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237
ICELAND

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.

History.—About the year of the battle of Hastings was born Ari Froði Thorgilsson (1067-1148), 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 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 cultured of after generations. Ari’s great works are Konungabók, 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, 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 Konungabók is preserved under the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturloson, parts of it almost as they came from Ari’s hands, for example Ynglinga and Harald 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 Konungabók (Ynglinga, and the sagas down to but not including Olaf Tryggvason’s) is that of Frisbók.

The Book of Settlements (Landnamabók) is a 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 breathed into the whole, astonish the reader, when he reflects that this colossal task was accomplished by one man, for his collaborator Kolsegg 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), was 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, 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 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.” 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 (1056-1131), a great 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 wrote in Latin. The idea that he had anything to do with the poetic Edda in general, or the Sun’s Song in particular, is unfounded.

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) Sverrissaga 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 Sverri’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 medieval Latin school of Sæmund to which Gunnlaug belonged.

Snorri Sturlason (q.v.) was known to his contemporaries as a statesman and poet; to us he is above all an historian. Snorri (1179-1241) wrote the Lives of the Kings (Heimskringla), 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; 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 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 mutilated, so that they cannot be trusted for historic purposes; nor do they give a fair idea of Snorri’s style.

Agrip is a 12th-century compendium of the Kings’ Lives from Harald Fairhair to Sverri, 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 Sverri’s accession, probably written for King Haakon, 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 Landnamabók and Sverri’s Life from his MSS., of which surviving copies were taken.

Sturla, Snorri’s nephew, wrote the Hakonssaga and Magnussaga at the request of King Magnus, finishing the first c. 1265, the