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ART. VI. - The Story of Burnt Njal, or Life in Iceland at the
end of the Tenth Century. From the Icelandic of the Njal's Saga. By GEORGE WEBBE DASENT, D.C.L. 2 vols. 8vo.
Edinburgh: 1861. THE 'HE travellers who year by year lay before us their descrip
tions of the steam-clouded valleys, lava-covered plains, and mud volcanoes of Iceland, seem scarcely aware that the land of their pilgrimage ever had a history. This is the less excusable because the names of places in Iceland are peculiarly picturesque and descriptive; the language has never changed since the island was first colonised almost exactly a thousand years ago - and the name of every mountain, fjord, and farmhouse tells of some temple, some hero, or some exploit. Yet while a transport of classic enthusiasm is called up by the conjectural verification of the site of some petty skirmish in the Peloponesian War, the story of an island so nearly connected with England itself, is not only neglected by Englishmen, but is by them at least scarcely known to exist. There is no task more difficult than to introduce such a subject to the English public. It is like writing of something which took place in another planet. As young men are now educated, there is no part of their knowledge which may serve as a point of departure to bridge over the gulf which separates them from Scandinavian history, literature, and polity. Everything must be told from the beginning, and nothing must be taken for granted, except a general abhorrence of the Danes as described by our monkish historians, and some vague notions of the mythology of the Scandinavian Pantheon, in which the men of the North first personified as giants and fiends the rough and terrible agencies of Nature which surrounded and oppressed them, and then superseded their own creation by deities made in the image of man, and faithfully representing his own passions, feelings, and aspirations.
And yet, probably, there does not remain for the critical student of history a more interesting investigation, than an inquiry into the causes which created and maintained for a hundred years ani aristocratic republic in Iceland, rich in valour and enterprise, and formed on principles unique in the history of the world. Geographers might not unprofitably sift the evidence which proves, with irresistible cogency, the discovery by Icelanders of Greenland, Labrador, and New England, before the conclusion of the tenth century. Philologers might well inquire into the language of the conquerors of the Roman Empire, which has been preserved like a fly in amber almost unchanged up to the present day in the wild valleys of Iceland. The man of taste and letters might study with pleasure and with profit, a literature which contains the first outpourings of a vigorous and heroic spirit, which has all the freshness of the early dawn, and is unsurpassed, even by the Homeric
poems, as a vivid and faithful picture of life and manners. The student of sacred history may view in these records a state of society, of feeling, and of literature, not unlike, in many respects, that which is found in the historic and nomic books of the Old Testament. In both he will find a clear and graphic narrative, interspersed with terse and energetic dialogue, and a contemplative spirit, finding expression in short and weighty aphorisms, or in homely but expressive proverbs. The student of English history may well wish to know what manner of men those Danes really were, before whom the fierce and victorious Saxons trembled, and to learn this from their own lips; and the philosophical lawyer will not misplace his time in studying the jurisprudence of Iceland, in which he will find the germs and the origin of our own.
Mr. Dasent has undertaken the Herculean task of introducing this history and this literature to the English reader. He is well qualified for the undertaking by a complete and accurate knowledge of the subject, and by the possession of a pure vein of English undefiled, which enables him to transfuse into our own language much of the racy vigour and quaint homeliness of the original. His plan also seems to us eminently judicious. He has presented one of the masterpieces of Icelandic literature, the · Njala,' or Tale of Njal, as a first specimen, to be shortly followed, as we learn from certain references in the notes, by a translation of the Tale of the Orkneys, a subject closely interwoven with the history of Scotland. England, which now stretches forth her arms to the extremities of the earth, formed, nine hundred years ago, one of a small number of States, Ireland, Normandy, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland, which were a little world to themselves, and entertained but scanty relations with the rest of mankind. To this world Mr. Dagent seeks to introduce us. But before we follow his guidance, we must, in order to make ourselves intelligible to the very numerous class of readers whose attention is for the first time directed to this remote subject, particularise a few dates and facts, which are requisite for the understanding of Icelandic history, and give some idea of the literature, a specimen of which appears now for the first time in an English garb.
