I HAVE heard the question asked, "What interest can attach to the language and literature of a small and remote island, the inhabitants of which never exceeded 60,000 in number?" The population of Iceland has always been insignificant, and its territory barren, but we must recollect what the race was, which this population represented, and whose language it is that has come down to us as a living tongue, on this half desert spot in in the Northern Ocean. The Sagas, of which this tale is one, were composed for the men who have left their mark in every corner of Europe, and whose language and laws are at this moment important elements in the speech and institutions of England, America, and Australia. There is no page of modern history in which the influence of the Northmen and their conquest must not be taken into account--Russia, Constantinople, Greece, Palestine, Sicily, the coasts of Africa, Southern Italy, France, the Spanish Peninsula, England, Scotland, Ireland, and every rock and island round them, have been visited, and most of them at one time or another, ruled by the men of Scandinavia. The motto on the sword of Roger Guiscard was a proud one--
Appulus et Calaber Siculus mihi servit, et Afer."
(Raumer, Hohenstaufen, b. i. circa 473).
The remoteness or insignificance of Iceland, therefore, affords no adequate measure of the interest which belongs to its language, its literature, and its history. All this has been fully discussed by Mr. Laing in his prefaces to the Heimskringla, and by Mr. Dasent in the essay prefixed to his excellent translation of the Nials Saga. But there is another point of view in which these Icelandic stories possess a great and peculiar interest in relation to their history of literature. Taken altogether, they are the first prose literature which exists in any modern language spoken by the people.
Notwithstanding the fact that Monsieur Jourdain had talked prose for forty years without knowing it, good composition in prose is a product of the human intellect of far slower growth than good poetry. Imagination and metre have always been in advances of plain facts and prose.
We admit that Greek prose writers existed in the sixth century before Christ, but that was long after the birth of Greek poetry; and prose writing ripened only in the time of Herodotus, when very little more was known about the author of the Homeric songs than we moderns know at this day.
In what country except Scandinavia, or in what other modern living language of Europe did there exist, in the elevenths century, a literature embracing history and prose-fiction?
No doubt there were translations into Anglo-Saxon from the Latin, by Alfred, of an earlier date, but there was in truth no vernacular literature. I cannot name any work in High or Low German prose which can be carried back to this period. In French prose-writing cannot be said to have begun before the time of Villehardouin (1204), and Joinville (1202). Castilian prose certainly did not commence before the time of Alfonso X. (1252). Don Juan Manuel, the author of the "Conde Lucanor," was not born till 1282. The Cronica General de Espana was not composed till at least the middle of the thirteenth century. About the same time the language of Italy was acquiring that strength and softness which were destined to appear so conspicuously in the prose of Boccaccio, and the writers of the next century.
Burt "Are hinn frodi," who is said by Snorri to have first committed these Sagas to writing, was born in 1067, and it must be supposed on reasonable grounds that the earlier ones had assumed their present form before the end of the twelfth century. It should be remembered, too, that the number of these compositions is very large, and that they contain both history and fiction. The reader will find a list of Icelandic works in Mr. Laings book, already referred to. Our existing MSS of them cannot be assigned to a date earlier than the fourteenth century.
Of these sagas that of Viga-Glum, now translated, is probably one of the earliest. Bishop Müller says of it, in his "Saga Bibliothek" (Copenhagen, 1817, b. i. 78): "This Saga conains important contributions ito the history of manners, legislation, and religious ideas. It is composed in the pure old language, and is without doubt one of the earliest written narratives. The events are true. The most important persons and acts are spoken of in the Landnama. Glum himself is named in the Valnaliots Saga, in the Kristni Saga, and in the Landnama. His quarrels with Viga Skuta are told with more detail in the Sagas of the latter. Glums son, Vigfuss, is mentioned in many Sagas, and in the Heimskringla, in Olaf Tryggvesens history, chapter 45 (Laings Transl. vol. i. p. 410). His nephew, Thorvald Tafalld, who supported him in his fights, has also been made the subject of a special little narrative, which is to be found in Olaf Tryggvesens Saga. The annals mention one of Glums exploits under the year 942 or 944. Asgrim, the son of Ellidagrim, who is named in this Saga, is known to us also in the Nials Saga, Floamanna Saga, and Kristni Saga. Einar, Gudmunds brother, is often mentioned, especially in the Liosvetninga Saga."
