Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Sagas of Icelanders

The Sagas are exceptional tales of everyday life and historical events that were kept alive in the oral tradition for two to three hundred years before they were recorded in the written format. The Sagas are not typical heroic literature, but rather tales of flesh and blood people burdened with heroic legacy in the Viking tradition of blood vengeance. They are deeply rooted in the real world of their day, concise and straightforward in style; the Sagas explore perennial human problems; love and hate, fate and freedom, crime and punishment, travel and exile. Read one Saga and you have the craze for another and another. The Sagas tell of the Viking age, the Icelandic laws and justice system that made up the Althing and the conversion of Icelanders to Christianity. The Sagas of the Icelanders rank with the world’s greatest literary treasures.
The Complete Sagas of Icelanders including 49 tales, a five volume set, was translated into English and published by the Leifur Eiriksson Publishing in 1997. These five volumes contain the first complete, coordinated English translation of The Sagas of Icelanders, forty in all, together with forty-nine of the shorter Tales of Icelanders.

The Sagas are the most precious possession of the Icelandic people. They have been preserved first on vellum and then on paper. The manuscripts show wear meaning that have been used. The Icelandic Saga manuscripts were collected and moved to Sweden and Denmark in the sixteenth century. Árni Magnússon spent much of his life collecting the manuscripts of the Icelandic Sagas. He lived in Denmark and on his deathbed, in 1730; he left all of his manuscripts to the University of Copenhagen.
Iceland regained its independents from Denmark in four stages. It received a separate constitution in 1874, home rule in 1904, independence under dual monarchy in 1918 and full independence in 1944. As part of these settlements the Icelandic manuscripts that had been taken to Denmark were to be returned. This process started in 1928 and took until 1971 for all of the manuscripts to be returned to Iceland.

The manuscripts are now located at Árnagarður, named after Árni Magnússon, it was built in 1966-70 jointly by the University of Iceland and the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland. By law, the function of the Institute is to increase the knowledge of the language, literature and history of the Icelandic people. It is also to preserve the manuscripts and documents that have been returned to Iceland from Denmark.

Many of Iceland’s national treasures are on display in the Culture House’s featured exhibition Medieval Manuscripts – Eddas and Sagas. It includes the principal medieval manuscripts, such as Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda and the compendium Flateyjarbók, as well as law codices and Christian works, not to forget the Sagas of Icelanders. Important paper manuscripts from later centuries are also displayed.

The ancient vellum manuscripts preserve the Northern classical heritage: unique sagas, poems and narratives which are often our sole written sources of information on the society, religion and world view of the people of Northern Europe from pagan times through the tumult of Viking Expansion, the settlement of the Atlantic Islands and the period of Christianization.

The exhibition focuses on the period preceding the writing of the manuscripts, their origins and role, manuscript collecting, editions, and on their reception in Iceland and abroad. It also portrays the process of book making itself: preparing the vellum and ink, writing, illuminating etc. are explained in a special exhibit area.

Icelanders and the descendants of Icelanders, have no greater duty than to preserve and cultivate this heritage as best we can. The Icelandic Sagas and the Tales of Icelanders constitute a remarkable chapter in world cultural history. Iceland possesses very few visible remains from the glorious ancient period. There are no buildings in the country, and few objects dating back from the Middle Ages. The manuscripts of the Sagas are to Icelanders what castles and palaces are to other European nations.

What is known about the Viking age came from the Sagas written in Iceland in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Although they were written two centuries after the fact they describe a believable account of what took place. Erik the Red’s Saga and the Greenlanders’ Saga gave a vivid account of the discovery of Vinland which latter became America. These tales were, until 1960, considered not to be based on real memories. In 1960 Helga and Anne Stine found at L’Anse aux Meadow in Newfoundland what has been identified as the settlement of Leif Eiriksson in “Vinland” of the Sagas.

Islendingabok or Saga of the Icelanders concerns the affairs of the people who lived between about 930 to 1030, at the height of the Icelandic Commonwealth. They are tales of wealthy and powerful farmers and historical events that actually took place in Iceland and the rest of the Norse world at that time.

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