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The Story Of The Volsungs
IT would seem fitting for a Northern folk, deriving the greater and better part of their speech, laws, and customs from a Northern root, that the North should be to them, if not a holy land, yet at least a place more to be regarded than any part of the world beside;
that howsoever their knowledge widened of other men, the faith and deeds of their forefathers would never lack interest for them, but would always be kept in remembrance.
One cause after another has, however, aided in turning attention to classic men and lands at the cost of our own history.
Among battles, “every schoolboy” knows the story of Marathon or Salamis, while it would be hard indeed to find one who did more than recognize the name, if even that, of the great fights of Hafrsfirth or Sticklestead.
The language and history of Greece and Rome, their laws and religions, have been always held part of the learning needful to an educated man, but no trouble has been taken to make him familiar with his own people or their tongue.
Even that Englishman who knew Alfred, Bede, Caedmon, as well as he knew Plato, Cæsar, Cicero, or Pericles, would be hard bestead was he asked about the great peoples from whom we sprang; the warring of Harold Fairhair or Saint Olaf;
the Viking” kingdoms in these (the British) the Western Isles; the settlement of Iceland, or even of Normandy.
The knowledge of all these things would now be even smaller than it is among us were it not that there was one land left where the olden learning found refuge and was kept in being.
In England, Germany, and the rest of Europe, what is left of the traditions of pagan times have been altered in a thousand ways by foreign influence, even as the peoples and their speech have been by the influx of foreign blood;
but Iceland held to the old tongue that was once the universal speech of northern folk and held also the great stores of tales and poems that are slowly becoming once more the common heritage of their descendants.
The truth, care, and literary beauty of its records; the varied and strong life shown alike in tale and history;
and the preservation of the old speech, character, and tradition-a people placed apart as the Icelanders have been-combine to make valuable what Iceland holds for us.
Not before 1770, when Bishop Percy translated Mallet’s Northern Antiquities, was anything known here of Icelandic, or its literature.
Only within the latter part of this century has it been studied, and in the brief book list at the end of this volume may be seen the little that has been done as yet.
It is, however, becoming ever clearer, and to an increasing number, how supremely important is Icelandic as a word-hoard to the English-speaking peoples,
and that in its legend, song, and story there is a very mine of noble and pleasant beauty and high manhood.
That which has been done, one may hope, is but the beginning of great new birth, that shall give back to our language and literature all that heedlessness and ignorance bid fair for a while to destroy.
The Scando-Gothic peoples poured southward and westward over Europe, to shake empires and found kingdoms,
to meet Greek and Roman in conflict, and levy tribute everywhere had kept up their constantly-recruited waves of incursion until they had raised a barrier of their own blood.
It was their own kin, the sons of earlier invaders, who stayed the landward march of the Northmen in the time of Charlemagne.
To the Southlands, their road by land was henceforth closed. Then begins the day of the Vikings, who, for two hundred years and more, “held the world at ransom.”
Under many brave leaders they, first of all, came round the “Western Isles ” toward the end of the eighth century;
soon after they invaded Normandy, and harried the coasts of France; gradually they lengthened their voyages until there was no shore of the then known world upon which they were unseen or unfelt.
A glance at English history will show the large part of it they fill, and how they took tribute from the Anglo-Saxons, who, by the way, were far nearer kin to them than is usually thought.
In Ireland, where the old civilization was falling to pieces, they founded kingdoms at Limerick and Dublin among other places; the last-named, of which the first king,
Olaf the White, was traditionally descended of Sigurd the Volsung, endured even to the English invasion when it was taken by men of the same Viking blood a little altered.
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