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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Icelandic Literature
The Sagas (Ninth to Thirteenth Centuries) by William Sharp (1855–1905)
 
ALTHOUGH Icelandic is now probably the oldest spoken language in Europe, it is equally probably the least known of any extant tongue of primary importance. One frequently sees a lament about this neglect of so fine and important a language and so noble a literature; but it is to be feared that the complainers are either ignorant of the fact, or overlook it, that modern Icelandic enshrines no literature of any real significance and importance. In this sense the language is as much a remnant of a bygone period as is ancient Greek. For many years past, however, scholars of several countries have been devoting themselves to the scrupulous editing, translation, and exposition of the immense treasures of Norwegian literature enshrined in the ancient Icelandic language.  1
  The whole history of this strange flowering of the human mind, in so remote a land, severed by tempestuous seas from the rest of Europe, and for the greater part of the year swept by polar winds,—a land strangely arid and bleak, and yet tortured by volcanic fires and boiling waters,—is one of singular interest. Whether Iceland was really the Ultima Thule of the ancients, need not concern us: for a time certainly it was the Ultima Thule of the Northern peoples to whom we are so closely allied. The Scandinavians have ever been a freedom-loving people, and when once their first pioneers discovered, then settled in, Iceland, it was not long till scores of immigrants came from over sea, and made the great island of the North their new home. Nor was Iceland the mere haven of wild and desperate spirits, as so often alleged; for some of the best blood of the Scandinavian race gladly sought that asylum to be free from the tyranny which oppressed them within the kingly realms at home. Slowly a small but powerful republic arose, and with its growth there developed a remarkable literature, of which much has been preserved to us, and of which the Sagas in particular have passed into the epic literature of the world.  2
  Climate and environment have long been recognized as powerful formative influences in the evolution of literature. Nowhere is this more clearly exemplified than in the history of Iceland. In the rude ages when the sword was the sole arbiter of the fate of races, it might well have been believed that a small section of the turbulent Norsemen, who had for greater independence and freedom exiled themselves to a remote and inclement land, would not have developed a literature remarkable for beauty and even epic grandeur. But when we think of how social life was constituted in those days, and what were the climatic conditions and what the immediate environment of those who dwelt in Iceland, we understand more readily how the Sagas came into being. Here was an indomitable and highly intelligent people, proud of their racial traditions and imaginatively haunted by a marvelously complex folk-lore. For some months in the year they could pursue their usual vocations and avocations; but with the first coming of polar snows in October, and the rapid dwindling of the solar light, there came an inevitable restriction of most outdoor employment. The seas were too wild for the fishers; the mountain regions were blocked by snow to the most adventurous hunters; and even the plains in the milder southern regions of the island were so swept by blizzards of hail and long buried in heavy snow-drifts that neither the shepherd nor his flocks could subsist. The sustained darkness of the winter season, added to these other conditions, almost inevitably, in the instance of a people already long emerged from barbarism, involved two things: a greater attention to domestic comfort, and the growth of what it was once the fashion to call the “polite arts.” When men could no longer wield the sword or steer the war-galley, when in a dark land of frost and snow all save the most urgent journeying was relinquished, it was natural that the sound of the harp, the voice of the singer, and the heroic recitals of the saga-man or skald should occupy the enforced leisure of the self-exiled race. It has been urged that the same theory should be applied in the instance of the Eskimo, who for many hundreds of years have dwelt in similar conditions, yet have never produced even any oral literature worthy of the name. But the Eskimo are as distinct from the Icelanders of the past or present as the Lapps of Spitzbergen from the Russians of the south; nor did they come to a new land with a heritage of splendid racial traditions and inspired by national hopes and ideals.  3
  It was inevitable, therefore, that the skald or saga-man should gradually become a factor of great importance in the evolution of Icelandic life. He was the conserver of the past, the exponent of the stirring events of the present, the prophet of great things to be. The Norsemen of that day lived at a period as remarkable as the early Elizabethan epoch was for the men living in it. The skald could sing of a mythic past, of a less remote traditionary era, and of the great deeds of the sea-kings of Norway; he could chant with all the stir and force of actuality of what the vikings were doing around the coasts of the world, and latterly, of how small bands of the Summer Sailors were essaying the West Atlantic itself, against the rumors of a great new land over sea: and they could raise the hopes and dreams of their hearers by enlarging on the theme of a new empire for the Children of the North.  4