Einar, here referred to by Bishop Müller, was a remarkable person in Icelandic history. He was the brother of Gudmund the Powerful, and the direct descendant of Helga, the sister of Ingald, Glums grandfather. When Olaf, King of Norway, wanted to obtain the island of Grimsö with a view to encroaching the independence of Iceland, Einar addressed to his countrymen one of the simplest and most striking speeches ever made on behalf of freedom. He counselled them to have nothing to do with the king, except in the way of gifts or voluntary presents which could not be mistaken for tribute. This speech will be found in Mr. Laings Heimskringla, vol. ii. p. 188.
With regard to the intrinsic merits of the narrative, the reader must judge for himself. The picture of society which it presents to us is not one of pastoral simplicity and repose, but the actors in it are real men and women, not merely lay figures, and the events are for the most part those of every-day life. Bloodshed and violence are common, and a mans consideration in the community depends mainly on his won courage and on his wealth yet the condition of things contrast favourably with that prevailing in most countries at a far later date under the fuedal system. The bulk of the population were free; they made their own laws, and executed them themselves, and we see among them the working of those principles of constitutional freedom which in most countries of Europe have long since perished. One peculiarity too they have which is especially interesting to us. They exhibit in a most remarkable degree that idolatry for forms of law, which sometimes causes the substance of justice to be disregarded as secondary to the form, but which, on the other hand, in our own country, has perhaps more than once saved the kernel by preserving the husk, when both would otherwise have perished. I believe it is a curious fact that the Normans retain to the present day a reputation for litigiousness as compared with other French provinces.
Viga-Glum, or "Murdering Glum," the hero of this story, is not by any means a perfect character, even when measured by the standards of the time in which he lived; but the author tells us that for twenty years he was the first man in Eyjafirth, and for twenty years more there was no better man there. He is described as one who was naturally indolent, shy, and moody; but when once he could be brought to act, his courage and determination were indomitable. he was thoroughly unscrupulous; neither blood nor false oaths stood in his way when he had to achieve a purpose. It might be said of him, as of Autolycus, the grandfather of Ulysses (Od. xix. 395). His humour is sometimes childish, as is the story of Kálf; and sometimes savage, as when he asks the wife to put a stitch into his cloak just before he turns round and kills her husband, apparently for no object but to show his thorough coolness and indifference. The finishing touch to this part of his character is added by the peculiarity, that whenever he was intent on slaying a man, he was apt to be seized with a fit of uncontrollable laughter which ended in tears.
There is something very striking too in the description of the old heathen, stone-blind, who hopes before he dies, yet to slay by treachery one at least of his enemies, and rides out to meet them with a drawn sword under his cloak.
Among the incidents of the story, that of Eyiolf killing the Berserker is to me particularly interesting. It is one of many such in the Sagas, as for instance in the Egils Saga and the Grettirs Saga. Here we find the type of the old common-stock stories of romance about distressed damsels rescued by knights from giants but we see this type exemplified in everyday life, as if it were something that might happen to any man the next morning; and as we are told in the Grettirs Saga it did happen very often in Norway when those pests of the society of that day, the Berserkers, were allowed to make their way in the world, and advance their fortunes as professional bullies. 1
The story is not always intelligible unless the reader keeps in mind the personal relations of the actors, and I have therefore appended to the translation two or three pedigrees of the families to which they belonged. With regard to the Icelandic text it should be observed that there is but one manuscript of any value, the others being mere transcripts. The obscurities arising from this fact are especially felt in the scraps of poetry, which are often very difficult to make out. They have very little merit and I have done no more than paraphrase their general meaning; but they could not be omitted altogether, as in one or two cases the story turns upon their contents. In the prose narrative I have adhered to the original as closely as was consistent with my desire of presenting to the English reader a translation that could be read without being very stiff and tiresome, but I am by no means sure that I have attained this object.
I ought not to close this Preface without acknowledging the assistance which I have received from Mr. Dasent and especially from Mr. Vigfusson, the Editor of the "Eyrbyggia Saga," printed at Leipzig in 1864. Another friend, the Right Honourable Robert Lowe, has permitted me to prefix to this book a Greek Epigram of his addressed to Iceland, which is worthy of his reputation as a classical scholar. I only wish that his public occupations would allow us to profit by his acquirements in the language and literature of the North.
London, December, 1865.
1 See Grettirs Saga, chap. xix. 40.