posted on Jan. 4: McMaster Library receives collection of Icelandic sagas


[img_inline align=”right” src=””]The Viking Icelanders first set foot in North America 1,000 years ago. The occasion was marked at McMaster last month with the presentation of a special collection of Icelandic sagas.

Outlaws, rogues and champions. Regional feuds, horse fights and love stories. These and other sagas are presented and told in a beautifully illustrated and bound five-volume collection given recently to the McMaster University Library by the people of Iceland.

The volumes contain 40 Icelandic sagas and 49 tales that have been translated, for the first time, into English from Icelandic. Titled The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Viking Age Classics, the collection published by the Leifur Eriksson Publishing Limited, is one of 500 sets of the famous sagas that are being distributed throughout North America as a cultural gift from the people of Iceland to the people of Canada.

Saga literature has been a national treasure in Iceland for centuries, although it remained unknown elsewhere until it began to be printed in the 17th century. The stories describe the events surrounding the discovery and settlement of Iceland, and became an endless source of knowledge and wisdom, entertainment and brilliant language.

“Icelanders are famous for their literacy,” explained Holly Garrett, who presented the gift to McMaster's Library earlier this month on behalf of the Icelandic Ambassador to Canada. “They were always literate, even during the Dark Ages.”

The distribution of the sets throughout North America marks a special event in both Iceland and North America: Leif Ericson's founding of a settlement in North America — specifically in Newfoundland — 1,000 years ago.

The collection will be put to good use at McMaster. English professor Anne Savage, who teaches Old and Middle English and attended the gift presentation, says the works will likely be useful to students enrolled in her inquiry and medieval and comparative literature courses. Her students will be studying Beowulf next term, she says. History chair Virginia Aksan suggested the works would also used by specific faculty and staff within her department.

“The sagas will be much more accessible to everyone with the publication of this collection in English,” remarked Charlotte Stewart, assistant university librarian. The set will be stored in the archives and research collections area at Mills. (A second set has been requested and will be placed in the Library stacks upon its arrival.)

Icelanders — there are 285,000 people in the territory — have always had a passion for literature, says Garrett. “This time of year, when the Christmas book lists come out, is a big deal in Iceland.” The country enjoys almost 100 per cent literacy today and has for most of its history.

Work on the English translation of the sages, which offer a historical and linguistic look into Iceland's past and the Viking language, began in 1993. More than 30 translators were commissioned to participate in the project.

Last May Iceland opened in Ottawa its first-ever embassy in Canada.

Photo(left to right): Virginia Aksan, Anne Savage, Holly Garrett and Graham Hill