Medieval Romance in Iceland



The Culture of the Saga Writers
The more lectures on Iceland I attend, the more disillusioned I become. That’s because I didn’t grow up with any knowledge about Iceland. Instead, I grew up with local village legends. You know, Iceland had the first democracy in the world. Everyone in Iceland was equal. There was so little crime that there was no need of police. Iceland was so isolated that Icelanders were one hundred percent Scandinavian. The Eddas and the Sagas, when we heard them mentioned, were purely Icelandic. The Sagas were a hundred percent historic.

Those village legends were all wrong, of course. Part of it was romanticism, part idealism, part nostalgia, part just not knowing Icelandic history or literature.

Still, Dr. Torfi Tilinius’s last lecture for the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust have left me discombobulated.

Normally, in fiction, film, tourism advertising, re-enactments, it is all about the Vikings portrayed in the sagas. It never is about the people who wrote the sagas. Dr. Tilinius lecture gave us a cram-packed look at the people who wrote those sagas. The Vikings didn’t write them. Icelanders two hundred years after the saga events wrote them. We may not know, for certain, there were no copyright rules in those days, who wrote a specific saga but we know a lot about the society of the time. What were those Icelanders like, those who had the talent and ability, the resources, the interest, in writing the sagas. They weren’t those mythic figures murdering and enslaving, burning and butchering. There was still lots of conflict in Icelandic society as powerful land owners struggled for power but much else was also happening.

This third lecture was on Medieval Romances in Iceland: Old Norse translation from Old French. I know it sounds a bit esoteric but I think everybody in the Icelandic North American community should have been there to hear it. It would change the image of Iceland for a lot of people.

The sagas were written in the 13th century. That was two hundred years after the events many of them recount. They were about pagans but written by Christians. Those Christians were educated. They could read and write. They had the time, the resources and the interest needed to have a cultured life. Their interests extended far beyond the boundaries of Iceland. The breadth of that interest can be seen in the large number of translations into Icelandic from a number of other languages.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of these translations into Norse. In some cases, the original of the translation has disappeared in the host country. There are pieces of French literature, for example, that have been lost but we know about them because they exist in Icelandic.

We hear about the Vikings raising and trading but we seldom hear about the tremendous amount of travel between Iceland and other countries like France and Germany, not just Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

This all raises questions about how and why the translations were done. Who did them? How did the translations change the original? Something Torfi didn’t mention but I’ve heard in other lectures was the tremendous cost of creating a book, either an original or a copy. Vellum was used. Vellum means made from a calf (calfskin). If a rich farmer wanted a book, he needed to be able to kill a lot of calfs, have their skins tanned and treated, then pay someone to write a narrative or copy it painstakingly by hand. In spite of this, there were a lot of different types of documents that were translated: treatises on grammar and rhetoric, religion, literature, homilies, saints’ lives, poetry, the science of the day, historical, and romance literature. This points to a vibrant culture but also one with the resources necessary to have these tasks done.

In the 12th C. Latin began to give way to the vernacular, the language spoken by the local people. There were stories of courtly love. In the 13th C. Alexandrs Saga from Latin was very popular. From the French came Chansens de geste, Charlamagne, etc.

Kingdoms were being established and with them a system of nobility. The kings needed to control ambitious nobles. Royalty supported literature because they saw it as a way to control those powerful nobles. The nobles sent their sons to court and that controlled what they were taught.

Torfi gave examples of important works that had been translated into Icelandic. One he mentioned was The Ethics of Empire. He thinks it was most probably presented by an Icelander as a gift to the King of Norway in the winter of 1262-63. The Icelandic bishop Brandr Jónnson had just been appointed bishop at Holar by the Norwegian hierarchy. 1262 was also the year that Iceland succumbed to pressure and became part of Norway.
What was most fascinating was Torfi´s discussion of how sections of some sagas appear to be borrowed from many kinds of literature. I had learned that the sagas were not pure history and that they were affected by outside influences but Torfi made this very specific when he took us through an original story and then through the episode in the saga that was derived from it.

Incidents being borrowed from other literatures, lays, chansons de geste, romances being available and known among the wealthy, powerful Icelandic families. Large amounts of translation into Icelandic. Once again, my image of Icelanders and their history was modified, expanded. So much for my childhood image of what it meant to be of Icelandic. To us it meant battling around the yard with swords made of lathe as we pretended to be Vikings. That left a lot out.


