 'the priest' (prestr), and sometimes 'the learned' (hinn fróði); not seldom both epithets are combined. Ari was born in the year 1067, and his ancestry was sufficiently distinguished to encourage any natural tendency in his mind to a study of the past. On his father's side he was a descendant of Ólaf the White, who in the latter half of the ninth century was Norse king in Dublin. Ólaf's son, Thorstein the Red, made a league with Earl Sigurd of the Orkneys against the Scots; "they won Caithness and Sutherland, Ross and Moray, and more than half of Scotland. Thorstein was king over this, until the Scots played him false, and he fell therein battle." Thorstein's mother, a remarkable woman, left Scotland soon after this, and became one of the most famous among the early settlers in Iceland; from Thorstein's son, Ólaf Feilan, Ari was the sixth in descent. To trace his relationship to other men and women of note would be tedious, but it is worth mentioning that his great-grandfather, Thorkel, was one of the husbands of Guðrún, round whom the chief interest of Laxdœla saga centres, and that his mother's father had taken part in the battle of Clontarf. A knowledge of the careers and adventures of his own forefathers would in itself have been enough to establish Ari as an authority in biography and history.

At the age of seven, through the death of his father, Ari passed into the household of Hall Thórarinsson, who had his home in Haukadal in the south-west of Iceland. Hall was already a man of eighty, and had been settled in Haukadal for half a century, but in his younger days he had been an associate of Ólaf Haraldsoon, that king of Norway who fell at Stiklastað in 1030, and came to be known as Ólaf the Saint. To Hall's great age, wide experience, and marvelous memory, Ari owed much of the historical knowledge he then acquired, either directly, or through another foster-son of Hall's, Teit, the son of Bishop Ísleif. As Ari himself says: "Teit was fostered by Hall in Haukadal, that man of whom it was universally said that he was the most generous and noble character to be found among the unschooled men of this country. I came to Hall when I was seven years old, and I was with him for Fourteen winters." How far back Hall's recollections went is thus emphasized by Ari. "Hall told me so, and he was both truthful and had a good memory. He remembered his own baptism by Thangbrand, when he was three years old; that was the year before Christianity was adopted by law in his country."

Remarkably little is known of Ari's later life. He was one of those "men of rank who studied and were ordained as priests"; he was on terms of intimacy with the great men of his time, such as the bishops of Hólar and Skálholt, but even his place of abode is uncertain, though the probability is that he lived at Stað on Snæfellsness. The exact date of his death is known; it was Nov. 9, 1148.

Gifted with a genius for historical research, Ari seems to have devoted his life to collecting, comparing, and sifting the traditions and recollections of the most credible and capable men that he was able to come in contact with. The actual scope of his written work has been much discussed, and some points will probably always remain obscure, but the value of his researches in Icelandic and Scandinavian history is a fact as fully recognized by his own age as by modern scholars. Snorri Sturluson, in the prologue to his Heimskringla, bears eloquent testimony to the importance of his predecessor's work, and ends with the words: "It was no wonder though Ari was well informed with regard to historic events both here and abroad, for he had learned them from old and intelligent men, and was himself both eager to learn and had a good memory."

Ari's chief work was one entitled Íslendinga-bók or 'Book of Icelanders,' of which only a second and shorter recension, made by the author himself about 1130, has come down to us. This is a concise account of the settlement and early history of Iceland, in which special prominence is given to legal and ecclesiastical matters. Ari made special efforts to fix the exact date of every important event which he mentions, and his chronology was usually accepted as authoritative by later writers. He was also very careful to base his statements on the best authority available, and constantly gives the names of the persons on whom he relied for each particular piece of information. Thus he fixed the date of the settlement of Greenland from information given by his uncle Thorkel, and he again had it from a man who went there with Eirík the Red. Again, with reference to an incident connected with the introduction of Christianity into Iceland, he says: "Teit said that he learned this from one who was there."

This thoroughness of Ari's critical method made his work of great importance as a foundation for Icelandic historical writing, and his services in this respect were probably far greater than appears even in the wonderful little booklet by which he is now represented. He was undoubtedly one of the great links between the saga-age (which began with his own work), though it is now impossible to judge how far he was the principal medium by which records of the past were preserved and transmitted to the next generation. The same uncertainty attaches to a slightly older contemporary, who holds a very prominent place in Icelandic tradition. Sæmund Sigfússon, also called 'the learned' and also a priest, living at Oddi in the south of Iceland, was born in 1056 and died in 1103. In early youth he had studied abroad but returned to his native land in 1076. Sæmund had the same interest in historical studies as Ari, and is frequently cited as an authority on questions of fact and chronology, relating to the lives of the Norwegian kings. That he wrote some work on this subject appears to be certain, but it is extremely probably that it was in Latin, and was rather an outline of history than a detailed narrative.

The example set by Ari did not long remain unfruitful. During the second half of the twelfth century there must have been literary activity in Iceland, and many pens must have been at work recording local and foreign history, whether handed down form earlier times by tradition, or learned by special inquiry from still living authorities. The names of some of these writers are known, and their works can be identified, but in the majority of cases they are writers who dealt specially with Norwegian history (see Chapter IV). Setting these aside for the present, there remains a still larger body of Icelandic literature which cannot be associated with the name of any writer whatsoever. This is the case with the whole series of sagas of famous Icelanders, with some sagas relating to neighboring countries (as the Orkneys, Færöes, Denmark, etc.), and with all the sagas of a mythic or romantic character. How much material is comprehended in each of these classes will be more clearly understood after perusal of the chapters in which they are specially dealt with.

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