Right under the dedication of his book Feud in the Icelandic Saga, Jesse L. Byock includes this incredible quote from an almost forgotten book written a century ago:
The whole of Icelandic history is miraculous. A number of barbarian gentlemen leave Norway because the government there is becoming civilized and interfering: they settle in Iceland because they want to keep what they can of the unreformed past, the old freedom. It looks like anarchy. But immediately they begin to frame a Social Contract and to make laws in the most intelligent manner: a colonial agent is sent back to the Mother Country to study law and present a report. They might have sunk into mere hard work and ignorance, contending with the difficulties of their new country; they might well have become boors without a history, without a ballad. In fact the Icelandic settlers took with them the intellect of Norway; they wrote the history of the kings and the adventures of the gods. The settlement of Iceland looks like a furious plunge of angry and intemperate chiefs, away from order into a grim and reckless lank of Cockayne. The truth is that those rebels and their commonwealth were more self-possessed, more clearly conscious of their own aims, more critical of their own achievements, than any polity on earth since the fall of Athens. Iceland, though the country is large, has always been like a city-state in many of its ways; the small population, though widely scattered, was not broken up, and the four quarters of Iceland took as much interest in one another’s gossip as the quarters of Florence. In the Sagas, where nothing is of much importance except individual men, and where all the chief men are known to one another, a journey from Borg to Eyjafirth is no more than going past a few houses. The distant corners of the island are near one another. There is no sense of those impersonal forces, those nameless multitudes, that make history a different thing from biography in other lands. All history in Iceland shaped itself as biography or as drama, and there was no large crowd at the back of the stage.
Whew! Years ago, I had read the book from which this long quote is excerpted: W. P. Ker’s The Dark Ages (1904). I have not been able to locate my copy, but was delighted to find that the book is available free of charge in a number of formats, including Kindle.
We should by no means denigrate books like Ker’s just because they were written decades ago. Sometimes those old historians and critics had a lot more on the ball than our contemporaries.