Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Iceland
I C E L A N D
ICELAND (in Danish, Island) is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean, immediately to the south of the polar circle. It extends from 63° 23′ to 66° 33′ N. lat., and from 13° 22′ to 24° 35′ W. long. Its distance from the north of Scotland is 500 miles, from Norway 600 miles, and from Greenland 250 miles. The greatest length of the island is 300 miles, from east to west, and its greatest breadth 200 miles. The area is estimated at 39,200 square miles, 7000 more than that of Ireland.
The geological formation of the island is throughout volcanic. It rests on a foundation of palagonite, or palagonite tufa, called in Icelandic “mó-berg”; and on this foundation are raised plateaus of basalts, and mountains of trachyte and other volcanic ejections. The whole island seems to have been filled up by volcanic agency. In some of the mountains the lavas occur in tolerably regular parallel strata or terraces, separated here and there by layers containing lignite, as in the similar volcanic plateaus of Faroe and Greenland.
|VOL. XII.||ICELAND||PLATE IV.|
W. & A. K. Johnston.
|encyclopædia britannica, ninth edition|
The whole of the south coast, from Hornafjörður in the south-east to Reykjanes in the south-west, is entirely unbroken by bays or firths. If such ever existed, they have been filled up by the glaciers and the sand and mud carried down from the volcanic ice-mountains situated close to the south coast. The coast-line is not, however, a straight line, but a broad arch, as the land swells out in the middle south wards to a considerable extent. On the north of Reykjanes a broad bay called Faxaflói (Faxi's Bay) cuts into the land; it is bounded on the north side by Snæfellsnes, and has an area of 54 miles by 30. On the north side of Snæfellsnes the long Breiðifjörður (Broadfirth) nearly cuts off the north-west peninsula from the rest of the island; it is 80 miles long and 40 broad. The Breiðifjörður is noted for its great number of small islands, most of them inhabited, and all of them affording breeding places for the eider duck. To the north of the Breiðifjörður, innumerable bays cut into the peninsula at every turn, giving it some what the look of the outstretched hand of a man; the longest of these is Ísafjarðardjúp (Icefirthdeep), 45 miles long. On the north side of the island, between Horn (Cape North) on the west and Melrakkaslétta (Fox Plain) on the east, there are several large firths. Furthest to the west is Húnaflói (Bearcubs' Bay), about 60 miles long, which nearly meets the Breiðifjörður running in from the west; the tongue of land which separates them and connects the north-west peninsula with the rest of the island is hardly 5 miles broad. The other firths on the north side are Skagafjörður, Eyafjörður (Firth of the Isles) 36 miles long, Skjálfandafjörður, and Axarfjörður (Axefirth). The Melrakkaslétta is separated from Langanes, the north-east point of Iceland, by the Þistilfjörður (Thistlefirth). The whole of the east coast of the island is indented by numerous narrow firths like those found in the north-west peninsula, but none of them are of any great length. Sailing round the island from point to point, the distance is 900 miles, but if we follow the coast-line it is not less than 2000 miles.
The centre of the island is a table-land, or rather a broad flattened ridge, sloping down to the north and the south, the average height of which above the level of the sea is about 2000 feet. It consists of arid sands and rugged tracts of lava, the most important of which bear the names of Ódáðahraun (the Lava of Evil Deeds), Sprengisandur (Bursting Sand), and Stórisandur (Big Sand). This wilderness is frequently broken by high and extensive ice-hills called jökull (plur. jöklar). The ice hills rise to the greatest height in the south-east, where the most extensive ice-field in the island, called Vatnajökull, covers about 4000 square miles. The outliers of this ice-field come close down to the water, hardly leaving room for passage between them and the sea; some of these are the loftiest summits in the island, as Öræfajökull, which is 6466 feet high. South of the west end of the Vatnajökull, called Skaptárjökull, stretches an inhabited slope, interrupted by several small hills, and intersected by considerable streams. The east-most part is called Síða; then follow Landbrot, Meðalland, and Alptaver. West of this the land rises again in the Mýrdalsjökull and the Eyafjallajökull, the latter being 5593 feet high, and here again the mountains come close down to the sea. West of the Eyafjallajökull is the largest plain in the island, stretching westward to the mountain chain terminating in the low cape of Reykjanes, and backed on the north side by several isolated mountains, among which the far-famed Hecla is prominent; its height approaches 5000 feet. This plain consists of stretches of grass land and marshes, affording abundance of grass for pasture and haymaking.
The southern and part of the eastern coasts of Faxaflói, as far as Reykjavík, are very barren and desolate, being almost entirely rugged lava tracts; but the lower parts of the hills then begin to be clothed with grass, affording pasture for sheep, cattle, and horses. North of Reykjavík is a long and narrow firth called Hvalfjörður (Whalefirth), and further on a shorter one called Borgarfjörður (Burghfirth). Between the extremity of the latter and the central highlands there is a large and fertile district, consisting of grassy valleys, divided by low hills, and an extensive plain covered with marshy grasslands. This district is a fair specimen of many of the inhabited parts of Iceland. The level land, the valley bottoms along the river banks, and in many cases the slopes of the hills, are covered with grass, but the soil is too frequently boggy and marshy. The hills are partly covered with heather, and in a few places with stunted dwarf birch. Districts similar in character to Borgarfjörður are the Dalir (Dales) on the south side of Breiðifjörður, the Húnavatnssýsla on the south side of Húnaflói, the Skagafjörður, the Fljótsdalshérað on the east side of the island, and the western half of the plain lying between Eyafjallajökull and the Reykjanes range of mountains. The north-west peninsula consists, as already stated, of narrow firths divided by high and narrow mountain ridges, seldom lower than 2000 feet. In some places the top is a thin rocky edge; in others it consists of sharp-pointed peaks, denuded of all vegetation. Even at a considerable distance the different rocky strata may be distinguished. Sometimes these hills, or rather cliffs, rise perpendicularly out of the water to a height of a couple of thousand feet, affording breeding-places to an immense number of sea-fowl. More frequently the lower parts of these razor-backed hills slope towards the firths, the stony slopes being partly covered with grass or heather. The farms are therefore found along the shores and in short valleys cutting into the hills from the ends of the firths. The east coasts of Iceland present exactly the same character as that of the north-west peninsula. From the end of Eyafjörður a long and fertile valley, bounded on both sides by lofty mountains, runs due south into the country for about 25 miles. The north-east corner of the island, called Þingeyarsýsla, has good sheep pasturage, although its hills and slopes are covered with heather instead of grass to a greater extent than most other districts of the island. It will thus be seen that the inhabited parts run round the coasts, and from the end of the bays into the interior, the farms farthest inland being about 50 miles from the sea.
As the snow-line is at an altitude of from 2500 to 3000 feet, all the highest mountain-tops are cones covered with perpetual snow. Besides the ice-mountains already mentioned, there are several on the western part of the central highlands, such as Hofsjökull, Langjökull, Eiríksjökull, &c.; Snæfellsjökull, at the point of the peninsula separating the Faxaflói and Breiðifjörður, reaches the height of 4713 feet. All these mountains are snow-capped. Most parts of the island are studded with hills ranging in height from 2000 to 3000 feet. The tops are usually bare and rocky, but the slopes are to some extent covered with grass and heather.
Most of the mountains of Iceland have been volcanoes, and at least twenty-five of them have been active within the historical period of the island, that is, the last 1000 years. It was observed by Mackenzie that there are two volcanic formations in the island, one consisting of flat sheets of basalt, the other of more irregular hilly accumulations of trachyte, obsidian, ashes, and other volcanic masses. The former of these, there can be little doubt, is of Tertiary age—a part of the great Miocene volcanic plateaus, which on the one hand extend southwards through the Faroe Islands and the west of Scotland to the north of Ireland, and on the other stretch northwards and westwards far into Greenland. The other volcanic masses are of recent date. Iceland has thus been the theatre of volcanic activity at two widely separated periods, though we do not yet know whether during the interval the activity was wholly dormant. Of the existing volcanic mountains the best known is Hecla, from which eighteen eruptions have been recorded; the last took place in 1845-46. The intervals between the eruptions have varied greatly; sometimes it has remained quiet for six years only, at other times for seventy-two years. As with most other volcanoes, the height of this mountain varies with the eruptions. Thus before the eruption of 1845 its height was given on Gunlaugsson's map as 4951 feet, while Kjerulf measured the mountain in 1850, and found it to be only 4532 feet. The earliest historical eruption, that of 1104, is celebrated as the “sand-rain winter,” the second, in 1158, as the “great darkness,” from the quantity of ashes ejected. One feature of the Icelandic eruptions, not from Hecla only, but from other orifices in the island, has been the prodigious quantity of fine dust discharged and the great distance to which this material has been carried. Thus in the year 1766 a column of ashes rose out of the crater of Hecla to a height of 16,000 feet into the air. Volcanic dust from the Icelandic vents has frequently been borne by upper air currents so as to fall upon the Faroe Islands, and has even been carried in considerable quantities as far as Norway on the one side and the north of Scotland on the other. Next to Hecla, the Katla, or Kötlugjá, in Mýrdalsjökull may be mentioned; its last eruption (the thirteenth known) took place in 1860. The most tremendous volcanic outbreak in Iceland was that which took place in 1783 in or near the Skaptárjökull, on the north-west border of the Vatnajökull. Two principal lava streams flowed from it: one of them was 50 miles in length, from 12 to 15 miles in breadth, and 100 feet deep, and the other was 40 miles in length. It has been calculated that these two streams cover an area of 420 square miles. This eruption destroyed directly or indirectly one-sixth of the inhabitants of the whole island, or one-half of all the live stock. From nearly all the outliers of the Vatnajökull eruptions now and then take place. To the north of Vatnajökull a range of volcanic centres extends as far as Myvatn. The last outbreak here took place in 1875, when fine volcanic dust was discharged in great quantity, some of it being carried as far as Norway. The sea around the coasts of Iceland has been frequently disturbed by volcanic outbreaks, especially off Cape Reykjanes.
The only mineral worked to any extent in Iceland is sulphur; the principal mines are those of Krísuvík and Mývatn. Of the Iceland spar used for polarizing optical instruments, only one mine has been worked, that of Helgustaðir in the east of the island. Limestone is found near Reykjavík, and has been worked a few years. Iron-ore is found in many parts of the island, but not in paying quantities, as suitable fuel is wanting. Aluminium occurs near Cape Reykjanes, but no attempt has been made to work the mine. Coal has also been found in one place, but has not been worked. There are considerable quantities of lignite, called in Icelandic surtarbrandur, in the north-west peninsula; some successful attempts have been made to use it as fuel, but it has not been worked to any extent. Peat is found, and is used as fuel, in most parts of the island.
Iceland is rich in streams and rivers, some of them carrying a large volume of water; as, however, the fall is steep in every case, they are not navigable even by small boats. The longest are Þjórsá, running southwards from the central highlands, and Skjálfandafljót and Jökulsá á Fjöllum in the north-east, running northward. The last-named river is 113 miles in length, the other two 108 miles each. Of other rivers may be mentioned the Hvítá, part of which is called Ölfusá, running nearly parallel with Þjórsá, Hvítá in Borgarfjörður, Blanda running into Húnaflói, Héraðsvötn in Skagafjörður, and Lagarfljót in the east. There are several rivers named Hvítá (white river), so called from their milky waters, caused by the glacial mixtures carried down from the highlands. The principal waterfalls are—Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, south of Eyafjallajökull, Godafoss in Skjalfandáfljót, and Dettifoss in Jökulsá á Fjöllum. Of the lakes Þingvallavatn, about 25 miles north-east of Reykjavík, and Mývatn in the north-east of Iceland are the largest. The former is 25 miles in circumference, and the latter 36 miles; its waters are studded with thirty-four small islands, affording breeding-places to a large number of water-fowl.
The climate of Iceland is not nearly so severe as might be supposed from the latitude. At Reykjavík the mean temperature of the year is 39° Fahr., of the summer 53° and of the winter 29° 18′, The temperature of Akureyri is 32° for the year, that of the summer 45° 5′ and the winter 20° 7′. There is therefore great difference between the north and the south of the island. Another difference may also be noticed; while the climate of the south is wet and variable, that of the north is dry and regular. The mean temperature of different years sometimes varies as much as 10°, and the mean temperature of the same month has been known to vary as much as 27°. One feature in the climate has been noticed by all travellers, that is, the clearness and purity of the atmosphere, rivalling that of Italy, mountains being seen distinctly at a distance of 100 miles. The rainfall is considerable in the south and the east of the island, and snow-storms and gales are frequent in winter. Thunderstorms occur mostly in winter.
some willow and juniper bushes. The wild flora of Iceland is small and delicate, with bright bloom, the heaths being especially admired. Wild crowberries and bilberries are the only kind of fruit found in the island.No cereal is grown in Iceland, but in some places there is found a kind of wild oats (Arena arenaria), called in Icelandic “melur.” Potatoes, carrots, turnips, and several kinds of cabbage have lately been cultivated with considerable success. The grasses, wild and cultivated, are of the greatest importance to the inhabitants. The only trees found are the dwarf birch, rarely higher than 12 feet, and
The only wild animal in Iceland is the fox, of which both white and blue varieties occur; they are hunted for their skins, and also because they often attack the sheep. The domestic animals are the cow, the horse, the sheep, the dog, and the cat. The cows are of a small breed, resembling English shorthorns in general, and especially Alderneys. The horses are also of a small breed, the average height being twelve hands; they are hardy and enduring; many of them are never housed, and forage for themselves as best as they can throughout the winter. They are exported to Great Britain in considerable numbers, for use in the coal mines. The sheep generally are of nearly the same size as the Scotch blackfaced sheep; they are not unfrequently seen with three or four horns. The genuine Iceland dog, with his pointed snout, short ears, curled tail, and short legs, has some resemblance to the Esquimaux dog and the Scotch collie. Reindeer were imported in the last century, but they fled to the mountains and became wild; they are now nearly extinct. There are said to be ninety different species of birds, fifty-four of them being water-fowl. The most remarkable of the birds of prey are the Icelandic falcon (Falco islandicus) and the eagle. The only game bird is the ptarmigan, which is brown in summer and white in winter. Of the water-fowl the eider duck is of the greatest importance on account of its valuable down; the killing of it is therefore forbidden by law. Immense numbers of gulls, puffins, and guillemots are seen near their breeding places on the small islands and on the cliffs round the coasts. The hooper, or whistling swan, is found in large numbers in Iceland. The sea round the coast teems with cod, haddock, holibut, and the basking shark; the fin-backed-whale and seals of various kinds are also met with, but in smaller numbers. In the lakes and rivers salmon, and trout are caught in considerable quantities.
