Steeped in Viking lore, the "heroic sagas," which gained popularity in Europe in the 19th century, chronicle the actions of powerful Viking warriors. Honor, glory, and revenge are central features in these narratives.
But the stories of Viking exploits are just one part of medieval Icelandic literature. The "family sagas" involve ordinary people, though the central characters even then tend to come from the ruling class.
"The vast majority of the settlers were farmers, who wished to live in peace, free from pirates and taxation by kings in their homes," said Arni Björnsson, the former head of the ethnological department of the National Museum in Reykjavik and an expert on the sagas. "In the Middle Ages, Icelandic society was highly unusual. The main class of society comprised independent farmers, rich or poor, and there was no king, no government, no hereditary aristocracy and no taxes."
A distinctive characteristic of the sagas is the objective narrative approach. Often the sagas describe events in great detail, including what was said by those involved. But they do not describe their inner life. Instead, the characters of the sagas reveal themselves through their words and actions.
"This narrative technique was unknown in the literature of other countries, until the great European novel of the 19th century," Gudmundsdottir said.
The art of writing arrived in Iceland with the Christian Church in the 11th century. Most priests were employees of wealthy farmers, who were interested in writing both for practical purposes and for entertainment. They did not understand Latin, the language of the learned at the time, so most books came to be written in the Icelandic vernacular.
"The difference in social status between farmers in Iceland and in Europe appear to be the main reason for Iceland's unique medieval saga tradition," Björnsson said. "Another reason for the sagas might be that [in a young country] there was a need to preserve the story of how Iceland was settled."
At the Icelandic Saga Center in Hvolsvöllur, which was established in 1997, visitors learn about the creation of a parliament in 930; about the conversion to Christianity; and the strong role of the women in medieval Iceland.
The exhibition focuses on Njal's saga, or the story of Burnt Njal, perhaps the greatest and best known of the Icelandic sagas. The epic story of a 50-year-old blood feud, Njal's saga features memorable characters like Gunnar Hamundarson, a brave and noble hero.
Guided tours from the Saga Center take visitors to the places of special historical interest in Njal's saga.
Historians in the 19th century accepted the sagas as more or less accurate accounts, except where they clearly ventured into mythology and fantasy. But in the 20th century many historians began looking at the sagas more critically. Some dismissed them as fiction, and would not accept that they had any historical value at all.
Today, many historians view the sagas as a romanticized but crucial piece of history. Some say they are basically family stories relating the ancestry of individual characters.
"But archaeology is actually proving that a lot of these stories have a good basis in fact, so much so that [archaeologist] Helge Ingstad could use them to find the L'Anse aux Meadows site," the archeological site in Newfoundland believed to have been a Viking settlement around in the 11th century, said William Fitzhugh, the director of the Arctic Studies Center at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. and the curator of a major Viking exhibit at the museum in 2000.
Among Icelanders, the sagas remain enormously popular.
"Excerpts from [the sagas] are part of our curriculum in primary school," Björnsson said. "Pagan gods were like our personal buddies, similar to Tarzan or Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings."
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