  As, after all, no stories ever appeal so strongly as those which narrate the heroic deeds, the adventures, the vicissitudes of those near to us by blood and race, it was natural that the Sagas should mainly concern themselves with the epical setting of the simple facts in the life of some heroic Norseman. Primarily, the Sagas are metrical chronicles of the sea-kings or Scandinavian chiefs. In his Prolegomena to the ‘Sturlunga Saga,’ Dr. Gudbrand Vigfusson writes as follows of the famous ‘Nial’s Saga,’ which he avers has always and justly been ranked foremost. The ‘Nial’s Saga,’ I may add, is commonly dated about the year 1000; that is, its relegation is between 970 and 1014. In many respects, says Dr. Vigfusson, it stands alone, belonging to no school. It is peculiar alike in matter, style, and spirit.
          “In area the widest, in interest the most universal; giving the Althing, the focus of Icelandic political life, for its centre, but noticing men and places throughout the whole Scandinavian empire. The Saga of Law par excellence, it is based on that most important element of early society; and the lesson it teaches is of a Divine retribution, and that evil brings its own reward in spite of all that human wisdom and courage, even innocence, can do to oppose it. Hence, while inspiring the deepest interest and the warmest pleasure, it has almost the character of a sacred book, and is read with reverence. The very spirit indeed of Early Law seems to breathe through its pages, showing the modern English reader the high ideal which his kinsmen strove long ago to attain.”
  5
  Naturally, as Dr. Vigfusson adds, to judge of this work fairly it ought to be read in the original; for much of the subtle beauty of its style, the admirable play of its dialogue, and at times the very technical peculiarity of its matter, must of necessity be lost in any translation, however faithful.
          “The subject, like a Greek trilogy, falls into three divisions, each containing its own plot and dramatis personæ; all three loosely connected in one saga by the weaker and later parts of the work. (1) The first plot (founded, as we believe, on a now lost ‘Gunnar’s Saga’) tells of the friendship between Gunnar, the simple-minded brave chief, the ideal hero of his age, and the wise lawyer Nial, a man of good counsel and peace who never bore weapons. The cold envious heart of Hallgerda, which is here contrasted with the proud honesty of Bergthora, has caused the death of her two former husbands; and at length, though she is unable to break the tie that binds Gunnar to his trusted counselor, Hrut’s prophecy and Nial’s forebodings are finally fulfilled, and after a brave defense the Lithend chief is slain in his own house by his half regretful foes. His son and Nial avenge his death. Then comes an episode abroad which is merely a link to connect the second and most important of the three dramas with the foregoing one, and to introduce fresh characters on the scene. (2) Nial is now the central figure; his character is heightened, he is almost a sage and prophet; the writer’s highest skill is lavished on this part of the Saga. The death of Thrain, slain by the sons of Nial, at length brings down on himself and his house the fate which he is powerless to avert. The adoption of Hoskuld, his foeman’s son, by which he strives to heal the feud, is but a step to this end. Eventually, to further his foster-son’s interests, he obtains for him one of the new ‘priesthoods’ which were set up in consequence of the great constitutional reform he had carried. Upon this, the hatred of the old aristocracy whose position he had thus assailed broke out in the guile of Valgard and his cunning son Mord, who sowed hatred between the Whiteness Priest and his foster-brethren. A fancied slight at last rouses these latter to murder the innocent Hoskuld. Nial, cut to the heart, still strives for peace; but a few bitter words undo all his work, and the end he has foretold is near. The scenes at the Althing, which relieve the story by introducing portraits of every great chief of that day in Iceland, boldly and humorously depicted, are very noteworthy. Flosi, the widow’s kinsman, driven unwillingly to action, now takes up the holy duty of blood-revenge; and by his means Nial and his wife and sons perish in the smoke of their burning homestead. This awful catastrophe closes the second part. (3) Of the concluding drama Flosi is the hero, and the plot tells of the Burner’s fate. The great suit against them at the Althing fails by a legal technicality; and the ensuing battle is stayed by Hall and Snorri, by whose award they are exiled. But Kari, Nial’s son-in-law, who alone escaped from the fire, pursues them with unrelenting vengeance; one by one they fall by various fates: and when in the real battle of Clontarf, 1014, those of them who have hitherto evaded their destiny perish, fighting against the new Faith, by the swords of the Irish, his revenge is at length complete, and Flosi and he are reconciled.”
  6
  The reader of the ‘Nial’s Saga’ and other literature of the kind will readily see how natural was the growth of this Icelandic literature; but it is only the close student who will observe how the short saga of the individual becomes the more complex saga of a family or a tribal section of the race. This transformation took place when some of the smaller sagas were combined by one narrator of exceptional power and welded into a harmonious whole. An analogous process is afforded in the instance of the ‘Kalevala,’ and possibly in that of Homer. Of these composite sagas the finest are ‘Nial’s Saga’ already alluded to, ‘Gudmund’s Saga,’ and the ‘Eyrbyggia Saga.’ Doubtless sagas such as these, and indeed nearly all oral lore, go through an actual process of attenuation on the one hand and of embellishment on the other, with each succeeding generation.  7
