Flateyjarbók—preserving our heritage

This ancient saga is at long last being translated into Norwegian, with English to follow

Photo: Anders Kvåle Rue Bård Titlestad at Viðidalstunga, Iceland, where Flateyjarbók’s sponsor Jón Hákonarson lived and created his magnum opus in 1387.

Photo: Anders Kvåle Rue
Bård Titlestad at Viðidalstunga, Iceland, where Flateyjarbók’s sponsor Jón Hákonarson lived and created his magnum opus in 1387.

Kenneth Nordan

Flateyjarbók—Norway’s history, Iceland’s little secret
It is well understood that the Sagas of Snorre Sturlason are an important window into the events and history of the Icelandic and Norwegian people. The Sturlason works (Heimskringla and Prose Edda from ca. 1230) have been translated into many languages and have been reviewed and studied for both their historic and cultural aspects for many centuries. Sturlason’s contributions are believed by many to be the only works from that time and place.

However, a little-known work created around 1387 contains many of the same tales that Heimskringla contains plus additional detail and content never before reviewed by modern scholars. This newer work is called Flateyjarbók, which has for the most part remained in its original state (it has never been completely translated to any modern language, nor has it been studied directly by more than a few scholars).

Iceland’s “Little Secret” is not a secret any more. Flateyjarbók has had a coming out party in recent years. Sponsored by The Radix Culturæ Norvegicarum Foundation and published by Saga Bok Publishers, two of an expected seven volumes have now been produced in Norwegian and are available to everyone in Norway. Norwegians are finally able to read, review, and more importantly learn from these books, which is a very exciting prospect.

While Flateyjarbók is not yet available in English, interested parties in the Chicago area have been treated to lectures about the book and its content conducted by Flateyjarbók Project Leader Bård Titlestad. Titlestad recently talked to a packed house in the basement of Minnekirken, Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church in Chicago, discussing the importance of preserving Norwegian cultural treasures.

He explained: “The Sagas are not just about Vikings; they are about people, much like us, looking for answers in life.” Title­stad cites as an example of this a reading during his Minnekirken lecture titled, “The Tale of Eirek the Traveller.” This is the story of a young boy who wants to know about the hereafter and begins a search for “The Deathless Acre” (aka Údáinsakr), the pagan place where everyone is heathy and young, the land of god. Along with a companion, Eirek comes to a land of a Greek king who asks them to stay, and for several years they perform great deeds. In return the king prizes the boys above all, bestowing on them ranks, distinctions and honors that no other Norsemen have received.

But beyond rank and wealth the king also mentors them, revealing great truths and knowledge. In one such conversation Eirik asks:

“Who made heaven and earth?”
The king said, “One made them both.”
Eirek asked, “Who is that?”
The king answered, “God Almighty, who is one God, but of three aspects.”
Eirek said, “What are these three aspects?”
The king said, “Consider the sun. In it there are three aspects: fire, brightness and heat, and yet it’s all one sun. So also in God, there’s Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and yet he’s one in his omnipotence.”

Let us remember that this passage from the Flateyjarbók is meant to teach the intended reader, a young Norwegian king, about how to be a good Christian King. The story goes on to reveal more about the nature of the Christian god and heaven. This story is only a small part of the 2,000 pages that is the whole of the Flateyjarbók.

Interview with Bård Titlestad
Bård Titlestad, publisher with Saga Bok (Saga Publishers) of Norway and Project Director and Vice Chairman of the foundation Radix Culturae Norvegicarum, took the time to answer a few questions while in Chicago.

Kenneth Nordan: Bård, why are you in Chicago?

Bård Titlestad: I am here to talk about the importance of preserving the Norse cultural heritage as it is expressed in the sagas, one of the pillars of our modern democratic civilization. I am managing director for a foundation that has raised a million dollars in Norway for this purpose. We believe it is crucial for current and future generations to be familiar with this material. Our main project in the past five years has been to translate and publish Flateyjarbók in its entirety. It is the largest and most comprehensive saga written in Iceland.

KN: If preserving the book for future generations is one of your goals, isn’t that already happening in Iceland, or is the book in danger of being lost?

BT: The actual book is well protected by the Icelanders. Flateyjarbók has traditionally been a national treasure in Iceland. But as the Icelandic bishop Brynjolv Sveinsson of Skálholt wrote in a letter in the 1660s, “if the sagas are not widely read they end up like mute statues in a museum, voiceless and dead.” Our job is not only to preserve the material, but to make sure it is being disseminated as widely as possible.