As no corn is grown, there is no agriculture to speak of, and only a little spade husbandry connected with the cultivation of kitchen gardens, where potatoes, turnips, and carrots are grown. The area thus under cultivation covers, according to the latest official returns, about 215 English acres throughout the island. The cultivation of the soil in Iceland can hardly indeed be said to have been at tempted; such experiments, however, as have been made, have given good hope of success. Around every farmhouse is a field called “tún,” which is but rarely enclosed or fenced. This is the only part of the land which is cultivated at all, and all that is done there is to spread dung on the top of the soil in autumn and scrape it off in spring. Even this most primitive cultivation makes the grass twenty-five to fifty per cent, better than elsewhere. The haymaking season extends from the middle of July to the 20th of September. The grass is cut with small scythes, first in the home field, and then on the uncultivated grass-lands belonging to the farms. Many of the fishermen hire themselves to the farmers during the haymaking season; and during the fishing season the farmers send their servants to the sea-coast to fish.
According to the latest official returns the cattle in the island numbered 20,378, the horses (ponies) 31,312, and the sheep 415,339. It is obvious, however, from the quantities of wool exported that the number of sheep must be at least double that stated in the returns.
The manufactures are confined to spinning, weaving, and knitting the wool of the sheep. A sort of tweed, called in Icelandic “vaðmál,” is the principal clothing of the inhabitants. The spinning of the yarn is done by the women in winter, and almost every farm has an old-fashioned loom. In the north considerable quantities of jackets and stockings are knitted and exported.
The trade with Iceland is entirely in the hands of Danish traders and a few Icelanders—who mostly reside in Copenhagen. It consists almost entirely in exchange, or barter. The principal exports of the Icelanders are cod fish, about 6,000,000 ℔ annually; train oil, 9500 barrels; wool, 1,500,000 ℔; eiderdown, 7000 ℔; and feathers, 20,000 ℔. Ponies are now exported to Scotland,—about 2000 a year; and a few cargoes of live sheep have been sent over during the last two years. All bread stuffs have to be imported, as well as groceries, spirits, wines, and beer, tobacco, salt, building materials, and other items. Since 1854 the trade has been open to all nations; but any vessel trading with Iceland had to take out a sea pass at the cost of 2s. 3d. per ton down to 1879, when this duty was abolished. On the other hand, a trifling duty has been laid on spirits and tobacco.
There being no roads in the island, but merely tracks trodden down by the feet of the ponies, there are no carts nor carriages of any description. In the firths boats are chiefly used for conveying goods and passengers; but all inland communication and conveyance is by ponies. These hardy animals carry each a burden of about 200 ℔ weight, under which they walk about 25 miles a day. All travelling is also on ponies; two are considered necessary for every traveller, and on them he can make from 30 to 40 miles a day.
Formerly Iceland was divided into four quarters, the east, the south, the west, and north. Now the north and the east are united under one governor, and the south and the west under another. The island is further divided into 18 sýslur (counties), and these again into 169 hreppur (rapes) or poor law districts. Ecclesiastically Iceland constitutes one bishopric, divided into 20 deaneries, and these again into 290 parishes.
Iceland is subject to the king of Denmark. According to the constitution granted to Iceland in 1874, the king shares the legislative power with the Al-thing, an assembly of 36 members, 30 of whom are elected by household suffrage, and 6 nominated by the king. The Al-thing meets every second year, and sits in two divisions, the upper and the lower. The upper division consists of the 6 members nominated by the king and 6 elected by the representatives of the people out of their own body. The lower division consists of the remaining 24 representative members.
The secretary for Iceland, who resides in Copenhagen, is responsible to the king and the Al-thing for the maintenance of the constitution, and he submits to the king for confirmation the legislative measures proposed by the Al-thing. The king appoints a governor-general, who is resident in the island and carries on the government on the responsibility of the secretary in Copenhagen. Under the governor-general (landshöfðingi) are two under governors, one for the south and west, another for the north and east. Under these are the sheriffs (sýslumenn), who act as tax gatherers, notaries public, and judges of first instance; the sheriff has in every “hreppur” an assistant, called “hreppstjóri.” In every hreppur there is also a representative committee, consisting of from three to five members, who administer the poor laws, and look after the general concerns of the hreppur. These committees are controlled by the committees of the sýslur (county boards), and these again are under the control of the amtsráð (quarter board), consisting of three members.
The administration of justice is carried out in the first instance by the sheriffs. From the sheriff courts appeals lie to the superior court at Reykjavík, consisting of three judges. Appeals may be taken in all criminal cases and most civil cases from this court to the supreme court at Copenhagen.
The state church of Iceland is the Lutheran; and all the Icelanders, without exception, belong to it. One bishop and 141 clergymen minister to the spiritual wants of the islanders. The bishop is appointed by the king. The parishes are 290, but the livings are only 141, from which it may be seen that many ministers have to serve two, and some even three parishes. The king appoints some of the ministers, and the governor-general others, with the advice of the bishop. The ministers are paid partly from the revenues of church property, and partly from tithes.
The Icelanders have long been famous for their education and learning, and it is no exaggeration to say that in no other country is such an amount of information found among the classes which occupy a similar position. A child of ten unable to read is not to be found from one end of the island to another. A peasant understanding several languages is no rarity, and the amount of general information which they possess might be envied by many who have had greater facilities for acquiring knowledge. Till within the last few years there were no elementary schools in the island; all children were taught by their parents or near neighbours. Now a few elementary schools have been started, but their number is still too small to make any general difference in the education. For classical and general education there is a college at Reykjavik, with seven professors and about one hundred students. There is also a college for ministers, with three professors. The general physician of the island, assisted by two medical men, gives lectures to medical students; but those who propose to enter the legal profession have to attend the university of Copenhagen.
There is less difference in the material prosperity of the Icelanders than in that of the inhabitants of more advanced countries. One does not find the abject poverty so often seen in large towns and among the agricultural population of some of the most civilized countries of Europe. On the other hand, wealthy men, or owners of extensive properties, are unknown, the richest man in Iceland deriving only £300 a year from his property. Although no abject poverty is seen, there are more paupers comparatively than in more populous countries, and the poor-rates in many parishes exceed all the other taxes put together. The Icelanders are often too liberal in granting relief, which in many cases breeds idleness, carelessness, and want of forethought. It is also to be noticed that in few countries is it so easy to live with as little labour as in Iceland. On account of the climate, out-of-door work cannot be conducted for more than five months of the year at most, but even this time is not used, with so much energy and skill as it might be. The haymaking, carried on for two months in the year, is the only work which is prosecuted with anything like energy. Fishing is prosecuted not continuously but periodically. The want of activity among the Icelanders is to be ascribed partly to their slow temperament, and partly to their utter want of training. They are very fond of gathering any amount of miscellaneous information, but their want of training prevents them from turning it to practical account. There is no doubt that they are endowed with intellectual faculties of a superior kind, and, with proper training, might make far more of their country than they do at present. It appears that the island could easily support eight times the number of the present population, if its resources were properly developed. Crime is rare; and the moral character of the Icelanders is about the same as that of the other countries of the north.
The census of 1870 returned the population of the island as 69,763. In 1801 the population was only 46,240; in 1880 it is estimated to have increased to 73,000. The birth-rate is about 33 per thousand, and the death-rate 24. Nearly the whole of the population live on isolated farms, the number of each family, including servants, being on an average seven. The chief town or village is Reykjavík, with about 2500 inhabitants. It is the seat of the governor-general, the bishop, the colleges, and the superior court. In the north-west is Isafjörður, with about 400 inhabitants, and in the north Akureyri, with the same number. (J. A. H.)
Table of Icelandic Literature and History.
|I. The Commonwealth. 400 years.|
|Poetry of Western Islands.||Settlement by colonists from Western Isles and Norway.|
|Early Icelandic poets, chiefly abroad.||Constitution worked out—Events of earlier sagas take place.|
|Icelandic poets abroad.||Christianity comes in—Events of later sagas take place.|
|First era of phonetic change.||Peace—Ecclesiastical organization.|
|Ari and his school—Thorodd—Vernacular writing begins.|
|Saga-Writers—Second generation of historians.||First civil wars—1208-22—Rise of Sturlungs.|
|Snorri and his school—Biographers.||Second civil wars, 1226-58—Fall of Great Houses.|
|Sturla—Second era of phonetic change.||Change of law, 1271—Submission to Norwegian kings.|
|II. Mediævalism. 250 years.|
|Collecting and editing—Foreign romances.||Foreign influence through Norway.|
|Annalists—Copyists—New Mediæval poetry begins.||Great eruptions, 1362 and 1389—Epidemics—Danish rule, 1380.|
|Death of old traditions, &c.||Epidemics—Norse trade—Close of intercourse with Norway.|
|Only Mediæval poetry flourishes.||Isolation from Continent—English trade.|
|III. Reformation—Absolute Rule—Decay. 320 years.|
|Odd—Printing—Third era of phonetic change.||Religious struggle—New organization—Hanse trade.|
|First antiquarians.||Danish monopoly—Pirates’ ravages.|
|Hallgrim—Paper copies taken.|
|Jon Widalin—Arni Magnusson—MSS. taken abroad.||
| Eggert Olafsson.|
|Finn Jonsson—Icelandic scholars abroad.|
| Rationalistic movement—European influences first felt.|
|IV. Modern Iceland.|
|Modern thought and learning—Icelandic scholars abroad.|| Increasing wealth and population—Free trade, 1854|
—Jon Sigurdsson and home rule struggle—Emigration.
|Home rule granted.|
With its isolated situation, inclement climate, scant natural advantages, and sparse population, Iceland is yet of high interest to the historian, philologist, and litterateur. To the first the excellence and exactitude of its historical records, the curious phases of life to which they bear witness, and the singular circumstances which have determined the existence and life of the Teutonic community for a thousand years apart from the rest of the European family, are all attractive. By the philologist the island is reverenced as the home of a tongue which (though like our own it has suffered deep phonetic change) yet most nearly represents in a living form the tongue of our earliest Teutonic forefathers. And by many more than these students Iceland is fondly regarded as the land where, long before
the “literary eras” of England or Germany, a brilliant period of intellectual life produced and elaborated in its own distinct form of expression a literature superior to any north of the Alps before the Renaissance since the downfall of Old Rome in power, purity, and life.
To begin with history, in which we are chiefly concerned with the first and fourth periods of the island's inhabited existence, and first the “settlement.” Shortly after the discovery of Iceland by the Scandinavian, c. 850 (it had long been inhabited by a small colony of Irish Culdees), a stream of immigration set in towards it, which lasted for sixty years, and resulted in the establishment of some 4000 homesteads scattered round the habitable fringe about the great bays and firths.
In this immigration three distinct streams can be traced. (1) About 870-890 four great noblemen from Norway, Ingolf, Ketil Hæng, Skalla-Grim, and Thorolf, settled with their dependants in the south-west of the new found land. (2) In 890-900 there came from the Western Islands Queen Aud, widow of Olaf the White, king of Dublin, preceded and followed by a number of her kinsmen and relations (many like herself being Christians), Helgi Biolan, Biorn the Eastern, Helgi the Lean, Ketil the Foolish, &c., who settled the best land in the island (west, north-west, and north), and founded families who long swayed its destinies. Besides this most important immigration of all there came from the Western Islands a fellowship of vikings seeking a free home in the north. They had colonized the west in the viking times; they had “fought at Hafursfirth,” helping their stay-at-home kinsmen against the centralization of the great head-king, who, when he had crushed opposition in Norway, sailed after these turbulent colonists across the North Sea, and followed up his victory by compelling them to bow to his rule or fly again to fresh haunts whence they could not so easily interfere with his projects. Such were Ingimund the Old, Geirmund Hellskin, Thord Beardie (who had wed St Edmund's grand-daughter), Audun Shackle, Bryniulf the Old, Uni, to whom Harold promised the earldom of the new land if he could make the settlers acknowledge him as king, a hopeless project, and others by whom the north-west, north, and east were almost completely “claimed.” (3) In 900-930 a few more incomers direct from Norway completed the settlement of the south, north-east, and south-east. Among them were Earl Hrollaug (half brother of Hrolf Ganger and of the first earl of Orkney), Hialti, Hrafnkell Frey's priest, and the sons of Asbiorn. Fully three quarters of the land was settled from the west, and among these immigrants there was no small proportion of Irish blood. In 1100 there were 4500 franklins, i.e., about 50,000 souls.