  Let us consider for a moment how the ‘Heimskringla’—the chief glory and pride of old Norse literature—came to be written by Snorri Sturluson. In him, says a recent authority, “we have a Macaulay of the thirteenth century,—a man to whom all who wish to be good story-tellers, to interest the mind and stir the heart, may well apprentice themselves: a man in a remote valley of Iceland, that sunless land of snow and ice, that howling wilderness of lava and cinder-heaps, over which Night broods so many weary hours of the year. Surely Newman had forgotten Snorri when he laid it down as an axiom that ‘Science, literature, and art refuse to germinate in frost.’ You should see the place, the site of his abode with the bath of hewn stone, in that valley of bogs and reek, and you would be lost in amazement if you did. See him picking up the threads of history, and working them into a tissue picturesque in the extreme, in his own vernacular too, when we English, who had not the wit to throw off the old Roman influence,—dumbfounded too with that French jargon which the Norman had brought into the land, the language of the royal court, the courts of law, and the baronial castle,—were maundering away in Latin.”  8
  It was in the midst of this gloomy and remote Iceland that the great epic of the Scandinavian race was put together. But here I am not dealing specifically with the Eddas as distinct from the Sagas: and it should be remembered, too, that the ancients applied this name only to the work of Snorri; though it is uncertain whether Snorri himself, the composer of the ‘New Edda,’ called it so. In a manuscript written fifty years after his death, there occurs this interpolation: “This book is called the Edda; it is compiled by Snorri Sturluson.”  9
  The saga proper, says Dr. Vigfusson, is a kind of prose epic.
          “It has its fixed laws, its set phrases, its regular epithets and terms of expression; and though there is, as in all high literary form, an endless diversity of interest and style, yet there are also bounds which are never overstepped, confining the saga as closely as the employment and restrictions of verse could do. It will be best to take as the type the smaller Icelandic saga, from which indeed all the later forms of composition have sprung. This in its original form is the story of an Icelandic gentleman, living some time in the tenth or eleventh centuries. It will tell first of his kin, going back to the ‘settler’ from whom he sprung, then of his youth and early promise before he left his father’s house, to set forth on that foreign career which was the fitting education of the young Northern chief. After these Wanderjahre passed in trading voyages and pirate cruises, or in the service of one of the Scandinavian kings as poet or henchman, the hero returns to Iceland a proved man, and the main part of the story thus preluded begins. It recounts in fuller detail and in order of time his life in Iceland, his loves and feuds, his chieftainship and lawsuits, his friendships and his enmities, his exploits and renown, and finally his death; usually concluding with the revenge taken for him by his kinsmen, which fitly winds up the whole. This tale is told in an earnest straightforward way, as by a man talking in short simple sentences, changing when the interest grows high into the historic present, with here and there an ‘aside’ of explanation. There is no analysis of character: the actors ‘present themselves’ in their action and speech. The dialogue, which is crisp and laconic, full of pithy saws, and abounding in quiet grim humor or homely pathos expressed in a few vivid words, is never needlessly used, and is therefore all the more significant and forcible. If the hero is a poet, we find most aptly interwoven many of his extemporary verses. The whole composition, grouped round a single man and a single place, is so well balanced and so naturally unfolded piece by piece, that the great art shown therein often at first escapes the reader. A considerable choice of words, a richness of alliteration, and a delicate use of syntax, are always met with in the best sagas. The story-teller is absorbed in his subject: no description of scenery, no reflections of his own, ever break the flow of the tale. He is a heathen with the heathen, a wrathful man with the avenger, and a sorrowful man with the mourner, as his style reflects the varied feelings of his dramatis personæ. The plot is nearly always a tragedy, and the humor dark and gloomy (the hearty buffoonery of Bandamanna is the marked exception); but this is relieved by the brighter and more idyllic home and farm scenes, and by the pathos and naïveté which are ever present.
  “The constant epic allusions to the ‘old days,’ the continual reference to Law, the powerful use and vivid reality of the supernatural element, the moral standpoint of the story-teller himself appreciating so fully the pride of birth, the high sense of honor, the quick sharp wit, ready hand, and dauntless heart of his heroes, and last and most important the constant presence of women in the story, which give it that variety and interest we admire so much in Homer,—are all noteworthy characteristics of the saga.”
  10
  The State which grew up from such beginnings as have already been indicated, resulted, as also hinted, in a form of life and social habit peculiar to the island. Here again I may fall back upon that foremost exemplar of old Icelandic life and literature, Dr. Vigfusson, in his Prolegomena to the ‘Sturlunga Saga,’ for an admirable précis of the conditions out of which saga-telling as an art arose. The geographical characteristics of the new land, he says,

