THE national literature of Iceland holds a distinct and eminent position in the literature of Europe. In that remote and cheerless isle, separated by a wide and stormy ocean from the more genial climates of southern lands, religion and learning took up their tranquil abode, before the south of Europe had yet emerged from the mental darkness which followed the fall of the Roman Empire. There the unerring memories of the Skalds and Sagamen were the depositories of past events, which, handed down from age to age in one unbroken line of historical tradition, were committed to writing on the introduction of Christianity, and now come before us with an internal evidence of their truth, which places them among the highest order of historical records.
To investigate the origin of this remarkable advancement in mental culture, and trace the progressive steps by which Icelandic literature attained an eminence which even now imparts a lustre to that barren land, is an object of interesting and instructive inquiry, and will, it is presumed, form an acceptable introduction to the perusal of the ancient Icelandic manuscripts, which constitute the text of the present volume.
The author has, therefore, availed himself of an able essay by Bishop Muller on this interesting subject, to put before his readers, in a concise form, the leading characteristics of that peculiar state of society, which generated these evidences of peaceful and civilized pursuits, and gave birth to productions, which, like their own Aurora, stood forth the Northmen's meteor in the shades of night!
Among no other people of Europe can the conception and birth of historical literature be more clearly traced than amongst the people of Iceland. Here it can be shown how memory took root, and gave birth to narrative; how narrative multiplied and increased until it was committed to writing; how the written relation became eventually sifted and arranged in chronological order, until at length, in the withering course of time, the breath which had given life and character to the whole fled hence, and only the dead letter remained behind.
But why was it Icelanders, in particular, who kindled the torch of history in the North. How came its light to spread so far from this remote and unimportant island? What cause led Icelanders more than any other people to a minute observation of both the present and the past? How came they to clothe these recollections in connected narratives, and eventually to commit them to writing?--are questions which first naturally present themselves, and the true solution of which can alone lead to a correct estimate of the value of Icelandic annals.
It is well known, that when towards the end of the ninth century Iceland had been discovered by the roving northern Vikings, the imperious sway of Harald Haarfager led many Norwegians to seek safety and independence in that distant island. But its remote position rendered the voyage
thither both difficult and dangerous; not one amongst hundreds of fugitives,--scarcely the chiefs themselves, who possessed large ships,--could provide the necessary outfit for a voyage, which often lasted for half the year; and the colonization of the new country was necessarily slow and progressive, and confined, at first, to the high-minded and more wealthy chieftains of the western coast. But the intelligence was soon abroad that brave and daring men had established themselves in a new country, where the cattle could provide for themselves in winter, where the waters were full of fish, and the land abounding in wood; and many therefore determined upon removing to this favoured region. The tide of emigration from Norway progressively increased, and soon became so great that Harald, fearing that his kingdom would, eventually, be left desolate, prohibited it altogether, and laid a tax upon every voyager to Iceland.
The chiefs took their families, servants, slaves, and cattle; and many kinsmen and relatives, who were accustomed to follow the fortunes of the chief, accompanied him also on this new venture. The particular locality of their future residence was determined by the wind and weather, united with an implicit faith in the superintending guidance of the tutelary idol, under whose invocation the seat-posts were cast into the sea, and wherever these happened to be washed ashore was the dwelling raised.
In the course of sixty years the whole island had become thus colonized. Meantime the first settlers had acquired no means of circumscribing the movements of the last, who with the same independent spirit as their predecessors, took possession of that particular tract of country which appeared to them most eligible; and the extent of the land, the
difficulties of the voyage, and the limited number of the population, admitted, for some time, the continuance of this arbitrary appropriation. Amicable restrictions were the only checks that could be at first opposed to such unconstrained and uncertain movements, and these were all either of Norwegian origin, or brought directly from Norway. For many of the settlers were related by ties of blood; the greater number had made common cause against Harald; in their native land they had been accustomed to meet together at the Court (Thing), in the temple, at the great feast of Yule, at the periodical offerings to their idols--and thus, naturally, and with one accord, they were led to establish a form of self-government somewhat similar to that under which they had lived in Norway. The absence of any despotic ruler gave, however, the new community a great advantage over the parent state, and hence arose a constitution more free than the model upon which it had been formed.
This little republic was held together solely by moral laws. Some of the richer emigrants had slaves, which after putting to cultivate some particular lands, they liberated; all others were free; the sturdy yeoman was the unrestricted lord of his own soil; if be came into collision with his neighbour, and thought himself more powerful, he slew him without scruple, but thereupon immediately endeavoured either through the intercession of the chief of the district or some other influential person, to screen himself from reproach, or effect a reconciliation with the friends of the deceased, by the payment of a fine.