The unit of Icelandic politics is the homestead with its franklin-owner (buendi), its primal organization the hundred-moot (thing), its tie the goðorð or chieftainship. The chief who had led a band of kinsmen and dependants to the new land, taken a “claim” there, and parcelled it out freely among them, naturally became their leader, presiding as priest at the temple feasts and sacrifices of heathen times, acting as president and speaker of their moot, and as their responsible representative towards the neighbouring chiefs and their clients. He was not a feudal lord nor a local sheriff, for any franklin could change his goðorð when he would, and the rights of “judgment by peers” were in full use; moreover, the office could be bequeathed, sold, divided, or pledged by the possessor; still the goði had considerable power and influence as long as the commonwealth lasted.
At first there was no higher organization, but disputes between neighbouring chiefs and their clients, and uncertainty as to the law, brought about the Constitution of Ulfliot, c. 930, which appointed a central moot for the whole island, the Al-thing, and a speaker to speak a single “law” (principally that followed by the Gula-moot in Norway); the Reforms of Thord Gellir, 964, settling a fixed number of local moots and chieftaincies, dividing the island into four quarters (thus characterized by Ari:—north, thickest settled, most famous; east, first completely settled; south, best land and greatest chiefs; west, remarkable for noble families), to each of which a head-court, the “quarter-court,” was assigned; and the Innovations of Skapti (ascribed in the saga to Nial) the Law-Speaker (d. 1030), who set up a “fifth court” as the ultimate tribunal in criminal matters, and strengthened the community against the chiefs. But here constitutional growth ceased: the law-making body made few and unimportant modifications of custom; the courts were still too weak for the chiefs who misused and defied them; the speaker's power was not sufficiently supported to enable him to be any more than a highly respected lord chief justice, whereas he ought to have become a justiza if anarchy was to be avoided; even the ecclesiastical innovations, while they secured peace for a time, provoked in the end the struggles which put an end to the commonwealth.
Christianity was introduced c. 1000. Tithes were established in 1096, and an ecclesiastical code made c. 1125.
The first disputes about the jurisdiction of the clergy were moved by Gudmund in the 13th century, bringing on a civil war, while the questions of patronage and rights over glebe and mortmainland occupied Bishop Ami and his adversaries fifty years afterwards, when the land was under Norwegian viceroys and Norwegian law. For the civil wars of the 13th century broke down and exterminated the great houses who had monopolized the chieftaincies and abused their power for their own ends; and after violent struggles (in which the Sturlungs of the first generation perished at Orlygstad, 1238, and Reykiaholt, 1241, while of the second generation Thord Kakali was called away by the king in 1250, and Thorgils Skardi slain in 1258) the submission of the island, quarter after quarter, took place in 1262-64, under Gizur's auspices, and the old Common Law was replaced by the New Norse Code “Ironside” in 1271.
The political life and law of the old days is abundantly illustrated in the sagas (especially Eyrbyggia, Hænsa-Thori, Reyk-dæla, Hrafnkell, and Niala), the two collections of law-scrolls (Codex Regius, c. 1235, and Stadarhol's Book, c. 1271), the Libellus, the Liber-fragments, and the Landnamabok of Ari, and the Diplomatarium. K. Maurer has made the subject his own in his Beiträge, Island, Grágás, &c.
The mediæval Icelandic church had two bishoprics, Skalholt (S., W., and E.) 1056, and Holar (N.) 1106, and about 175 parishes (two-thirds of which belonged to the southern bishopric). They belonged to the metropolitan see of Bremen, then to Lund, lastly to Nidaros, 1237. There were several religious foundations: Thingore (founded 1133), Thwera (1155), Hitardale (c. 1166), Kirkby Nunnery (1184), Stad Nunnery (1296), and Saurby (c. 1200) were Benedictine, while Ver (1168), Flatey after Holyfell (1172), Videy (1226), Madderfield Priory (1296), and Skrid Priory (14th century) were Augustinian. The bishops, elected by the people at the Al-thing till 1237, enjoyed considerable power and influence, and were most of them distinguished men; two, Thorlak of Skalholt and John of Holar, were publicly voted saints at the Al-thing after due examination of their claims to that distinction, and one, Gudmund, received the title of “Good” by decree of the bishop and chapter. Full details as to ecclesiastical history will be found in the Bishops' Lives (edited by Dr Vigfusson).
Iceland was not agricultural but pastoral, depending upon flocks and herds for subsistence, for, though rye and other grain would grow in favoured localities, the hay, self-sown, was the only regular crop. In some districts the fisheries and fowling were of importance, but nine-tenths of the population lived by their sheep and cattle, which gave them food, clothing, and such products for export as enabled them to import wood for building, iron for tools, and a few luxuries, as honey, wine, grain for brewing, and foreign clothes, fur, &c. Life on each homestead was regularly portioned out:—out-door occupations fishing, shepherding, fowling, and the important hay-making and fuel-gathering occupying the summer; while in-door business—weaving, tool-making, &c., filled up the long winter. The year was broken by the spring feasts and moots, the great Al-thing meeting at midsummer, the marriage and arval gatherings after the summer, and the long yule feasts at midwinter. There were but two degrees of men, free and unfree, though only the franklins had any political power; and, from the very nature of the life, social intercourse was peculiarly unrestrained and unfettered; goði and thrall lived the same lives, ate the same food, spoke the same tongue, and differed little in clothing or habits. The poorest franklin was the social equal of the proudest chief, and in a few generations the freed man or landless dependant might become their peer in public estimation, provided he got a homestead of his own. The thrall had a house of his own and was rather villein or serf than slave, having rights and a legal price by law. During the heathen days many of the great chiefs passed part of their lives in Norway at the king's court, but after the establishment of Christianity in Iceland they kept more at home, still visiting the Continent, however, for purposes of state, suits with clergy, &c. But the trade was from the first in foreign (Norse) hands almost entirely.
The introduction of a church system brought little change. The great families put their members into orders, and so continued to enjoy the profits of the land which they had given to the church; the priests married and otherwise behaved like the franklins around them in every-day matters, farming, trading, going to law like laymen; so that, in spite of the efforts of the more earnest church reformers, the church was powerless to promote centralization against the feuds and jealousies of the great houses.
The old life in the commonwealth was turbulent and anarchic, but free and varied; it produced men of mark, and fostered bravery, adventure, and progress. The great chief's were indeed only greater franklins; but their wealth and comparative luxury gave them leisure and opportunities for culture which raised them as examples and leaders above their fellows; the pride of birth preserved a nobility of feeling and high standard of honour amid much of violence and chicane. But all this now ceased, and there was left but a low dead level of poor peasant proprietors without pride in the past, political interest in the present, or ambition of the future, careless of all save how to live by as little labour as possible, and pay as few taxes as they could to their foreign rulers. The island received a foreign governor (Earl, Hirdstjori, or Stiptamtsmadr as he has been successively called), and was parcelled out into local counties (syslur), administered by sheriffs (syslumadr) appointed by the king. A royal court took the place of the Al-thing courts;
the local business of the local things was carried out by the (hreppstjori) bailiff, a subordinate of the sheriff; and the goðorð, things, quarter-courts, trial by jury, &c. , were all completely swept away by these innovations, which have continued with mere changes of detail till the present century. The power of the crown was increased by the confiscation of the great Sturlung estates, which were under-leased to farmers, while the early falling off of the Norse trade threatened to deprive the island of the means of existence; for the great epidemics and eruptions of the 14th century had gravely attacked its pastoral wealth and ruined much of its pasture and fishery, for the time at least. The union of the Three Crowns transferred the practical rule of Iceland to Denmark in 1280, and the old Treaty of Union, by which the island had reserved its essential rights, was disregarded by the absolute Danish monarchs; but, though new taxation was imposed, it was rather their careless neglect than their too active interference that damaged Iceland's interests. But for an English trade, which sprung up out of the half-smuggling, half-buccaneering enterprise of the Bristol merchants, the island would have fared badly indeed, for during the whole 15th century their trade with England, exporting sulphur, eider down (which the English taught them the value of), wool, and salt stock-fish, and importing as before wood, iron, honey, wine, grain, and flax goods, was their only link with the outer world. This period of Iceland's existence is torpid and eventless: she had got peace but with few of its blessings; all spirit seemed to have died with the commonwealth; even shepherding and such agriculture as there had been sank to a lower stage; waggons, ploughs, and carts went out of use and knowledge; architecture in timber became a lost art, and the fine carved and painted halls of the heathen days were replaced by turf-walled barns half sunk in the earth, and lasting at best a generation; the large decked luggers of the old days gave way to small undecked fishing-boats; it is needless to add that letters were neglected, and that all remembrance of the commonwealth perished utterly.
The Reformation here as elsewhere had a one-sided effect: it wakened men's minds, opening new vistas of hope and new fields of thought, but it left their bodies and circumstances little changed, or, if at all, for the worse. Its necessary complement, a social and political revolution, never came to Iceland. The Hanse trade replaced the English for the worse; and the wretched Danish monopoly which succeeded it when the Danish kings began to act again with vigour, under the stimulus of European changes, was still less profitable. The glebes and hospital lands were a fresh power in the hands of the crown, and the subservient Lutheran clergy became the most powerful class in the island, while the bad system of under-leasing at rack rent and short lease with unsecured tenant right extended in this way over a great part, at least a quarter, of the better land, stopping any possible progress. The details of the religious change are uninteresting: nearly all who took active part in it on either side were men of low type, moved by personal motives rather than religious zeal; and, though it should be noticed that the fires of martyrdom were never lighted in Iceland, the story of the easily accepted Reformation is not altogether a pleasant one. When it was once accomplished, the little knot of able men who came to the front for two or three generations, stirred by the new life that had been breathed into the age, did nobly in preserving the records of the past for a later time to value and appreciate, while Odd and Hallgrim exhibit the noblest impulses of their time.
A new plague, that of the English, Gascon, and Algerine pirates, marked the close of the 16th century and opening of the 17th, causing widespread panic and some devastation in 1579, 1613-16, and 16 27. Nothing points more to the helplessness of the natives condition than their powerlessness against these tiresome foes. But the 18th century is the most gloomy in Iceland s annals. Small-pox, famine, sheep disease, and the awful eruptions of 1765 and 1783 follow each other in terrible succession. Against such fearful visitations, which reduced the population by about a fourth, little could be done, and when the only man who might have roused the Icelanders from their misery, distress, and impoverishment, thenoble and patriotic Eggert Olafsson, a hero of the old type, was drowned in full career in 1768, it is hardly to be wondered at that tilings grew from bad to worse, and that a listlessness and torpidity crept over the national character, the effects of which it is only beginning to shake off. The few literary men, whose work was done and whose books were published abroad, were only concerned with the past, and Jon Widalin is the one man of mark, beside Eggert Olafsson, who worked and wrote for his own generation.
Gradually the ideas which were agitating Europe crept through Scandinavia into Iceland, and, now that scholars and travellers of mark and influence had drawn attention to the island, its claims were more respectfully listened to. The Continental system, which, by its leading to the blockade of Denmark, threatened to starve Iceland, was neutralized by special action of the British Government. Trade and fishery grew a little brisker, and at length the turn came.
The rationalistic movement, an unlovely attempt at reform, headed by Magnus Stephenson, a patriotic, narrow-minded lawyer, did little good as far as church reform went, but was accompanied by a more successful effort to educate the people by means of bringing within their reach the practical knowledge of the day. A Useful Knowledge Society, such as Brougham delighted in, was formed and did some honest work. Newspapers and periodicals were published, and the very stir which the ecclesiastical disputes encouraged did good. When free trade came, and when the free constitution of Denmark had produced its legitimate effects, the intelligent and able endeavours of a few patriots such as Jon Sigurdsson were able to push on the next generation a step further, in spite of such physical obstacles as the sheep disease. Questions of a modern political complexion arose; the cattle export controversy and the great home rule struggle began. The intelligence of a people whose love for knowledge and mental attainments have always been high seconded its leaders well, and after thirty years agitation home rule was conceded in 1874. The absolute syslumadr and hirdstjori became popular officials assisted by elected boards. The Al-thing, a mere council of powerless delegates, was replaced by a representative assembly of two chambers (composed of thirty members chosen by a a popular and wide suffrage, and six crown nominees) with legislative powers, and other reforms were comprised in this grant. Further political changes, such as the introduction of a jury system to replace the Danish umpire-and-assessor procedure, are now being considered by the liberal party. There are many peculiar circumstances present in the condition of Iceland, the absence of towns, equality of society in a sense which exists in no other European community, difficulty of communication, and the intense conservatism and dislike of activity or change which must necessarily characterize a community so long isolated and “forced into lazy habits for lack of opportunity.” But that emigration should have begun, and families left the old home for Canada and the United States to seek a better climate, a richer soil, and the hopes of progress which are so distant at home, is certainly remarkable; and, if the difficulties which must surround emigrants who have never seen a road, a tree, or a plough, on their first taking up an agricultural life, are overcome, the results may be very important to the mother country.