        “precluded centralization or town life; while the spirit of independence, the circumstances of the freeholders, were far too strong to permit the growth of a feudalism of the English or French type. The power of the chiefs was great, but it depended on custom and law which rigidly defined its influence; and though in later times the increased wealth and family alliances of the great men, and the influence of the ecclesiastical power, brought many changes, these had as yet affected but little the state of things with which we are here concerned. Each cluster of dales opening on a separate bay—nay, each dale itself—possessed an individuality and life of its own, within the circle of which a man’s days were mainly passed; and the more so as nearly every firth had been originally the ‘claim’ of a single settler, who had divided it out by gift or sale among his kinsmen or dependents, later comers being obliged to buy of the earlier settlers where and how they could. Thus a series of almost ‘family’ groups was formed, each living its own life amid its own interests, cares, and politics.
  “But for all this isolation, there were for every Icelandic yeoman two great outlets: the one the Althing, the other the sea. The former strengthening the bonds which made the island one State, by bringing together men from every quarter yearly at regular intervals, and exercising much the same sort of influence on Iceland as the feasts, fairs, and games of Tara, Ohud, and the Isthmus had on the scattered tribes of Ireland, Arabia, and Hellas; keeping up the ties which made them one in civilization if not in polity. The second, the sea, besides being the field for adventure and trade in which every young chief proved himself, was also the road that led to the motherlands of Scandinavia, and the only path by which the arts, sciences, and fashions might reach these ‘dwellers at the gates of the world.’ The importance of the foreign trade alone is amply illustrated by its effect on the literature and even vocabulary of Iceland. In the old days the inhabitants of each homestead passed their lives in a varying round of labor. In spring the fishing, in summer the hay harvest and in a few farmed localities the grain harvest also, in autumn killing and salting meat for the winter, furnished constant occupation; while in winter, after the wood-cutting and stump-grubbing had supplied a store of fuel, the indoor occupations of weaving and spinning, boat-building, and making or mending the farm implements, filled up the time. The only breaks in the year of labor in the heathen times, when time was still counted by pentads and neither Sunday nor saint’s day gave a partial holiday, were the three or four great feasts of the year, which were kept in greater state and with more exact observance in consequence. The High Summer festival was passed by the chiefs and their families at the Althing, held yearly at midsummer, the time of the old heathen festival of the sun; the Althing lasted about a fortnight, and all the chiefs and a certain number of the freemen of each district were expected to attend. This meeting was at once a court, a council, and a merry-making, and probably in the ‘old days’ a religious feast; it decided all matters concerning the common-weal, and such cases as concerned several districts and could not therefore be settled at the local moots. We have above the kind of influence it exercised on the life of the people, and the opportunities for social intercourse it afforded; we hear of games of hurling and football, of match-making, of feasting, and above all of the recital of stories by those who could tell best the legends and traditions of their several districts,—a feature which is highly noteworthy with respect to the origin and development of the Saga in Iceland. We hear also of spring and autumn sacrifices, which no doubt coincided with and were held at the district Things. But the greatest holiday of all was Yuletide, which sometimes lasted a fortnight, when friends, neighbors, and kinsmen would assemble at some farm in the dale and pass the time eating, drinking, and merry-making. The homely life of those days, while it kept every man in his own place, yet tolerated no formal separation of ranks; and the meanest thrall shared with the highest chief in the hospitality and relaxation of the season. In early days religious solemnities were celebrated at this time, and the fitting sacrifices always concluded with a feast. Weddings and Arval feasts too were opportunities for great gatherings of guests down to much later times, and often lasted many days.
  
