October 2011 | Nate Pedersen

Iceland's Medieval Epics

We reported yesterday that Reykjavík was the most recent inductee into the UNESCO City of Literature network, joining Edinburgh, Melbourne, Dublin, and Iowa City.  Today, I thought we might take a look at Iceland from a rare books perspective.  And books don't come much rarer, or much more important, than Iceland's great contribution to world literature: its medieval epics, the Sagas of the Icelanders and the Poetic Edda.

The Sagas of the Icelanders are the histories of the Norse and Celtic settlers in Iceland in the 10th and 11th centuries.  They were written in the 13th and 14th centuries, likely transcribed from a long-standing oral tradition.  The Poetic Edda are a collection of Old Norse Poems, delving deeply into Norse mythology and Germanic legend.

Today, most of the original Saga manuscripts are held at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavík.  The Institute is named after Árni Magnússon (1663 - 1730), a librarian, scholar, and prodigious collector of manuscripts, who built an enormously important collection of early Icelandic texts.  Magnusson traveled through Iceland in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, purchasing every manuscript he could find and making copies of any he could not personally secure.  On his death, he left his collection, which included a number of the Sagas, to the Danish Royal Library, where it remained for two and half centuries.  (Denmark was, at the time, the sovereign ruler of Iceland).
A similar fate awaited the Poetic Edda.  The Edda are primarily found in one manuscript, the Codex Regius, or "Royal Book," likely written in the 1270s.  The book is missing from the historical record until 1643 when another important Iceland manuscript collector, Brynjólfur Sveinsson, discovered it and sent it to the King of Denmark as a gift.  The Codex was then held (along with the Sagas) in the Royal Library in Copenhagen until 1973 when Iceland demanded the return of a host of manuscripts deemed to be "Icelandic cultural property."  The Codex is now housed at the Magnusson Institute as well, which is, of course, a must-stop in Reykjavík for any visiting bibliophile.  

With the slew of literary activity surrounding the induction of Reykjavík into the UNESCO City of Literature network, now is a great time to visit Iceland and see the ancient manuscripts for yourself.  Other important manuscripts, including several of the Sagas, are held at the National and University Library of Iceland, also in Reykjavík.