Egill, the brutal poetic puzzle

viking cross
Egill isn’t as loved as Erlendur. The audience, while a good size at today’s Beck lecture about Egill´s Saga was about half what it was for Torfi Tulinius´s first lecture on the detective novel in Iceland. Obviously, there are a lot more people reading Icelandic mystery novels than Icelandic sagas. However, this second lecture was just as good as the first. Like all good lectures, it sent me away thinking about things I hadn’t thought about for a long time.

Many decades ago, I took a course on the sagas with Haraldur Bessason. I got to know many strange characters, characters pagan to the core, killing each other in fits of rage, because of jealousy, of honour, out of greed, but today Torfi brought a new way of looking at the sagas. Yes, I knew that the sagas were written two hundred years or so after the events they describe. By that time, Iceland was Catholic Christian. That means it was Catholic Christians who were writing the sagas or influencing the writing of the sagas. Do a little research and you will see how Catholicism dominated Iceland. But Torfi made me look at the meaning of that.

Torfi argued that Egill’s saga and others were written by educated men who knew the Bible, knew the stories of both the Old and New Testament. Many sagas follow the traditions of and are obviously influenced by European story telling. I knew that. But I hadn’t thought of looking at some of the major sagas of earlier times as having as models stories from the Bible.

Too often we think of the Vikings as being hermetically sealed away from the rest of the world while at the same time saying that they went raiding, that they served in the court in Russia, that they founded Kiev. We do the Vikings a disservice. They didn’t just go on a raid, kill everyone they met, steal all their stuff and sail home. They dealt with people from many different countries not just as raiders but as traders.

There’s no direct proof but many scholars believe that Snorri Sturluson wrote Egill’s saga. If that is true, then in reading the saga, we have to look not just at the society in which Egill lived but also the society in which Snorri lived.
Torfi started by mentioning his book, The Enigma of Egill, The Saga, The Viking Poet and Snorri Sturluson published by Cornell University Library in the Islendica series. It is open access and can be read on line.

Egill’s saga was written in the first half of the 13th C. It is about Egill Skalla-Grimsson who lived in the 10th C. The saga tells us about traveling, mythology, poetry, politics, ethics, Viking life and when it gathered together becomes the living memory of a past time.

Torfi talked about the Viking diaspora and once he named it, it was obvious that during Viking times there was diaspora. One has only to look at a map (he provided one) with arrows showing Viking travels: Greenland, Newfoundland, Norway, Britain, Germany, France, Sweden, Russia, Denmark. Relatives and friends went to these places and some stayed.

The Vikings, of course, were able to travel as they did because of their light, shallow boats that allowed them to come ashore and up rivers. Listening to Torfi, I was immediately reminded of watching the Viking movie at the Royal British Columbia museum and seeing the Viking exhibit.

These boats allowed the Vikings to be opportunistic. Their boats allowed them to attack Lindisfarne Abbey in AD 793, a raid which is often regarded as the beginning of the Viking era. They raided Noirmoutie in AD 799, along the Atlantic coast and Galacia and Portugal, through the Mediterranean. Mythology has it that Kiev was founded by two Scandinavian brothers and their sister. The Viking effect may not have been as strong in the East as the West as was explained by a member of the audience but I said to Torfi that when I got off the train in Kiev, the person greeting me said, “Welcome, cousin.”

The Vikings went on to create petty kingdoms or domains in Ireland, Orkney, Scotland, Caithness, Helsinki, and Normandy. Finally, when they lost the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, the Viking age was considered over.
Iceland, with its separation from Europe, kept and cultivated the memory of this diaspora. At the same time, the age provided a social structure made up in part of free farmers led by chieftains or petty kings, a tradition of assemblies and a rule of some kind of law.

During all the Viking era and afterwards, Icelanders were in constant interaction with Christian Europe. They didn’t just kill the Christians and loot churches. Christianity brought cultural influences. Viking leaders, Kings, adopted their values and behaviour. So much so that by the early 12 C the Nordic countries had become part of Christian Europe.

If anyone is interested in this Viking diaspora, Torfi suggested reading The Viking Diaspora by Judith Jesch.

By the middle of the 12th C. the church was providing new organization and learning. The chieftains had political power and were judges so they had great control. They started to learn to write. It became important to write down poetry, narration and law, not just religion.

While languages changed in Europe, Icelandic remained much the same. That meant that as time passed Icelanders had the ability to read their past literature. They became the keepers of the collective memory. Icelanders traveled to European courts as skalds. They brought knowledge of the past but not just as history but also as poetry, drama and laws. It became part of the role of Icelanders to be the keepers of Scandinavian culture. That led to the development of writing techniques and to commissions to write biographies of kings.

