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Published by jack elliot


The beginning of a saga

Iceland is a little country far north in the cold sea.

 Men found it and
went there to live more than a thousand years ago.

 During the warm season they used to fish and make fish-oil and hunt sea-birds and gatherfeathers and tend their sheep and make hay. 

But the winters were long
and dark and cold. 

Men and women and children stayed in the house and carded and spun and wove and knit.

 A whole family sat for hours around
the fire in the middle of the room. 


That fire gave the only light.


Shadows flitted in the dark corners. Smoke curled along the high beams
in the ceiling. 

The children sat on the dirt floor close by the fire.


The grown people were on a long narrow bench that they had pulled up to the light and warmth.

 Everybody's hands were busy with wool. 

The work left their minds free to think and their lips to talk. 

What was there to talk about? 

The summer's fishing, the killing of a fox, a voyage to Norway.

 But the people grew tired of this little gossip. 

Fathers looked
at their children and thought:

"They are not learning much. 

What will make them brave and wise? 

What will teach them to love their country and old Norway? 

Will not the stories of battles, of brave deeds, of mighty men, do this?"

So, as the family worked in the red fire-light, the father told of the
kings of Norway, of long voyages to strange lands, of good fights. 

And in farmhouses all through Iceland these old tales were told over and
over until everybody knew them and loved them. 

Some men could sing and
play the harp. 

This made the stories all the more interesting. 

People called such men "skalds," and they called their songs "sagas."

Every midsummer there was a great meeting.

 Men from all over Iceland
came to it and made laws. 

During the day there were rest times, when no business was going on. 


Then some skald would take his harp and walk to a large stone or a knoll and stand on it and begin a song of some brave deed of an old Norse hero.

 At the first sound of the harp and the voice, men came running from all directions, crying out:

"The skald! The skald! A saga!"

They stood about for hours and listened. 

They shouted applause.

 When the skald was tired, some other man would come up from the crowd and sing or tell a story.

 As the skald stepped down from his high position, some rich man would rush up to him and say:

"Come and spend next winter at my house. 

Our ears are thirsty for song."

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