Cities of Literature: Reykjavík


Medieval manuscript in Old Norse showing the opening to The Saga of Hrafnkell, Frey’s Priest (Hrafnkels saga freysgoða).  (Image Source)

The word “saga” comes to us from Old Norse, and it at first simply meant “a story.”  It is related to English words like the verb “to say,” and “sage” (“sage” as in a wise person, not “sage” as in the plant, which comes from a different linguistic source).  And for this post we are indeed looking at stories that are sagas (or vice versa), and seeing if we can set up any connection between medieval Iceland and our own city of Peterborough.  Read on!

The south-western Icelandic city of Reykjavík (population 125,000) was first settled in A.D. 874 by the Norwegian Ingólfur Arnarson, and is generally believed to have been the first permanent Norse settlement on the island.  The city’s history is bit unusual; it remained essentially a small collection of farms until the late eighteenth century, when it was chartered by the Kingdom of Denmark, which then controlled Iceland.  Iceland’s independence, like Canada’s, was a long and slow process, and in the course of it Reykjavik became the country’s effective capital in 1845.  The island nation, famous for its volcanoes and the its stark but very green landscape, gained full sovereignty in 1918, and became a republic in 1944.

But what of the literature of Reykjavík, and of Iceland (a reminder here that when we speak of a city and its literature, we speak not just of the urban agglomeration itself, but of the region, and even the nation, that it represents)?  Well, for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the body of prose histories collectively called “the Sagas of Icelanders.”  Originally transmitted orally, most of the sagas were composed in the ninth through twelfth centuries A.D., and began to be written down in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  There are about 50 of them all told (the exact number can vary depending on how one counts different versions of the same saga, lost sagas, etc.), and some of the better-known entries on the list include Egil’s Saga (Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonarthe opening lines of which I quoted in the brief post the other day), the Laxdala Saga (Laxdæla saga), and the Saga of Burned Njal (Brennu-Njáls saga).  Their authors/composers remain unknown, and likely always will.

The sagas, on one level, count as basic “Tales of Adventure,” full of battles and romances, heroes and villains, and dramatic and perilous sea voyages to strange new lands.  But beyond that, they also provide a record of who those early settlers of Iceland were, exactly, and of the genealogies.  Collectively, they recount the history of the emigration to, and settlement of, Iceland, and of the voyages of discovery undertaken by men like Erik the Red.  In this, the sagas provided a useful continuity between early settlers and later, and between the Icelanders and the “old country” of Scandinavia and northern Europe.

The sagas have another purpose as well, and that is where things get (more) interesting for us.  While not primarily didactic in form, the sagas comprise a solid corpus of advice for those early settlers of Iceland.  One learns about conflict-resolution, community-building, the selection of settlement sites, and other such matters.  And the advice comes with ample warning illustration of what can happen when things go wrong.  To give just one example: The Saga of Hen-Thorir (Hœnsa-Þóris saga) is a tale about the tragic confluence of miserliness and a poor hay-harvest, and makes salient points about the importance of generosity in responding to a crisis.  It also, like many of the sagas, contains details on how to navigate the early Icelandic legal system (and how not to navigate it).  And while the Icelandic sagas are more concerned with transmitting social and cultural guidance, there is occasional advice of the very practical sort; The Saga of the Ere-Dwellers (Eyrbyggja saga), for example, contains a fairly detailed description of the constructing of a temple.

Do we have a Peterborian analogue for the Icelandic sagas?  Of course we do, and it lies in the works of early Peterborough writers like George Arundel Hill, Susanna Moodie, Catherine Parr Traill, et al. — those who wrote, in a spirit of education, of their coming to Peterborough, and the adventures they had once there.  And next time out, we will talk of the “Sagas of Peterborians” in more depth.  In the meantime, however, to read more of the Icelandic sagas, check out this website here, which has them both in their original and translated into other languages.  Thank you for reading!


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