From Iceland — The Book That Shaped The Icelandic Soul

The Book That Shaped The Icelandic Soul

Published November 12, 2021

The Book That Shaped The Icelandic Soul
Valur Grettisson
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There are few books, if any, that have shaped the Icelandic soul as significantly as the Folklores and Adventures, or “Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur og æfintýri”, collected by Jón Árnason in the 18th century. This book is not only the most comprehensive collection of Icelandic folk stories—featuring elves, trolls, ghosts and more—but it’s also one of the cornerstones in our fight for independence. The book was published in two volumes and printed in Leipzig, Germany in 1862 and 1864. But the road to printing wasn’t easy.

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Scary stories

Jón was just a young boy when he became obsessed with folklore. Born in 1819, he later wrote in his memoir that he forced all guests to his family’s farm to tell him a story—even if they were so gruesome and spooky that his mother had to sleep next to him to fend off the nightmares that would ensue. His enthusiasm continued throughout the years and as he got older, he grew more and more curious about the common folklore that had never been properly recorded in Iceland.

First print was a disaster

Jón became a student in the School of Bessastaðir, and it was there that he began to collect traditional tales in earnest. He published his first collections with his best friend Magnús Grímsson in 1852 under the title Íslenzk ævintýri (‘Icelandic adventures,’ in English). But there was little to no interest in these folklores at the time and the book was not well received. It was also a time when Icelanders were struggling economically, so it’s safe to say that there were no booming sales in folkloric literature. Jón and Magnús were left questioning whether there was much point in continuing their work at all.

The German’s got it

Enter German scholar Konrad Maurer, a professor at the University of Munchen and what we could today call a “friend of Iceland.” Konrad met the young and enthusiastic Jón and Magnús, and heard about their interest in Icelandic folklore. Of course, the professor recognised the importance of such tales through the German Grimm brothers, and was also collecting similar tales in Iceland, which he later printed himself. He encouraged the men to keep on collecting stories and promised that when they were ready, he would print them in Germany.

Dedicated to Jacob Grimm

Jón and Magnús resumed collecting stories with vigur, sending letters to friends and old schoolmates seeking out more tales. Unfortunately, Magnús died before the book was published, but Jón persisted and finally sent the finished text to Konrad in Germany. What’s more, Jón was so taken by the Grimm brothers that he actually dedicated the book to one of them, Jacob.

Shaped national culture

When the book was finally published, it was a hit. In part, this was because the mood in Iceland had changed since Jón’s last book. Icelanders were becoming increasingly romantic about their heritage, mostly to show the Danish monarchy that Icelanders were not just one of their colonies, but a nation with an old and important history. Iceland’s hero of independence, Jón Sigurðsson, recognised the importance of the book, and bought 800 copies to give to the members of the literature association (Bókmenntafélagið). This proved to be an important step in the fight for independence. The book inspired Iceland’s greatest writers to invest in and develop the national culture in various ways. Everything from the midwinter festival of Þorrablót to the national costume, which was designed by the painter, Sigurður Guðmundsson, inspired by the traditional stories he himself had contributed to Jón’s book.

Supernatural Iceland

The stories in the book cover the weird and the wonderful of Icelandic folklore and culture, with elves, warlocks, ghosts and monsters all making an appearance. Some of the stories have stayed with us for centuries, and parents today are still retelling them to their children. However, these days, this book is almost unheard of outside of Iceland, and even within the country, knowledge of folktales is fading with each generation. It’s with this in mind that we decided to share the stories from this magnificent book, in our new video series Supernatural Iceland. Each month we will explore the world of Icelandic folklore as we travel around the country seeking out the strange and unusual, in order to do just what Jón Árnason wanted—to preserve these stories for generations to come.

Info: You can watch our series inspired by these stories, Supernatural Iceland on our YouTube channel now.

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