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Icelandic literature has been celebrated and much studied in recent years. The Icelanders have a high literacy rate currently and were also one of the more literate European countries in the Middle Ages.
Iceland is one of the few countries in Europe to have maintained a thorough collection of illuminated manuscripts, as far back as the 1100s. It was their method of production of the vellum used for the manuscripts that sustained the overall readable quality of the manuscripts.
One can see a selection of these fine manuscripts displayed at the Arni Magnusson Institute, located at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, Iceland.
When one studies Icelandic literature, one gains a history lesson from the Sagas, lessons on wisdom and everyday living from the Havamal and an introduction to Norse mythology and Icelandic Viking beliefs in the Prose Eddas.
The sagas literary structure, command of facts, genealogy, and overall history of early Iceland have been the object of research for centuries. Most Icelanders are able to trace their family lineage to the time of Iceland's inception as a colony for Norwegians, in 874 A.D.
The usage of genealogy throughout the sagas also established rights of ownership to land, property, titles and the rights of revenge and honor. Therefore, genealogy is a substantial feature of the society of today's Iceland and also for their ancestors.
A saga typical of Icelandic genealogy, intrigue among families, conflict and resolution, and an overall description of the Icelandic countryside is Egil's Saga. One can tour the countryside where Egil lived and gain a living experience. While I was in Iceland, I had the opportunity to travel in the southwest and southern points of the island and see first hand some of the countryside depicted in Egil's Saga and Laxdaela's Saga.
The prose Eddas are poetry that contain the Words from the High One or The Havamal. Odin was the High One or chief of all the Norse gods and legend states that he sacrificed one of his eyes for words of Wisdom. The Havamal are studied by every Icelandic high school student.
A thorough read of these proverbs provide an insight into the Icelandic culture and their perceptions of themselves and others.
One thing is certain, reputation is everything in the Iceland of the Viking days. To die not in battle was a sure way for a man to lose his reputation of honor and courage. Many proverbs suggest that to have a humble home was better than living in a crag or on the streets.
An excerpt of poetry from Egil's
Excerpts from The Havamal:
Most dear is fire to the
sons of men,
good is health if one can but keep it,
and to live a life without shame.
Many a sweet maid when one knows her mind
is fickle found towards men:
I proved it well when that prudent lass
I sought to lead astray:
shrewd maid, she sought me with every insult
and I won there with no wife.
Icelandic literature requires only the appreciation of a good story well told and an ear for rhyme and meter. Of course a little human conflict and intrigue make the story all the more easy to remember.