The colonisation of Iceland began in A. D. 874, and continued for sixty years. The colonists were the small kings and independent chieftains of Norway, too weak to resist the power of Harold Harfagr, and too proud to acknowledge a superior. In defiance of the king they went forth in such numbers, that by 930 the land was settled as fully, probably, as it is now. They took to themselves large districts, which they distributed among their relatives, their freedmen, and their thralls. The colony was founded in a spirit most hostile to the mother country, which the settlers left with feelings somewhat similar to those which sent the Phocæans forth to found Marseilles. Had Iceland been within the reach of King Harold, the feudal system would no doubt have sprung up there as the readiest means of mutual protection against him; but the king's arm was not long enough to reach the fugitives, and the consequence was that the smaller settlers were freed from feudal burdens, and the larger landholders, having no common fear to bind them together, lived in absolute independence of each other. The petty kings of Norway became petty kings in Iceland. But that which fear of a stronger power could not effect was accomplished at last by the salutary dread which these petty sovereigns felt of each other. Weary of discord they asked for law, and for a common place of meeting where they might deliberate on their general interests, and arrange their differences by arbitration and agreement. Law and a common place of meeting, by the side of the Thingvalla Lake in the south-west of the island, were established in 930, and Ullirt was the first lawgiver and first interpreter of the law. In 962 the island was divided into quarters each with its separate court of justice, and among those courts was divided the jurisdiction previously exercised by one central court. About the year 1000 Christianity was introduced into Iceland, not by violence, but by the act of the lawgiver for the time being, Thorgeir, to whose arbitration, although himself a heathen, Christians and pagans agreed to leave the question of the adoption of the new faith; and by whose arbitration, when it was given in favour of Christianity, the pagans, though with some murmurs, abided. This first Reformation, like the second which succeeded it five hundred years afterwards, was not only a great religious but a great political revolution. It drew after it immediately the abolition of the Holmgang or judicial combat, which was solemnly abolished in Iceland just a hundred years before it was as solemnly promulgated by Godfrey of Bouillon and the crusaders in the assize of Jerusalem. This introduction of Christianity also stripped each great chief of a portion of his power. On each large domain a temple was established for the worship of Odin and the Aesir, where sacrifices of horses were offered, and tolls paid for the maintenance of the shrine. By the introduction of Christianity this source of power and revenue was entirely taken away. But an aristocracy does not easily surrender its rights. By the esta-. blishment of a fifth court of very high and paramount jurisdiction, and by vesting the judicial office in that court in the hands of the great chiefs or priests, as they still continue to be called though their priestly office was gone, the aristocracy probably came out of the revolution stronger than they were before. Indeed, during the two hundred and fifty years for which the Icelandic republic continued to exist after the introduction of Christianity, its stability was never endangered by any popular movement, but was often threatened, and finally subverted, by the feuds of the great chiefs among themselves. To compare small things with great, the polity of Iceland, after the introduction of law in 930, was somewhat similar to that of the United States from the secessionist point of view. It was a federation of independent chiefs who agreed to a certain code of laws and to a common legislative and judicial organisation, but each of whom reserved to himself not only those powers which he had not expressly conceded, but also the power of revoking that concession whenever he thought proper. Law in Iceland was only one of several alternatives. If a man was slain, for instance, the public asserted no right to punish the offence. The right was in the next of kin, and they might either take vengeance on the murderer by their right of private war, or take a pecuniary atonement for the injury, or prosecute the offender at law in a suit: which, if successful, ended in making him an outlaw, whom any one might slay, and in the confiscation of his goods, or, in cases less extreme, in banishment from the district or from the island for life or for a term of years. But even after having chosen to proceed by law, the plaintiff had his locus penitentiæ. He might, or if he did not the defendant might, refuse to thole or bear the law. In heathen times he might stop the suit by a challenge to single combat, which was regarded in the light of an appeal to the highest tribunal; or he might break up the proceedings by force; or if judgment went against him, he might stand on his defence and resist the execution. It results from these statements that, , in addition to its innumerable technicalities and chicaneries, of which something must be said presently, the law of Iceland had these three capital defects it was not a compulsory remedy for injury; there was no public authority to put it in motion; and when the sentence was given, it was left to private ven
geance and private power to put it in force with such assistance as might be got from the priest if he happened to be favourable to the successful party.
This is the state of law described in the Njala, and admirably illustrated and explained in the introduction prefixed to it by Mr. Dasent. For a hundred and fifty years after the introduction of Christianity we know comparatively little of the political history of Iceland. But the last hundred years of its existence are made known to us in considerable detail by the Sturlunga Saga, which relates with perspicuity and often with pathetic eloquence the downfall of the freedom which it had cost so many sacrifices to establish. The Republic perished for want of an executive to enforce the decisions of the assembly, and to compel persons injured to try their causes by the law, and to submit to its award. Instead of the old appeal to single combat, small standing armies were introduced; each chieftain claimed to be above the law, and to carry on private war no longer by his own personal prowess, but by the hands of mercenary retainers. The island was desolated by perpetual civil wars. Great battles, when we consider the population and the time, were fought by land and sea; until at last in 1261, wearied out by the waste of its misdirected energies, the Icelandic aristocracy bowed the head to Haco, King of Norway, consenting to pay him tribute and to hold their lands as his vassals. Since then the island has been exposed to an unintermitting series of calamities. First came frightful earthquakes and eruptions; then the pestilence which almost depopulated Iceland about the year 1400; and then a commercial monopoly only relaxed within the last two or three years, which reduced the people to the lowest point of misery, assisted by fresh eruptions and other diseases. The old heroic spirit is burnt out; the people bave become tame and inert; and a few drunken sailors were able fifty years ago to seize for a time on the government of a country that once spread the terror of its arms through every gulf and inlet between the North Cape and the shores of Brittany. Well might Njal say, With laws shall our land • be built up and settled, and with lawlessness wasted and • spoiled.
We now pass from the political to the literary side of the subject. Scandinavian literature may be divided into the earlier and later poetry, and the earlier and later prose. The earlier poetry was collected together by Saemund the Wise, in the beginning of the twelfth century. It is of unequal but of very high merit. There are passages of hopeless obscurity, but, as it would seem, rather arising from the extreme antiquity of the