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A map showing the journeys of the Vikings
CELAND 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 gather
feathers 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
"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."
So the best skalds traveled much and visited many
people. Their songs made them welcome everywhere. They
were always honored with good seats at a feast. They
were given many rich gifts. Even the King of Norway
would sometimes send across the water to Iceland,
saying to some famous skald:
"Come and visit me. You shall not go away empty-handed.
Men say that the sweetest songs are in Iceland. I wish
to hear them."
These tales were not written. Few men wrote or read in
those days. Skalds
 learned songs from hearing them
sung. At last people began to write more easily. Then
"These stories are very precious. We must write them
down to save them from being forgotten."
After that many men in Iceland spent their winters in
writing books. They wrote on sheepskin; vellum, we call
it. Many of these old vellum books have been saved for
hundreds of years, and are now in museums in Norway.
Some leaves are lost, some are torn, all are yellow and
crumpled. But they are precious. They tell us all that
we know about that olden time. There are the very words
that the men of Iceland wrote so long ago—stories of
kings and of battles and of ship-sailing. Some of those
old stories I have told in this book.