By DONNA URSCHEL
Distinguished scholars from around the world — Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States — journeyed to the Library of Congress in May to participate in the two-day symposium "Saga Literature and the Shaping of Icelandic Culture."
The symposium coincided with the May 24 opening of a traveling exhibition, "Living and Reliving the Icelandic Sagas," in the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building, through July 15.
The 15 scholars, who presented papers, examined and demonstrated the importance of the sagas and their influence on culture, literature and art during the last millennium. Kristín Bragadóttir, head of the National Section of National University Library of Iceland, and Patrick J. Stevens, curator of the Fiske Icelandic Collection, Cornell University Library, moderated the symposium. Dr. Billington welcomed the scholars to the Library and thanked them for producing an impressive array of papers that shed light on the materials in the exhibiton.
Iceland's minister of education, science and culture, Björn Bjarnason, opened the symposium, which was organized by the Library of Congress and Cornell University Library.
During his remarks, Mr. Bjarnason asked: "Why did Icelanders begin writing down these stories? What was it that led Nordic people in Iceland, but not in Scandinavia, to sit down and write their history? Did they perhaps encounter an epic tradition on their way from Scandinavia to Iceland?"
"I have no answers to these questions," he continued. "In fact, no one has been able to provide a satisfactory explanation of what it was in Icelandic society of about 800 years ago that caused men to write books that now are regarded as indispensable."
The first panel examined "Sagas and the Icelandic Manuscript Tradition." The participants were Stefan Karlsson, past director of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland; Rudolf Simek of the University of Bonn; and Matthew James Driscoll of the Arnamagnaean Institute at the University of Copenhagen.
Mr. Karlsson, in "The Manuscript Tradition of the Icelandic Sagas," discussed the production and dissemination of saga manuscripts in medieval Iceland, identifying the earliest known manuscript as being from the 13th century. His presentation included charts surveying the preserved manuscripts in numerous thematic categories through the Reformation in 1550.
The major categories of sagas include: saints' lives, world histories, Icelandic family sagas, kings' sagas, contemporary sagas, chivalric romances and legendary sagas.
Mr. Karlsson said there were many manuscripts from the 14th century, indicating a high point of Icelandic literary production in the Middle Ages. Around 1400, however, there was a clear break in Icelandic literary culture. One reason could have been the bubonic plague that ravaged the country in 1402-1404. The plague caused the death of a third of the Icelandic population, reducing it to fewer than 50,000.
"Relatively few saga manuscripts have been dated with reliability from the first part of the 15th century. But around the middle of the century, the production of books began to rise from the ashes," said Mr. Karlsson. He added that the 17th century saw a dramatic increase in the dissemination of medieval Icelandic literature. The greatest collector of Old Norse manuscripts around 1700 was the Icelander Árni Magnússon.
The second speaker, Rudolf Simek, addressed "Sagas, Manuscripts and the Liberal Arts." He pointed out that the study of Old Norse manuscripts whose themes relate to the medieval liberal arts and practical arts is essential for understanding the intellectual world that produced Old Norse literary texts.
"Maybe I haven't talked as much about sagas as you would have wanted me to, but not everything that is fascinating in manuscripts has to be a saga," Mr. Simek said.
Mr. Driscoll, the third scholar to speak, discussed "The Long and Winding Road: Manuscript Transmission in Post-Medieval Iceland."
He explained how the transmission of medieval Old Norse texts through paper manuscripts from the period after the Reformation until late into the 19th century is a notable feature of Icelandic literary history. Mr. Driscoll focused on the life of Magnus Björnsson, a farmer who was instrumental in copying and preserving saga manuscripts. Björnsson died at 86 in 1922.
"The practices of Magnus are a gold mine of information on the management and transmission of manuscripts in the late 19th century," Mr. Driscoll said. "The Middle Ages came to an end in Iceland, not with the death of Bishop Jón Arason in 1550, but with the death of Magnus in 1922."
The second panel examined "Sagas and Daily Life in the Icelandic Commonwealth." The participants were Jenny Jochens, professor emeritus at Towson State University; Vésteinn Ólason of the Árni Magnússon Institute; Jesse Byock of the University of California at Los Angeles; and Theodore M. Andersson of Stanford University.
Ms. Jochens illuminated the adventurous life of a medieval Icelandic woman, Gudrídr Thorbjarnardóttir, sister-in-law to Leif Ericsson, in a presentation titled "Gudrídr Thorbjarnar-dóttir: Transmitter of Pagan Culture and Christian Religion."
Gudrídr is a historical personage from the Vínland Sagas, who gave birth to the first known European infant in the New World. Because of her life in North America and her later pilgrimage to Rome—to which she may have brought news of the New World—Gudrídr's life is an important episode in Icelandic history.
Mr. Ólason spoke next on "Söguligr atburdr: An Event Worthy of a Tale." He said, "Describing daily life is not one of the sagas' concerns; nevertheless, we have scenes from daily life in the sagas, and the study of such scenes can throw interesting light on the nature of sagas of Icelanders."
Mr. Ólason then examined several saga scenes from daily life: two describing meals, one involving hair washing, and one concerning a marital spat.
The third member of the panel, Mr. Byock, examined "Social Memory and the Sagas: The Case of Egils saga." "I will concentrate on matters other than literary qualities," he said. "I turn to the social-historic roots of the tale."
He showed that Icelandic family sagas, which bring together fictional and historical elements into a unified narrative, are repositories of Icelandic social memory.
"Over the centuries, these stories helped an immigrant people form a coherent sense of who they were. A crucial importance of the sagas explained how the traditional free-men values—so important to the Icelanders' self-image—came to the island," said Mr. Byock.