  “It was amid such scenes that the Saga came into being. There was no music, no dancing, no drama in the old times in Iceland; so that hearing and telling stories, and repeating verses, formed (besides athletic sports) the staple amusement of the assembled guests. The local heroes and the local traditions furnished the chief topics; for the Icelanders were a practical rather than a religious people, and though they had legends of a superstitious character, they preferred truth to fiction, and so the plain unvarnished tale of some great local chiefs career abroad and adventures at home was woven into the permanent shape of the saga.”
  11
 
  The great period of Icelandic literature was before the twelfth century. Thereafter much of the simplicity and epic beauty of the older poets waned; and commentators began to play havoc either with amended originals, with interpolations of personal bias or current vogue, or even with pseudo-antique imitations. In the literary age the chief poets were members of the famous Sturlung family: Snorri and his two nephews, Sturla and Olaf the White Poet, in particular. It would be useless to give a mere enumeration of names, which would leave in the ear of the reader simply a series of barbaric sounds, that would convey no definite meaning to his mind; but mention at least may be made of the few great ones of the earlier time. Such men were Egill, the foe of Eirik Bloodaxe and the friend of Athelstan; Kormak (whose name has a strangely Celtic sound in our ears, being phonetically identical with Cormac), the hot-headed champion; Eyvind, King Hakon’s poet, called Skaldspoiler because he copied in his dirge over that king the older and finer Eiriks-mal; Gunnlaug, who sang at Ethelred’s court, and fell at the hands of a brother bard Hrafn; Hallfred, Olaf Tryggvason’s poet, who lies in Iona by the side of Macbeth; Sighvat, Saint Olaf’s henchman, most prolific of all his comrades; Thormod (and here again we have a Celtic reminder, for the familiar Gaelic forename Norman is, in the vernacular, Tormaid or Tormod, though its pronunciation is different), the poet who dies singing at Sticklestad battle; Ref, Ottar the Black, Arnor the earl’s poet; and of those whose poetry was almost confined to Iceland, there were Gretti, Biorn, and the two model Icelandic masters Einar Skulason and Markus the Lawman,—the two latter however both of the twelfth century.  12
  With the end of the Literary Age, towards the close of the thirteenth century, the greatness of Iceland waned. Thereafter, for two hundred and fifty years (from 1284 to 1530), the epoch of mediævalism prevailed; an epoch of great vicissitudes from within and without, including the eruptions of 1362 and 1389, and devastating epidemics. During this long period, when the Continental influence—chiefly Norse, however—prevailed, mediæval poetry and romances were all the vogue. With the Reformation in 1530 the period of decay for the Northern Island realm set in; and for three hundred and twenty years its historians had to chronicle a record which would have saddened the hearts of the old vikings who made Iceland a power in the Northern world. In the seventeenth century there was a brief renaissance,—of great results, however, for the ultimate preservation of much of the ancient Icelandic literature. With the eighteenth century came the lowest ebb in Icelandic destinies. In the seventh year of that century, small-pox destroyed one third of the population; in 1759 a terrible famine occurred, in which 10,000 perished; in 1762 the sheep plague devastated the island; in 1765 an alarming volcanic eruption happened, followed eighteen years later by the great eruption of 1783. But though from 1850, or from the earlier free constitution in Denmark, the fourth or modern period of Iceland opened more auspiciously, the country has not yet produced a new literature. With increasing wealth and population, with home rule, and with increased advantages of all kinds, Iceland, while certainly sending out into the world many eminent scholars and men of action, has not yet succeeded in recovering any of her ancient literary glory.  13
  It is then to the long early period of the Commonwealth that we must look for that Icelandic literature which is the glory of the Northern races. This period of the Commonwealth extends over about four hundred years; that is, from the first settlement by colonists from the Western Isles and Norway in 870, to the submission to the Norwegian kings and the subsequent national changes towards the close of the thirteenth century. This period again is divisible into three sections: the Heroic Age, the Saga-building Period, and the Literary Age. Up to close upon the middle of the tenth century, it is the poetry of the West Islands, rather than that of the Norse immigrants, which has to be accepted as the basis of Icelandic literature. For a hundred years thereafter—that is, from 930 to 1030—the Icelandic poets were mostly singers abroad; vikings whom the old restless spirit of adventure carried far west, far south, or back up to that turbulent East whence their forbears had come. The early period of saga-telling is a brief one, and is coincident with the entry of Christianity into the island, and while the events of the later sagas were in actual occurrence. Broadly, this is from 1030 to 1100. For one hundred and eighty years thereafter there comes the period known as the Literary Age, in which flourished Ari and his school, Thorodd, the historic saga-writers, Snorri and his school, and the famous Sturla. It was in the first half of the twelfth century that vernacular writing began. If the civil wars which prevailed from near the beginning of the thirteenth century until the fall of the great houses after the second civil wars, which culminated years later in the submission to the Norwegian kings,—if all these interfered in some respects with the development of literature, it is significant to note that here in remote Iceland, as in Rome in the past and the mediæval Italy and Elizabethan England, a period of stress and strife seems in many ways to have enhanced the literary sense, and to have proved advantageous for the cultivation of letters. “In the opinion of those most competent to judge,” writes one of the few American critics who have interested themselves in this Old World saga literature, “this early Icelandic literature has never been surpassed, if equaled, in all that gives value to that portion of history which consists in spirited delineations of character, in faithful and lively pictures of events, among nations in a rude state of society.”  14
  Although the sagas were first written about the middle of the twelfth century, the greater sagas were not composed into their present shape till about 1220. To that year or thereabouts is dated the ‘Egla Saga’; the ‘Laxdaela’ about 1230, the ‘Niala’ about 1240, and the ‘Eyrbyggia’ about 1260. Snorri who died in 1241, and Sturla who died in 1284, are the two great names which are the ornament of that heroic period of Icelandic literature which makes a large part of the thirteenth century so memorable to its students. The oldest existing manuscript, however, does not go so far back. This is supposed to be the Flatöe Manuscript, so called from its discovery in the monastery which bore that name. This Flatöe Manuscript is of incalculable value apart from its literary interest; for it contains the sagas devoted to the history of the pre-Columbian discoveries of the Northmen. This manuscript was known to be in existence as early as the year 1395; that is, about one hundred years before the rediscovery of the American continent by Cabot and Columbus. One of the sagas included within its scope, that known as the Saga of Thorfinn, was actually written in Greenland, where during the years 1006 and 1007 the colonists as the saga-man says, who had resorted thither from Iceland, “sought amusement in reciting history.”  15
  Jardar the Dane is supposed to have been the first person who made a voyage northward to Iceland, though its early name of Snowland was given to it by the pirate Nododd about the year 864. There is little question however but that Iceland was known to the Irish Gaels, and possibly also to the Britons, before this. We have the authority of Ari Frode, in the ‘Landnama Book,’ in testimony of the fact that when the first Norsemen entered Iceland they found Irish monks already residing there.  16
  It is seldom that the characteristics of a race are more clearly shown in the physiognomy of its literature than in the instance of the Icelanders and the Icelandic sagas. Their mental and physical intrepidity are proverbial; and this quality is exemplified again and again throughout the early and late sagas and Eddas. Directness, simplicity, and intrepidity, whether of mind or body,—these qualities distinguish the Northmen of old, and the many characteristics of the national expression of their life. For the rest, we find in the sagas, along with the development of individual and national epic themes, a great many superstitions; some of them folk-lore survivals, and others integral portions of the somberly imaginative Scandinavian. While the combative spirit displayed throughout this early literature has its counterpart in the Celtic sagas, it is not combined as there with the same fantasy, color, and vivacity we find in the best early Gaelic chronicles. But throughout we hear in them the clash of swords, the surge of the sea, the blowing of the north wind, the full simple heroic words of the heroic man, the full simple words of passion and devotion of heroic women, and above all and through all the influence of mighty forces of destiny and fate. In the later sagas this element of the workings of fate degenerates into so-called religious teaching, but even here the old pagan spirit is observable; as in the almost passionate emphasis laid upon the doctrine of retribution for sin, and in the somber pictures of the life which awaits the sinner in the next world. As an anonymous writer has said:—“We recognize in the old saga literature the same bold indomitable spirit that led the Northmen victoriously up the Areopagus at Athens; gave the swing to sword and battle-axe in the streets of Constantinople; enabled them to seize Novgorod and found the line of pre-Slavonic czars who ruled until 1598; and that caused the cheek of Charlemagne to turn pale, while priest and monk on trembling knees put up the suffrage, ‘From the fear of the Normans, good Lord deliver us.’”  17
  Here is an instance illustrative of the physical courage of the old Northern mind. It is from the death-song of Ragnar Lodbrok, a poem belonging to the close of the eighth century, and with the peculiar alliterative effects characteristic of the metrical literature of that period:—