Poetry.—Iceland has always borne a high renown for song, but has never produced a poet of the highest order, a fact for which one can only account by noticing that the qualities which in other lands were most sought for and admired in poetry were in Iceland lavished on the saga, a prose epic, and that Icelandic poetry is to be rated very high for the one quality which its authors have ever aimed at—melody of sound. To these generalizations there are but few exceptions, albeit, in considering the history of this branch of Icelandic literature, we are at once met by an apparent contradiction to them, a group of poems which possess the very qualities of high imagination, deep pathos, fresh love of nature, passionate dramatic power, and noble simplicity of language which Icelandic poetry lacks. The solution is that these poems do not belong to Iceland at all. They are the poetry of the “Western Islands.”
It was among the Scandinavian colonists of the British coasts that in the first generations after the colonization of Iceland therefrom a magnificent school of poetry arose, to which we owe works that for power and beauty can be paralleled in no Teutonic language till centuries after their date. To this school, which is totally distinct from the Icelandic, ran its own course apart, and perished before the 13th century, the following works belong (of their authors we have scarcely a name or two; their dates can be rarely exactly fixed; but they lie between the beginning of the 9th and the end of the 10th centuries), classified into groups:
a. The Helgi trilogy (last third lost save a few verses, but preserved in prose in Hromund Gripsson's Saga), the Raising of Anganty and Death of Hialmar (in Hervarar Saga), the fragments of a Wolsung Lay (part interpolated in earlier poems, part underlying the prose in Volsunga Saga), all by one poet, to whom Dr Vigfusson would also ascribe Völuspá, Vegtamskviða, Thrymskviða, Grötta Song, and Volundar-kviða.
b. The Dramatic Poems:—Flyting of Loki, the Lay of Skirni, the Lay of Harbard, and several fragments, all one man's work, to whose school belong, probably, the Lay underlying the story of Ivar's death in Skioldunga Saga.
c. The Didactic Poetry:—Grimnismal, Vafthrudnismal, Alvismal, &c.
d. The Genealogical and Mythological Poems:—Hyndla-Lioð, written for one of the Haurda-Kari family, so famous in the Orkneys; Ynglinga-tal and Haust-löng, by Thiodulf of Hvin; Rig's Thul, &c.
e. The Dirges and Battle Songs,—such as that on Hafur-firth Battle, by Thiodulf of Hvin or Hornklofi, shortly after 870; Eirik's Dirge, between 950 and 969; the Dart-Lay on Clontarf Battle, 1014; Biarka-mal (fragments of which we have, and paraphrase of more is found in Hrolf Kraki's Saga and in Saxo).
There are also fragments of poems in Half's Saga, Asmund Kappa-Bana's Saga, in the Latin verses of Saxo, and the Shield Lays by
Bragi, &c. , of this school, which closes with the Sun-Song, a powerful Christian Dantesque poem, recalling some of the early compositions of the Irish Church, and with the 12th century Lay of Ragnar, Lay of Starkad, The Proverb Song (Havamal), and Krakumal, to which we may add those singular Gloss-poems, the Thulur, which also belong to the Western Isles.
To Greenland, Iceland's farthest colony, founded in the 10th century, we owe the two Lays of Atli, and probably Hymiskviða, which, though, as was to be expected, of a weirder harsher cast, yet belong to the Western Isles school and not to Iceland. In form all these poems belong to two or three classes:—kviða, an epic “cantilena”; tal, a genealogical poem; drapa, songs of praise, &c., written in modifications of the old Teutonic metre which we know in Beowulf; galdr and lokkr, spell and charm songs in a more lyric measure; and mal, a dialogue poem, and liod, a lay, in elegiac measure suited to the subject.
The characteristics of this Western school are no doubt the result of the contact of Scandinavian colonists of the viking-tide, living lives of the wildest adventure, tossed by war and storm, with an imaginative and civilized race, that exercised upon them a very strong and lasting influence (the effects of which were also felt in Iceland, but in a different way). The frequent intermarriages which mingled the best families of either race are sufficient proof of the close communion of Northmen and Celts in the 9th and 10th centuries, while there are in the poems themselves traces of Celtic mythology, language, and manners.
When one turns to the early poetry of the Scandinavian continent, preserved in the rune-staves on the memorial stones of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, in the didactic Havamal, the Great Wolsung Lay (i.e., Sigurd II., Fafnis's Lay, Sigrdrifa's Lay), and Hamdismal, all continental, and all entirely consonant to the remains of our own Old English poetry in metre, feeling, and treatment, one can see that it is with this school that the Icelandic “makers” are in sympathy, and that from it their verse naturally descends. The only difference between them is that, while the fundamental characteristics of shrewdness, plain straightforwardness, and a certain stern way of looking at life are common to both, the Icelandic school adds a complexity of structure and ornament, an elaborate mythological and enigmatical phraseology, and a regularity of rhyme, assonance, luxuriance, quantity, and syllabification, which it caught up from the Latin and Celtic poets, and adapted with exquisite ingenuity to its own main object, that of securing the greatest possible beauty of sound.
The first generations of Icelandic poets were very remarkable men, and resemble in many ways the later troubadours; the books of the kings and the sagas are full of their strange lives. Men of good birth (nearly always, too, of Celtic blood on one side at least), they leave Iceland young and attach themselves to the kings and earls of the north, living in their courts as their henchmen, sharing their adventures in weal and woe, praising their victories, and hymning their deaths if they did not fall by their sides—men of quick passion, unhappy in their loves, jealous of rival poets and of their own fame, ever ready to answer criticism with a satire or with a sword-thrust, but clinging through all to their art, in which they attained most marvellous skill.
Such men were Egill, the foe of Eirik Bloodaxe and the friend of Æthelstan; Kormak, 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 Æthelred'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, Coalbrow's poet, who died singing after Sticklestad battle; Ref, Ottar the Black, Arnor the earls' poet, and, of those whose poetry was almost confined to Iceland, Gretti, Biorn the Hitdale champion, and the two model Icelandic masters, Einar Skulason and Markus the Lawman, both of the 12th century.
It is impossible to do more here than mention the names of the most famous of the long roll of poets which are noted in the works of Snorri and in the two Skalda-tal. It is evident that they must differ greatly in style and tone, as they range from the rough and noble pathos of Egill, the mystic obscurity of Kormak, the pride and grief of Hallfred, and the marvellous fluency of Sighvat, to the florid intricacy of Einar and Markus.
The art of poetry, which stood to the Icelanders in lieu of music, was, and is still, much cultivated in the island; scarcely any prominent man but knew how to turn a mocking or laudatory stanza, and down to the fall of the commonwealth the accomplishment was in high request. In the literary age the chief poets belong to the great Sturlung family, Snorri and his two nephews, Sturla and Olaf, the White Poet, being the most famous “makers” of their day. Indeed, it is in Snorri's Edda, a poetic grammar of a very perfect kind, that the best examples of the whole of northern poetry are to be found. The last part, Hattatal, a treatise on metre, was written for Earl Skuli about 1222, in imitation of Earl Rognvald and Hall s Haltalykill (Clavis metrica), of 1150. The second part, Skaldskapar-mal, a gradus of synonyms and epithets, which contains over 240 quotations from 65 poets, and 10 anonymous lays—a treasury of verse—was composed c. 1230. The first part, an exquisite sketch of northern mythology, Gylfa-ginning, was probably prefixed to the whole later. There is some of Sturla's poetry in his Islendinga Saga, and verses of Snorri occur in the Grammatical Treatise on figures of speech, &c., of Olaf, which contains about one hundred and forty quotations from various authors, and was written about 1250.
Besides those sources, the Kings' Lives of Snorri and later authors contain a great deal of verse by Icelandic poets. King Harold Sigurdsson, who fell at Stamford Bridge 1066, was both a good critic and composed himself. Many tales are told of him and his poet visitors and henchmen. The Icelandic sagas also comprise much verse which is partly genuine, partly the work of the 12th and 13th century editors. Thus there are genuine pieces in Nial's Saga (chaps. 34, 78, 103, 126, 146), in Eyrbyggia, Laxdæla, Egil's Saga (part only), Grettla (two and a half stanzas, cf. Landnamabek), Biorn's Saga, Gunnlaug's Saga, Havard's Saga, Kormak's Saga, Viga-Glum's Saga, Erik the Red's Saga, and Fostbrældra Saga. In Nial's, Gisli's, and Droplaug's Sons' Sagas there is good verse of a later poet, and in many sagas worthless rubbish foisted in as ornamental wherever there was a chance of doing so.
To these may be added two or three works of a semi-literary kind, composed by learned men, not by heroes and warriors. Such are Konunga-tal, Hugsvinnsmal (a paraphrase of Cato's Distichs), Merlin's Prophecy (paraphrased from Geoffrey of Monmouth by Gunnlaug the monk), Jomsvikinga-drapa (by Bishop Ketil), and the Islendinga-drapa, which has preserved brief notices of several lost sagas concerning Icelandic worthies, with which Gudmundar-drapa, though of the 14th century, may be also placed.
Just as the change of law gave the death-blow to an already perishing commonwealth, so the rush of mediæval influence, which followed the union with Norway, merely completed a process which had been in force since the end of the 11th century, when it overthrew the old Icelandic poetry in favour of the Rimur.
The introduction of the Danz, ballads (or fornkvædi as they are now called) for singing, with a burden, usually relating to a love-tale, which were immensely popular with the people and performed by whole companies at weddings, yule feasts, and the like, had relegated the regular Icelandic poetry to more serious events or to the more cultivated of the chiefs. But these “jigs,” as the Elizabethans would have called them, dissatisfied the popular ear in one way: they were, like our own old ballads, which they closely resembled, in rhyme, but void of alliteration, and accordingly they were modified and replaced by the “Rimur,” the staple literary product of the 15th century. These were rhymed but also alliterative, in regular form, with prologue or mansong (often the prettiest part of the whole), main portion telling the tale (mostly derived in early days from the French romances of the Carlovingian, Arthurian, or Alexandrian cycles, or from the mythic or skrök-sögur), and epilogue. Their chief value to us lies in their having preserved versions of several French poems now lost, and in their evidence as to the feelings and bent of Icelanders in the “Dark Age” of the island's history. The ring and melody which they all possess is their chief beauty.
Of the earliest, Olafsrima, by Einar Gilsson (c. 1350), and the best, the Aristophanic Skida-rima (c. 1430), by Einar Fostri, the names may be given. Eimur on sacred subjects was called “Diktur”; of these, on the legends of the saints' lives, many remain. The most notable of its class is the Lilia of Eystein Asgrimsson, a monk of Holyfell (c. 1350), a most “sweet sounding song.” Later the poems of the famous John Arason, last Catholic bishop of Holar (c. 1530), Liomr (“Gleam”) and Píslargrátr (“Passion-tears”), deserve mention.
Taste has sunk since the old days; but still this Rimur poetry is popular and genuine, and in such hard and evil days as came upon Iceland after the fall of the old houses had destroyed such traditional history and civilization as had fostered the saga, it is perhaps rather a wonder that the torch was still alight than that its glimmer was feeble and smoky. Moreover, the very prosaic and artificial verse of Sturla and the last of the old school certainly deserved the oblivion which came over them, as a casual perusal of the stanzas scattered through Islendinga will surely prove. It is interesting to notice that a certain number of kenningar (poetical paraphrases) have survived from the old school even to the present day, though the mass of them have happily perished. The change in the phonesis
of the language is well illustrated by the new metres as compared with the old Icelandic Drott-kvædi in its varied forms. Most of the older Rimur and Diktur are as yet unprinted. Many of the fornkvædi are printed in a volume of the old Nordiske Literatur-Samfund.
The effects of the Reformation was deeply felt in Icelandic literature, both prose and verse. The name of Hallgrim Petersen, whose Passion-hymns, “the flower of all Icelandic poetry,” have been the most popular composition in the language, is foremost of all writers since the Second Change of Faith. The gentle sweetness of thought, and the exquisite harmony of wording in his poems, more than justify the popular verdict. His Hymns were finished in 1660, and published in 1666, two great Protestant poets thus being contemporaries. A collection of Reformation hymns, adapted, many of them, from the German, the Holar-book, had preceded them in 1619. There was a good deal of verse-writing of a secular kind, far inferior in every way, during this period. In spite of the many physical distresses that weighed upon the island, ballads (fornkvædi) were still written, ceasing about 1750, Rimur composed, and more elaborate compositions published.
The most notable names are those of the improvisatore Stephen the Blind; Thorlak Gudbrandsson, author of Ulfar-Rimur, d. 1707; John Maguusson, who wrote Hristafla, a didactic poem; Stefan Olafsson, composer of Psalms, Rimur, &c., d. 1688; Gunnar Palsson, the author of Gunnarslag, often printed with the Eddic poems, c. 1791; and the famous Eggert Olafsson, traveller, naturalist, and patriot, whose untimely death in 1768 was a great loss to his country, which his energy and talents might have roused from its torpor. His Bunadar-balkr, a Georgic written, like Tusser's Points, with a practical view of raising the state of agriculture, has always been much prized. Paul Widalin's ditties are very naive and clever.
