Icelandic literature

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Icelandic literature

Icelandic literature, the literature of Iceland. For the earliest literature of Iceland, see Old Norse literature.

Early Writings

With Iceland's loss of political independence (1261–64) came a decline in literature, although the linguistic tradition continued and the old writings were still venerated. In the 13th and 14th cent. the sagas of antiquity flourished; many were based on Eddic poems (see Edda). Chivalric romances appeared c.1300, emphasizing classical and ecclesiastical themes and showing French influence. From the 14th to the middle of the 16th cent. many foreign works were translated; Old Norse works were copied and compiled, and new religious poems were written in the old meters. The 14th cent. also saw the development of the rímur, metrically ingenious narrative poetry based on the sagas; it was popular until the 19th cent. and was revived in the 20th.

The Sixteenth to Nineteenth Centuries

The Protestant Reformation, reaching Iceland in the 16th cent., turned literary emphasis to hymns and illuminations of the Protestant faith. Einar Sigurdsson (1538–1626) was the great spiritual poet of the age. The first printing press was brought to Iceland in 1528 by Bishop Jón Aresson. From the Reformation until the late 18th cent. it was under church control; secular works were circulated in manuscript. After 1550, German and Danish influences were strong.

The great secular poets of the 17th cent. were Hallgrímur Petursson (1614–74), author of the Passion Hymns, and the satirist Stefan Olafsson (1620–88). Neoclassicism dominated literary style in the late 18th cent. In the early 19th cent. Árni Magnusson compiled a library of ancient Icelandic masterpieces.

The Creation of a Modern Icelandic Style

Continental romanticism and a newly aroused nationalism fed the romantic revival begun in the 1830s by the poets Bjarni Thorarensen (1786–1841) and Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807–45). The first writer of the modern Icelandic short story, Hallgrímsson also influenced Jón Thóroddsen, who wrote the first published Icelandic novel. This movement, whose practitioners created what became the classic Icelandic style of the 19th and 20th cent., was continued by Grimur Thomsen (1820–96), writer of heroic narrative poems; Benedikt Grondal (1826–1907), romantic and humorous poet; Steingrímur Thorsteinsson (1831–1913), lyric poet, satirist, and translator; and Matthías Jochumsson (1835–1920), whose plays mark the beginning of modern Icelandic drama. The towering figure of the period was the historian and statesman Jón Sigurðsson.

The periodical Verdandi [the present], founded in 1882, advanced a new realism—strongly socialistic, individualistic, and anticlerical, and influenced by the Danish critic Georg Brandes. Notable realists include the short-story writer and social critic Gestur Palsson (1852–91); the Icelandic-Canadian poet Stephan G. Stephansson (1853–1927); and the anticlerical satirist and lyric poet Thorsteinn Erlingsson (1858–1914). Einar H. Kvaran (1859–1938), at first a realist, later turned to religious and spiritual themes in his short stories about the poor in Reykjavík. Jón Trausti (pseud. of Guðmundur Magnusson, 1873–1918) in his fiction depicted medieval as well as modern Iceland.

The Twentieth Century

The 20th cent. saw the rise of a more introspective writing, influenced by Nietzsche and the French symbolists. One group of writers, part of the Icelandic colony in Copenhagen, wrote in Danish to reach a wider public. They were led by Johann Sigurjonsson (1880–1919), a romantic dramatist. Others were the romantic novelist Gunnar Gunnarsson and the cosmopolitan dramatist Guðmundur Kamban. A neoromantic movement arose in the 1920s; it had as a leading spirit the poet, scholar, and critic Sigurdur Nordal, author of the prose poem Hel (1919). Among the neoromantics were the novelists Guðmundur Hagalin and Kristmann Guðmundsson and the lyric poets Davið Stefánsson and Stefan Sigurdsson.

With the urbanization of Iceland's population came the rise of a working class and new patterns of life and thought. Kamban and Trausti early became socialists; Hagalin turned from conservative journalism to become thoroughly identified with the new socialist middle class. The most noted writer of this period was the Nobel laureate Halldor K. Laxness. The establishment of British and American bases in Iceland during World War II introduced foreign literary influence, and Icelandic independence (1944) increased nationalist and patriotic emphasis. In the 1950s the introspective "atom poets," including Stefan H. Grimsson and Hannes Sigfursson, won acclaim. Major writers of the late 20th cent. include Agnar Thórðarson, Elias Mar, Oddur Björnsson, Hannes Pétursson, and Jökull Jakobsson.


See S. Einarsson, History of Icelandic Prose Writers, 1800–1940 (1948) and A History of Icelandic Literature (1957); R. Beck, History of Icelandic Poets, 1800–1940 (1950); G. Turville-Petre, Origins of Icelandic Literature (1953); G. Jones, ed., Erik the Red, and Other Icelandic Sagas (1961).

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