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238
ICELAND

latter c. 1280. King Haakon’s Life is preserved in full; of the other only fragments remain. These are the last of the 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 Bluetooth and the Kings down to Sveyn II., is still in existence and known as Skioldunga.

The Knutssaga is of later origin and separate authorships, parallel to Snorri’s Heimskringla, but earlier in date. The Lives of King Valdemar 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 Valdemar II. Jomsvikinga Saga, the history of the pirates of Jom, down to Knut the Great’s days, also relates to Danish history.

The complex work now known as Orkneyinga is made up of the Earls’ Saga, lives of the first great earls, Turf-Einar, 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 Mirade-book of the same saint; the Lives of Earl Rognwald and Sveyn, 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.

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.

Biographies.—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 medieval 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 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 (1118-1121), the feud and peacemaking of two great chiefs, contemporaries of Ari; of Sturla (1150-1183), 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 Önundar-brennusaga (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 Sveinbiornsson (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 Áron Hiorleifsson (1200-1255), a man whose strength, courage and adventures befit rather a henchman of Olaf Tryggvason than one of King Haakon’s thanes (the beginning of the feuds that rise round Bishop Gudmund are told here), of the Svinefell-men (1248-1252), 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. Sturla was born and brought up in prosperous times, but his manhood was passed in the midst of strife, 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 law-book, 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 (1252-1261) 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 (1202-1242) 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. 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 Hungrvaka, lives of the first five bishops of Skalholt, and biographies of his patron Bishop Paul (Pálssaga) and also of St Thorlak (Thorlakssaga). 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 (Gudmundar Saga Goda), 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, Arna Saga Biskups, is 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 1269-1291; a great many documents are given in it, after the modern fashion. The latter, Laurentius Saga Biskups, 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 (1324-1331). It is the last of the sagas. Bishop Jon’s Table-Talk (1325-1339) 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.

Annals.—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 Diplomatarium Islandicum, 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.