The Reformation had produced a real poet, but the material rise of Iceland has not yet done so. Many have written, but few have shown any great talent; perhaps the best has been Sigurd of Broadfirth, many of whose prettiest poems were composed in Greenland, like those of Jon Biarnisson before him, c. 1750; John Thorlaksson's translation of Milton's great epic into Eddic verse is praiseworthy in intention, but, as may be imagined, falls far short of its aim. He also turned Pope's Essay on Man and Klopstock's Messiah into Icelandic. Benedikt Grondal tried the same experiment with Homer in his Ilion's Kvædi, c. 1825. There is a fine prose translation of the Odyssey by Sweinbiorn Egillson, the lexicographer, both faithful and poetic in high degree. Many poems of varying but little merit will be found in the periodicals of this and last century, the serious verse being pseudo-classic for the most part and falsetto in tone. The satiric verse, such as John Thorlaksson's on Magnus Stephenson's projects and “reforms,” and the ditties on all kinds of sujets d'occasion, are better, but much of their meaning is lost to a stranger. With the latest school of poets who have begun to imitate foreign metres (unalliterative) and to translate foreign poets, it is hardly worth while to linger. A translation of Shakespeare and of several of Byron's poems may be noticed as curiosities. Of minor poetry there is still an abundant crop; even in Gimli, the far-off Canadian colony, “In Memoriam” verses and wedding-hymns of irreproachable form, but wooden thought, are printed and admired. That Iceland, most idyllic of modern lands, is capable of supplying subject and material for something higher than all this there is no doubt; but, before any thing of real worth can be written, the old stock-in-trade of worn-out mythology and pseudo-patriotism must be thrown aside for ever.
History and Biography.—The real strength of Icelandic literature is shown in its most indigenous growth, the “Saga.” This is, in its purest form, the life of a hero, composed in regular form, governed by fixed rules, and intended for oral recitation. It bears the strongest likeness to the epic in all save its unversified form; in both are found, as fixed essentials, simplicity of plot, chronological order of events, set phrases used even in describing the restless play of emotion or the changeful fortunes of a fight or a storm, while in both the absence of digression, comment, or intrusion of the narrator's person is invariably maintained. The saga grew up in the quieter days which followed the Change of Faith (1002), when the deeds of the great families' heroes were still cherished by their descendants, and the exploits of the great kings of Norway and Denmark handed down with reverence from the mouths of those that had fought and sung by their side. Telling of stories was a recognized form of entertainment at all feasts and gatherings, and it was the necessity of the reciter which gradually worked them into a regular form, by which the memory was relieved and the artistic features of the story allowed to be more carefully elaborated. That this form was so perfect must be attributed to Irish influence, without which indeed there would have been a saga, but not the same saga. It is to the west that the best sagas belong; it is to the west that nearly every classic writer whose name we know belongs; and it is precisely in the west that the admixture of Irish blood is greatest. In comparing the Irish tales with the saga, there will be felt deep divergencies in matter, style, and taste, the richness of one contrasting with the chastened simplicity of the other; the one's half-comic half-earnest bombast is wholly unlike the other's grim humour; the marvellous, so unearthly in the one, is almost credible in the other; but in both are the keen grasp of character, the biting phrase, the love of action, and the delight in blood which almost assumes the garb of a religious passion.
When the saga had been fixed by a generation or two of oral reciters, it was written down; and this stereotyped the form, so that afterwards when literary works were composed by learned men (such as Abbot Karl's Swerri's Saga and Sturla's Islendinga) the same style was adopted.
Taking first the sagas relating to Icelanders, of which some thirty-five or forty remain out of thrice that number, we find that they were first written down between 1140 and 1220, in the generation which succeeded Ari and felt the impulse his books had given to writing, on separate scrolls, no doubt mainly for the reciter's convenience; that they then went through all the different phases which such popular compositions have to pass in all lands, editing and compounding (1220-1260), padding and amplifying (1260-1300), and finally collection in large MSS. (14th century). Sagas exist showing all these phases, some primitive and rough, some refined and beautified, some again diluted and weakened, according as their copyists have been faithful, artistic, or foolish; for the first generation of MSS. have all perished. We have also complex sagas put together in the 13th century out of the scrolls relating to a given locality, such a group as still exists untouched in Vapnfirdinga being fused into such a saga as Niala or Laxdæla. Of the authors nothing is known; we can only guess that some belong to the Sturlung school. According to subject they fall into two classes, those relating to the older generation before Christianity and those telling of St Olaf's contemporaries; only two fall into a third generation.
Beginning with the sagas of the west, most perfect in style and form, the earliest in subject is that of Gold-Thori (c. 930), whose adventurous career it relates; Hen-Thori's Saga tells of the burning of Blund-Ketil, a noble chief, an event which led to Thord Gelli's reforms next year (c. 964); Gisli's Saga (960-80) tells of the career and death of that ill-fated outlaw; it is beautifully written, and the verses by the editor (13th century) are good and appropriate; it has been Englished by Sir G. Dasent; Hord's Saga (980) is the life of a band of outlaws on Whalesfirth, and especially of their leader Hord. Of later subject are the sagas of Havard and his revenge for his son, murdered by a neighbouring chief (997-1002); of the Heath Slaughter (990-1014), a typical tale of a great blood feud, written in the most primitive prose; of Gunnlaug and Hrafn (980-1008), the rival poets and their ill-starred love. The verse in this saga is important and interesting. It has been Englished by Messrs Morris and Magnusson. To the west also belong the three great complex sagas Egla, Eyrbyggia, and Laxdæla. The first (870-980), after noticing the migration of the father and grandfather of the hero poet Egill, and the origin of the feud between them and the kings of Norway, treats fully of Egill's career, his enmity with Eirik Bloodaxe, his service with Æthelstan, and finally, after many adventures abroad, of his latter days in Iceland at Borg, illustrating very clearly what manner of men those great settlers and their descendants were, and the feelings of pride and freedom which led them to Iceland. The style is that of Snorri, who had himself dwelt at Borg, and Dr Vigfusson is inclined to refer it to him. Eyrbyggia (890-1031) is the saga of Politics, the most loosely woven of all the compound stories. It includes a mass of information on the law, religion, traditions, &c., of the heathen days in Iceland, and the lives of Eirik, the real discoverer of Greenland, Biorn of Broadwick, a famous chief, and Snorri, the greatest statesman of his day. Dr Vigfusson would ascribe its editing and completion to Sturla the Lawman, c. 1250. It is known to many Englishmen from Sir Walter Scott's paraphrase. Laxdæla (910-1026) is the saga of Romance. Its heroine Gudrun is the most famous of all Icelandic ladies. Her love for Kiartan the poet, and his career abroad, his betrayal by his friend Bolli, the sad death of Kiartan at his hands, the revenge taken for him on Bolli, whose slayers are themselves afterwards put to death, and the end of Gudrun, who becomes an anchorite after her stormy life, make up the pith of the story. The contrast of the characters, the rich style and fine dialogue which are so remarkable in this saga, have much in common with the best works of the Sturlung school. Mr Morris's Lovers of Gudrun is founded upon it.
Of the north there are the sagas of Kormak (930-60), most primitive of all, a tale of a wild poet's love and feuds, containing many notices of the heathen times; of Waterdale (890-980), relating to the settlement and the chief family in Waterdale; of Hallfred the Poet (996-1014), narrating his fortune at King Olaf's court, his love affairs in Iceland, and finally his death and burial at Iona; of Reck-dale (990), which preserves the lives of Askell and his son Viga-Skuti; of Swarf-dale (980-90), a cruel coarse story of the old days, with some good scenes in it, unfortunately imperfect, chapters 1-10 being forged; of Viga-Glum (970-90), a fine story of a heathen hero, brave, crafty, and cruel; it has been Englished by Sir Edmund Head. To the north also belong the sagas of Gretti the Strong (1010-31), the life and death of the most famous of Icelandic
laws, the real story of whose career is mixed up with the mythical adventures of Beowulf, here put down to Gretti, and with late romantic episodes and fabulous folk-tales (Dr Vigfusson would ascribe the best parts of this saga to Sturla; its last editor, whose additions would be better away, must have touched it up about 1300; Messrs Morris and Magnusson have Englished it), and the stories of the Lightwater Men and Liot O' Vall (1009-60). Gudmund the Mighty and his family and neighbours are the heroes of these tales, which form a little cycle. The Banda-manna Saga (1050-60), the only comedy among the sagas, is also a northern tale; it relates the struggles of a plebeian who gets a chieftaincy against the old families of the neighbourhood, whom he successfully outwits; Öl-kofra Thattr is a later imitation of it in the same humorous strain. The sagas of the north are rougher and coarser than those of the west, but have a good deal of individual character.
Of tales relating to the east there survive the Weapon-firth cycle,—the tales of Thorstein the White (c. 900), of Thorstein the Staffsmitten (c. 985), Englished by Mr Morris, of Gunnar Thidrand's Bane (1000-1008), and of the Weapon-firth Men (975-990), all relating to the family of Hof and their friends and kin for several generations,—and the story of Hrafnkell Frey's Priest (c. 960), the most idyllic of sagas and best of the eastern tales. Of later times there are Droplaug's Sons' Saga (997-1007), written probably about 1110, and preserved in the uncouth broken style of the original (a brother's revenge for his brother's death is the substance of it; Brand-krossa Thattr is an appendix to it), and the tales of Thorstein Hall of Side's Son (c. 1014), and his brother Thidrandi (c. 996), which belong to the cycle of Hall o' Side's Saga, unhappily lost; they are weird tales of bloodshed and magic, with idyllic and pathetic episodes.
The sagas of the south are either lost or absorbed in that of Nial (970-1014), a long and complex story into which are woven the tales of Gunnar, Nial, and parts of others, as Brian Boroimhe, Hall o' Side, &c. It is, whether we look at style, contents, or legal and historical weight, the foremost of all sagas. It deals especially with law, the sole bond of a rough heathen community, and contains in itself, as it were, at once the pith and the moral of all early Icelandic history. Its hero Nial, type of the good lawyer, is contrasted with its villain Mord, the ensample of cunning, chicane, and legal wrong-doing; and a great part of the saga is taken up with the three cases and suits of the divorce, the death of Hoskuld, and the burning of Nial, which are given with great minuteness and care. The number and variety of its dramatis personæ give it the liveliest interest throughout. The women Hallgerda, Bergthora, and Ragnhild are as sharply contrasted as the men Gunnar, Skarphedin, Flosi, and Kari. The pathos of such tragedies as the death of Gunnar and Hoskuld and the burning is interrupted by the humour of the Al-thing scenes and the intellectual interest of the legal proceedings. The plot dealing first with the life and death of Gunnar, type of the chivalry of his day, then with the burning of Nial by Flosi, and how it came about, and lastly with Kari's revenge on the burners, is the ideal saga-plot, and affords ample room for the finest treatment of incident. The author must have been of the east, a good lawyer and genealogist, and have composed it about 1250, to judge from various internal evidence. It has been overworked by a later editor, c. 1300, who inserted many spurious verses. It has been translated by Sir G. Dasent.
Relating partly to Iceland, but mostly to Greenland and Wineland (N. America), are the sagas of the Floe-Men (985-90), a good story of the adventures of Thorgils and of the struggles of shipwrecked colonists in Greenland, a graphic and terrible picture; and of Eirik the Red (990-1000), two versions, one northern (Flatey-book), one western, the better (in Hawk's Book, and AM. 557, translated by the Rev. J. Sephton), the story of the discovery of Greenland and Wineland (America) by the Icelanders at the end of the 9th century. Later are the story of Thormod and Thorgeir, the Foster Brethren (1015-30), a very interesting story, told in a quaint romantic style, of Thorgeir, the reckless henchman of King Olaf, and how his death was revenged in Greenland by his sworn brother the true-hearted Thormod Coalbrow's poet, who afterwards dies at Sticklestad. The tale of Einar Sookisson (c. 1125) may also be noticed. The lost saga of Poet Helgi, of which only fragments remain, was also laid in Greenland.
Besides complete sagas, such as have been noticed, there are embedded in the Kings' Lives numerous small thættir or episodes, small tales of Icelanders adventures, often relating to poets and their lives at the kings courts; one or two of these seem to be fragments of sagas now lost. Among the more notable are those of Orm Storolfsson, Ogmund Dijtt, Halldor Snorrason, Thorstein Oxfoot, Hromund Halt, Thorwald Tasaldi, Svadi and Arnor Herlingar-nef, Audunn of Westfirth, Sneglu-Halli, Hrafn of Hrutfiord, Hreidar Heimski, Gisli Illugison, Ivar the poet, Gull-Æsu Thord, Einar Skulason the poet, Mani the poet, &c.
The forged Icelandic sagas appear as early as the 13th century. They are very poor, and either worked up on hints given in genuine stories, or altogether apocryphal. Some of them have been composed within the present century.
