Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Iceland's Independence Day

Today, June 17, Icelanders celebrate their independence day, on the birthday of Jon Sigurdsson, the leader of the nineteenth-century Icelandic independence movement. Jon was a saga scholar, before he became a politician. He worked briefly at the library in Copenhagen established by the great collector of medieval Icelandic manuscripts, Arni Magnusson.

So it's fitting that, on this day of Icelandic independence, we remember the role of the sagas in setting Icelanders free.

Reading the Icelandic sagas, you learn of Iceland's early days as a free state, from its founding in 874.

Reading the sagas, you learn how Iceland lost its independence in 1262 and became subject to Norway, which itself was later taken over by Denmark.

And reading the sagas--simply the act of reading and rereading them--is what united the nineteenth-century Icelanders, as I learned while researching Song of the Vikings, my biography of the saga master Snorri Sturluson.

Here's how I explained the connection between Icelandic sagas and Icelandic independence in Song of the Vikings:

In 1835 four Icelandic students founded a political magazine in Copenhagen. They printed their manifesto in the form of a poem, which "was exactly what was needed in order to unite the Icelandic people," says Karlsson in The History of Iceland (published in 2000 by the University of Minnesota Press).

The only one of their ancestors it evokes is Snorri:

"... Ah! but up on the lava where the Axe River plummets forever
into the Almanna Gorge, Althing is vanished and gone.
Snorri's old site is a sheep-pen; the Law Rock is hidden in heather,
blue with the berries that make boys--and the ravens--a feast.
Oh you children of Iceland, old and young men together!
See how your forefathers' fame faltered--and died from the earth!"

Four lines of this poem by Jonas Hallgrimsson (translated here by Dick Ringler) are engraved on a plaque now standing on the site of Snorri's booth in Thingvellir, the great rift valley in the south of Iceland where the Althing, the yearly parliament of chieftains, met during the Saga Age.

The Althing reconvened as a national parliament, with Danish permission, in 1845. In 1874 Iceland received a new constitution and, in 1904, home rule. One of its first demands was that Denmark return the manuscripts of the sagas that had been collected--mostly by the scholar Arni Magnusson--and brought to the royal library and that of the University of Copenhagen in the early 1700s. The Danes declined.

In 1918 Iceland became a sovereign state in a "personal union" with the Danish king--much like the situation in 1262, when the chieftains swore oaths of loyalty to King Hakon the Old. For its coat-of-arms the new nation turned once again to Snorri.

King Harald, Snorri wrote in Heimskringla, was angry at the Icelanders, who had composed lampoons about him. He ordered a "troll-wise man" to spy out the country's defenses. Disguised as a whale, the wizard swam close to Iceland’s eastern shore: "Then came a great dragon down from the dale" and "blew poison at him." He swam along the north coast, "but there came against him a bird so big that its wings neared the fells on both sides of it." The wizard-whale fled to the west: "Toward him came a great ox that waded out in the sea and began to bellow horribly." Swinging wide, he swam south, "but against him there came a great hill giant who had an iron staff in his hand and bore his head higher than the fells." King Harald was dissuaded from attacking. Iceland's coat-of-arms bears a dragon, an eagle, an ox, and a giant.

The Icelanders repeated their demands to "bring the manuscripts home." The Althing passed resolutions in 1930 and 1938, then their literary quest was interupted by World War II. In April 1940 Denmark was invaded by Germany; a month later Iceland was occupied by the British, one result being Iceland’s final break with Denmark. The independent Republic of Iceland was established at Thingvellir in 1944; in 1947 the Althing resolved, once again, to "bring the manuscripts home."

This time, Denmark formed a committee. In 1961 a list of manuscripts was drawn up, and Iceland agreed to give Denmark twenty-five years to deliver them. Ten years later—after being photographed and conserved—the first set steamed into Reykjavik harbor aboard a Danish coastguard cutter. Thousands of Icelanders stood by the docks. Thousands more watched via the first live outdoor broadcast of the state television station. Eventually 1,666 manuscripts and over 7,000 charters (1,350 of them originals, the rest copies) were returned from Arni Magnusson’s collection—slightly over half of it. Another 141 manuscripts were sent home from the Royal Library. The last arrived in Iceland in 1997.

"People still say: 'We want to see the manuscripts,'" wrote Gisli Sigurdsson and Vesteinn Olason in The Manuscripts of Iceland in 2004. The manuscripts "are at one and the same time the repository of medieval Icelandic culture and its visible symbol." They are Iceland's "main source of pride."

If you are in Iceland, a fitting way to celebrate June 17 would be to visit the Settlement Sagas exhibition of the Reykjavik City Museum.

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