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Epics (also called Sagas) are (traditionally poetic) works of (oral or written) literature that recount the lives, adventures, history, and events of cultural heroes. Some examples of traditional Epics include John Milton's Paradise Lost, and Homer's tales of Achilles and Agamemnon (The Iliad and The Odyssey). They are traditionally built from oral tales, but there are also modern works that are considered Epics, such as Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. Epics are found from Viking to Vedic cultures, in West Africa, Far East Asia, and the Near and Middle East, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. In the New World, there are tales such as La Araucana, that retells the conquering of Chile by the Conquistadors.
In a recent visit to the inspiring island of Iceland (spelled Island in Iceland), I went on an Epic tour. I was introduced to some of the Island's oldest manuscripts (9th century, written in the 11th century) and given a briefed about the conditions during which they were written. The heritage of the authors of Icelandic Epics are Nordic, culturally associated with the Vikings, and Celtic, associated with Great Britain. To this day, Icelanders carry a predominance of Nordic and Celtic genetic sequences.
In Iceland, Epic works of literature fall into categories, such Legendary and Chivalric Sagas. All of them, in the end, are histories of the early settlers and relate directly to the chieftains who came from Norway or sponsored their finest sailors, warriors, and traders to settle in their name. In the world of Sagas, Icelandic Sagas are a jewel; sparse but poetic, focusing on the families and conflicts of the early settlements. The content rushes the reader directly into the era, and brings us to the time and place succinctly but enthusiastically.
In Egil's Saga, from an 1893 translation into English by W. C. Green, we learn about the origin of the settling of Iceland and the battle between King Harold and Kveldulf, the Grandfather of one of the founding settlers of Iceland.
"Next spring king Harold went southwards along the coast with a fleet, and subdued firths and fells, and arranged for men of his own to rule them. Earl Hroald he set over the Firthfolk. King Harold was very careful, when he had gotten new peoples under his power, about barons and rich landowners, and all those whom he suspected of being at all likely to raise rebellion. Every such man he treated in one of two ways: he either made him become his liege-man, or go abroad; or (as a third choice) suffer yet harder conditions, some even losing life or limb. Harold claimed as his own through every district all patrimonies, and all land tilled or untilled, likewise all seas and freshwater lakes. All landowners were to be his tenants, as also all that worked in the forest, salt-burners, hunters and fishers by land and sea, all these owed him duty. But many fled abroad from this tyranny, and much waste land was then colonized far and wide, both eastwards in Jamtaland and Helsingjaland, and also the West lands, the Southern isles, Dublin in Ireland, Caithness in Scotland, and Shetland. And in that time Iceland was found."
In a few sentences, we can feel the tension between these powerful men and their families, and the awful misfortunes of war. We sympathize with their flight from that land, and their colonization of these new lands as refugees. In so doing, we are steered (as all good histories do) toward the winners of battles yet to come - these are the good guys. If there were people in the lands newly settled, they were in turn subdued, slaughtered, or forced to flee, but we hear nothing of their tale.
These Sagas, like the epic tales of Tolkien (based in part on the ancient Finnish rune singers) and Tolstoy, direct our sympathies to the side of the hero, and we, like those before us, are captivated by their struggle and their victory.
Iceland charmed me, and the Epics that I saw and heard there were fascinating, descriptive, and historic. They instructed me on the struggle to survive in a land where winds whip at Category 3 and the landscape is mere inches from being a 40,000 sq. mi. lava field. Survival, in this place, is, indeed, epic, but writing works that last centuries (even millennia), is beyond epic.
by Andy Lee