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The Value of the Icelandic Sagas

The Value of the Icelandic Sagas

By Einar Sveinsson

Saga-Book, Vol.15 (1957-1959)

Introduction: The legal-minded Romans used to ask: Cui bono? – For whose benefit? Nowadays we say that all things are relative. When I speak of the value of the Icelandic sagas, it is only natural that I should be asked: From whose point of view? For important things are generally not equally important to all people. In the following meditations I shall distinguish between three different points of view. They maybe compared with three concentric circles. For all those within the outermost circle the Icelandic sagas have a general human value, while for those in the two inner circles they have an additional value, greatest of all for those in the innermost circle. And we shall deal with them first.

The value of the sagas for the Icelanders is so great and so complex that it is difficult to define it in all its aspects. We can safely say that without the classical literature, our cultural and political struggle in later times would have met with but little understanding abroad. It is t rue, of course, that translations of the old Icelandic literature have not found their way into everyman’s book-case in other countries, much less the original texts, and it is also unlikely that the works of Konrad Maurer, W. P. Ker, James Bryce and Andreas Heusler, to mention just a few names out of many, have ever been best-sellers. But all this has never the less been sufficiently well known to penetrate the mind of the civilized world. Iceland is comparable to Greece insofar as its ancient civilization has made the modern world more willing to recognize the Icelanders’ right to exist, their right to be free and independent .

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