I felt like they were my neighbors, my relations, my community, these Icelanders from a thousand years ago.
I think it was the style in which their sagas were written.
Many authors these days take an over-the-shoulder, inside-the-soul, point of view with their characters, telling you exactly what the character is thinking and feeling in every excruciating detail. I like that. However, the sagas were not written that way, they were written in a rather external fashion. Yet I felt close to the people.
They seemed real because the lens through which I saw them was as if I were a part of the community. I am told a bit of what they are feeling, I hear of their actions, I know who is best friends with who and how they are related. Just like in real life. In real life I don't know every thought, every pleasure, every pain that passes through my friends, let alone acquaintances that I see frequently. And so the sagas, by being distant, seem real because I see a community functioning, like my home school co/op, like my extended family, like my Christian community. I see the major events that take place and I hear a little of the inside scoop through those more directly involved.
Additionally the descriptions of people are sometimes vivid, so it's like you can see them. I can see their face and external appearance (physique, clothing), but I can't see their mind. Like real life.
Interestingly, books written in first person or with a very over-the-shoulder view often leave you guessing as to the person's looks.
They were so human, driven by their feelings of greed, anger, ambition, brokenheartedness and by what was acceptable in their culture. The women were not meek sheep in the kitchen. A number had strong characters and were driving forces in the stories as they struggled for revenge. And they often manipulated/strong-armed their husbands into getting their way.
And so the sagas easily bridge the gap between then and now, despite culture and language barriers.