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Castles and Old Manuscripts

Updated: Jun 22

By Bryndís Víglundsdóttir

Editor's Note: Icelandic Roots brings you another article from one of our favourite storytellers, Bryndís Víglundsdóttir, who speaks about the younger generation's understanding of the sagas. The Icelandic sagas are learned through voice, written word, or both. If we don't know where we've come from, how do we know where we should be going? Let us help you to know more. The Icelandic Roots 2024 fundraiser, History Under Our Feet, begins on June 22nd, or as soon as you sign up. (Click the title to link to more information.) While making your way around Iceland you will receive virtual postcards full of information about Njal's saga and twenty-two others, as well as some very interesting and important people of Iceland. All of your activities count towards your adventure. What an easy and fun way to learn more about our beloved Iceland, her sagas and people.

Castles, palaces and places of worship have for centuries been the pride and show items of the gentry and now the tourist business of European countries. Iceland never boasted of such palaces, castles or places of worship. We lived in turfhouses or perhaps more correctly huts made of lava rocks and turf. The hidden people were the only inhabitants of Iceland living in good and not leaky houses. The hill close to the turf house was more often than not the stately home of the hidden people, not visible to the human eye but people knew the home of the hidden people was there. 

Keldur turfhouse in South-Iceland
Keldur turfhouse in South-Iceland (Photo Cr: Iceland Travel Guide)

Worlds where heroes, hidden people, elves and trolls lived well, were created. These neighbors were never hungry, their clothes were of the finest material, scarlet red silk and cobalt blue velvet. These stories were told and retold through the generations during the long winters and finally they were written on calf skins; the Icelandic skin manuscripts were being created. The bulk of the manuscripts were sent off to Copenhagen while the Icelanders were under the rule of the Danish king. The transportation was by boats and they might sink into the ocean as happened in 1682 when a ship loaded with Icelandic skin manuscripts on the way to Copenhagen sank off Langanes (north east of Iceland). The bulk of the Icelandic skin manuscripts made it to Denmark and other European countries as collecting old manuscripts was already popular among kings and the gentry. However, in 1685 the Danish king issued a ban on selling or giving Icelandic manuscripts to anyone but the Danish ruler. 

In 1728 there was a terrible fire in Copenhagen. Some of the manuscripts were saved but the majority was destroyed in that fire, gems never to be replaced. 

Edda - the new Centre for Icelandic Studies and Árni Magnússon Institute
Edda - Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies

Today there are about 3000 Icelandic manuscripts from the Middle Ages in Reykjavík and Copenhagen. The Danish government has most graciously returned some of our manuscripts to Iceland, other countries have not. A new and wonderful building built to be the home of our manuscripts was dedicated on April 19th, 2023 and given the name Edda, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum (the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies)

The scientists in Edda will be working at preserving the language, promoting the use of it in all areas of our modern society, and kindling interest and appreciation among the population reading the Icelandic Sagas that are preserved on the manuscripts now safely kept in Edda. 

The question is what value- if any- these Sagas have for the present Icelanders. Do the young people read the Sagas? Do they know any of the persons in the Sagas? Could they benefit and grow as persons from getting acquainted with them? 

The answers to these questions will be different, depending on who you ask. Another crucial point is also who is influencing the youth. This is true in all aspects of life. 

The majority of Icelandic adolescents will go to college or trade schools after the grade school. There they will read and work with the Sagas, Nordic mythology and poetry. Some students are lucky enough to enjoy the instruction of excellent teachers and conversations with them. Others are less fortunate, that is a universal fact regarding every subject taught in any country!  

I am of the opinion that we, who live in Iceland should tell our children about the people of the Sagas while they are still young. We should tell them of incidents that will interest their young minds and use words that they understand while telling them the Sagas. 

I have some experience doing this from the years I was teaching classes of children, bringing up my own children, and being close to my grandchildren. 

One of my grandchildren, Guðmundur Ottó couldn't get enough of the stories. I decided to ask him, now that he is an adult, about his opinion on the characters in one of our Sagas, Njál's Saga (Njála). 

