Despite so many of Iceland’s sagas and histories being written down by medieval monks for purposes of posterity, there existed no suitable means of protecting them from the country’s damp climate, and within a few centuries these unique artefacts were rotting away. Enter Árni Magnússon (1663–1730), humanist, antiquarian and professor at the University of Copenhagen, who attempted to ensure the preservation of as many of the manuscripts as possible by sending them to Denmark for safekeeping. Although he completed his task in 1720, eight years later many of them went up in flames in the Great Fire of Copenhagen, and Árni died a heartbroken man fifteen months later, never having accepted his failure to rescue the manuscripts, despite braving the flames himself. As he noted at the time of the blaze, “these are the books which are to be had nowhere in the world”; the original Íslendingabók, for example, the most important historical record of the Settlement of Iceland, written on calfskin, was destroyed, though luckily it had been copied by a priest in Iceland before it left the country.

The manuscripts remained apart from their country of origin until long after Icelandic independence in 1944. In 1961, legislation was passed in Denmark decreeing that manuscripts composed or translated by Icelanders should be returned, but it took a further ruling by the Danish Supreme Court, in March 1971, to get things moving, as the Danes were reluctant to see these works of art leave their country. Finally, however, in April that year, a Danish naval frigate carried the first texts, Konungsbók Eddukvæða and Flateyjarbók, across the Atlantic into Reykjavík, to be met by crowds bearing signs reading “handritin heim” (“the manuscripts are home”) and waving Icelandic flags. Even so, the transfer of the manuscripts wasn’t completed until 1997. A new building, the Hús islenskra fræda (House of Icelandic Studies), is currently under construction near the National Museum on Suðurgata to house the collection.

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