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The Eddas and Sagas of Iceland: 9th - 13th century

Iceland provides the fullest surviving record of Germanic mythology, legend and history. The earliest examples are found in a manuscript written in the 13th century, known as the Elder Edda (or sometimes Poetic Edda), which is preserved in the Royal Library in Copenhagen.

The opening poem in the Elder Edda (entitled Völuspá) recounts Norse mythology, from the creation story onwards. Though composed in Iceland, probably in the 10th century, the material is based on earlier sources deriving from Norway and possibly from Norse settlements in Britain.

The second half of the Elder Edda goes back even further, in an oral tradition reaching to the 5th and 6th century. Much of the material derives from the historical struggle in the 5th century between the invading Huns and the royal house of Burgundy. The emphasis is on a blighted quadrangle of love between Siguror (a valiant hero), Brynhildr (a warrior woman living in a castle surrounded by flames, to whom Siguror is betrothed) and a Burgundian brother and sister, of the royal family, who deceive our hero and heroine.

This favourite Norse story is retold in the Nibelungenlied, which makes Siegfried and Brunhild (their German names) the most famous ill-starred lovers in Germanic legend.

The Younger Edda (also known as the Prose Edda) is written much later, in the early 13th century, by a single author - the Icelandic chieftain Snorri Sturluson. Composed as an aid to the appreciation of Icelandic poetry, its account of metric systems and of the mythology behind Norse legend has been of great subsequent value.

Snorri is also the author of the Heimskringla, an account of the kings of Norway from mythological beginnings down to the time of his own childhood. As such, it is just one of the many dramatic medieval accounts of Norse legend and history which are Iceland's great contribution to literature (giving the word saga, old Norse for 'story', to many other languages).

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