The sagas that resulted were composed in Iceland. They were prose narratives. The main characters were Icelanders. Some, if not all the action takes place in Iceland. They cover from the settlement period to the Conversion or a short period after that.

Torfi took us through the arguments for Egill’s saga to have been written by Snorri Sturluson and then told us about Snorri. Snorri lived from 1179-1241. He was a chieftain, ruled over a large domain, a poet, a historian, a courtier (he went to Norway to live at court at times), a manipulator and became powerful because he knew how to use the resources available.

During the lecture, I wished that Joan Cadham hadn’t died last week. I would like to have emailed her and asked her what she thought of looking at Egill’s saga from the point of view of a Catholic writing it. She was an intellectual Catholic, knew her religion and history, knew a Catholic point of view.

Torfi said here we have a Christian telling the story of a pagan. Why was the writing of the story so important? Why tell a story about Egill? He’s brutal, does horrible things but is also a poet. Toward the end of his life, Snorri has gone to Norway, returned to find his domain fallen into disrepair. He’s in conflict with his older brother. He attempts to bring people together. What does his rise and fall have to do with how he sees the past and the present? Is a Christian story is being told in Egill´s saga? Perhaps, Torfi said during the question period, it was the story of King David. There are numerous parallels.

Egill, King David, the saga as a Christian tale. Perhaps as one of the audience said it is merely an attempt at revisionist history. Or, maybe that niggling problem I’ve had ever since I studied sagas with Haraldur Bessason, that problem of knowing that when the sagas were written, Iceland was Catholic and Christian and the writers were Christian and educated, that problem of wondering why they wrote them.

During the question period, Torfi recited eight lines of poetry from memory. The lines were from a long poem. The king of Norway has had a chieftain killed because he’s becoming afraid of him. The chieftain’s relatives capture and kill the king’s messengers and two royal children. The poetry tersely describes what has been done to the victims. I could imagine if that verse had not been recited in a well-lit classroom but in a baðstofa with nothing but a few weak candles as I sat on a bed and knitted mittens with the wind screeching and the rain falling and shadows everywhere. For a moment I knew the power of the old stories.

The Viking Banksters


Photo by P. Baer

Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir, professor of Gender Studies, University of Iceland, gave a Richard and Margaret Beck Lecture today, Feb 8, on “Finance Vikings, Masculinities, and the Economic Collapse in Iceland“. It proved to be a popular title for the audience kept arriving and arriving and arriving. People made Viking forays to nearby rooms for chairs, sat on the steps, stood against the walls. As John Tucker said, pleased as punch but bemused, “You just never know how many people will turn up.“

As I´m sure everyone knows, there was a special Investigation Commission in Iceland to investigate the banksters. However, readers may not know that there was a gender review of the SIC done by Einarsdottir & Pétursdottir.

The banks grew 20 times in size in seven years. The economic policy from 2004 contributed to the imbalance in the economy. Deregulation and financial liberalization meant a  lack of control over the bankers. The employment policy, the lowering of taxes and the financing of  houses plus the political ideology mindset contributed to the crash.

How does gender matter? The events leading up to the crash was controlled and directed by men. National ideas of masculinity fueled the ideology behind the events. Rah, rah, we‘re Vikings, lets go raiding. One gets the feeling that some of the bankers had read too many sagas when they adolescents.

Transnational business is largely male and within that context, Icelandic men saw themselves not just as bankers but as the Financial Vikings. Their financial exploits were a way of showing everyone how powerful they were.

There was nothing to stop all the testosterone fueled risk taking. The business tycoons were praised by the media, by politicians, by the bankers, the president himself. Wow, look at our Vikings! From 1997 to 2008, magazines chose the financial Vikings as Man of the Year. As I listened to the lecture, I got the image of the banksters arriving on the shores of Iceland in Viking long boats while worshiping crowds sang their praises.

The Viking heritage was seen as strength, daring and sound knowledge of business that created success quickly in investing abroad. Björgvin G. Sigurðsson, the Minister of Business Affairs praised the Viking qualities of the businessmen who were taking huge financial risks.

Ölafur Ragnar Grímsson repeatedly praised the so-called Viking qualities of Icelandic business. He said “Icelanders focus on the result rather than the decision-making process…go straight to the task and do the job in the shortest possible time“.

He also said, “Elements in our culture and history have played a part …qualities we have inherited from our ancestors give us an advantage in the international arena“.

When the bankers were borrowing and buying there was complacency and arrogance: the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce said Iceland should “stop comparing itself to the other Nordic countries since Iceland already is way ahead of them anyway“.