The last speaker on the panel, Theodore Andersson, presented "A Note on the Prehistory of Saga Criticism." He discussed how "the medieval Icelanders thought about the sagas and how they construed the meaning of the sagas at the dawn of the saga writing era."
He explained how a critical valuation of actions and episodes is present in Old Norse texts. Mr. Andersson illustrated how Morkinskinna—a 13th century manuscript containing a number of kings' sagas and many Icelandic family tales—provides several examples of this early criticism.
On the second day, the symposium started with a panel on "Voyages and Travel in Medieval Europe as Depicted in Saga Literature." Scholars included Margaret Clunies Ross and Geraldine Barnes, both of the University of Sydney, and Lars Lönnroth of the University of Göteborg.
"The geographic dimension of Icelandic literature is one of its most important characteristics," said Ms. Clunies Ross, who discussed the topic "Home and Away: The Semantics of Travel in Icelandic Saga Literature."
Ms. Clunies Ross said that medieval Icelandic society was defined by three major events, all involving a relationship with the world outside. The events were the settlement of Iceland itself (travel to Iceland); the Icelandic conversion to Christianity some 100 years later; and the loss of Iceland's independent political status to Norway in 1262.
Ms. Clunies Ross also said the sagas reveal the high value society placed on the enjoyment of one's home society and the enjoyment of freedom of movement.
The second panelist was Geraldine Barnes, who spoke on "Travel and the Mapping of Icelandic Identity in Saga Narrative." She said travel had an important influence on Icelandic identity, as can be demonstrated in both classical and post-classical saga literature.
Ms. Barnes described two distinct types of voluntary travel. The first is "foundational or discovery" travel, which are voyages of westward settlement from Iceland to Greenland and farther west. The second is "rite of passage journeys," which are eastward journeys of young Icelanders to the British Isles and mainland Scandinavia.
The eastward journeys entail successful validation of Icelandic identity, and the westward journeys entertain the realized possibility of failure and the erosion of the Icelandic identity, according to Ms. Barnes.
The third scholar was Lars Lönnroth, who presented "Where Microspace Meets Macrospace: The Travels of Norna-Gest and Abbot Nikolas."
Mr. Lönnroth pointed out that in the Vinland Sagas there was a mixture of surprisingly correct and wildly unreliable information about people and places. For instance, the Vinland Sagas have very accurate instructions on how to travel from Greenland to Vínland (North America), yet they also speak of ghosts and other frightening apparitions.
Mr. Lönnroth said myth and reality, and the boundary between them, play a role in comprehending the Norse worldview and Norse travel within that world. He looked at two texts, Leidarvísir, an Old Norse travel guide for pilgrims to Rome and Jerusalem, and Norna-Gests dáttr to examine the relationship between myth and reality.
Mr. Lönnroth described microspace as the space in which medieval man moves regularly and macrospace as beyond the well-known world, which medieval man knew little about and which was populated by strange monsters and other creatures.
The fourth session explored "Influence of the Sagas on Modern Nordic Literature." The panelists included Jón Karl Helgason, a historian and novelist; Régis Boyer, a professor emeritus of the University of Paris-Sorbonne; and Torfi H. Tulinius of the University of Iceland.
Mr. Helgason, in "A Modern Biography of Hallgerdur: Icelandic Sagas, Henry James, and Dorothy James Roberts," demonstrated how two sagas exercised strong influence on the plot of Ms. Roberts' 1961 novel Fire in the Ice, otherwise stylistically a modern American novel. Fire in the Ice is exemplary of a tradition starting in the 19th century of recasting medieval literature into modern narrative.
The second panelist, Régis Boyer, discussed "The Narrative Genius of the North." He said the influence of saga literature is by no means confined to the shaping of Icelandic culture. All of Scandinavia owes a debt to, and derives its narrative capacity from, the models provided by the sagas. The way of telling the tales is the narrative genius of the North.
The third panelist was Torfi H. Tulinius, who discussed "Grettir and Bjartur: Realism and the Supernatural in Medieval and Modern Icelandic Literature." He said the reception of saga literature by modern writers is an important facet of modern Icelandic literature. There is a parallel between supernatural aspects of the saga and the integration of folklore in the modern novel. Both create a greater psychological depth.
"Saga Literature and its Relation to Modern Visual Arts" was the fifth and last session. It included Andrew Wawn of the University of Leeds, and Adalsteinn Ingolfsson, past curator of the National Art Gallery of Iceland.
Mr. Wawn discussed "Picturing the Sagas: Some Victorian Perspectives." He showed how the appearance of 18th and 19th century illustrations of the Icelandic family sagas was concurrent with the rise of interest in the sagas among European and American audiences. Mr. Wawn referred to the illustrations as having "instant universal product recognition."
Mr. Wawn also examined how a range of these illustrations shows the relationship between iconographic representations of the ancient North and the artistic and social conventions prevalent in Europe.
In the final presentation, Mr. Ingolfsson discussed "Icelandic Modern Art and the Sagas: Constructing and Deconstructing a Heritage." He said the early 20th century Icelandic visual artists—with the notable exception of sculptor Einar Jónsson—tended to avoid the saga themes in their work. One reason was a political and social expectation that saga themes would be treated with objective reality.
Nonetheless, there is an indigenous tradition of saga illustrations in paper manuscripts from the end of the 17th century onward. Starting in the 1920s, there is an increase in the number of saga-related depictions by Icelandic artists in various media.
Ms. Urschel is a freelance writer.