The Medieval Eddas and Sagas of Iceland: Literary presentations of oral traditions
Affiliation: The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, University of Iceland

In my talk I shall focus on why the written realistic prose narratives about farmers and chieftains in Iceland, called Family Sagas, as well as poetry and mythology, called the Eddas, were written down in Iceland. This happened mostly during the 13th and 14th centuries and it is highly problematic how we can use these written works to think about the oral traditions that lay behind them. These works were written long after Christianity became the official religion in Iceland (AD 1000) but yet they tell of events, characters and ideas that go back to the pagan period, several hundred years earlier, with a focus on the settlement period in Iceland (870-930) and the life of the first generations in the country. This literary corpus gives rise to many complicated questions: Why were the people in Iceland alone among the Norse-speaking cultures to write secular works of this kind - in a country that was settled by people from Norway, The British Isles and Ireland? Was the Gaelic contribution perhaps decisive here? What is the source value, if any, of these texts about the past, what role did contemporary learning, culture and society have on the writers and how can we use the texts to illuminate the tradition that inspired them -- which the first audience was no doubt also familiar with?

In discussing these questions and the beginning of secular literary writings in Iceland it has often been assumed that literature has developed in some fashion from a primitive and clumsy beginning to more polished works of art. We all know that the art of story telling and poetry can be very advanced and highly developed at an oral stage. There is thus no need for writing in order to develop very nuanced verbal art of prose or poetry. Such a development does also not happen automatically. We see that from other parts of Europe where similar conditions of learning and literacy did not spark a similar development. I think it was more a question of innovative individuals who realised the potential of the new medium at the time: a medium that had only been used previously in Western Europe for religious writings within the church, royal historiographies, chronicles and romances.

When thinking about the development of the notion of the author as a creative individual in medieval Europe many have focused on Dante Alighieri (c1265–1321) in Italy -- but another very creative and innovative individual in Iceland has not entered the discussion in a similarly dominant fashion: Snorri Sturluson (1178/9-1241) who was responsible for a series of innovative writings that may have led him to create an entirely new literary genre:The historical novel/saga, written in a relatively realistic style about secular matters and characters who were not of a noble or royal birth.Snorri put a decisively personal touch on the writing of royal historiography (in his Heimskringla), discovered that he could mediate his oral traditional mythological knowledge from poems and stories in a literary form within the boundaries of a book (in his Snorra Edda) - and finally he made his authorial presence felt when he used local stories and poetry about the past and the settlement-period in the country to create what may have been the first Saga, about his forefather, a poet, warrior and farmer: The Saga of Egill Skallagrímsson. In so doing Snorri started a trend in Iceland and soon afterwards chieftains all around the country were investing in writers who could put together equally impressing works about leading local forefathers and -mothers in their respective regions.

It is a story of authorial innovation, in which an individual, Snorri Sturluson, used oral traditional material with roots in the Gaelic and Norse past of the Icelandic people in order to utilise the potential of new technology and create something new within the field of the verbal arts: The Saga. In so doing Snorri Sturluson was the first "modern" author in medieval Europe to step forward as an individual - but because he lived on the fringe of the cultural zone at time, the influence of his innovation was not felt until much later when the outside world finally learned about this literature in the 17th and 18th centuries.