Thorgerdur showed a video called Mindset made by Kaupthink bank. ( drew a lot of laughs. The laughter was because the claims are so vain, so unrealistic, so absurd that one could do nothing but laugh. I have been told all my life that the worst sin an Icelander can commit is to brag but self-importance and vanity drip from the film.

After the collapse, the former chair of the Financial Supervisory Authority, Lárus Finnbogason, said that maybe the supervisory authority over the banks should actually have been in direct contact with the top managers. The statement seems utterly bizarre. What he was saying was that the people trusted to supervise the banking system had no direct contact with the people who were borrowing vast sums of money and creating schemes like IceSave. They were too impressed  by them.

A Norwegian bank specialist said after the collapse that “Icelandic bankers…seemed to hold the view that they had invented something new, that they had superior competence and a better understanding of risks and profit possibilities as compared to more traditional and conservative bankers, and that, in their view, the sky was the only limit.“ This was the view of one of those other Scandinavian bankers that the Icelandic chamber of commerce thought were so far behind.

The view of the Icelandic banks was not as flattering as the banker‘s view of themselves. The Trade Council´s report said Icelandic companies “were young companies with young management“ and there was “Something infantile and nouveau-rich about the expansion.“

What allowed the disaster to happen was that there was an old boy´s network made up of friendship and family ties and the gender review showed that it was very definitely a boy´s network. No girls allowed.

When the banks were privatized, people were told that there was clear understanding that the state getting out of the financial markets and allowing private business to run the banks was highly important. However, in actual fact, the two state banks were divided between the ruling parties. This was cronyism at its worst. When I heard this I thought this was every bit as bad or worse than the cronyism of the Southern American states at the beginning of the 20th Century. So much for all the times I had been told while I was growing up in Gimli, Manitoba, that Icelanders were so  honest that they only had one jail and had no need for policemen.

How much the system was dominated by a few members of Iceland´s elite upper class could be seen by a statement by Sigurjón Þ. Árnason, CEO of Landsbanki. “Generally speaking, David didn´t call  me. This is the way the system worked: David spoke to Halldór, Sturla spoke to Jón Thorsteinn or to me. Me and Stulli are friends, we sat side by side in college, that´s the way it is in Iceland, therefore, we know each other pretty well, even if we are not friends today but we know each other, historically speaking, and we can therefore talk to each other, independent of work. Therefore, we sometimes talk to each other, but generally speaking Jón Thorsteinn communicated with him.“

If you lost money in the crash, your savings, your investments, your house, anything, this statement by Sigurjón Þ. tells you exactly how it was done with backroom deals among the power elite who think no rules apply to them and that they are entitled to take anything they wish. When Thorgerdur showed us this statement, I thought about my research into the 1800s in Iceland and thought also of Laxness´s novel, Independent People, and thought Icelanders may have more cell phones than anyone, they may have a computer in every home, but nothing much has changed. The elite still believes that it has the right to take whatever it wants. The ordinary people are still Bjartur of Summerhouses. The rich give themselves money and the ordinary people are dispossessed.

Prime Minister Geri Haarde said “Sigurjón Þ. Árnason CEO of Landsbanki is my neighbour… and I got him to walk over to my place three times in the month of March…to discuss the Icesave accounts“.

After the crash, The Observer said “Iceland´s spectacular meltdown was caused by a banking and business culture that was buccaneering, reckless — and overwhelmingly male.“

One of the most interesting slides that Thorgerdur showed was a diagram of the relationships of the various men involved in creating the crash. It was shocking. It made clear that a small group of privileged men created the boom, benefited from it and caused the crash is made absolutely clear.

Thorgerdur ended with a set of recommendations to include women in decision-making roles in government and business so that the testosterone fueled disaster won´t happen again.

After the lecture, I was fortunate to have lunch with  Thorgerdur and some members of the audience. She is charming and intelligent. She has done a good job as both an investigator and a reporter of the follies of the testosterone driven crash. However, I came away from this lecture saddened. It is obvious from this lecture and from others I have attended that the Icelandic elite believed it had the right to take and keep whatever it wanted during the 19th C, that it believed it in the 20st C. and that it still believes it.

Unfortunately, it looks like many ordinary Icelanders still believe that this select few do have the right to take what they want and will vote them back into power. In this, they are not unique. It is often the working class, the underprivileged, the exploited, who support the Republican party and the right of the one percent in the United States to have and to hold their wealth and privileges no matter how they got them. Why should it be any different in Iceland?