Before we hear what Guðmundur has to say – a short sample from Njála

There was a man whose name was Njal.[1] He was the son of Thorgeir Gelling, the son of Thorolf. Njal's mother's name was Asgerda. Njal dwelt at Bergthorsknoll in the Land-isles; he had another homestead on Thorolfsfell. Njal was wealthy in goods, and handsome of face; no beard grew on his chin.[2][3] He was so great a lawyer,[4] that his match was not to be found. Wise too he was, and foreknowing and foresighted. Of good counsel, and ready to give it, and all that he advised men was sure to be the best for them to do. Gentle and generous, he unravelled every man's knotty points who came to see him about them.

Bergthora was his wife's name; she was Skarphedinn's daughter, a very high- spirited, brave-hearted woman, but somewhat hard-tempered. They had six children, three daughters and three sons, and they all come afterwards into this story. (Njáls saga, chapter 20)

Many sagas do more with the genealogy of the characters than is done in the case of Njáll and Bergþóra as an example is the case of Gunnar Hámundarson, another main character in Njála. It was important to know clearly about the family ties when it came to the inheritance.  


Young modern readers are not keen to read whose son or daughter these persons were and where they lived. Few normal adolescents and children think about or appreciate inheritance. The young people want to read about action, fights with swords, visualize heads flying through the air in raids and even burning homes.


In order to catch the attention of the youngsters and keeping it, I have found that recounting the main climaxes of the story, spicing it with the wealth of human interactions, fair dealings and fair behavior, our young listeners learn to appreciate the sagas and hopefully think about  their values.

Njál's Saga is considered the gem of our literature by many scholars of the Icelandic Sagas and other common readers.  


When Guðmundur Ottó (Grímsson) was in the 10th grade he took the course "Our old literature, The Sagas“. Guðmundur wrote three papers while taking the course. One on Skarphéðinn Njálsson, another on Hallgerður Höskuldsdóttir, wife of Gunnar at Hlíðarenda and the third one was on the killings of the workers of Bergþórshvoll and Hlíðarendi.  

 A few examples from Guðmundur‘s paper on Skarphéðinn:    

I think Skarphéðinn is the most colorful person of Nála. His answers are always sharp and often witty.   

An example of Skarphéðinn's sense of humor.

The brothers at Bergþórshvoll decided to „visit“ a man they felt had insulted them. This visit was simply of the nature that the man was to be killed. Njáll is in bed and hears when swords are being handled. Njáll calls to Skarphéðinn and asks where they are going. Skarphéðinn answers without hesitation and says „Looking for your sheep“. Njáll doesn't quite believe this and asks why they are taking their weapons along and Skarphéðinn answers „We will try baiting for some salmon if we don't find the sheep“ and grinned.  

He was famous for his grinning.


Skarphéðinn was by no means a man without flaws but he was always true to himself. The hero Gunnar Hámundarson moved to Hlíðarendi, not far from Bergþórshvoll when he returned to Iceland, having been a Væringi (men serving the emperor of Konstantinopel as body guards). Skarphéðinn and indeed Njáll and all his sons admired and loved Gunnar. Seemingly there were many who envied him and people were being killed but Skarphéðinn stood by his friend. 

I think Skarphéðinn shows the finest character when he, his parents and all the family is being trapped inside their home at Bergþórshvoll, the house is on fire but an agile person could escape on the roof beams not yet burned. The smoke would shield a person from his enemies while running from the burning building.


Skarphéðin´s friend, Kári tells him to go first, he would follow, says Kári. No, you go first, I will follow, says Skarphéðinn. Should I not make it, you will take care of revenging this „visit“. 

These few glimpses demonstrate that Skarphéðinn was a true friend to his family and friends and his courage never failed him.

The fire was raging and Njáll and Bergþóra lay down on the floor under a large hide of an ox. Skarphéðinn was heard saying, my father is going to bed rather early today. Yes, yes, he is an old man.

When the burning was over and Skarphéðinn was found he was still standing, his legs burned up to his knees. He didn't bend, neither while alive nor dead.   

When I had read a bit of Guðmundur's paper again and was now talking to an adult, I said it seemed to me he admired Skarphéðinn, is that so, asked I?

I cannot say, answered Guðmundur that I identify with him and his daily actions except that he didn't tolerate aggression, was a true friend and reacted forcefully if he or his family were insulted or badly treated. 

There is, however, continued Guðmundur, one incident I simply cannot understand or accept about Skarphéðinn. I cannot accept that he agreed to participate in killing his foster brother, Höskuldur. 

That is quite contrary to his character.

Thank you, Guðmundur. I totally agree with your values.


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