Icelandic-Canadian Literature as 21st-Century Sagas

Article excerpt

The more truth you impart to fiction, the stronger the story.

But how much is the reverse true when it comes to history? How does adding a little fiction make shared history more memorable? The Icelanders and their descendants in Manitoba could teach us a thing or two about that.

I'm not, by the way, suggesting anyone is wilfully lying or misleading or covering up things that really happened. But we remember things better when they make a good story, even when we know what we're getting isn't strictly history.

There's an interesting parallel between the flowering of Icelandic literature in the Middle Ages and what some writers of Icelandic blood are creating today.

Authors such as Martha Brooks, David Arnason, W.D. Valgardson and filmmakers including Guy Maddin are mythologizing the Icelandic geography and history of Manitoba, just as the Icelanders did when the sagas were written.

When Iceland was first settled in the late-ninth and early-10th centuries, it was predominantly a Norse (with some Celtic), pre-literate culture. Though the Norse used a runic alphabet for some things, they did not have a written literary tradition.

That changed when Iceland peacefully accepted Christianity as its official religion in the year 1000 (though pagan practices were not forbidden and therefore continued for decades, if not centuries). With the establishment of the new religion came the Latin alphabet and the importance of writing.

The Icelanders eschewed writing in Latin, as was the norm in mainland Europe, instead writing them in their native tongue, now called Old Icelandic or Old Norse. This made them accessible to everyone as the Icelandic sagas were often read aloud. And stories enjoyed by the common people were soon predominantly about the common people. The sagas, written during the 12th to 14th centuries, preserved accounts of events from earlier times through stories.

This isn't to say Icelanders didn't also write about foreign kings or the Norse gods and heroes (the latter preserved in the Poetic Edda); but the glory of medieval Icelandic literature is surely in classics such as Njál's Saga and Laxd¶la Saga.

And they weren't averse to mixing fact with fiction, just a little. After all, if the infamous real-life outlaw Grettir kills a troll in single combat while living in the wild, doesn't that just make it a better story?

Unfortunately, that meant the sagas were seen as unreliable historical documents by nearly everyone except the Icelanders centuries later, even on matters of global importance, such as the existence of North America (recorded in some detail in the Greenlanders' Saga and the Saga of Eirik the Red). …