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The Sagas of Iceland: Creating Terra Nova

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Janina Ramirez, presenter of a new BBC documentary on Iceland and its literature, explores the country’s sagas, their wide-ranging legacy and what they tell us about the history and culture of the Arctic island and its peoples.

The Northern Lights over the Hvalfjorour Fjord, near Reykjavik, IcelandDuring the 13th and 14th centuries on a sparsely populated, volcanic and inhospitable island at the edge of the Arctic Circle there was an outpouring of literary creativity unparalleled in the medieval world. The legacy of the family sagas, penned by anonymous Icelanders some 600 years ago, has endured over the centuries and has even influenced some of Britain’s best-loved writers. How a tiny population of Viking settlers came to produce so many fascinating stories is one of the great riddles of literary history. What was it about the experience, culture and attitude of these Icelandic authors that enabled them to create what has been described as ‘the most remarkable vernacular literature in medieval Europe’?To understand the significance of the sagas it is helpful to have an understanding of Iceland itself. A relatively young country, both in geological and ethnological terms, it was formed from a series of volcanic eruptions 20 million years ago and remains one of the most volcanically active places in the world with eruptions roughly every three years. As well as its youthful geology it was one of the largest islands to remain unpopulated by humans until the first millennium.

The monk Dicuil, writing around 825 in his Liber de Mensura Orbis Terrae, records that the first settlers on Iceland were a group of monks, like him, from Ireland. These religious recluses spent the summer months on the island but were forced to return to their monasteries in Ireland during the winter to avoid attacks by ‘Norsemen’. This early reference highlights not only the close cultural links that existed from the beginning between the British Isles and Iceland but also the fact that this inhospitable land tested the endurance of even the most hardy eremitic pilgrims.

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