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Sagas

Among the great literary works of medieval Europe, the Icelandic sagas retain the most importance and immediacy to the nation that produced them. The Icelandic language has changed relatively little in the last thousand years, and today's Icelanders quite clearly comprehend the original texts. Sagas are still bestsellers in Iceland, and all students must read them.

Most sagas originate from the 12th to 14th centuries, but recount events of the 10th and 11th centuries, when Icelanders were experimenting with self-government and transitioning to Christianity. The sagas do not neatly correspond to any modern literary genre, but might be called historical novels. The storylines follow a general pattern, in which conflicts escalate into multi-generational blood feuds, and personal codes of honor must be reconciled with the maintenance of the social fabric. (Readers expecting stories of handsome knights rescuing fair-haired maidens locked in castles tend to be disappointed.) The narrative style is terse and action-oriented, with infrequent dialogue and not much of the introspective probing expected in modern novels. Yet the sagas seem remarkably contemporary in their depth of characterization, intimacy of domestic scenes, well-developed sense of irony and humor, and profound grasp of psychological motivation.

About 40 Icelandic sagas have survived, most written anonymously. The two most widely available collections are The Sagas of Icelanders (Penguin, 2001) and Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas (Oxford, 1999). As wonderful as these collections are, readers should know that both are highly selective. Of the six most canonized sagas -- Egils Saga, Eyrbyggja Saga, Grettis Saga, Hrafnkels Saga, Laxdæla Saga, and Njáls Saga -- the Penguin collection includes Egils Saga, Hrafnkels Saga, and Laxdæla Saga, while the Oxford collection has only Hrafnkels Saga.

All the major sagas are in print as individual volumes. Which one you choose could depend on which region you plan to visit: Egils Saga, Eyrbyggja Saga, and Laxdæla Saga are set in the west; Njáls Saga in the south; and Hrafnkels Saga in the east. Grettir the Strong, the hero of Grettis Saga, spends his final years on Drangey in the northwest. Egils Saga is the subject of a fine exhibit at the new Settlement Centre in Borgarnes. Njáls Saga is often considered the greatest literary achievement of all the sagas.

Modern Fiction

The dominant figure of modern Icelandic literature is Halldór Laxness, winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature. His most renowned work is the 1946 novel Independent People, a compassionate and often comic story of a poor sheep farmer determined to live unbeholden to anyone. English translations of several other Laxness novels remain in print. World Light, from 1937, is the life tale of a marginal, starry-eyed poet, a kind of foil for Laxness to work out the conflicting imperatives of art and political engagement. Iceland's Bell, from 1943, explores Danish colonial oppression of Iceland in the late 17th century, with most characters based on actual historic figures. The Atom Station, from 1948, is a more outright political satire dealing with issues stirred up by the American-run NATO base in Iceland. The Fish Can Sing, from 1957, is a particularly gentle coming-of-age story about a boy's pursuit of a mysterious male operatic star. Paradise Reclaimed, from 1960, concerns a late 19th-century farmer who abandons his family, emigrates to Mormon Utah, and later returns to Iceland as a Mormon missionary.

Iceland produces more novels per capita than any other country, but English translations are few and far between. A notable exception is Devils' Island, by Einar Kárason, first published in 1983. The story is set in the 1950s, amid an endearing working-class Reykjavík community with more than its share of eccentrics and troublemakers.

Currently Iceland's most popular writer -- both at home and abroad -- is Arnaldur Indriðason, whose crime novels feature inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, a rather gloomy divorcee who spends his evenings reading Icelandic sagas. Seven of Arnaldur's works have been translated into English, and in 2005 his Silence of the Grave took Britain's coveted Golden Dagger Award.

Nonfiction

Iceland was widely venerated in Victorian England, and William Morris's translations of sagas were household reading. Several Victorians wrote Icelandic studies and travelogues, some of which have been reprinted. Letters From High Latitudes (Hard Press), by the prominent statesman and diplomat Lord Dufferin (1826-1902), is an often raucous account of his 1856 travels in Iceland, Norway, and Spitzbergen. (Tim Moore's Frost on My Moustache: the Arctic Exploits of a Lord and a Loafer, published in 2000 by Abacus, is a hilarious account of Moore's misadventures while retracing Dufferin's route.) Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas (Signal Books, 2007), by the eclectic scholar, novelist, and folk-song collector Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), is a magnificent account of his 1862 journey across Iceland on horseback, interlaced with learned musings on the sagas. Ultima Thule; Or, A Summer in Iceland (Kessinger Publishing), written in 1875 by explorer and ethnologist Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), is an equally penetrating and erudite portrait of Icelandic society.

Ring of Seasons: Iceland, Its Culture and History (University of Michigan Press, 2000) -- by Terry G. Lacy, an American sociologist who has lived in Iceland since the 1970s -- is highly engaging and insightful.

History of Iceland: From the Settlement to the Present Day, by Jón R. Hjálmarsson (Iceland Review Press, 1993), is a tidy, 200-page primer on Icelandic history. Iceland's 1100 Years: History of a Marginal Society, by Gunnar Karlsson (Hurst & Company, 2000; reprinted in the U.S. as The History of Iceland, by University of Minnesota Press), is twice as long and has a bit more intellectual heft. Readers particularly interested in the historical context of the Icelandic sagas should pick up Jesse Byock's authoritative study Viking Age Iceland (Penguin, 2001).

Iceland: Land of the Sagas (Villard, 1990) is a coffee-table paperback, with 150 pages split evenly between Jon Krakauer's evocative photographs and David Roberts' essayistic reflections on Iceland's landscape and literary heritage. Iceland Saga (The Bodley Head, 1987) also takes the reader on a kind of literary tour, but from a more informed perspective; author Magnús Magnússon translated many sagas himself.

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