The Northern Way

The Icelandic Sagas

Chapter 2

Page 3


The problems which attend the serious study of the older Icelandic literature are thus many and complicated, and it is only by slow degrees that the general outlines of the subject have been clearly made out. Many questions still remain obscure, and it is possible that a number of them can never be satisfactorily answered, through the lack of early material to help in the investigation. Although it is fairly clear that the written saga took its rise about the middle of the twelfth century, and that its most flourishing period was between that date and the end of the thirteenth (i.e. from about 1150 to 1300), very few saga-texts from that time have been preserved. Early Icelandic manuscripts, dating from about 1200 onwards, chiefly contain religious or ecclesiastical works; those of the historical, traditional, and legendary sagas mainly belong to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In not a few instances, indeed, the text survives only in paper copies made in the seventeenth, or even in the eighteenth, century. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was considerable destruction of older manuscripts, and it is quite certain that much valuable matter has thus been lost. The destruction would probably have been still greater, had not the Icelandic language undergone so little change during the centuries; the fact that even very old manuscripts were still perfectly intelligible to any one who cared to read them must have greatly assisted towards their preservation. Even at the present day, Iceland has a great advantage over most European countries, in being able with perfect ease to read and understand its best mediæval literature. It is possible in Iceland to publish popular editions of the sagas, without any modernizing of the language, and within recent years such editions have been extensively printed and read. During the nineteenth century the study of the older literature has had a great influence upon the style of the best Icelandic prose, which is now purer and more flexible than it has been at any time since the fourteenth century. The genuine type of saga-prose is a purely natural style, developed from the form in which the stories were originally told; it is in fact almost the only prose style of Western Europe which has had a perfectly natural and independent development The result is that it is extremely hard to reproduce it successfully in any other language.

Although the contents of the different classes of sagas are fully explained in the following chapters, some general indication may be given here of their value as historical records. In the first place, as already said, they are by far the fullest authorities for the details of early Scandinavian history, and they throw much light upon the history of the British Islands during several centuries. Moreover, they give most of this historical information in no dry annalistic manner, but in a form that is replete with life and colour. They bring before the reader, almost as in a picture, those Scandinavian leaders who played such an important part in Western Europe, and altered the whole fortunes of countries like England and France. They do not merely record the names and exploits of these men: they present the very men themselves, their character, their aims, their daily life and occupation. It is the great triumph of the saga-writers that they have succeeded in giving an almost complete picture of old Scandinavian life in all its aspects, and thus help towards an understanding of the early civilization of the other Germanic races. They are also masters in the delineation of character, sometimes by a brief indication of the leading qualities in the man or woman spoken of but much more often by the mere action of the story itself. Among the hundreds of real persons who crowd the pages of the Icelandic sagas, it is surprising how many can be clearly and sharply distinguished from each other, and how skillfully the writers have brought out the contrasts between them. There are scores of Icelandic men and women, of all ranks in life, whose history and characters are so clearly presented in the sagas, that far more is known of them than of most of the kings of Britain at the same date.

In addition to their historical matter, the sagas have preserved an immense mass of information relating to old beliefs and customs, some of which must at one time have been widely spread among the Germanic peoples. While the old poetry, and Snorri Sturluson's Edda, contain practically all that is known about old Scandinavian mythology, the sagas give nearly all the information relative to the old religion; and outside of that, all that is known of early Germanic religion is meagre indeed. In the beliefs which lie on the borders of mythology and religion, in the supernatural of every kind, the sagas are extremely rich, and few literatures possess more impressive ghost-stories. On this account the sagas are of immense value to the student of folk-lore, even if great caution must be exercised in drawing inferences from them, for reasons which will appear in a subsequent chapter.

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