  WE hewed with our swords—
quick goes all to my heirs.
Grim stings the adder;
snake house in my heart;
but soon Vithris’s lance
shall stand fast in Ella.
Rage will swell my sons
to hear their father’s doom;
ne’er will those gallant youths
rest till avenged.
  
We hewed with our swords;
full fifty times my lance,
the messenger of death,
raged through the battle.
It was my boyhood’s play
to stain my lance with blood.
Methinks than I, no king
can boast of brighter deeds.
We must to Asar call,
and without grief I go.
  
We hewed with our swords;
home invite we the Diser,
the maidens of Odin.
With them and the Asar
high seated shall we
there the mead quaff;
fled are my life’s hours,
yet I die smiling.

So likewise Harold, the valiant rover, tells us of his own courage, lamenting that after all a Russian maid, Elizabeth daughter of Janislaus, should refuse him. We give only a part of the poem:—

  MY ship hath sailed round the isle of Sicily;
Then were we all splendid and gay.
My mirror-laden ship then swiftly along the waves,
Eager for the fight,
I thought my sails would never slacken:
And yet a Russian maid disdains me.
  
With the men of Drontheim I fought in my youth.
They had troops much greater in numbers,
Dreadful was the conflict;
Young as I was, I left their young king dead in the fight:
And yet a Russian maid disdains me.
  
