Literature of Iceland Part 2

By | November 22, 2020


The 13th century is the heyday of Icelandic medieval literature. The classic saga style is now fully developed as an alternative to the “learned” style found especially in the spiritual literature (and later also to the “saga” style of the knight saga). Early in the century, the royal sagas reach their richest heyday, with masterpieces such as Sverre’s saga (completed no later than about 1210, beginning all in the 12th century) and Snorre Sturlason ‘s saga of Olav the Holy (probably from the 1220s), a superb work of art when it concerns character drawing, composition, dialogue technique and historical perspective. Here, the critical interest of the ancient historians for facts is united with the captivating form of the new sagas.

Elderly accessible saga literature and, not least, the extensive handed-down poetry of poetry are now extensively used in extensive royal saga series, such as Snorres Heimskringla (where Olav the Saint’s saga is the central part) from ca. 1230 and the somewhat close but contemporary artistic work of Fagrskinna. Slightly older is probably the series found in the Morkinskinna manuscript. The most important royal saga of recent times is Sturla Tordsson’s saga about Håkon Håkonsson (written 1264–65). The many penalties here, by Sturla himself and others, are not documentation of the prose story, as so often in Snorre’s past stories, but pure literary decoration.

In the time around 1200, it is also believed that the oldest Icelandic sagas (the “sagas”) were created. Egil’s saga is considered to be from the 1220s, a monumental depiction drawn with sure strokes and harsh humor; its form is very similar to Snorre’s royal sagas. Many have thought it was written by Snorre. These sagas, where Icelanders revive their own heroic past in the Viking Age, are both in content and form Iceland’s most original contribution to world literature.

From the heroic poetry of the Edda squads, the Icelandic sagas have inherited the aristocratic view of man, the heroic attitude of life and the tragic basic mood. But in the sagas, the heroes are historical figures in a life-like and familiar environment. Influences from the “romantic” spirit of the knight sagas have been traced in the Laxdœla saga and Gunnlaug’s saga, both of which are probably from the second half of the 13th century. The same is true of the greatest and most famous of the Icelandic sagas, the Njal saga (c. 1280), where pagan heroism and Christian self-indulgence are part of a peculiar synthesis.

“Contemporary sagas” were also written. We have a number of biographies of church chieftains, bishop sagas, where the stories of Iceland’s two official national saints, Torlak Torhallsson in Skálholt, and Jon Ogmundsson in Hólar, stand in a special position by their mark of legend. Both worldly and ecclesiastical chieftains are at the center of the series of sagas about events in Iceland in the 1100s and 1200s which together are called the Sturlunga saga. In these sagas, the relationship between literary production and historical reality is much more intimate than in the Icelandic sagas. The Sturlunga saga must be regarded as a main source of knowledge of Iceland’s history during this period. But also in these sagas traces of literary retouching can be detected. The historical interest was also expressed by the fact that several editors of Landnámabók were established in the 13th century.

The interest in old poetry continued throughout the century. About. In 1220, Snorre Sturlason wrote his well-known textbook in the field of painting, Edda ( The Younger Edda ). Here he not only gives an introduction to the Norse metrics and the language of the bald, but also retells many of the myths that the bald language reflects. In Snorres Edda, a large number of stanzas of ancient times are cited and a number of eddas are cited. However, we have preserved a really large and systematic collection of most Eddict poems only from the later part of the century, in the leather book Codex regius.

The old Nordic heroic poems were also partly rewritten as prose stories (in the same way as foreign heroic poems in the knight sagas). This created a separate type of saga about prehistoric heroes, the ancient sagas, e.g. Volsunga saga and Hervarar saga. Such sagas were also invented without basis in older tradition, such as Hrolf’s saga Gautrek sonar. The great work of Þiðrek’s saga, which is a product of Norwegian-Icelandic literary cooperation, is based on German legends. In addition to this, historical literature from Latin was also translated. In the Middle Ages Iceland also had a rich religious poetry.

The period 1300–1550

The period 1300–1550 was an economic, political and cultural downturn. Sturla Tordsson’s saga of Magnus Lagaböte became the last royal saga, and Eirik Magnusson (dead 1299) was the last king to have Icelandic courtiers. Grettis saga, one of the great and significant Icelandic sagas, is probably from the beginning of the 1300s, but the sagas written later in the century are strongly adventurous. The same is true of the knight sagas, following the pattern of the Norwegian knight sagas of the 13th century. They also continued to write weekend sagas. Of historical interest are two contemporary stories about the bishops Árni Þorláksson (dead 1298) and Laurentius Kalvsson (dead 1330). From this time there are also detailed historical annals.