About the year of the battle of Hastings was born one of the blood of Queen Aud, who founded the famous historical school of Iceland, and himself produced its greatest monument in a work which can only be compared for value with the English Domesday Book. Nearly all that we know of the heathen commonwealth may be traced to the collections of Ari. It was he too that fixed the style in which history should be composed in Iceland. It was he that secured and put into order the vast mass of fragmentary tradition that was already dying out in his day. And perhaps it is the highest praise of all to him that he wrote in his own “Danish tongue,” and so ensured the use of that tongue by the learned and cultured of after generations, when, had he chosen to imitate the learned of other lands, not only would the freshness and life of the northern history as we have it have been crushed out, but the vernacular literature (heightened and purified by his influence as it has now been) would have sunk and disappeared. Ari's great works are Konungabok, or The Book of Kings, relating the history of the kings of Norway from the rise of the Yngling dynasty down to the death of Harald Sigurdsson in the year of his own birth. This book he composed from the dictation of old men such as Odd Kolsson, who had preserved traditions in their family and got information from contemporaries, from the genealogical poems, and from the various dirges, battle-songs, and eulogia of the poets. It is most probable that he also compiled shorter Kings' Books relating to Denmark and perhaps to England. The Konungabok is preserved under the Kings' Lives of Snorri, parts of it almost as they came from Ari's hands, for example, Ynglinga and Harold Fairhair's Saga, and the prefaces stating the plan and critical foundations of the work, parts of it only used as a framework for the magnificent superstructure of the lives of the two Olafs, and of Harald Hardrada and his nephew Magnus the Good. The best text of Ari's Konungabok (Ynglinga, and the sagas down to but not including Olaf Tryggvason's) is that of Frisbók.
The Book of Settlements (Landnamabók) is a most wonderful performance, both in its scheme and carrying out. It is divided into five parts, the first of which contains a brief account of the discovery of the island; the other four, one by one taking a quarter of the land, describe the name, pedigree, and history of each settler in geographical order, notice the most important facts in the history of his descendants, the names of their homesteads, their courts and temples, thus including mention of 4000 persons, one-third of whom are women, and 2000 places. The mass of information contained in so small a space, the clearness and accuracy of the details, the immense amount of life which is somehow breathed into the whole, can hardly fail to astonish the reader, when he reflects that this colossal task was sketched out and accomplished by one man, for his collaborateur Kolskegg merely filled up his plan with regard to part of the east coast, a district with which Ari in his western home at Stad was little familiar. Landnamabók has reached us in two complete editions, one edited by Sturla, who brought down the genealogies to his own grandfather and grandmother, Sturla and Gudny, and one by Hawk, who traces the pedigrees still later to himself.
Ari also wrote a Book of Icelanders (Islendingabók, c. 1127), which has perished as a whole, but fragments of it are embedded in many sagas and Kings' Lives; it seems to have been a complete epitome of his earlier works, together with an account of the constitutional history, ecclesiastical and civil, of Iceland. An abridgment of the latter part of it, the little Libellus Islandorum (to which the title of the bigger Liber—Islendingabók—is often given), made by the historian for his friends Bishops Ketil and Thorlak, for whom he wrote the Liber (c. 1137). This charming little book is, with the much later collections of laws, our sole authority for the Icelandic constitution of the commonwealth, but, “much as it tells, the lost Liber would have been of still greater importance.” Kristni-Saga, the story of the christening of Iceland, is also a work of Ari's, “overlaid” by a later editor no doubt, but often preserving Ari's very words. This saga, together with several scattered tales of early Christians in Iceland before the Change of Faith (1002), may have made up a section of the lost Liber. Of the author of these works little personal is known. He lived in quiet days a quiet life; but he shows himself in his works, as Snorri describes him, “a man wise, of good memory, and a speaker of the truth.” Surely, if Thucydides is justly accounted the first political historian, Ari may be fitly styled the first of scientific historians.
A famous contemporary and friend of Ari is Sæmund (1056-1133), a great scholar and churchman, whose learning so impressed his age that he got the reputation of a magician. He was the friend of Bishop John, the founder of the great Odd-Verjar family, and the author of a Book of Kings from Harald Fairhair to Magnus the Good, in which he seems to have fixed the exact chronology of each reign. It is most probable that he wiote in Latin. The idea that he had anything to do with the poetic Edda, in general, or the Sun's Song in particular, is of course unfounded and modern.
The flame which Ari had kindled was fed by his successors in the 12th century. Eirik Oddsson (c. 1150) wrote the lives of Sigurd
Evil-deacon and the sons of Harold Gille, in his Hryggiar-Stykki (Sheldrake), of which parts remain in the MSS. collections of Kings' Lives, Morkin-skinna, &c. Karl Jonsson, abbot of Thingore the Benedictine minister, wrote (c. 1184) a Life of Swerri from the lips of that great king, a fine racy biography, with a style and spirit of its own. Böglunga-Sögur tell the story of the civil wars which followed Swerri's death. They are probably by a contemporary.
The Latin Lives of St Olaf, Odd's in Latin (c. 1175), compiled from original authorities, and the Legendary Life, by another monk whose name is lost, are of the mediæval Latin school of Sæmund to which Gunnlaug belonged.
Snorri was known to his contemporaries as a statesman and poet; to us he is above all an historian. His position as a poet and his authorship of the prose Edda have been noticed above. Snorri was born in 1178, being on his mother's side sprung from the Myra family of Borg; he was brought up in fosterage with Sæmund's great grandson Jon Loptsson, a great chief. His career begins with his marriage, 1199, which made him a wealthy man. In 1205 he moved from Borg to Reekholt. He was twice lawman, and twice visited Norway, where he gained great influence with the king; but when the civil war broke out he sided with Duke Skuli and disobeyed the king's orders, whereupon letters were sent out to his enemies to slay him (Skuli his patron having fallen), which command was carried out on the night of 22d Sept. 1241, his own friends and kinsmen being his murderers. Snorri wrote the Lives of the Kings, from Olaf Tryggvason to Sigurd the Crusader inclusive; and we have them substantially as they came from his hand in the Great King Olaf's Saga, which has been interpolated with thættir and bits of other sagas in such a way as that they can be easily omitted; St Olaf's Saga, as in Heimskringla and the Stockholm MS.; and the succeeding Kings' Lives, as in Hulda and Hrokkinskinna, in which, however, a few episodes have been inserted.
These works were no doubt indebted for their facts to Ari's labours, and to sagas written since Ari's death; but the style and treatment of them are Snorri's own. The fine Thucydidean speeches, the dramatic power of grasping character, and the pathos and poetry that run through the stories, along with a humour such as is shown in the Edda, and a varied grace of style that never flags or palls, make Snorri one of the greatest of historians.
Here it should be noticed that Heimskringla and its class of MSS. (Eirspennil, Jofraskinna, Gullinskinna, Fris-bok, and Kringla) do not give the full text of Snorri's works. They are abridgments made in Norway by Icelanders for their Norwegian patrons, the Life of St Olaf alone being preserved intact, for the great interest of the Norwegians lay in him, but all the other Kings' Lives being more or less cut down and mutilated, so that they cannot be trusted for historic purposes; nor do they give a fair idea of Snorri's style. As Englishmen's knowledge of these works is often derived from Mr Laing's translation of a Danish version of Heimskringla (“Sea-Kings of Norway”), this caution is needed.
Agrip is a 12th century compendium of the Kings' Lives from Harold Fairhair to Swerri, by a scholastic writer of the school of Sæmund. As the only Icelandic abridgment of Norwegian history taken not from Snorri but sources now lost, it is of worth. Its real title is Konunga-tal.
Noregs Konunga-tal, now called Fagrskinna, is a Norse compendium of the Kings' Lives from Halfdan the Black to Swerri's accession, probably written for King Hakon, to whom it was read on his death bed. It is an original work, and contains much not found elsewhere. As non-Icelandic it is only noticed here for completeness.
Styrmi Karason, a contemporary of Snorri's, dying in 1245, was a distinguished churchman (lawman twice) and scholar. He wrote a Life of St Olaf, now lost; his authority is cited. He also copied out Landnamabok and Swerri's Life, from his MSS. of which our surviving copies were taken.
Sturla, Snorri's nephew, of whom more must be said below, wrote the Lives of Kings Hakon and Magnus at the request of the latter, finishing the first c. 1265, the latter c. 1280. King Hakon's Life is preserved in full; of the other only fragments remain. These are the last of the long and valuable series of historic works which Ari's labours began, from which the history of Norway for 500 years must be gathered.
A few books relating the history of other Scandinavian realms will complete this survey. In Skioldunga-bok was told the history of the early kings of Denmark, perhaps derived from Ari's collections, and running parallel to Ynglinga. The earlier part of it has perished save a fragment Sogu-brot, and citations and paraphrases in Saxo, and the mythical Ragnar Lodbrok's and Gongu-Hrolf's Sagas; the latter part, Lives of Harold Blue-tooth and the Kings down to Sweyn II., is still in existence and known as Skioldunga.
The Lives of St Knut and his Brethren are of later origin and separate authorships, parallel to Snorri's Lives of the great Norwegian Kings, but earlier in date. The Lives of King Waldimar and his Son, written c. 1185, by a contemporary of Abbot Karl's, are the last of this series. The whole were edited and compiled into one book, often quoted as Skioldunga, by a 13th century editor, possibly Olaf, the White Poet, Sturla's brother, guest and friend of King Waldimar II., as Dr Vigfusson has guessed. Jomsvikinga Saga, the history of the pirates of Jom, down to Knut the Great's days, also relate to Danish history. Several versions of it exist.
The complex work now known as Orkneyinga is made up of the Earls' Saga, lives of the first great earls, Turf-Einur, Thorfinn, &c.; the Life of St Magnus, founded partly on Abbot Robert's Latin life of him, c. 1150, an Orkney work, partly on Norse or Icelandic biographies; a Miracle-book of the same saint; the Lives of Earl Rognwald and Sweyn the last of the vikings, and a few episodes such as the Burning of Bishop Adam. A scholastic sketch of the rise of the Scandinavian empire, the Foundation of Norway, dating c. 1120, is prefixed to the whole. The Flatey-book text of this work has been translated by Mr Hjaltalin in Mr Anderson's Orkneyinga Saga.
Færeyinga tells the tale of the conversion of the Færeys or Faroes, and the lives of its chiefs Sigmund and Leif, composed in the 13th century from their separate sagas by an Icelander of the Sturlung school.
The saga has already been shown in two forms, its original epic shape and its later development applied to the lives of Norwegian and Danish kings and earls, as heroic but deeper and broader subjects than before. In the 13th century it is put to a third use, to tell the plain story of men's lives for their contemporaries, after satisfying which demand it dies away for ever.
These biographies are more literary and mediæval and less poetic than the Icelandic sagas and king's lives; their simplicity, truth, realism, and purity of style are the same. They run in two parallel streams, some being concerned with chiefs and champions, some with bishops. The former, as more important, will be taken first. They are mostly found embedded in the complex mass of stories known as Sturlunga, from which Dr Vigfusson has extricated them, and for the first time set them in order. Among them are the sagas of Thorgils and Haflidi (1118-21), the feud and peacemaking of two great chiefs contemporaries of Ari; of Sturla (1150-83), the founder of the great Sturlung family, down to the settlement of his great lawsuit by Jon Loptsson, who thereupon took his son Snorri the historian to fosterage,—a humorous story but with traces of the decadence about it, and glimpses of the evil days that were to come; of the Burning of Onund (1185-1200), a tale of feud and fire-raising in the north of the island, the hero of which, Gudmund Dyri, goes at last into a cloister; of Hrafn Sweinbiornsson (1190-1213), the noblest Icelander of his day, warrior, leech, seaman, craftsman, poet, and chief, whose life at home, travels and pilgrimages abroad (Hrafn was one of the first to visit Becket's shrine), and death at the hands of a foe whom he had twice spared, are recounted by a loving friend in pious memory of his virtues, c. 1220; of Aaron Hiorleifsson (1200-55), a man whose strength, courage, and adventures befit rather a henchman of Olaf Tryggvason than one of King Hakon's thanes (the beginning of the feuds that rise round Bishop Gudmund are told here), of the Swinefell-men (1248-52), a pitiful story of a family feud in the far east of Iceland.
But the most important works of this class are the Islendinga Saga and Thorgils Saga of Lawman Sturla. Sturla and his brother Olaf were the sons of Thord Sturlason and his mistress Thora. He was born and brought up in prosperous times, when all was fair for the Sturlungs, but his manhood was passed in the midst of strife and war, in which his family fell one by one, and he himself, though a peaceful man who cared little for politics, was more than once forced to fly for his life. While in refuge with King Magnus, in Norway, he wrote his two sagas of that king and his father. After his first stay in Norway he came back in 1271, with the new Norse lawbook, and served a second time as lawman. The Islendinga must have been the work of his later years, composed at Fairey in Broadfirth, where he died, 30th July 1284, aged about seventy years. The saga of Thorgils Skardi (1252-61) seems to have been the first of his works on Icelandic contemporary history; it deals with the life of his own nephew, especially his career in Iceland from 1252 to 1258. The second part of Islendinga (1242-1262), which relates to the second part of the civil war, telling of the careers of Thord Kakali, Kolbein the Young, Earl Gizur, and Hrafn Oddsson. The end is imperfect, there being a blank of some years before the fragmentary ending to which an editor has affixed a notice of the author's death. The first part of Islendinga (1202-42) tells of the beginning and first part of the civil wars, the lives of Snorri and Sighvat, Sturla's uncles, of his cousin and namesake Sturla Sighvatsson, of Bishop Gudmund, and Thorwald Gizursson,—the fall of the Sturlungs, and with them the last hopes of the great houses to maintain the commonwealth, being the climax of the story.