Well do I know the eight exercises:
I fight with courage,
I keep a firm seat on horseback,
And skilled am I in swimming.
Along the ice glide I on skates,
I excel in darting the lance,
I am dexterous at the oar:
And yet a Russian maid disdains me.
  18
 
  As an example of prose narrative, here is a brief excerpt descriptive of the death of the Jarl Ronald, A.D. 1046, as told in the famous ‘Orkney Saga’:—
          EARL RONALD lay at Kirkwall and collected thither all sorts of supplies for the winter, having with him a large following whom he entertained regardless of cost. A little before Jule, the earl started with a numerous retinue for the Lesser Papa to fetch malt. In the evening, as they sat a long time baking their limbs at the fire, the man who kept it up said the fuel was getting short. On which the jarl made a slip of the tongue. He said, “We shall be old enough when this fire is burnt out.” But he meant to have said, “We shall be warm enough.” And when he perceived it he said, “I made a slip of the tongue [misspoke]; I never did so before, that I can mind. This reminds me of what King Olaf, my foster-father, said at Sticklestad when I observed his slip of the tongue. He said that if ever I made a slip of the tongue, I must make up my mind to have a short time left to live. Maybe my kinsman Thorfinn is alive.” At this moment they heard people all round the house. Earl Thorfinn was come, and they set fire to the buildings and heaped up a great pile before the doors. Thorfinn permitted all but the earl’s men to go out. And when most of the people had come out, a man came into the doorway, dressed in linen clothes only, and begged Thorfinn to give the deacon a helping hand. At the same moment he placed his hand on the balk of wood (across the door), sprang right over it and beyond the ring of men, and fled away in the darkness of the night. Earl Thorfinn bade them follow after him, and said, “There fared the earl: it was one of his feats of strength and nobody’s else.” The men set off in search, separating into knots. Thorkell Foster searched along the shore, when they heard a dog bark among the rocks. Earl Ronald had his lapdog with him. The earl was captured, and Thorkell bade his men kill him, offering them money. But all the same they refused. So Thorkell himself slew him, for he knew that one or the other of them would have to do it. Earl Thorfinn now came up, and blamed not the deed. They spent the night on the island slaughtering the whole of Ronald’s followers. Next morning they laded the merchant ship with malt, then went aboard, placing in the prow and stern the shields which Ronald and his men had, and no more men upon her than had come with the earl, and then rowed to Kirkwall. As Ronald’s men supposed that it must be the earl and his followers coming back, they went to meet them unarmed. Earl Thorfinn seized and killed thirty, most of them being King Magnus’s men and friends of his. One retainer of the King’s he let go, bidding him fare to Norway and tell King Magnus the news.
  19
  It is however in the rough metres of Scandinavian poetry that one most easily apprehends the genius of this Northern people. To take an extract (not much earlier in date than the foregoing, namely in 1014) from the famous ‘Nial’s Saga.’ The extract in question is known as the ‘Spaedom of the Norns,’ and is supposed to have been based on the vision of some man of Caithness gifted with second-sight to foretell the result of the great battle of Clontarf. The expression in it “web of spears,” however, points to a much earlier legend. Here is the literal translation of the ‘Spaedom’ as given by Sir G. Dasent:—

  SEE! warp is stretched
For warrior’s fall;
Lo, weft in loom,
’Tis wet with blood;
Now, fight foreboding,
’Neath friends’ swift fingers
Our gray woof waxeth
With war’s alarms,
Our warp blood-red,
Our weft corse-blue.
  
This woof is y-woven
With entrails of men;
This warp is hard weighted
With heads of the slain;
Spears blood-besprinkled
For spindles we use,
Our loom iron-bound,
And arrows our reels;
With swords for our shuttles
This war-woof we work;
So weave we, weird sisters,
Our war-winning woof.
  
Now war-winner walketh
To weave in her turn,
Now Sword-swinger steppeth,
Now Swift-stroke, now Storm;
When they speed the shuttle
How spear-heads shall flash!
Shields crash, and helm-gnawer
On harness bite hard!
  
Wind we, wind swiftly
Our war-winning woof,
Woof erst for king youthful,
Foredoomed as his own.
Forth now we will ride,
Then, through the ranks rushing,
Be busy where friends
Blows blithe give and take.
  
Wind we, wind swiftly
Our war-winning woof;
After that let us steadfastly
Stand by the brave king;
Then men shall mark mournful
Their shields red with gore,
How Sword-stroke and Spear-thrust
Stood stout by the prince.
  
Wind we, wind swiftly
Our war-winning woof,
When sword-bearing rovers
To banners rush on.
Mind, maidens, we spare not
One life in the fray;
We corse-choosing sisters
Have charge of the slain.
  
Now new-coming nations
That island shall rule,
Who on outlying headlands
Abode ere the fight;
I say that king mighty
To death now is done,
Now low before spear-point
That Earl bows his head.
  
Soon over all Ersemen
Sharp sorrow shall fall,
That woe to those warriors
Shall wane nevermore.
Our woof now is woven,
Now battle-field waste,
O’er land and o’er water
War tidings shall leap.
  
Now surely ’tis gruesome
To gaze all around,
When blood-red through heaven
Drives cloud-rack o’erhead;
Air soon shall be deep-hued
With dying men’s blood,
When this our spaedom
Comes speedy to pass.
  