The situation of chief generally arose from the relative position of the ship's-company in the mother country, which led to one particular individual among the crew taking
possession of the new district in his own name; but it oftener depended upon property or personal bravery. Was he a gallant warrior, or could afford to keep more servants and slaves than his neighbors, his assistance became of importance in settling disputes: and the same cause produced a reciprocal feeling in support of the chief, on the part of those whom he assisted.
Before a certain number of statutes had been collected and formally established, the people followed the old customs of their native land, the parties themselves naming their judges from amongst the neighbouring yeomen; but although there was no want of legal forms to which they could appeal, or chicanery by which justice could be evaded, the result more often depended upon the relative strength and influence of the party than upon the merits of the case. At the district courts (Herredsthinget), the influence of the Chief was considerable, but not altogether paramount; many of the more wealthy yeomen could offer him effective resistance: his influence at the superior court (Althinget), depended upon his personal reputation, the power of his friends, and the number of his followers.
The income of the Chief was principally derived from the tract of land, of which he had taken possession on his arrival; he was also, in most cases, the Hofgode, or priest of the temple; and for the duties of this office, in which providing the altar with offerings was included, he received a small contribution (hoftollr) from every farm in the neighbourhood. To this was afterwards added compensation for journeys to the Althing, and he also received fees from those whose causes he conducted, as well as a small payment from the ships which landed their cargoes on his ground. But all these various sources did not furnish him
with any considerable income, and his land remained his principal means of support. The office was hereditary, as in Norway, but it could also be sold or resigned, and sometimes was lost by being appropriated to the payment of a judicial fine.
Notwithstanding this elevated position of the chief, it not unfrequently happened that a powerful individual in the province acquired a higher reputation, and obtained more clients than his superior. Thus after Olaf Paa had returned from his celebrated expedition to Ireland, married the daughter of the powerful Egil Skalagrim, and became possessed of his father-in-law's property, many people flocked around him, and he became a great chief, without being actually a Godordsman, or pontiff.
So long as the colonization continued, the extent of the island secured internal peace; the Landnamsmen, as the first settlers were called, had few disputes amongst themselves, for every one was taken up with his own affairs and although it might sometimes happen, that a quarrelsome individual by single combat (Holmgang 1) or the threat of personal encounter, would drive another from his farm, disputes and contests were of rare occurrence. Another local circumstances of no inconsiderable importance as connected with the tranquillity of the country, was the diminutive character of the forests in Iceland. These consisted of dwarf trees, ill suited to ship building, and therefore only small vessels could be built upon the island; whoever wished to trade with Norway, entered into partnership with some Norwegian merchant, or bought a vessel which had been already brought out from the parent state. Such vessels
could not, however, be used for piratical expeditions, and those who wished to engage in such adventures were obliged to join some kindred spirits in Norway who possessed what was called a long ship (Langskip). These difficulties of outfit, connected with the want of sufficient hands for warlike purposes, and the long distance from the coasts, where they were accustomed to carry on their piratical proceedings, was doubtless the cause of so few of the new settlers being concerned in sea-roving, while in all other matters they followed the customs of their ancestors.
Thus did this remote and comparatively barren island give freedom and peace to many of Norway's bravest sons, far from their native land. Instead of participating in the dangers of the perilous voyage, or aiding in the obstinate encounter, or sharing in the lawless spoil, when plunder conferred upon the Sea-King both a fortune and a name, they now sat down peacefully in their tranquil homes, or directed the agricultural labours of their servants and dependants. And now did faithful memory carry them back in imagination to the old and warlike time, which appeared the more attractive when contrasted with the tranquility of their present pursuits; personal deeds led to the remembrance of those of the father, for it was often in avenging his death that their prowess had been first called forth, or from his kinsmen or associates that they had received the first assistance. The colonists were, besides, men of high family; the Scandinavians were accustomed to set great weight upon this circumstance; the fewer were the outward distinctions that characterized the individual, the more important was that prerogative considered which promised magnanimity and valour. The stranger was therefore minutely questioned about his family, and even
the peasant girl despised the suitor whose lineage was unknown. In the mother country the remembrance of the old families lived amongst the people of the district; they had travelled together to the national assembly; the paternal barrow, and the ancient hall bore testimony to their noble birth,--but of this, nothing save the relation could accompany them to Iceland, and therefore was the new settler so careful in detailing to his sons and posterity the history and achievements of their kinsmen in Norway. The son equally tenacious of ancestral fame failed not to propagate the same minute details amongst his immediate descendants, and thus was insensibly formed, among the Icelanders, connected oral narratives of the families, fortunes, and actions of their ancestors.
