Return of the Elder Edda

From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 39-41:

Beginning with Norwegian colonization in the tenth century, the art of heroic poetry flourished in Iceland. The tradition came with the invaders, and many of the sagas dwell on ancient Norwegian history, but the poetic gift seems to have been uniquely Icelandic. The earliest works were oral literature, composed by anonymous poets, and they survived from one generation to the next. These and many newly written ones began to be set down on calfskin in the thirteenth century by scholar-monks. Of the vast body of prose and poetry they produced, some 700 manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts have survived to inform students of Scandinavian history. The poetry falls into two broad categories – anonymous Eddaic poems, which relate the deeds of ancient pagan gods and mortal heroes, and the skaldic poems, told by professional skalds, or poets, and based upon Christian themes and personalities.

The most famous of the historical sagas are, perhaps, the Halljreda Saga, which deals with the days of King Olaf Trygvasson, the Saga of Eric the Red, the Saga of the Greenlanders, and the Heimskringla, a collection of sagas written by Snorri Sturluson giving an account of the history of Norway through the semilegendary biographies of its kings, from early times up to the year 1177.

Two collections of sagas exist under the general name of Edda. About the year 1650, after Iceland had become an appendage of Denmark, an Icelandic bishop discovered an old parchment book whose text bore similarities to the known Edda but appeared to be of earlier vintage. He called it the Elder Edda. Unhappily for Iceland, the bishop’s daughter had just been seduced by a young priest, and her angry father was resolved that the girl’s honor should be properly avenged. Accordingly, he offered his precious manuscripts to the king of Denmark on the strict condition that the erring priest should be heavily punished. We are not told what happened to the poor young man, but in due time, the Elder Edda found its way to the Royal Library of Copenhagen to the great and lasting resentment of all Icelanders.

In April 1971, a Danish naval frigate dropped anchor in the harbor of Reykjavík to be greeted by most of the city’s 70,000 inhabitants. The ship brought back, at long last, the precious manuscripts to be given into the care of the Icelandic nation, and the occasion was one of deep rejoicing. For the Icelanders today still hold the world’s record as publishers and readers of books. Each year some 600 new books come off the presses in Reykjavík and most of these run into editions of from 5,000 to 7,000 copies. No other nation has so many publishers or readers per capita, although the Finns and Norwegians come close. With this 1,000-year tradition of love and respect for the written word, little wonder that the return of their precious sagas meant so much to the people of the little republic.

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Filed under education, language, migration, nationalism, Scandinavia

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