The Iceland Guide

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The land and the people

Culture: Old Icelandic literature

It is no coincidence that the visual arts were largely devoted in Iceland to the beautification of the written word, for Iceland's language and literature are its glory and its crowning achievement, reaching, in the Eddic poetry and the greatest of the Sagas, the pinnacle of literary achievement, an achievement all the more astonishing for being attained in the midst of economic misery and in a country with only two schools for most of its history and no university until 1911. Remarkably, despite these disadvantages, there has been universal literacy in Iceland since the eighteenth century, and her language and literature have long been the valued possessions not just of a minority intellectual caste, but of the whole nation.

Such has been the isolation of the Icelanders (both geographical and artistic) throughout their history that the language has remained virtually unchanged since the time of the Settlement. A twelve–year–old Icelander can read the Sagas without any of the strain his American or British counterpart would feel at reading Langland or Chaucer. This almost–miraculous preservation makes Old Norse the oldest extant literary language in Europe, perhaps the world. The Icelanders are fiercely proud of it, and the deleterious effects the all–pervading Western culture may have upon the purity of their language provides a deep-seated source of public controversy for the Icelanders today.

However, the value of Old Icelandic literature lies not only in its literary excellence, but also in its preservation — however imperfectly, and with whatever literary distortion — of much of the pre–Christian history of the Germanic peoples (that is to say the Scandinavians, the Anglo–Saxon, and the other German–speaking peoples). Most of what we know about these pagan peoples — customs, mythology, and way of life — has been learnt from the Sagas and the Eddic poetry. That these were preserved is due to a series of historical "accidents", beginning with the original Settlement, when a colony of settlers with a rich oral tradition became geographically isolated from the rest of Europe, preserving and passing down from generation to generation the myths and traditions of the society they had left. Next, the curiously pragmatic conversion of Iceland to Christianity seems to have created an air of tolerance, so that in practice the two religions co–existed for a time rather than the one expunging the other — with the rather surprising result that the pagan oral tradition was extensively preserved in written form by Christian scribes in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Finally the collection by Árni Magnússon (1663–1730) of manuscripts from all over Iceland preserved Icelandic literature from an imminent disappearance during the "Dark Ages" of the country's history. Many of the works had been copied down onto cowhide, and it was not uncommon for these to have been put to more practical use, such as clothing or footwear, under the desperate conditions of the time.

The historical value of Icelandic literature is not limited to the ancient pre-Christian legends or mythology it preserves: some of the Sagas and most of the skaldic poetry deal with events that were recent or contemporary to the time of their creation, and as such provide a semi–reliable record — often the only one we have — of important events in Iceland's history. One example of this is the series of Sagas (The Vinland Sagas) dealing with the discovery of Greenland and America.

What`s in the website ?


The land and the people

The first explorers
The Age of the Settlement
The conversion to Christianity
The discovery of Greenland and America
The collapse of the Commonwealth
The Dark Ages
The nineteenth century
The twentieth century
Culture in the Icelandic environment
Old Icelandic literature
Eddic and skaldic poetry
The Sagas
Later literature
Modern literature
Painting, sculpture and music
The Icelanders
Traditional living conditions
The seasons
Changes in the modern world
Independent minds
Superstition, morality and the media
The land
On the edge of Europe
The shape of the land
The volcanoes
The glaciers
The natural world
The climate
The economy and infrastructure
Industry and energy