These Sagas, or traditions, did not generally go further back than the time of the father and grandfather; but the recollections preserved in the songs of the Skalds were of much older date, and a number of historical songs can be pointed out which the Icelanders must have brought with them to the new country. Others were historical in a more limited sense, being thrown into rhyme for the occasion, to flatter the vanity of some powerful chief, by a poetical representation of his genealogy; but the more numerous were those in which all the achievements of a hero were specifically enumerated.
These compositions bore little evidence of Brage's 1 favour. Under the jingle of rude rhymes and alliteration a pictorial expression was given to sword-cuts and slaughter, which brought to remembrance the order in which the several achievements had succeeded each other. The poetical form is more visible in the earlier songs, such as: Hornklove's
[paragraph continues] Ode on Harald Haarfager, particularly his description of the battle of Hafursfjord 1 than in the later, such as Ottar Svartes Ode on the combats of Olaf the Saint; and those compositions have still more poetical worth in which, like Eyvind Skialdespilders Ode in praise of the fallen king Hakon Adelsteen, the writers express the feeling which the events call forth.
It may be readily supposed that heroic verses, sung by the Skalds themselves in the courts of heroes, were committed to memory, and that at a time when this was the only means of recording their achievements such verses would pass orally through many generations. The memory was also sometimes aided by carving the verses in Runic letters 2 upon a staff. The dying Halmund is introduced in Gretter's Saga, saying to his daughter:--"Thou shalt now listen whilst I relate my deeds, and sing thereof a song, which thou shalt afterwards cut upon a staff." In Egil's Saga, also, Thorgerd, addressing her father Egil Skalagrimson, whose grief for the loss of his son Bodvar had made him resolve on putting an end to his existence, says:--"I wish, father, that we might live long enough for you to sing a funeral song upon Bodvar, and for me to cut it upon a staff."
Sometimes verses were immediately committed to memory by a number of persons. When King Olaf the Saint drew up his army for the battle of Stikklcstad (1030), he directed the Skalds to stand within the circle (Skioldborg), which the bravest men had formed around the king. "Ye shall," said be, "stand here, and see what passes, and thus
will ye not require to depend on the sagas of others for what ye afterwards relate and sing." The Skalds now consulted with each other, and said that it would be fitting to indite some memorial of that which was about to happen, upon which each improvised a strophe, and the historian adds: "these verses the people immediately learned." In the same manner much older songs were held in remembrance, and there is still extant in that part of Snorre's Edda, called Kenningar, a fragment of Brage the Skald's ode on Ragnor Lodbrok, by means of which he, in the 7th century, moderated the anger of Bjorn Jernside against himself. In the same poem are fragments of an old ode on the fall of Rolf Krake, which St. Olaf directed the Skald, Thormod Kolbran, to sing when the battle of Stikklestad was to commence. The whole army, says the Saga, was pleased at hearing this old song, which they called the Soldier's Whetstone, and the king thanked the bard, and gave him a gold ring that weighed half a mark.
But it was more particularly the Skalds themselves who preserved the older songs in remembrance. By hearing these, their own poetical character had been formed, their memories sharpened; and a knowledge of the past was necessary for the acquisition of those mythic and historical allusions which were considered indispensable to poetical expression. An instance of their historical knowledge is thus mentioned in the Landnamabok: 1 when King Harald
[paragraph continues] Haardraade lay with his army in Holland, two large barrows were observed on the edge of the strand, but no one knew who was interred there; however, on the return of the army to Norway, Kare the black, a kinsman of the famous Skald Theodolf of Hvine, was enabled to state that the graves contained the bodies of Snial and Hiald, the two warlike sons of the old Norwegian King Vatnar. This historical knowledge of the Skalds led to their being held in high respect throughout Scandinavia, and, we find them allotted the first place at the courts of Kings. Harald Haarfager is stated to have had more respect for the Skalds than for all the rest of his courtiers, and more than a century later they appear to have been held in equal estimation by the Swedish King, Olaf Skiodkonning, who is stated to have taken great delight in their freedom of speech.
