Kjartan Yngvi Björnsson is a literary critic and Master’s student in Creative Writing at the University of Iceland. In 2012, he and co-author Snæbjörn Brynjarsson received the Icelandic Children’s Prize and Icelandic Booksellers Prize for ‘Raven’s Eye,’ the first novel in their Three Worlds series.
The following conversation was part of a 2016 Wilmers Fellowship research project on the Icelandic literary community, conducted by Ariel Chu.
Why do you think the fantasy genre is taken less seriously in Iceland?
Iceland has a very strange and special literary tradition. We were writing narrative fiction and prose long before the rest of Europe was doing it, and then wrote epic poems when the rest of Europe was moving into narrative prose. We’re a horrible nation of hipsters—we can never just do what anyone else is doing.
It wasn’t until the Romantics that any serious new Icelandic literature was being made. Then people wrote mostly poetry, and new types of stories weren’t seen to be as important as a “good” use of the language. We almost fetishize the Icelandic language, which does have a special relationship to literature relative to many other countries. Because modern Icelandic is so similar to the Old Norse of the Sagas, it’s kept on a high pedestal—versus English, which is evolving decade to decade, and especially in prose.
Do you feel that you’ve had to deviate from “correct” Icelandic in order to write literature that breaks from the existing tradition?
To write fantasy, Snæbjörn and I have literally had to make up new words. We simply don’t have the vocabulary for several fantastical elements. In turn, we also use the “old language” to build new words, so we do ground our vocabulary in Icelandic. One of our motivations for writing these novels came from having read so much fantasy and sci-fi and speculative fiction in general; there was so little of it in Icelandic that we read most of it in English. It wasn’t really until ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was translated that we got any fantasy literature in Icelandic.
That was one of the reasons we wrote the Three Worlds series: to write classic high fantasy in Icelandic from an Icelandic perspective. Our purpose from the get-go was to try and cultivate good feelings for “proper” Icelandic language in those that primarily read in English. In addition, Norse tropes are used quite a lot in fantasy, so we wanted to take it from the other way around. We decided to start with a Norse view of everything else, and from there, explore other fantasy tropes from a Norse and specifically Icelandic perspective.
Your Three Worlds series grapples with moral ambiguities and sociopolitical questions. To what extent is Icelandic literature concerned with social issues?
Social realism overlooks the narrative possibilities offered by speculative fiction, which can mirror reality or set it up in a new way. My view is similar to Marcel Duchamp’s view of art, which is to alienate the audience—to force the audience to reevaluate what it’s looking at. You have the freedom to alienate the audience when you’re making up your own world, because then you’re not limited by existing connotations of reality. If you’re always talking about “Iceland,” then you’re stuck with Iceland. But if you take some of the themes that are going on in Icelandic society and place these issues into a new context, then you can judge those ideas on their own.
In my opinion, this is the main benefit of speculative fiction: the possibility of mirroring reality and asking “What if?”
This conversation has been excerpted from a series of interviews with writers, publishers, and educators based in Iceland. Full interview can be viewed here.