for National Geographic News
Filled with larger-than-life heroes and epic battles, they may be the most accessible of all medieval literature and a source of inspiration to classic authors like J.R.R. Tolkien.
Yet many people have never heard of the Icelandic sagas.
Written by unknown authors in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries, the sagas contain 40 narratives, describing the life of Icelanders in the Viking age immediately before and after the year 1000. This was a time when they abandoned ancient gods and adopted Christianity.
The early Icelanders also traveled westwards, culminating in what many believe is the true first voyage by a European to North America: Leif Eiriksson's expedition, described in the sagas as having taken place a thousand years ago.
Although the Vikings themselves did not write the Icelandic sagasthe stories were constructed centuries after the end of the Viking agethe sagas may provide the most detailed accounts of Viking life.
Today the sagas are part of Iceland's daily consciousness, and they are celebrated both for their historical record and their narrative artistry.
"The sagas of Icelanders, being renowned as outstanding masterpieces of literature, rank with the world's greatest literary treasures, such as the epics of Homer, the Greek tragedy, and the plays of William Shakespeare," said Alma Gudmundsdottir, curator of the Icelandic Saga Center in Hvolsvöllur, a village in southern Iceland.
Fact and Fantasy
Iceland has no pre-historic era. It was not settled until around A.D. 900, when the Scandinavians arrived in search of new farmland. Shortly after, an influx of people from the British Isles brought Celtic influences to Iceland, though the language remained predominantly Nordic. Before long, the Icelanders saw themselves as a separate nation.
The only written monuments of the Vikings themselves are runic inscriptions, which are often brief and laconic, and not very informative. British and French clergy, who were attacked by the Vikings, described the raiders as savages.
The sagas, on the other hand, portray the settlers in a favorable light. A blend of fact and fantasy, their actions span the whole world known to the Vikings, but center on the unique settler society they founded in Iceland.
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