The northern pagan Skalds must not however be looked upon as the Grecian Aonides, whose only province was to sing; they bear a nearer resemblance to the Provencal Knights, who were also Troubadours. The Scandinavian bards were besides of goodly lineage, for only the higher and more independent conditions of life could call forth Brage's favour; they were also well versed in warlike exercises; the song was the accompaniment to, the combat, and we have nearly as many records of their heroic deeds as of their poetical effusions. They were also, at times, the favourites or confidants of kings, like Theodolf of Hvine, who was the bosom friend of Harald Haarfager, and Flein, to whom the Danish King, Eisteen, gave his daughter in marriage.
Thus were the Skalds well furnished with knowledge of both the present and the past, and therefore has the
sagacious Snorre Sturleson truly said, in the Preface to his work:--"The principal foundation is taken from the songs that were sung before the chiefs, or their children, and we hold all that to be true, which is there stated, of their deeds and combats. It was, no doubt, the practice of the Skalds to praise those the most in whose presence they stood, but no one even so circumstanced would venture to tell of actions which both he and all those who heard him knew to be false, for that would be an affront instead of a compliment."
Besides heroic songs, or Drapas, single strophes were often improvised, not only by Skalds but by many other individuals, of both sexes, in a critical moment; and these, by being committed to memory, preserved the remembrance on the occasion which called them forth. Like the Orientalists, the Northmen loved to shew their wit by an enigmatical and antithetical mode of speaking, and from thence, the ear having been once accustomed to the simple measure, the transition was easy to the formation of a strophe, by means of alliteration or rhyme.
The means of preserving the recollections of past events, which have been here pointed out, were for the most part common both to those who remained in Norway and those who emigrated to the new country; but in the parent state the stream of present events carried away and obscured the recollections of the past. The changes which came upon the whole nation from Harald Haarfager's time were naturally looked upon by the Norwegians as more important than the events in which only individual persons or families had been previously concerned. The Icelanders, on the other hand, viewed the one as affecting their home, while the other appeared to be the transactions of a foreign
country, and thus the recollections which up to the time of the migration had been preserved in the several detached districts of Norway were transferred to and became united in Iceland, as the one settler enumerated to the other the valorous deeds and achievements of his forefathers.
Besides, it was amongst the families of high birth that these ancient traditions were best preserved. Such families maintained an unbroken succession in Iceland, whereas in Norway they became extinct, first, in consequence of the many events under the immediate successors of Harald Haarfager, and next, from the furious zeal of Olaf in the propagation of Christianity, which brought ruin to the more tenacious adherents of the old faith, and these were just the individuals amongst whom the ancient Sagas were best preserved. Not less destructive to the old families was the unfortunate expedition to England and Ireland under Harald Haardraade and Magnus Barfoot, in the 11th century, as also the long civil wars in the 12th century, which ended with the fall of the Optimists.
The other parts of Scandinavia also produced Skalds, and several, both Danish and Swedish, are mentioned in the ancient Sagas; but these countries were of much greater extent, and ruled by much more powerful monarchs, than Norway, previous to the 9th century; and thus did the heroic age terminate and the songs of the Skalds become silent at an earlier period there than in the neighbouring kingdom.
154:1 From holm, a small island. So called in consequence of these duels generally taking place upon one of the small neighbouring islands, from whence the combatants could not so easily escape.
156:1 Brage, the fourth son of Odin and Frigga, was the Apollo of the Northern Mythology; he chaunted the exploits of the Gods and heroes to the tones of a golden harp, and was represented by the figure of an old man with a snow-white beard.
157:1 The famous naval engagement In the Bay of Hafursfjord, now called Stavangerfiord. (A. D. 875), made Harald Haarfager master of the entire kingdom of Norway.
157:2 The word Rune is said to be derived from ryn a furrow or channel; the invention is attributed to Odin and his Aser, or Gods; the alphabet consists of sixteen letters, which, like the Hiberno-Celtic, claims Phnician origin.
158:1 The Landnamabok or Book of the first Norwegian settlers in Iceland, is the most complete national record that has, perhaps, ever been compiled. It contains the names of about 3000 persons, and 1400 places, and forms a minute genealogical register of the colonists, their properties, kinsmen, and descendants, together with short notices of their achievements. The compilation was the work of several authors, beginning with Are, surnamed Hinns Frode, or the learned (b. 1067, d. 1148), continued by Kolsteg, Styrmer, and Thordsen, and ending with Hauk Erlendson, for many years Lagman, or Governor of Iceland, who died A. D. 1834. The Landnamabok is considered the first authority in all matters connected with the early history of the island, and will be often found quoted in the present volume.