Sturla's power lies in his faithfulness to nature, minute observance of detail, and purity of style. The great extent of his subject, and the difficulty of dealing with it in the saga form, are most skilfully overcome; nor does he allow prejudice or favour to stand in the way of the truth, a thing hard to avoid for one writing of contemporary events in which his own kinsmen have been concerned. He ranks below Ari in value and below Snorri in power; but no one else can dispute his place in the first rank of Icelandic writers.
Of the ecclesiastical biographers, an anonymous Skalholt clerk is
the best. He wrote Hunger-waker, lives of the first five bishops of Skalholt, and biographies of his patron Bishop Paul, and also of St Thorlak. They are full of interesting notices of social and church life. Thorlak was a learned man, and had studied at Paris and Lincoln, which he left in 1161. These lives cover the years 1056-1193. The Life of St John, a great reformer, a contemporary of Thorodd, whom he employed to build a church for him, is by another author (1052-1121). The Life of Gudmund, as priest, recounts the early life of this Icelandic Becket till his election as bishop (1160-1202); his after career must be sought out in Islendinga. It is written by a friend and contemporary. A later life by Arngrim, abbot of Thingore, written c. 1350, as evidence of his subject's sanctity, tells a good deal about Icelandic life, &c. The Lives of Bishops Arni and Lawrence bring down our knowledge of Icelandic history into the 14th century. The former work is unhappily imperfect; it is the record of the struggles of church and state over patronage rights and glebes, written c. 1315; it now covers only the years 1269-91; a great many documents are given in it, after the modern fashion. The latter, Lawrence's Life, by his disciple, priest Einar Haflidason, is a charming biography of a good and pious man, whose chequered career in Norway and Iceland is picturesquely told (1324-31). It is the last of the sagas. Bishop Jon's Table-Talk (1325-39) is also worth noticing; it contains many popular stories which the good bishop, who had studied at Bologna and Paris, was wont to tell to his friends.
The Annals are now almost the sole material for Icelandic history; they had begun earlier, but after 1331 they got fuller and richer, till they end in 1430. The best are Annales Regii, ending 1306, Einar Haflidason's Annals, known as “Lawman's Annals,” reaching to 1392, and preserved with others in Flatey-book, and the New Annals, last of all. The Icelandic Diplomatarium, edited by Jon Sigurdsson, contains what remains of deeds, inventories, letters, &c., from the old days, completing our scanty material for this dark period of the island's history.
After the union and change of law genuine tradition died out with the great houses, and the kings lives and biographies ceased to please. The ordinary mediæval literature reached Iceland through Norway, and every one began to take delight in it and put it into a vernacular dress, so neglecting their own classics that but for a few collectors like Lawman Hawk they would have perished entirely.
The Norwegian kings, Hakon Hakonson, c. 1225, and Hakon V., c. 1305, employed Icelanders at their courts in translating the French romances of the Alexander, Arthur, and Charlemagne cycles. Some forty or fifty of these Riddara-Sögur (Romances of Chivalry) still remain. They reached Iceland and were eagerly read, many Rimur being founded on them. Norse versions of Mary of Brittany's Lays, the stories of Brutus and of Troy, and part of the Pharsalia translated are also found. The Speculum Regale, with its interesting geographical and social information, is also Norse, written c. 1240, by a Halogalander. The computistic and arithmetical treatises of Stiorn-Odd, Biarni the Number-skilled, d. 1173, and Hawk the Lawman, d. 1334, and the geography of Ivar Bardsson, a Norwegian, c. 1340, are of course of foreign origin. A few tracts on geography, &c., in Hawk's book, and a Guide to the Holy Land, by Nicholas, abbot of Thwera, d. 1158, complete the list of scientific works.
The stories which contain the last lees of the old mythology and pre-history seem to be also non-Icelandic, but stuffed out and amplified by Icelandic editors, who probably got the plots from the Western Islands. Wolsunga Saga and Hervarar Saga contain quotations and paraphrases of lays by the Helgi poet, and Half's, Ragnar's, and Asmund Kappabana's Sagas all have bits of Western poetry in them. Hrolf Kraki's Saga paraphrases part of Biarkamal; Hromund Gripssons gives the story of Helgi and Kara (the lost third of the Helgi trilogy); Gautrek's, Arrow-Odd's, Frithiof's Sagas, &c., contain shreds of true tradition amidst a mass of later fictitious matter of no worth. With the Riddara-Sögur they enjoyed great popularity in the 15th century, and gave matter for many Rimur. Thidrek's Saga, a late version of the Wolsung story, is of Norse composition, c. 1230, from North German sources.
The mediæval religious literature of Western Europe also reached and influenced Iceland, and the Homilies (like the Laics) were, according to Thorodd, the earliest books written in the vernacular, antedating even Ari's histories. The lives of the Virgin, the Apostles, and the Saints fill many MSS. (edited in four large volumes by Professor Unger), and are the works of many authors, chiefly of the 13th and 14th centuries (of course they were known in Latin long before); amongst them are the lives of SS. Edward the Confessor, Oswald of Northumbria, Dunstan, and Thomas of Canterbury. Of the authors we know Priest Berg Gunsteinsson, d. 1211; Kygri-Biorn, bishop-elect, d. 1237; Bishop Brand, d. 1264; Abbot Runolf, d. 1307; Bishop Lawrence's son Arni, c. 1330; Abbot Berg, c. 1340, &c. A paraphrase of the historical books of the Bible was made by Bishop Brand, d. 1264, called Gydinga-Sögur. About 1310 King Hakon V. ordered a commentary on the Bible to be made, which was completed down to Exodus xix. To this Brand's work was afterwards affixed, and the whole is known as Stiorn. The Norse version of the famous Barlaam and Josaphat, made for Prince Hakon, c. 1240, must not be forgotten.
The post-classical literature falls chiefly under three heads,—religious, literary, and scientific. Under the first comes foremost the noble translation of the New Testament by Odd Gottskalksson, son of the bishop of Holar. Brought up in Norway, he travelled in Denmark and Germany, and took upon him the new faith before he returned to Iceland, where he became secretary to Bishop Ogmund of Skalholt. Here he began by translating the Gospel of Matthew into his mother-tongue in secret. Having finished the remainder of the New Testament at his own house at Olves, he took it to Denmark, where it was printed at Roskild in 1540. Odd afterwards translated the Psalms, and several devotional works of the day, Corvinus's Epistles, &c. He was made lawman of the north and west, and died from a fall in the Laxa in Kios, June 1556. Three years after his death the first press was set up in Iceland by John Matthewson, at Breidabolstad, in Hunafloe, and a Gospel and Epistle Book, according to Odd's version, issued from it in 1562. In 1584 Bishop Gudbrand, who had brought over a splendid fount of type from Denmark in 1575 (which he completed with his own hands), printed a translation of the whole Bible at Holar, incorporating Odd's versions and some books (Proverbs and the Son of Sirach, 1580) translated by Bishop Gizar, but supplying most of the Old Testament himself. This fine volume has been the basis of every Bible issued for Iceland till 1826, when it was replaced by a bad modern version. For beauty of language and faithful simplicity of style the finer parts of this version, especially the New Testament, have never been surpassed in any tongue; they stand worthily beside the work of Tyndale, Luther, and Ulfila, foremost monuments of the Teutonic tongues.
The most notable theological work Iceland ever produced is the Postill-Book of Bishop John Widalin (1666-1720), whose bold homely style and stirring eloquence made “John's Book,” as it is lovingly called, a favourite in every household, till in the present century it has been replaced for the worse by the more sentimental and polished Danish tracts and sermons. Theological literature is very popular, and many works on this subject, chiefly translations, will be found in the lists of Icelandic bibliographers.
The Renaissance of Iceland dates from the beginning of the 17th century, when a school of antiquarians arose and betook themselves to the task of reconstructing their country's history from the remains their pious care gathered and preserved. Arngrim Jonsson's Brevis Commentarius, 1593, and Crymogæa, 1609, were the first-fruits of this movement, of which Bishops Odd, Thorlak, and Bryniulf (worthy parallels to Parker and Laud) were the wise and earnest supporters. The first (d. 1630) collected much material for church history. The second (d. 1656) saved Sturlunga and the Bishops' Lives, encouraged John Egilsson to write his New Hunger-waker, lives of the bishops of the Dark Ages and Reformation, and helped Biorn of Skardsa (d. 1655), a bold and patriotic antiquary (whose Annals continue Einar's), in his researches. The last (d. 1675) collected a fine library of MSS., and employed the famous copyist John Erlendsson, to whom and the bishop's brother, John Gizurarsson (d. 1648), we are much beholden for transcripts of many lost MSS.
Torfæus (1636-1719) and Bartholin, a Dane (d. 1690), roused the taste for northern literature in Europe, a taste which has never since flagged; and soon after them Arni Magnusson transferred all that remained of vellum and good paper MSS. in Iceland to Denmark, and laid the foundations of the famous library and bequest, for which all Icelandic students are so much beholden. For over forty years Arni stuck to his task, rescuing every scrap he could lay hands on from the risks of the Icelandic climate and carelessness, and when he died in 1730, aged fifty-seven, only one good MSS. remained in the island. Besides his magnificent collection, there are a few MSS. of great value at Upsala, at Stockholm, and in the old royal collection at Copenhagen. Those in the university library in the latter city perished in the fire of 1728. Sagas were printed at Upsala and Copenhagen in the 17th century, and the Arna-Magnæan fund has been working since 1772. In that year appeared also the first volume of Bishop Finn Johnsson's Historia Ecclesiastica Islandice, a work of high value and much erudition, containing not only ecclesiastical but civil and literary history, illustrated by a well-chosen mass of documents, 870-1740. It has been continued by Bishop P. Peterson to modern times, 1740-1840. The results, however, of modern observers and scholars must be sought for in the periodicals, Safn, Felagsrit, Ny Felagsrit, and others. John Espolin's Arbækr is very good up to its date, 1821.
By far the best history of Icelandic classic literature is the brilliant sketch by Dr Vigfusson, Prolegomena to Sturlunga Saga, Oxford, 1879, to which we must here acknowledge our obligations. It replaces much earlier work, especially the Sciagraphia of Halfdan Einarson, 1777, and the Saga-Bibliotek of Müller. The numerous editions of the classics by the Icelandic societies, the Danish Société des Antiquités, Nordiske Literatur Samfund, and the new Gammel Nordisk Literatur Samfund, the splendid Norwegian editions of linger, the labours of the Icelanders Sigurdsson and
Gislason, and of those foreign scholars in Scandinavia and Germany who have thrown themselves so heartily into the work of illustrating, publishing, and editing the sagas and poems (men like Munch, Bugge, Bergmann, Möbius, and Maurer, to name only a few), can only be referred to here.
The first modern scientific work is the Iter per patriam of Eggert Olafsson and Biarni Paulsson, which gives a careful and correct account of the physical peculiarities—fauna, flora, &c.—of the island as far as could be done at the date of its appearance, 1772. The island was first made known to “the world” by this book and by the sketch of Unno von Troil, a Swede, who accompanied Sir Joseph Banks to Iceland in 1772, and afterwards wrote a series of “letters” on the land and its literature, &c. This tour was the forerunner of an endless series of “travels,” of which those of Hooker (1809), Mackenzie (1810), Henderson (1818), Gaimard (1838-43), Paijkull (1867), and, lastly, that of Captain Burton, an excellent account of the land and people, crammed with information of every kind (1875), are the best.
The maps by Olson and his colleagues, by Gunnlaugson, and by the French Admiralty are good. Kälund's work on the historical geography of the island is valuable and interesting. Safn and other periodicals above mentioned contain many able papers on scientific and sociological matters. Iceland is an interesting field for the pathologist and physician, and numerous medical treatises, Icelandic and foreign, have attacked it. Dr Hjaltalin, the present medical director, is perhaps the best modern authority.
The cathedral high school merged into a college in 1801, which was fixed at Bessastad during its palmiest days (1805-46), and is now at Reykjavik. Among its lists of masters several distinguished names figure, for example, Sweinbiorn Egilsson, whose Homeric translations were issued as college “programs.” A law school has been recently formed at Reykjavik and a technical school at Mödruvellir. The museum and library, both at Reykjavik, still in the rudimentary state, are to be newly housed and extended.
Iceland is emphatically a land of proverbs, which occur on almost every page of the dictionary, while of folk-tales, those other keys to the people's heart, there is plentiful store. Early work in this direction was done by Jon Gudmundsson, Olaf the Old, and John Olafsson in the 17th century, who all put traditions on paper, and their labours have been completed by the magnificent collection of Jon Arnason (1862-64), who, inspired by the example of the Grimms, spent great toil on his self-imposed task. Many tales are but weak echoes of the sagas; many were family legends, many the old fairy tales we all know so well, dressed in a fresh garb suited to their new northern home; but, besides all these, there are a number of traditions and superstitions not found elsewhere, the mass of which is of indigenous growth and origin. Some of Arnason's collections have been put into English by Messrs J. G. G. Powell and E. Magnusson, and Sir G. Dasent.
A few translations of popular and famous books, such as the Arabian Nights, one or two classics, and a tale, Piltr og Stulka (“Lad and Lass”), 1850, complete the notabilities of Icelandic bibliography. Mr Lidderdale has prepared a list of Icelandic-printed books, which it is hoped may be published; the excellent Catalogus of Möbius is of use for dates, &c., of editions.
