GOLDEN AGES AND FISHING GROUNDS: THE EMERGENT PAST IN THE ÍSLENDINGASÖGUR
VIKING SOCIETY FOR NORTHERN RESEARCH, Saga-Book p.39, Vol. XXX (2006)
How golden is the golden age of the sagas?
Considering the importance of the Settlement period to the Íslendingasögur, Gunnar Karlsson (2000, 50) remarks that ‘it has been argued convincingly that all ethnic groups find a golden age in their past if they need it in the present’. The ambience of the Íslendingasögur, like that of other stories about community origins, is per meated by nostalgia, yet their representation of the past escapes the determinism of the golden-age narrative framework. They lack the clear linear progression from initial bliss and innocence, followed by fatal hubris and descent into a dark age with the promise of a possible rebirth, that Anthony Smith (1986, 192) suggests is played out in all myths of ethnic origins. Taking his cue from Kenneth Minogue, Smith argues (191) that,
these myths resemble the motif of the Sleeping Beauty, pricked by the external forces of evil and put to sleep until the nationalist dawn arrives to restore the community to its true self in a new ‘golden age’.
In the Íslendingasögur it is precisely the beauty of the Beauty that comes under scrutiny; rather than dwelling too much on external evil (designing kings of Norway and their henchmen), the sagas are instead focused on the handsome but already corrupted and inwardly scarred body of the Icelandic Commonwealth.