Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Iceland - A Preview

As I delve into the sagas of the Icelanders, I thought it might be a good idea to both recap and elaborate on how Iceland functioned and the world of the sagas.

These sagas were written mostly in the thirteenth century. But remember that they were oral stories passed down through generations and they referenced folks who lived in the ninth and tenth centuries. Not only that, but the stories began when Norway and Iceland were strictly pagan, and yet were written down only after their Christian conversion.

Norway didn't really have a written language. And a handful of families decided to flee Norway and the oppressive Harold Fine-hair to the newly settled Iceland. The winters were just as harsh as they were in Scandinavia, but because Iceland was an island, it was completely isolated, especially in the winter when the seas and rivers froze. The Icelanders were very aware and appreciative of their Norwegian roots and memorized the stories. When the missionaries showed up and taught them how to write, the farmers in Iceland went to town and copied down all of those famous stories. Yet, they are imperfect. While the sagas give little room for a personal narrative, it is obvious that the authors wrote somewhat hesitantly. Fascinated with their pagan roots but not a typical Medieval Christian, you get a very interesting and unique literary perspective.

From its foundation, Iceland was a bizarre independent, self autonomous island. The settlers hated being under a king, so they created this collection of expansive farms. Each farm had its own family and landed within a specific district. Each district had a few spokesmen. These spokesmen met a few times a year at the Thing. Then once a year, the spokesmen from every district met at the Althing. It was here where they would pass laws and punish those who broke the laws, etc. It worked relatively well. Your regular riff raff was there, of course, but all in all, the farmers lived peacefully spread out across Iceland.

In the ninth and tenth century, there were priests called godis. Later as Iceland was secularized and then Christianized, these godis became important figures in society. Some became the spokesmen at the Things, and others became judges. In a country where no executive branch of the government existed, it was strange that courts would become the cornerstone of the Icelandic life. Laws without anyone to enforce them. How impressive!

Right around the time that the sagas were being written, things started to heat up. There were about five prominent families who could claim roots back to Norway, and suddenly they began fighting for control of Iceland. And once again, there was this strange tension between the past and the future. This time instead of religions clashing, it was the distant stories of the trials of families struggling with Icelandic laws and their thirst for power while it was occurring in the present. What's strange is that the sagas, while not directly or specifically teaching anything, the stories do give lessons about different subjects. And while the Icelandic farmers were writing them down, the lessons were being ignored. The way of life in Iceland was coming to an end. The families were tearing society apart. And eventually they gave their allegiance back to the King of Norway and soon after the independent life of Iceland came to an end.

And so we begin to look into the world of the Icelandic sagas. I hope to keep this updated as I keep reading .