So cheerily chant we
Charms for the young king;
Come, maidens, lift loudly
His war-winning lay;
Let him who now listens
Learn well with his ears,
And gladden brave swordsmen
With bursts of war’s song.
  
Now mount we our horses,
Now bare we our brands,
Now haste we hard, maidens,
Hence, far, far away.
  20
 
  Among the old historic songs which preceded the great saga epoch there is one attributed to Thiodolf (others say to Hornklofi), which Dr. Metcalfe affirms in those days would be equivalent in popularity and significance to the once famous ‘Lillibullero’ or the later ‘Ye Mariners of England.’

  HAVE you heard of the fight
At Hafrsfjord
’Tween a high-born king
And Kiotni the Rich?
Came ships from the est,
All keen for the fray,
With silver inlaid,
And agape were their beaks.
  
They were manned with Udallers,
And piled with white shields,
And West Country spears,
And Gallic swords.
Bellowed the Bare-sarks
In Hilda’s train;
The Wolf-skins howled
’Mid the din of iron.
  
They put to the proof
One who taught them to fly,
The dauntless King Harold,
The Lord of Utstein.
He launched from the shore
In view of the stir;
What a thumping of shields
Ere Haklang fell!
  
He tired right soon
Of facing King Harfagr;
To an island fled he,
The thick-throated ruler.
Under the row-seat
The wounded they huddled,
With backs stuck up
And faces bent down.
  
In the storm of stones,
As they fled, they cast
On their backs their shields,
Bright roof of Valhalla.
Wild with fear, they fled home
Around Jadar’s shores,
On their mead-bowls intent,
From Hafrsfjord.
  21
 
  The Hornklofi mentioned above, whose name signifies “horn-cleaver,” was really a poet named Thorbjorn. In the Fagrskinna there are some lines of great interest by him, describing the court of the King, the famous Harold Fairhair, a contemporary of Alfred the Great.  22
  The skald relates an imaginary conversation between a Valkyr and some ravens, who, being the constant companions of Harold in his expeditions, were able to gratify the lady’s curiosity about him. In literal prose it runs:—

  LISTEN, ye ring-bearers [i.e., nobles],
While I recount the accomplishments
Of King Harold,
The immensely rich;
I must tell of the colloquy
Which I heard between
A white fair-haired maid
And a raven.
  
Wise was the Valkyr;
She knew the voice of birds.
The white-throated one,
The sharp-sighted one,
Spoke to the air-cleaver,
Who sat on a point of the rocks:—
  
“Why here ye ravens?
Whence are ye come,
With gory beak,
At the approach of day?
Flesh sticks to your claws,
The reek of carrion comes from your mouth:
Surely you set off by night,
For ye knew that corpses lay on the plain.”
  
He of the plumed skull shook his feathers;
The eagle’s sworn brother
Dried his beak,
And bethought him of an answer:—
  
“We’ve followed Harold,
Halfdan’s son,
The young noble,
Ever since the egg we left.
  
“I thought you’d know the King,
He who abides at Hvin,
The lord of the Northmen,
Who owns the deep galleys,
The ruddy-rimmed shields,
The tarred oars,
The weather-stained awnings.
  
“He’ll drink his yule feast at sea,
If he alone shall decide,
This courageous chief,
And play Frey’s game.
The youth loathes the fireside
And sitting at home;
The warm ladies’ bower,
And cushions stuffed with down.”
  23
 
  The Valkyr then asks whether Harold is munificent to his men:—

  “Many a present
His warriors get,
Who in Harold’s court
Throw with the dice;
They’re with money endowed,
And handsome swords,
With German armor,
And Eastern slaves.
  
“Then are they glad,
The skillful men-at-arms,
Agile to jump
And swing the oars,
Till they break the loops
And snap the thole-pins;
Splash goes the water
At the word of the King.”
  24
 
  The condition of the court skalds is next described:—

  “You may see by their trappings
And their gold rings
That they’re familiar with the King;
They’re possessed of red cloaks,
And fair-rimmed shields,
And silver-strapped swords,
And gilt belts,
And chased helmets,
And armlets good store,
These servants of Harold.”
  25
 
  His Berserker champions are next described:—

  “Wolf-skins they’re hight,
They who in battle
Bear the bloody shields,
Who redden the spears
When they gather to the fray,
When they rush to the onset.”
  26
 
  The poem concludes with a description of the players and jugglers at Harold’s court. Some of them indulge in unheard-of pranks, to the great amusement of the King.  27
  Allusion has already been made to an Icelandic poet named Eyvind Skalda-spiller. His ‘Háconamál’ is considered one of the best samples of skaldic poetry extant. The Hacon referred to in the title was Hacon the Good (925–961), one of the two sons of Harold Fairhair and the foster-son of the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan.  28
 
 
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