The Odd Charm of the First Icelanders
The land called Iceland has around 200 volcanoes. Many of them still active. Much of the country is covered by ice, thus the name. It is a barren country: only around one-fourth of it is inhabitable.
Iceland has not been settled for very long compared to China or the rest of Europe. The first to settle in Iceland were Norwegian Vikings, mostly men, who came with their Celtic wives, slaves and followers. These first settlements happened around 900. The land they came to was hard to live on, the winter weather was terrible. The difficult living conditions made them a very tough culture: they were clannish and competitive. There were many bloody conflicts over land.
Iceland developed a very strong literature over these first centuries. One odd thing about its literature is that many of the stories were quite like our modern novels. In other countries in Europe the literature was mostly poetry, but the Icelandic stories were in prose writing. They called their stories sagas. By the 1300s the greatest sagas had been written. I will simplify some sentences from an article by Brad Leithauser to give some idea of how these stories came to be written:
We don't know the names of the writers of the sagas. They were anonymous scribes who worked in the enclosing dark of terrible winters, recording onto calfskins their tales of heroes and heroines, brave feats and bitter blood-feuds. When winter descended and travel was too dangerous, their island nation would be cut off from the rest of the world for months on end. They put their heads down and kept working.
Leithauser tells that the sagas are often about blood-feuds: battles between competing families. They are often about the period just after Iceland was founded by the Norwegian Vikings. In those difficult times the Icelanders started to develop a complicated legal system to control the violence of their conflicts. One of the strange things about their stories is that they give a lot of legal language about how things should be settled, but then things will suddenly turn violent. One historian of law wrote of the Icelanders that they had "a legal system so complex that it is hard to believe that it was created by men whose main occupation was to kill one another."
Leithauser writes about how the Icelandic sagas are different from ancient Greek and Roman literature. In Homer's war story, the Iliad, one can tell when an important character is going to be killed: the story leads up to it slowly and presents information about his past, to remind readers of the hero's greatness. In the Icelandic stories it is very different. The eruption of violence is sudden and startling. Leithauser writes:
One moment, somebody is rounding up a few horses, or fixing a wall on his farm, or gathering hay, and the next moment he is lying face down on the ground, his blood steaming in the frosty air.
Like the Greeks, the Icelanders spoke of fate, but their idea of it was different. The world for the Icelanders is unpredictable and risky. Reading their literature one has a feeling that anything can happen to anyone at any time. What's more, characters that seem to have a potential importance will enter the story only to suddenly disappear. There is the mention of Skeggi in "The Saga of Grettir the Strong":
Skeggi was distinguished from all his brothers and sisters by his strength and build. By the age of fifteen he was the strongest person in north Iceland, and at that time people said his father was Grettir. Everyone thought he would grow into an outstanding man, but he died at the age of sixteen and there are no stories about him.
And that is the story of Skeggi!
Also the reader notices the sagas are on a different scale from the Greek or Roman literature. In the Greek and Roman epics we always read of thousands of men fighting each other in huge battle scenes. In the sagas we might read of a major battle where "dozens of men" were slain.
The Icelanders valued quit wit, and there is often a dark humor in the dialogue of the sagas. In "The Saga of Droplaug's Sons," after Helgi's lower lip is taken off by his enemy's sword, his reply is: "I was never beautiful, but you've made no improvement in my looks." Sometimes the violence is told plainly and directly in the most gruesome way: "They broke the neck of the old woman Skjaldvor and it was a difficult job for them because she had a very thick neck."
Living on their barren land, suffering the terrible winters, the Icelanders often dreamed of the impossible wealth beyond their reach: the wealth of faraway lands. Leithauser points out an odd fact of their stories: the word gold appears very often:
Gold must have had a special imaginative gleam to a people for whom it must have symbolized the riches of faraway southern lands. . . . In addition, the attraction of gold for the Icelanders may be related to their location, just below the Arctic Circle. Anyone who has ever spent a December or January in Iceland knows that the most striking thing about an arctic winter isn't the shortness of the day but the seeming weakness of the sun--a pale, dreamy disc that, even at the height of noon, stays low on the horizon and hardly looks capable of warming an old cat sleeping on a windowsill. To the medieval Icelandic farmer, who usually went hungry at winter's end as his autumn food supplies ran out, that low gold coin on the southern horizon was the only reserve he had to keep off starvation.
Leithauser says that gold was often used to symbolize feminine beauty, as in the following lines about Helga the Fair:
Helga was so beautiful that learned men say that she was the most beautiful woman there has ever been in Iceland. She had so much hair that it could completely cover her body, and it was as radiant as beaten gold.
Many of the Icelandic sagas become very confusing to read because of the large number of characters mentioned and the confusing names. One odd thing about the medieval Icelandic people was how they liked to use the name Thor or names that came from Thor. Leithauser writes:
In "Gisli Sursson's Saga," we meet a man named Thorkel who is going to the Thorsnes Assembly with Thorbjorn's sons. He meets up with Thorstein, the son of Thorolf, who was living at Thorsnes with Thora and their children, Thordis, Thorgrim, and Bork the Stout. Also there is the man in Njal's Saga who "had two sons, both named Thorhall."
These Thors and sons of Thors were tough people. Many Americans might still believe that Christopher Columbus was the first European to reach America. But it is now known that this is wrong. Viking sailors from Iceland got to North America before Columbus ever did. They tried to establish settlements on the northeast coast of Canada, but the settlements were not successful.
I write here of the medieval Icelanders, but one should remember that Iceland is still there. It is a thriving country with a very educated population. It has been found that Icelanders read more books than any other people in the world. Is this maybe because they still suffer from their difficult winters?
[Note: Much of the information and all of the quotations I use above come from an excellent review by Brad Leithauser that appeared in the December 20, 2001 New York Review of Books (Vol. 48, No. 20). Because I've written these paragraphs to teach teenage students in Taiwan about medieval Iceland, I've simplified Leithauser's sentences.]
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