From Iceland — A Very Brief History Of Icelandic Literature

A Very Brief History Of Icelandic Literature

Published December 18, 2012

When he was at Leeds University in the 1920s, J.R.R. Tolkien formed a drinking club where he and his fellow students would recite Old Norse poetry and sing Icelandic folk songs. His ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy was directly inspired by the William Morris’ translation of Iceland’s ‘Völsungasaga.’ Tolkein’s work, in turn, has influenced generations of fantasy authors from Terry Pratchett to J.K. Rowling.
Although English and American literary buffs will have dipped into The Sagas of the Icelanders at some point, there’s a small chance they’ll have heard of Iceland’s only Nobel laureate, Halldór Laxness; it’s even less likely that they’ll have read the prolific Icelandic authors Gunnar Gunnarson (1889-1975) or Jón Trausti (penname of Guðmundur Magnússon 1873-1918) or Guðmundur G. Hagalín (1898-1985).
Gunnar Gunnarsson, who wrote primarily in Danish and published close to 40 works of literature in his lifetime, is highly regarded in Iceland, yet only a handful of his volumes were translated into English. Even though Gunnar was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature four times, he remains out-of-print in English since the 1960s. Neither Jon Trausti, who wrote the definitive, 4-volume cycle, ‘Heiðarbýlið’ (“The Mountain Cot”) reflecting the stark life of pastoral Iceland, nor Guðmundur G. Hagalín who penned many works, including the well-received novel ‘Kristrún í Hamravík’ (“Kristrún in Hamravík”), have had their major volumes translated into English.
Translations long overdue
“New English translations of Gunnar Gunnarsson’s works are long overdue,” says Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson, one of Iceland’s internationally best-known literary novelists (known as Ólaf Ólafsson in English). “Of course, you can’t forget that only 3% of the US publishing market is translated work.”
Ólafur, who has lived and worked in New York for over 30 years, is the author of four novels: ‘The Journey Home,’ ‘Absolution,’ ‘Walking Into the Night,’ and the recently released, ‘Restoration,’ as well as the story collection, ‘Valentines.’
And, Ólafur has every reason to be optimistic about Icelandic literary ambitions. ‘Valentines’ is currently being made into a TV series on the US Sundance Channel, produced by none other than Robert Redford. Ólafur continues a family literary tradition that began with his father, Ólafur Jóhann Sigurðsson, the first Icelander to win The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize.
A literary wow factor
“Of course modern Icelandic literature has been influenced by The Sagas, but more than anything else it is a linguistic continuation of what began with The Sagas,” Ólafur says. Due to the country’s isolation and a protectionist language policy, Icelandic has changed relatively little in the last 900 years.
And yet, as Ólafur points out: “The modern Icelandic literary form did not really start to develop until the mid-1800s. Jón Thóroddsen (1818-1868) published the first Icelandic novel in 1850.”
In the early 1900s, several Icelandic authors started writing in Danish, which obviously gave access to a broader audience. Many of these writers were based out of Copenhagen, including Gunnar Gunnarsson and the dramatists Guðmundur Kamban (1888-1945) and Jóhann Sigurjónsson (1880-1919). In the 1920s, the poet and scholar Sigurður Nordal (1886-1974) led Iceland’s neoromantic movement, influencing a whole new crop of inspired poets and novelists. This movement, followed by the Second World War and Iceland’s independence in 1944, began to shape what is now loosely-termed Contemporary Icelandic Literature. (It is certainly no coincidence that one of Halldór’s most influential novels is entitled, ‘Independent People.’)
Echoes of the past
Writing in the Guardian, literary critic Ben Myers says “The Sagas still influence the way we read and tell stories today.” Yet according to the ‘Oxford Guide to Literature in Translation,’ William Herbert published the earliest accurate translation of Old Norse poetry into English in 1804. William Morris’ and Eiríkur Magnússon’s translation of the Völsungasaga that influenced Tolkein and his successors first appeared in 1870.
Milan Kundera has said that “(t)he glory of The Sagas is indisputable, yet their literary influence would have been much greater if they had been written in the language of one of the major nations; and we would have regarded The Sagas as an anticipation or even the foundation of the European novel.” It wasn’t really until the Victorian era that the world became aware of Iceland’s rich literary heritage.
And a dialogue with the past still continues to this day. More recently, contemporary authors such as Sjón and Jón Kalman Stefánsson have explored Iceland’s grimmest ages in their inspiring works of lyrical fiction. Sjón’s recent novel, ‘Rökkurbýsnir’ (“From the Mouth of a Whale,” 2011), and Jón Kalman’s trilogy that begins with the novel ‘Himnaríki og helvíti’ (“Heaven and Hell,” 2011), are both examples of contemporary authors connecting with Iceland’s literary heritage as a means of reflecting upon its future.
A struggle for independence
On a much larger scale, since earliest inceptions (as Halldór clearly recognised), Icelandic literature has been about the struggle for independence, more recently about the establishment of a world-class literary voice. And although, in the last years, more and more Icelandic authors are making international waves, in truth, we English-language readers (and Icelandic translators) should be paying closer attention to the untapped wealth of contemporary Icelandic literature that have roots going back further than Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World.
It is the very nature of this age-old culture, indeed, its incredible linguistic history and its insularity, that makes its literature, new and old, ring undeniably true. As Ben Meyrs points out, ‘The Sagas’ are “like some of today’s best fiction, unpretentious and unadorned.” He firmly believes that ‘The Sagas’ are “perhaps the most important work of the past thousand years. Possibly ever.”
I concur wholeheartedly—only, I should add: What ‘The Sagas’ gave birth to is certainly just as noteworthy. In reading these modern Icelandic authors, we may actually begin to reinterpret our own European literary roots in new and exciting ways.

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