The manuscript Mödruvallabók is most likely written around the mid fourteenth century. This vellum (calf-skin) manuscript is the largest and most important one preserved containing the Sagas of Icelanders. The book consists of 189 pages and 11 more have been added from the 17th century to fill in some gaps. Mödruvallabók contains elleven Sagas, among them are Njáls Saga, Egils Saga, Laxdæla Saga and the Saga of the Sworn Brothers. The Sagas of Icelanders are thought to have been mostly put down on skin in the 12th century, but next to nothing has been preserved from these earlier manuscripts.
The Sagas are not contributed to any particular author and their origin has been debated, as well as how historically accurate they are and how they should be interpreted. This points to the fact that their value is first and foremost a literary one, the Sagas are living literature that appeals to people in all corners of the world, past and present. When the Árni Magnússon Manuscript Collection was added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2009, the Sagas were pointed out as a special example of world literature the collection holds:
“Perhaps foremost among the texts preserved in the collection are the many examples of the uniquely Icelandic narrative genre known as the saga, widely recognised as constituting one of the highpoints of world literature and still translated and read throughout the world today.”
In Reykjavík City‘s of Literature Submission to UNESCO, Ármann Jakobsson has this to say about the Sagas:
“The Sagas are not the private property of Icelanders but the cultural heritage of the entire world. In Japan, Chile, Rumania and Tanzania there are people who have a special relationship with characters from the Sagas. These people have never been to Iceland and yet they possess another Iceland that they know from the Sagas. Therefore it is safe to say that the Icelandic Sagas are in fact more famous than Iceland itself.
The Sagas were created in a certain cultural context. They weren‘t they only medieval literature written in Iceland, Icelanders also told stories of Norwegian kings and Icelandic bishops. They translated tales of the Knights of the Round Table, Charlemagne, the Trojan Wars, and Alexander the Great. They translated stories of church fathers and holy maidens. They also created their own stories of fictional knights in distant lands, and of Germanic, ancient heroes like Sigurd the Volsung. The Sagas are part of this great literary effort of the Middle Ages but they address more resent events, they revolve around the first generations of settlers in Iceland and the struggles they had with their neighbours and chieftains.
The Sagas are first and foremost about the Icelandi chieftain class. Their protagonists are by and large great heroes and poets, though more common characters loom in the background – workers, maids, slaves, children, old and disabled people. Even though we can not be certain that all the events in the Sagas happened exactly as they are described in the stories, they are believable and that explains their popularity with very different audiences: they are a way of getting in touch with ordinary people.
Before the age of television and movies, the Sagas had the role of entertainment for Icelandic children and young people. Egill Skalla-Grimsson and Gunnlaugur Snake‘s Tounge were to them the same heroes as the modern silver-screen heroes are to teenagers today. In this regard the Sagas have, over the last century, lost a certain role they played in Icelandic culture. However they continue to be read the world over, in Iceland and abroad, and come to life with each new reader every day, just like Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Voltaire‘s Candide.”