By Ruth Davenport

On a hot summer’s day, the University of Calgary received its coolest donation ever.

On Fri., July 20, the Icelandic Ambassador to Canada attended a reception at the MacKimmie Library to donate a five-volume boxed set of the first complete English translation of the Sagas of the Icelanders.

His Excellency Hjalmar W. Hannesson expressed his hopes students would appreciate the valuable donation.

"Start with one of the shorter ones and read them for enjoyment," he said. "Along the way you will learn a lot. That’s really what they were written for. They are well written, they are exciting, they are great stories, and they are valuable historical documents."

The Sagas are the written history of the discovery and settlement of Iceland, and also encompass the history of Canada, Scandinavia and Ireland. Originating in AD 800, the Sagas were passed through generations by word of mouth and in the 13th century, preserved first on vellum and then on paper manuscripts.

"The Sagas represent the rich cultural heritage of Iceland," said University of Calgary Associate Director of Information Resources Yvonne Hinks. "It’s certainly a literary treasure and will be a boon to students studying literary works or comparative literature, and certainly to any in the medieval studies, because it will be a source of literature, legend and history."

Five hundred five-volume sets of the Sagas were presented to Canada by Iceland last year and are currently being distributed to specially chosen locations.

"The most important reason for the gift is simply that in Canada we have about 150,000 people of Icelandic descent," said Mr. Hannesson. "They have contributed greatly to Canadian society and they are great Canadians. We wanted to make a significant gesture to take their role into account. And, we wanted to expand from that group to the Canadian academic community and the general public as much as possible."

The Sagas are considered a literary phenomenon because of their long tradition, the use of language and their relative obscurity until the 17th century. They have been placed next to Homer’s Odyssey and the works of Shakespeare, as well as other masterpieces of classical Greece and Rome in terms of literary significance.

Hermina Joldersma, a professor in the department of German and Slavic languages, explained the value of the latest addition to the library.

"This winter, I will teach medieval literature and English translation," she explained. "The very first story that I’m teaching is the oldest existing German secular poem, written around AD 800. It’s the story of a battle between father and son, and the German version is a fragment that breaks off before we know how it ended. But we know how it ends because there are hints of it in the Sagas. So we know from the Sagas that the father kills the son and it ends tragically."

Joldersma expressed a profound appreciation of the donation.

"They’re beautiful," she said. "It’s really wonderful to have a full set that’s so well done. One of the problems with trying to work with them is that we don’t have easy access to the whole set, so if one gets mentioned, you don’t necessarily have it and you have to chase it down in some obscure translation, but now we’ve got the whole set."

The Sagas are available for university students and public use at the MacKimmie Library.

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