Preservation is not just about protecting the physical, but also the spiritual ideas of the book. This intangible cultural heritage can only be preserved if it is made accessible to everyone, which means it needed to be translated into a modern language. So far the Flateyjarbók has only been available in Old Norse, or translated excerpts of certain parts that have been taken out of the original context, like the Vinland-sagas. As a result, only a few people have ever read the whole saga in its entirety.

What is Cultural Heritage?
UNESCO speaks of “Cultural Heritage” in the following way:

Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

The importance of cultural heritage should not be minimized because it retains a wealth of knowledge and skills that, if transmitted from one generation to the next, can provide great social and economic value over time. In today’s world it can be hard to identify many subtle (or “intangible”) cultural elements that are present as well as when these elements are in danger of loss. In 2003 UNESCO identified five broad “domains” of these intangible domains, including: 1) Oral traditions and language, 2) Performing Arts, 3) Social Practices, rituals and festivals, 4) Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, and 5) Traditional Craftsmanship.

KN: Flateyjarbók was written in Iceland in 1387. What makes it Norwegian cultural heritage?

BT: A lot of the saga material is Norwegian history, preserved by Icelandic saga scribes who themselves had close family ties to Norway—much like the Scandinavian Americans here in the United States. The Iceland we know as the “Saga Isle” was created in part by a wave of immigration created by the Battle in Hafrsfjord in 872 when Harald Finehair took control of Norway. Many of his opponents decided to flee the country and settle in Iceland. Some have suggested that this constituted a kind of “brain drain” from Norway at that time. The description of this conflict as it has been handed down in the sagas magnifies the struggle between the forces of authoritarianism and freedom, very applicable to our own time. Obviously the people who wrote down the sagas were people of great intellectual capacity. While Norway in many cases is the main focus of the narrative, it includes people and events from the entire Scandinavian region, so I think saying “Norse cultural heritage” is more appropriate here.

KN: You call this book the “last great saga treasure.” Aren’t the sagas just about Vikings going out and fighting, plundering, and exploring new lands? How is this book about culture?

BT: I would say it’s a misconception that the sagas are about Vikings. There are most certainly Vikings in the sagas, but in essence these are stories about people living their lives with all the beauty and tragedy life entails, but tied into a greater narrative of purpose and destiny.

The Vikings have gotten a very bad rap. Charlemagne is said to have decapitated more than 4,000 people in one day in Verden in what is today Germany. This was in the 780s, so a decade before the attack on Lindisfarne. Perhaps there was a connection? The Scandinavians had already erected the Danevirke, a protective wall to keep out continental armies. I think it is very likely that they kept an eye on the expanding power of Charlemagne, who represented totalitarian rule and genocidal violence on a scale that the Vikings never came close to matching.

There are reasons to believe that Flateyjarbók was written to influence the young Norwegian king, Olav IV, to become a ruler guided by wisdom and care for his people. After the Norwegian empire of the 1200s was destroyed by the Black Death, there might have been a wish by the book’s sponsor, Jón Hákonarson, to help usher in a new golden age of Norse prosperity, inspired by the rule of Haakon the Good and the King’s namesakes, Olav Tryggvason and Olav Haraldsson (St. Olav).

KN: I’ve noticed that the book contains many of the same sagas that are also in the Heimskringla by Snorre Sturlason. How is this book different?

BT: Flateyjarbók’s scribes drew from some of the same sources as Snorri. They most probably worked out of the Thingeyri monestary, which contained Iceland’s most important collection of manuscripts and intellectual resources. But Flateyjarbók includes many stories not included in Snorri’s work, and they embellish and expand on those that can also be found in Heimskringla. While Snorri mostly avoided metaphysical stories of angels, demons, giants, and trolls, all these beings play an integral part of the Flateyjarbók narrative.

KN: You say that the book must be available to everyone, and many of the readers of this article will want to read the book. Will it be available in English?

BT: We are already working on an English language edition. Please visit our websites to keep yourself updated on the progress.

KN: What else is important for us to know about Flateyjarbók?

BT: As I said, Flateyjarbók was probably made to influence the course of history, by influencing the mind of the young king Olav. You can imagine that the authors used only the best stories and the best techniques and literary tools to impart its wisdom into the king’s mind. In many ways we may say this was a book created for one person to read with his teachers. In a sense, we can call it an elite work. But today, with our publication, this wonderful and remarkable text is available for anyone to read. And if my own experience is anything to go by, reading these stories and studying them properly will surely change the way you understand the sagas and your own cultural heritage.

For more info, visit www.rcn-foundation.org or www.flateyjarbok.com.

This article originally appeared in the April 29, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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