The poetry in traditional verse languages ​​is dominated by large quarters of honor in honor of God and holy persons. Most famous of these is Lilja, a mighty kill of 100 strokes in rhythmic verse. It has been attributed to the monk Eysteinn Ásgrímsson who lived in the mid-1300s. The foremost religious poet of the late Middle Ages is Hólar Bishop Jón Arason, Iceland’s last Catholic bishop.

During this period, Icelandic literature receives two new main types of non-religious poetry, ballads and rhyme. Song dance has existed all over the 12th and 13th centuries, and the most common ballad verses must have been known in the early 1300s. The Icelandic ballads are related to the poetry of foreign countries. As genres, they clearly bear the mark of being an import commodity, lacking e.g. the distinctive Icelandic letter trim. Most imported ballads originate from Denmark. In addition to the ballads, the so-called Vikivaki areas, domestic song dances, which can have a number of twists in each stanza, arose. rímurare narrative poems that either reproduce the content of older prose literature, especially ancient and knightly sagas, and older poetry, or are freely fictional. The oldest known rhima dates from the mid-1300s. The rhymes had their prerequisite in both the ballad and the domestic poetry heritage. They have letter strips, poetic words and rewrites of the same type as in the shell poetry.


In 1550, Bishop Jón Arason was executed and the Reformation triumphed. At the same time, the last remnant of political independence disappears. This period becomes, for the world of literature, a relatively poor period. Riding poetry dominates, but quality declines, with the main emphasis being placed on artificial verse form and rewrites. The rhymes are nevertheless important as a link between ancient and recent times and have helped to preserve the unity in the language. Of significant poets, only a few, such as the priest Stefán Ólafsson (c. 1520–88), wrote lyrical, satirical and religious poems.

In contrast to worldly poetry, the religious during this period reaches a climax with the priest Hallgrímur Pétursson, whose passionate hymns gained great importance and are still alive. Eggert Ólafsson (1726–68) was a naturalist and poet who wanted to purify the language and renew the literature, partly by making it more national, and partly by bringing it influence from abroad. Already in 1540 Oddur Gottskálksson published an excellent translation of the New Testament, and in 1584 the whole Bible was published in Icelandic translation by Bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson, who also published a hymn book. Bishop Jón Vídalín ‘s postile (1720) must be emphasized by edifying writings.

Around 1600, interest in the saga period became particularly vivid. The learned priest Arngrímur Jónsson wrote books on Iceland and its literary heritage in Latin to reach a foreign readership. The farmer Björn Jónsson from Skarðsá (1574–1655) passed on the old annals for the time 1400–1600. Historiographer Þormöder Torfason (Torfæus) wrote in Latin about the ancient history of the Nordic countries and Norway’s history on the basis of the ancient Icelandic writings; Bishop Finnur Jónsson (1704–89) wrote an Icelandic church history. Lagmann Páll Vídalín (1667–1727) made explanations of the word for the old law books; Professor Árni Magnússon(1663-1730) is famous for its large collection of Icelandic and Norwegian manuscripts from the Middle Ages and modern times. In the second half of the 18th century, the work of publishing texts from Icelandic medieval times came to print.


This was the age of enlightenment and rationalism. The most typical representative of the time was Justice Magnus Stephensen (1762-1833), who wrote dissertations, published journals and teaching books and founded a country information society. More significant as poets was the priest Jón Þorláksson, best known for his translations of Tullin, Baggesen, Klopstock, Milton, etc., Governor Sigurður Pétursson, satirist and Iceland’s first playwright, and assessor Benedikt Gröndal, who was particularly influenced by and translated English literature. Scientific writings include the governor Jón Espólín’s Árbækur Íslands in 12 volumes, and prost Björn Halldórsson’s Icelandic-Latin dictionary.

In the early 1800s, idealistic trends began to emerge in literature. Bjarni Thórarensen (1786–1841) came into contact with romantic ideas in Copenhagen. His homeland songs, erotic poems and quirky memory have greatly influenced later poets. Rector Sveinbjörn Egilsson was also a poet, but his merit lies so much in the influence he had in his interpretations of the ancient Skald quad and in the excellent Icelandic he wrote. In 1816, the Icelandic Literary Society (Icelandic Books Association) was founded.

A double page from Jónsbók

A double page from Jónsbók, Iceland’s Code of Law, published by Magnus Lagabøte. This statute has formed the basis for the legal system in Iceland right up to our time. Handwritten manuscript from the 16th century.