Icelandic literature

Icelandic literature

Icelandic literature refers to literature written in Iceland or by Icelandic people. It is best known for the sagas written in medieval times. As Icelandic and Old Norse are almost the same, Icelandic medieval literature is also referred to as Old Norse literature.

Early Icelandic Literature

The medieval Icelandic literature is usually divided into three parts:

*Eddaic poetry
*Skaldic poetry

The "Eddas"

There has been some discussion on the probable etymology of the term “Edda”. Most say it stems from the Old Norse term "edda", which means great-grandmother, but some see a reference to Oddi, a place where Snorri Sturluson (the writer of the "Prose Edda") was brought up.

The "Elder Edda" or "Poetic Edda" (originally attributed to Sæmundr fróði, although this is now rejected by modern scholars) is a collection of Old Norse poems and stories originated in the late 10th century.

Although these poems and stories probably come from the Scandinavian mainland, they were first written down in the 13th century in Iceland. The first and original manuscript of the Poetic Edda is the "Codex Regius", found in the southern Iceland in 1643 by Brynjólfur Sveinsson, Bishop of Skálholt.

The "Younger Edda" or "Prose Edda" was written by Snorri Sturluson, and it is the main source of modern understanding of the Norse mythology and also of some features of medieval Icelandic poetics, as it contains many mythological stories and also several kennings. In fact, its main purpose was to use it as a manual of poetics for the Icelandic skalds.

kaldic poetry

Skaldic poetry mainly differs from Eddaic poetry by the fact that skaldic poetry were composed by well-known skalds, the Icelandic poets. Instead of talking about mythological events or telling mythological stories, skaldic poetry was usually sung to honor nobles and kings, commemorate or satirize important or any current event (e.g. a battle won by their lord, a political event in town etc.). Skaldic poetry is written with strict metric system and many figures of speech, like the complicated kennings, favorite among the skalds, and also with much “artistic license” concerning word order and syntax, with sentences usually inverted.


The sagas are prose stories written in Old Norse, that talk about historic facts of the Germanic and Scandinavian world; for instance, the migration of people to Iceland, voyages of Vikings to unexplored lands or the early history of the inhabitants of Gotland. As the Eddas contain mainly mythological stories, sagas are usually realistic and deal with real events, although there some legendary sagas, sagas of saints, bishops and translated romances. Only sometimes some mythological references are added or a story is rendered more romantic and fantastic as it really happened. Sagas are the main source to study the History of Scandinavia between the ninth and thirteenth centuries.

Middle Icelandic literature

Important compositions of the time from the 15th century to the 19th century include sacred verse, most famously the Passíusálmar of Hallgrímur Pétursson; rímur, rhymed epic poems with alliterative verse that consist of two to four verses per stanza, popular until the end of the nineteenth century; and autobiographical prose writings such as the "Píslarsaga" of Jón Magnússon. A full translation of the Bible was published in the sixteenth century.

Modern Icelandic literature

Literary revival

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was a linguistic and literary revival. Romanticism arrived in Iceland and was dominant especially during the 1830s, in the work of poets like Bjarni Thorarensen (1786-1841) and Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807-45). Jónas Hallgrímsson, also the first writer of modern Icelandic short stories, influenced Jón Thoroddsen (1818-68), who, in 1850, published the first Icelandic novel, and so he is considered the father of modern Icelandic novel.

This classic Icelandic style from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were continued chiefly by Grímur Thomsen (1820-96), who wrote many heroic poems and Matthías Jochumsson (1835-1920), who wrote many plays that are considered the beginning of modern Icelandic drama, among many others. In short, this period was a great revival of Icelandic literature.

Realism and Naturalism followed the Romanticism. Notable Realistic writers include the short-story writer Gestur Pálsson (1852-91), known by his satires, and the Icelandic-Canadian poet Stephan G. Stephansson (1853-1927), noted for his sensitive way to deal with the language and for his ironic vein.

In the early twentieth century, many writers started to write in Danish, among them even some really noteworthy, like Gunnar Gunnarsson (1889-1975), one of the best-known and most translated Icelandic authors, considered a master in characterization. However, the best-known Icelandic author is Halldór Laxness (1902-98), winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955, author of several articles, essays, poems, short stories and novels, like the best known Expressionist works "Independent People", "Salka Valka" and "Iceland's Bell".

After World War I, there was a revival of the classic style, mainly in poetry, with authors such as Davíð Stefánsson and Tómas Guðmundsson, who later became the representer of traditional poetry in Iceland in the twentieth century. Modern authors, from the end of World War II, tend to merge the classical style with a modernist style.

ee also

* Icelandic Literary Prize
* Nordic Council's Literature Prize
* List of Icelandic writers

External links

* [ Old Norse Prose and Poetry]
* [ From Online Encyclopedia]
* []
* [ little but good page on Icelandic literature]
* [ Electronic Gateway for Icelandic Literature (EGIL)]
* [ Sagnanetið - digital images of Icelandic manuscripts and texts]
* [ Some topics on Icelandic literature]
* [ Icelandic Literature] Information on contemporary authors
* [ Netútgáfan] Literary works in Icelandic.
* [ Icelandic Online Dictionary and Readings] from the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center. Collection includes interactive Icelandic dictionary; bilingual readings about Iceland and Icelandic history, society, and culture; readings in Icelandic about contemporary Iceland and Icelanders; and Icelandic literature.

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