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Why this is the week to be in Iceland (and learn about sagas)

By Minjie Su

The scholarly world interested in all things Norse, Viking and saga-related is coming to Iceland this week for the 17th International Saga Conference. Here is a quick guide to what is happening.

Image from the Flateyjarbók at the beginning of the one of the Icelandic sagas. GKS 1005 fol.162

Begun in 1971, The International Saga Conference (ISC) is devoted to the study and promotion of Old Norse-Icelandic sagas and medieval Scandinavian literature in general. The first-ever ISC was hosted by the University of Edinburgh, on the theme of ‘The Icelandic Sagas and Western Literary Tradition’. Ever since, it has been held in various cities triennially, attracting scholars and students from across the globe.

This year, the ISC makes a return to Reykjavík, Iceland and is taking place from August 12 to 17. This will be the second time that the Icelandic capital to host the ISC: forty-five years ago, Reykjavík had the honour to be the home of the second conference.

Before lunging into all the exciting papers and novel ideas, however, there are a few things that one must know about the 17th ISC.

‘Sagas of Icelanders’

The central theme of this year’s ISC is ‘Íslendinga sǫgur’ or ‘sagas of Icelanders’. One must not confuse it with Íslendingasögur, which is also translated as ‘Sagas of Icelanders’ in English. Also known as the family sagas, Íslendingasögur are prose narratives that focus on historical people and events from the 9th-, 10th-, and early 11th-century Iceland – in other words, the term denotes a literary genre, or at least one of the ways to group the sagas. The Conference theme, however, is to be understood in a much broader sense and covers a wide range of topics. It is further divided into four subthemes: saga origins and media, artistry, ideas and worldview, and law and legal writing (‘Með lögum skal land byggja’, ‘by laws shall the country be built’). The last one, in particular, is subsidiary to the main theme, for it is the 900th anniversary of Iceland’s first written law code.

Háskóli Íslands, Reykjavík

Most of the conference sessions will take place in the University of Iceland (Háskóli Íslands) in Reykjavík. The University is home to the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, where the manuscripts are stored. Founded in 1962, the story of the Institute itself is worth writing a saga for. It was originally named The Icelandic Manuscript Institute and the manuscripts it intended to hold were in Denmark: before the Icelandic scholar and manuscript collector Árni Magnússon died, he bequeathed all his collections to the University of Copenhagen. When Iceland became independent, the two countries started to negotiate over Árni Magnússon’s legacy – after all, these manuscripts were made or copied in Iceland. In 1961, legislation was passed in Denmark and the Danish government decided to return a substantial amount of manuscripts back to Iceland, including the beautiful Flateyjabók and the Codex Regius, in which the Eddic poems are preserved. The treaty was finally signed in 1971. One year later, the Institute adopted its current name, which is more fitting for the home to Árni Magnússon’s life works.

Snorrastofa, Reykholt

On the second day, the Conference will be held in Snorrastofa in Reykholt, a village in Western Iceland. Snorri Sturluson, author of the Prose Edda and – as generally believed – of Heimskringla, settled here in 1206 and was murdered here in 1241 by the agents of the Norwegian king Hákon IV Hákonarson; his famous last words are believed to be ‘eigi skal höggva’ – you shall not strike. If you visit Reykholt today, you can still find Snorri’s pool there, equipped with water conduit that drawing water from a nearby hot spring. Dated to the 10th century, it may be the oldest preserved construction in Iceland.

Snorrastofa is a cultural centre where the exhibition Snorri’s Saga is hosted. Employing both texts and images, the exhibition tells not only Snorri’s life but also the mythical tales from the past.

Programme and Special Events

The programme and abstracts of the ISC can be viewed and downloaded at https://sagaconference2018.hi.is/program/.  In addition to the paper presentations, the ISC also includes plenary and seminar sessions. The plenary speakers will be Professor Carol Clover (University of California at Berkley), Professor Lena Rohrbach (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), and Professor Andrew Wawn (University of Leeds). The seminar sessions are divided between the subthemes; a detailed introduction can be found at https://sagaconference2018.hi.is/theme-and-call-for-papers/. On August 16th, there will also be an off-venue event titled ‘The Sagas in Comics: Valhalla and Vinland Saga’. This special talk is part of the Manga festival in Reykjavik but also fits the themes of the ISC. Henning Kure, screenwriter of the Danish animation series Valhalla (1979-2009), and Makoto Yukimura, cartoonist and screenwriter of Vinland Saga (2005-present), have been invited as special guests.

Stay tuned for more reports from the conference. You can also follow along on Twitter using the hashtag #SagaConf2018

You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

Click here to read more articles by Minjie

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