Íslendingabók and Landnámabók
An interview with Eiríkur Sturla Olafsson
– What is reported in the books Íslendingabók and Landnámabók?
– Íslendingabók is shorter and only 29 pages. Landnámabók is about 330 pages long. They were written between 1122 and 1133 by Ari, the Wise. He was a member of the clergy and, by then, established in Iceland. The books are about the first settlers in Iceland, who supposedly came to the country in the years between 870 and 874. This means the books were written, nearly, 300 years after the first settlements actually took place. Íslendingabók describes the first contacts of the Nordic people with the country, as being told via tales and other oral stories, but not in any written form. The fact that these reports have been documented only after the Church has been established in Iceland, may also be seen as a political strategy to document which person, who allegedly took on Christianity, has now settled. By doing so, the Church expects to keep its rights towards various parts of the country. A more romantic interpretation of the book sees it as the first opportunity that Icelandic clergymen had, to establish a national identity. The first settlers, coming mostly from Norway and the British Isles, were of foreign descent. Three centuries later, the language had been preserved in Iceland although it was developing in other parts of Northern Europe. That may be seen as the first attempt to authenticate a cultural identity through literature, because it hadn’t been much written about it, by then.
– What kind of discourse is there in the books?
– Íslendingabók and Landnámabók are strictly reports. What distinguishes them from other sources is that they try to make the most out of specific sources. They try to evaluate these sources and question if they should be taken for granted or not. Íslendingabók tells about the first people, who came to Iceland but didn’t settle. It contains the only text in the books, written as a tale, and therefore not supported by any facts, about Irish monks. Íslendingabók is a story that tells about the Icelandic settlement, being the reasons for it mostly originated by the conflict with the Norwegian king, at the time, Harald I. It tries to describe what triggered people overseas, heading to Iceland, indeed, a very paranoid journey. Landnámabók is longer and written in more detail. It describes each settlement with a genealogical documentation, in a rather dry way, not caring about the reasons why people decided to move to Iceland, which dealt mostly with political discontentment towards the new king of Norway. At the time, Norway just became a kingdom. Before it was organised in a feudal structure of fjords. This is, in a way, how the myth of independent Icelandic people was born. Icelanders still look back to this moment in history to justify their independence, which is also one of the reasons why Iceland doesn’t want to join the European Union.
– Religion does not play a significant role in the settlement, which seems to be rather a political investment.
– Not until later. At the beginning of the settlement, Christianity hasn’t started to establish in Iceland. Only with the first christian kings in Norway, religion became a remarkable compromise between the kingdom and the people in Iceland. The settlers were, by then, allowed to believe in the hidden gods but should not manifest it in public. Christianity doesn’t become a major device of ruling until the Middle Ages, when most of Icelanders take on the Lutheran Church. At the time, the first disputes between Catholicism and Protestantism started. The first Icelandic Bishop was founded in 1056, which means 56 years after Christianity has officially started in Iceland. The second Bishop was established in 1106 and lead ultimately to tribe wars. One can discuss, whether it was religion as such, that triggered the disputes or if people would use religion as a power device to state their will.
– In what other ways did the settlement influence Icelandic culture besides the production of ideological values, such as independence?
– Independence always shines through everything. Although, poetry is a big part of Icelandic nationality, as well. Icelanders define themselves, more than other nations, through language. Portuguese, for instances, is spoken in other countries like Brazil or Mozambique. It has, therefore, an international value, while Icelandic is spoken strictly in Iceland and a few villages in Canada, where a specific dialect developed, in response to the migration to the West, in the 19th Century. Icelanders are very much focused on their language and yet again through the language, they are proud of their alleged independence, which takes the form of poetry, not in the Landnámabók but, for example, in the Icelandic Sagas and Eddas. These forms of literature, along with the settlement, offer archetypes for the Icelandic independence.
– In the book by Haldór Laxness “Independent People”, we get a very precise view of Bjartur’s life style. How much of a settler is Bjartur?
– The book is brilliant in two ways: firstly, for those who share an independent, nationalist thinking, they will find in the book an exact representation of these thoughts; secondly, the skeptics of these same national values, maintained by an old-school tradition, and those who look abroad, will see in Bjartur a caricature of this same Icelandic independent thinking. I, personally, think he is a sad man, confused, who has been polluted by values that he doesn’t understand. He incorporates the free man of Iceland, who would rather go down, than be anybody’s servant. On the other hand, the reason, why he goes down in his life, is because he refuses to take the world as it is and seek corporation, in order to achieve his goals. He is, actually, both a hero because he is the independent man and an anti-hero because he overdoes it. In this sense, this book can be read in, at least, two different ways.