Unlike England and France, Iceland has had but one golden age of literature upon which all her fame must rest. Of its creations it has been truly said that they fill a place none others could take in the high ranks of Aryan classics. The noblest of them are distinguished by pure and strict form, noble heroic subject, and simple truthful self-control of style and treatment, free alike from overwrought sentiment or extravagant passion, and raised equally above euphemism and commonplace, but ever inspired by a weird Æschylean power, grim and tender, and splendid as that which breathes through those historical books of the Old Testament, to which alone should the masterpieces of Iceland s greatest writers be compared.
The relations of Icelandic to the other Teutonic tongues may be best shown by a chronological treatment. It presents the following anomalies:—on the one hand, it has a highly inflexional grammar, a pure vocabulary, and a simple syntax, points which would place it side by side with Gothic; but, on the other hand, it shows such strong marks of contraction and such deep phonetic changes, especially in the vowels, as can only be paralleled in the modern English. It is further noteworthy for its unity or lack of dialectic variation, and possesses exceptional advantages for the philologist in the complete series of documents dating from the 11th century downwards in which its history may be most accurately and minutely studied.
There is little doubt but that the Teutonic tribes of the 4th century all spoke one language, that, in fact, of which the remains of Ulfila (which may be supplemented by a few inscriptions, such as those of the Golden Horn and the earliest Danish rune-stones, and a few stray words preserved in classic authors) afford us such a noble specimen. The first differentiation occurred when the English colony separated in the 5th century from the parent stock, and, following its own course of development, already by the time of Bede presented many new and peculiar characteristics in form and vocabulary. With the changes which produced the High German dialects it does not behove us to deal here, so we may pass on to the Viking Tide (775-925), the results of which were felt over a wide area, and are evidenced by the changes which gave to the tongue of those tribes that took part in it a distinctly Scandinavian character.
Just as the earlier movement left its mark in Old English, so this one is clearly seen in the speech of the Scandinavian colonies of the West, especially in Icelandic, but it is still well marked in the Eastern Scandinavian dialects—Swedish, Danish, &c., as the following points common to all east and west, and marking them off clearly from all other Teutonic tongues, will show:—strong stem-contraction reducing all words as far as possible to a trochaic form; i-umlaut carried out very fully and consistently; the suffixing of the article; and a peculiar vocabulary which has chosen out of the common Teutonic stock certain words for daily use, rejecting others which are common to all the other sister tongues—e.g., eld for fire, ekkia for widow, gamol for old, cigi for not, ok for and, göra for do, taka for niman, &c. The later Danish rune-stones and those of Sweden, published by Wimmer, Säve, Dybeck, &c., will be the best documents for this stage of the Scandinavian tongue.
We may now leave the Eastern Scandinavian dialects to follow their own course, which has led them through a path not entirely dissimilar to that which English has taken, and confine ourselves to the Western Colonial dialects. Those in their earliest monuments, the rune-stones of Man, the coins of the “Danish” kings and earls in Ireland and England, the lays of the Western poets in the Edda collection, and the earliest poetry of such Icelandic bards as Egill and Kormak, exhibit certain idiosyncrasies which show them to have already started on their own career. Such are the u-umlaut, the loss of w before r and l, the simplification of the vowel system (all aggravations, as it were, of the Scandinavian peculiarities noticed above, while their vocabulary is, as one would expect, affected by the introduction of many English, Gaelic, and Latin words, especially those relating to ideas unknown in earlier heathen days, ecclesiastical terms, &c.). Of these western colonies we are only concerned with the most important, Iceland; the Orkneys and Hebrides have no linguistic monuments later than the Edda lays of the 10th and 11th, and epigonic poetry and rhymed gradus-jingles of the 12th century; the influence of the Danes on our dialects and book-English must be left to English philologists; while in Ireland only a few personal and local names now betray to the ear the former presence of the Ostman.
B, K, D, F, G, L, M, N, P, R, S, T, being employed for the doubled letters bb, &c. (each consonant of these doubles was of course separately and distinctly pronounced as in Italian now, and, as Mr A. J. Ellis has proved, in Latin formerly); þ is used as in Old English for th; h for the aspirate pure or combined hl, hn, &c.; both these are of unvarying form; x for cs, gs, and ŋ for ng can only be found in medial and final positions. Thus we get twenty-eight consonants. The vowels, a, e, i, o, u, y, æ, œ long and short, have their ordinary values [pal. a, e, i, o, u, I, E, ǝi and aa, ee, &c.], and to them Thorodd has added ao [œ] long and short. All these vowels may also be nasalized, ã, ẽ, &c., making twenty-seven in all; i and u, whether consonantal or vocal, do not vary in form. The following points characterize the tongue at this period:—adherence to o in the terminations, right employment of the subjunctive, which has since gone completely out of use, retention of s in inflexion and the substantive verb. Quantity was strictly observed in speaking, and also accent, and no doubt people, as in Old England, spoke much more clearly, slowly, and energetically than they do now. The introduction of quantitative metres measured by syllables is no doubt to be ascribed to Celtic influence, as are the line-rhymes and assonances and rhyme-endings, which, as any reader of Snorri's Hatta-tal or Earl Rognwald's Hatta-lykill will see at the first glance, completely separated Icelandic poetry from the original Teutonic metric of the Continental rune-stones, of Beowulf, and of Havamal.The fact that one of the first Icelandic writers, c. 1120, Ari's contemporary, Thorodd, is a grammarian, and one of no mean power, is our greatest help towards ascertaining the phonesis of the tongue during the heroic age; and his evidence is supplemented by the Icelandic poets, whose strict adherence to metres, which depend for their effect on a delicate harmony of sound and a rigid observance of quantity, is absolutely to be trusted. Thorodd's scheme for the proper phonetic representation of Icelandic (which the English student may contrast with that of Orm, our first spelling reformer) is briefly as follows. The letters b, c, d, f, g, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, are used in their ordinary classic values (c always hard), the capitals
Thorodd's scheme was unfortunately never used in its strict completeness, but it is partly employed in the following MSS., which are of the highest authority for this era of the Icelandic:—Elucidarius, c. 1130, ed. facsimile; Libellus, c. 1150, ed. Möbius; the Law Scroll-fragments affixed by W. Finsen to the end of his ed. of Cod. Regius Grágás: the Stockholm Homilies, c. 1145, ed. Wisen; Physiologus, AM. 673, ed. facsimile; Agrip, c. 1185, ed.
Dahlerup. For others see Table II. Prolegomena to Sturlunga Saga, Oxford, 1879.
The first era of change, ascribed by Dr Vigfusson to about the lifetime of Snorri, is the mark left by the civil wars and the connexion with Norway (our 14th century Wars of the Roses transition is in many respects its parallel). It is seen in the normal spelling of the editions of the sagas, &c. , and is best exemplified by the famous AM. 132, c. 1300, and the Annales Regii, 1290-1306 (accurately printed in pp. 348-91, vol. ii., Sturlunga Saga, Oxford, 1879), the loss of the s replaced by r, the vanishing of the u-umlauted á, the confusion of œ and æ, æ and e, ao and eo (the latter of each couple prevailing), the hardening of the dental finals and the blurring of st, sk, &c. into z. This stage of spelling and pronunciation is that which should be adhered to in all works which must be printed in an uniform way, dictionaries, grammars, classic editions, &c. The student may be cautioned not to take the vagaries of Norse scribes, or Noricized Icelanders (such as Hawk) for important phonetic variations.
The second era of change is that which accompanied the Reformation, and witnesses to the mental and physical stir produced by that movement. It is only heard in the spoken tongue (for all books, save a few printed during the last few years, follow the normal type of the 14th and 15th century MSS. with few variations), but it is none the less deep and important. Its leading features are the loss of quantity and intonation, the confusion of the vowels y and u, æ and ai, ey and au, au and á, ei i í and ey y ý (the latter taking the sound of the former in each case), the diphthongization of the long vowels ī, ē, ō, ū, all changes which from their symmetry must have taken place at one date, the differentiation of doubled and touching consonants, ll, nn, gn, &c. , and of final r. The vocabulary, which during the connexion with Norway and England through the “Dark Age” had been enriched with many French and English words, now received an important augmentation in a new religious terminology from Germany, while the intercourse with Denmark began to leave its mark in loan-words and Danicisms, the stock of which tended greatly to increase, till a reaction arose in the present century, which, though excusable, has been carried to laughable lengths. The metre of Icelandic poetry had begun to show signs of mediæval influence (of French origin) even before the death of Snorri, as a ditty in Sturlunga shows. During the Dark Age the Rimur metric system, depending largely on time-ending and burden for new effects though still retaining line rhyme and alliteration (the latter being absolutely essential), revolutionized poetry, and later the hymns of the Reformation, shaking themselves free from the somewhat monotonous beat of the Rimur, contain examples of many new and ingenious metres.
The absence of dialects in Iceland results from the essential unity of life in that island, and the lack of any of the conditions which during the Middle Ages produced dialects in England, Germany, and France, such as town-life with its guilds and varied interests, the great corporations, ecclesiastical, legal, and medical, which by their necessary use of Latin cut off the most highly educated classes from exercising any influence on the vernacular, and the caste influences of chivalry, &c., which sometimes, as in England, allowed the upper classes to use a separate foreign language. In early times before the Danish conquest there were no dialects, because, life being single, king and serf, soldier and peasant, merchant and priest must live and speak alike. So we see in our own days the newspaper, the state school, the railway, the conscription, and the theatre, all tending to bring about in each great European state a sameness of life, thought, and speech through every nook and corner of its area.
The general characteristics of the Icelandic tongue are those of a spoken speech, par excellence,—a pure and correct vocabulary well-suited to the every-day needs of a pastoral life, a pithy and homely vigour of idiom (this shows especially in the saws and proverbs which often recall those of Spain), a delicacy and regularity of syntax, which can express much with few and simple means, and an accuracy of terminology well becoming a legal-minded people. All these salient characters strike every observer, but the full beauty and power of the tongue as a vehicle of the highest expression can only be tested by a careful study of the masterpieces written in it. No one that has not read the finest chapters of Niala or Olaf Tryggvasson's Life, the Tales of Snorri, or a Gospel in Odd's translation, not to speak of other works almost equally worthy of mention, can judge fairly of the capacity, force, and sweetness of this most classic language.
A few words are due to those whose labours have rendered the task of mastering it easy and pleasant. The oldest philologist, Thorodd, has been noticed; an anonymous grammarian of the next generation, c. 1175, attempted a classification of letters and sounds; Sturla's brother Olaf, the White Poet, applied the figures, &c., of Donatus and Priscian to Icelandic, in which task he was followed by a continuator. All these treatises were published along with the Thulur, rhymed glossaries (compiled in the Western Islands, probably in the Orkneys), in vol. ii. of the AM. edition of the Edda, to a MS. of which they are found affixed, Copenhagen, 1832.
Of modern works, those of Rask, the founder of modern Icelandic philology, Egillson, the learned author of the Poetic Lexicon, otherwise well known by his translation of Homer, and Fritzner, the first real Icelandic lexicographer, deserve reverent mention. But for all practical purposes their labours have been superseded and their designs fulfilled by Dr Gudbrand Vigfusson, whose Icelandic-English Dictionary, Oxford, 1869-75, must, whether one looks to its scientific philology, completeness, accuracy, or arrangement, be pronounced the best existing dictionary of any Teutonic tongue. It comprises a grammar and phonology, &c. The university of Oxford has recently published, under the editorship of Messrs Vigfusson and Powell, a very complete Icelandic Prose Header. In the scattered opuscula of Dr Bugge, as well as in his notes to the poetic Edda, are to be found many interesting “equations” and observations on the langauge and comparative mythology of Scandinavia.
To English philologists the study of Icelandic is of high importance, as bearing upon the grammar and vocabulary of our most important dialect, the Northumbrian, to a scientific knowledge of which it is absolutely necessary. A list of words occurring in every-day English which we owe to the Scandinavian settlers of the Danelaw will be found in the Oxford Icelandic Reader. To Irish scholars the old northern tongue is also of interest, as not only did those who spoke it borrow much from their Celtic friends and foes, but there was also a certain amount of reflex action which it would be desirable to fully trace out. As the most regular and pure of the Teutonic dialects, its value to the comparative philologist is sufficiently obvious. (F. Y. P.)
- For the periods succeeding the union, Danish state papers and the History of Finn Jonsson are the best authority.
- Many of these poems were Englished in prose by the translator of Mallet, by B. Thorpe in his Sœmund's Edda, and two or three by Messrs Morris and Magnussen, as appendices to their translation of Volsunga Saga. Earlier translations in verse are those in Dryden's Miscellany (vol. vi.), A. Cottle's Edda, Mathias's Translations, and W. Herbert's Old Icelandic Poetry. Gray's versions of Darradar-liod and Vegtamskvida are well known.
- This prose Edda (from which the Eddic Lays got their name) has been partly turned into English by Sir G. W. Dasent, by the translator of Mallet, and by Mr Anderson, and will be found treated of more at length under Edda. Mallet's Northern Mythology, a book which first drew Englishmen's attention to the religious ideas of their forefathers, is not to be depended on in any way, belonging, as it does, to the pre-scientific age. Bunsen's speculations at a later date are entirely fanciful and visionary.