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Icelandic sagas

October 13, 2011

Iceland's sagas lie at the heart of the island nation's modern culture. The tiny country's oral traditions were a main form of entertainment when only a few thousand people were spread out across the island.

Hauntingly beautiful landscape
Iceland's sagas often mirror its hauntingly beautiful landscapesImage: Visit Iceland

South African literature Nobel Prize recipient JM Coetzee is doing it, the Indian writer Kiran Nagarkar is doing it and also the American Jonathan Franzen - they all do it: read and love the Icelandic sagas.

Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o, a favorite for the 2010 Nobel Prize, compares the sagas of with the oral traditions of Africa, JRR Tolkien emulated sagas in his Lord of the Rings cycle and the Argentinean Jorge Louis Borges had a quote from one carved on his grave stone.

In short, Icelandic sagas have had an undeniable impact on world literature.

Previously, when Iceland was a scattered nation living in pretty poor conditions in turf huts, the sagas were a recreational outlet, Arthur Björgvin Bollason said. The author and translator who lives in Frankfurt, was long time director of Saga Center in southern Iceland.

"The sagas helped people have more joy in life," he said. "They have been handed down from one generation to another and played a role in everyday life, because the narrative was a kind of happiness, a form of entertainment. There was not so much entertainment in those days."

Classic for all classes

Today, many Icelanders still identify with the heroes of those stories. Some can even claim them as distant relatives. With currently some 320,000 citizens, making Iceland about half the size of a large city such as Frankfurt, it's entirely conceivable.

An Icelandic manuscript
Sagas are attributed with making Iceland a nationImage: The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies

If Icelanders come together in a relaxed atmosphere, says Bollason, the sagas are often a topic of conversation. And he still remembers how the Icelandic president once said in an interview: "They made us a nation."

There was no class difference in the sagas, said the late-national poet and 1998 Nobel laureate Halldor Laxness, who above all treasured the simple yet beautiful language: "The most educated man in the land can enjoy it the same as a simple farmer or fisherman."

Farmers have clobbered themselves

Sagas are also valued by both young and old. They weren't written down until the 13th and 14th centuries. But they tell of Iceland's beginnings more than 1,000 years ago, of how their ancestors came mostly from Norway and populated the country.

And it was not always peaceful: "The farmers are at each other's throats," wrote 18th century Icelandic scholar Árni Magnússon.

Klaus Böldl, professor of Scandinavian culture and literature at the University of Kiel explained in more detail: "The basic conflicts were almost always feuds between neighboring families over property or because matters of honor."

The heroes of sagas are often ruffians and scoundrels. But there are also more complex characters who think before they act or even are afraid of the dark.

A recently published German translation of an Icelandic saga
The heroes of sagas are often ruffians and scoundrelsImage: DW

One of the most famous, the Saga of Njal, for example, raises the question of how reason and law can interrupt the cycle of blood feuds. Thus, according to Klaus Böldl, the authors of the 13th century wanted to "show how a society, so different from others in Europe, without nobility or royalty, could function."

World literature translated again

Böldl Klaus is one of three Scandinavian specialists, who have just completed a huge project. Together with a team of 15 translators, they have translated the Icelandic sagas into modern German, published by S. Fischer Verlag.

An Icelandic manuscript
Magnusson spent ten years traveling through Iceland, collecting manuscriptsImage: The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies

Klaus and his colleagues explain the historical background and significance of the sagas in the European context, and as world literature.

Undoubtedly the work will be a highlight of Iceland's guest appearance at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

And it could have turned out quite differently. Because in the 18th century, scholar Árni Magnússon spent ten years traveling across the country collecting original manuscripts. He frequently found them being used as insulation for farm houses, or as pillow stuffing.

"While it's true that Icelanders preserved the manuscripts in this way," Klaus said, "they were so destitute in the early modern era that sometimes they had no recourse but to misuse these scrolls."

Author: Gabriela Schaaf (sjt)
Editorial: Cyrus Farivar