Icelandic Literature was created by the inhabitants of Iceland from the
country's settlement in the 9th century AD
to the present. Because Old Norse and Icelandic are, for all practical
purposes, the same language, Icelandic medieval writings are sometimes
referred to as Old Norse literature.
is most famous for its medieval sagas, written between the 12th and 14th
centuries. Sagas are tales of Norwegian kings and real or legendary
heroes, both men and women, of Iceland and Scandinavia. Composed in
prose, generally by unknown authors, they are thought to have been
widely recited by storytellers before being committed to writing. None
of the original manuscripts is extant; transcripts and collections,
sometimes with revisions and amplifications of the originals, date from
the 13th century and after.
of sagas were written in medieval Iceland. They may be divided into
kings' sagas, such as Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla, which traces the
rulers of Norway from legendary times to 1177, and
dealing with Danish kings from Gorm the Old to Canute IV; legendary
sagas, which are basically knightly romances and fantasies (sometimes
called “lying” sagas) of varying literary merit; and the sagas of
Icelanders—more or less fictionalized accounts of the so-called Saga
Age (900-1050) in Iceland. To the last category belong such highly
accomplished literary works as Egil's Saga, the life of the warrior-poet
Egill Skallagimsson; Laxdaela Saga, a triangular love story; Gisla Saga,
the tragic tale of a heroic outlaw; and Njal’s Saga, generally
considered the high point of Icelandic literary art, a complex and rich
account of human and societal conflicts.
addition, the saga form was used in the 13th century to write
contemporary history as it evolved around pre-eminent personages of the
time. The result is generally known under the collective name of
Sturlunga Saga; it recounts in gory detail the internecine struggle of
the 13th century that led to the end of the old Icelandic commonwealth.
The best of its components is the Islendinga Saga of Sturla Thordarson,
a nephew of Snorri Sturluson. Other historical writings of medieval
Iceland include the Islendingabok (Book of Icelanders) by Ari
Thorgilsson the Learned and the Landnamabok (Book of Settlements), in
which Ari may also have had a hand.
Eddas and Other Poetry
Icelandic literature also included the so-called Eddas and skaldic
poetry. The term Edda is of doubtful origin. It may be derived from the
Old Norse word edda (great-grandmother), but more likely refers to Oddi,
a seat of culture in southern Iceland. (Oddi was the residence, at
different times, of Saemundur Sigfusson, a learned cleric once thought
to have compiled one of the Eddas, and Snorri Sturluson, who is known to
have written the other. It is also possible that the term refers to the
Old Norse word othr (“poetry”). In any case, the term is used for
two famous collections of Icelandic literature. The Poetic Edda, Elder
Edda (9th-12th century), is a group of more than 30 poems on the
Scandinavian and Germanic gods and on human heroes, notably Sigurdur,
the Icelandic counterpart of the German Siegfried
(Nibelungenlied). Some of these poems may possibly have been
composed outside Iceland, but they were apparently first written down
there in the 12th century.
Prose Edda, or Younger Edda (13th century), is the work of Snorri
Sturluson. It includes tales from Scandinavian mythology and is the most
important source of modern knowledge on this subject. Other sections of
the Prose Edda form a guide to poetic diction and a metrical key.
poetry, composed between the 9th and 13th centuries, was written
variously in honour of the nobles, in praise of love, or to satirize or
commemorate current happenings. Not as free as Eddic verse, it is
strictly syllabic in structure and is characterized by the use of
kennings: complex periphrases that at their best are beautiful
metaphors, but also sometimes give skaldic poetry the effect of riddles.
of Literary Sterility
Iceland's loss of independence in the 1260s, Icelandic literature
declined, and from about 1400 to the 19th century hardly any literary
prose was written, with the exception of a notable Icelandic translation
of the Bible by 16th-century Protestant theologians. Sacred verse,
however, was composed, and so were rimur, an Icelandic form of balladry
more remarkable for metrical ingenuity than literary value, which
continued to be popular until the end of the 19th century. The
outstanding work of these centuries—and the one that is more often
printed than any other in Iceland—is the Passiusalmar (1666, Hymns of
the Passion) by Hallgrimur Petursson, a 17th-century Lutheran pastor.
the 19th century, a linguistic revival and a resurgence of literary
creativity began in Iceland. Throughout the century, the influence of
European literary movements was felt. Romanticism, dominant in the 1830s
and characteristic of the work of such poets as Bjarni Thorarensen and
Jonas Hallgrimsson, was succeeded by Realism and Naturalism in prose
fiction. The modern Icelandic novel may be said to have begun with Lad
and Lass (1850; trans. 1890), a description of contemporary life by Jon
Thoroddsen, a poet as well as a novelist. This early Icelandic fiction
either is introspective in mood, as in the first novels of Einar Kvaran,
or is given to clearly detailed pictures of stark rural life—as in
Heidarbylid (1908-1911, The Mountain Farm), a four-volume cycle by
Gudmundur Magnusson, who wrote under the pen name Jon Trausti.
in the form of satire, is manifested in the short stories of Gestur
Palsson and, in the ironic vein, in the poetry of Stephan G. Stephansson.
An expatriate who lived as a farmer in Canada, Stephansson was noted for
his sensitive use of language. Another major poet who lived abroad for
extended periods of time was Einar Benediktsson, a writer in the lyrical
vein who instilled his work with a pantheistic vision.
prose writers in the 20th century have included Gunnar Gunnarsson, a
master of characterization who wrote many of his novels in Danish, and
Thorbergur Thordarson, a superb stylist who won a wide following with
his humorous autobiographical writings. The Icelandic author best known
outside Iceland is Halldor Laxness, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for
Literature in 1955. Among his Expressionist, epic novels of Icelandic
life are Salka Valka (1931-1932; trans. 1936), Independent People
(1934-1935; trans. 1945), and World Light (1937-1940; trans. 1969).
Post-World War II works include a novel about a would-be singer, The
Fish Can Sing (1957; trans. 1966) and Innansveitarkronika (1970, A
Parish Chronicle). Among the several significant novelists now writing
are Olafur Johann Sigurdsson, author of such masterly novellas as The
Changing Earth (1947; trans. 1979) and Bref sera Bodvars (1965, Pastor
Bodvar's Letter); Indridi G. Thorsteinsson, who has recorded the
stresses in 20th-century Icelandic society in novels such as North of
War (1971; trans. 1981); Gudbergur Bergsson, an ironic commentator on
the foibles of ordinary people; and Svava Jakobsdottir, author of the
symbolic Leigjandinn (1969, The Lodger).
Neo-Romantic David Stefansson, who sought inspiration in folklore and
ballads, and Tomas Gudmundsson, already a classic master of style and
diction, who became the city poet of Reykjavík, represent traditional
poetry in the 20th century. Newer trends were championed by Steinn
Steinarr, whose modernist expression was synthesized in Timinn og vatnid
(1948, Time and the Water). The most accomplished of contemporary poets
tend to merge the traditional with a modern approach. Among them are
Sigurdsson and Snorri Hjartarson, both of whom have won the Nordic
Council's literary prize, Hannes Petursson, and Matthias Johannessen.
a form not significant in Icelandic literature until the turn of the
20th century, is today represented by the work of such writers as Agnar
Thordarson, whose Atoms and Madams (1957; trans. 1967) is a satire of
modern city life, and Jokull Jakobsson, brother of Svava Jakobsdottir,
who wrote brittle, evocative plays in a Chekhovian vein.
has an exceptionally high rate of literacy — more books are produced per
capita than in most other countries in the world.