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Icelandic literature,the literature of Iceland. For the earliest literature of Iceland, see Old Norse literatureOld Norse literature,
the literature of the Northmen, or Norsemen, c.850–c.1350. It survives mainly in Icelandic writings, for little medieval vernacular literature remains from Norway, Sweden, or Denmark.
The Norwegians who settled Iceland late in the 9th cent.
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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 EddaEdda
, title applied to two distinct works in Old Icelandic. The Poetic Edda, or Elder Edda, is a collection (late 13th cent.) of 34 mythological and heroic lays, most of which were composed c.800–c.1200, probably in Iceland or W Norway.
..... Click the link for more information. ). 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 AressonAresson, Areson, or Arason, Jon
, 1484?–1550, Icelandic churchman. The last Roman Catholic bishop in Iceland before the Reformation, he was executed together with his sons, Ara and Bjorn, for resisting the new
..... Click the link for more information. . 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 MagnussonMagnusson, Árni or Árne
, 1663–1730, Icelandic historian and antiquarian. He taught at the Univ. of Copenhagen, and his important collection of ancient Icelandic manuscripts is housed there.
..... Click the link for more information. 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 ThóroddsenThóroddsen, Jón
, 1818–68, Icelandic novelist and poet. He studied law in Copenhagen intermittently from 1841 to 1850, fought in the Danish army, and after his return to Iceland was prefect of various districts until his death.
..... Click the link for more information. , 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 SigurðssonSigurðsson, Jón
, 1811–79, Icelandic statesman and historian. A student in Copenhagen from 1833, he developed an interest in Icelandic literature and history, on which he became the outstanding authority.
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The periodical Verdandi [the present], founded in 1882, advanced a new realism—strongly socialistic, individualistic, and anticlerical, and influenced by the Danish critic Georg BrandesBrandes, Georg Morris Cohen
, 1842–1927, Danish literary critic. His influence brought the wide currents of contemporary European thought to Danish and other Scandinavian literatures.
..... Click the link for more information. . 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 GunnarssonGunnarsson, Gunnar
, 1889–1975, Icelandic novelist. Gunnarsson lived abroad until 1939, when he returned to Iceland. Through his early works, written in Danish, he helped interest Europeans in Icelandic culture. Guest the One-eyed (4 vol., 1912–14; tr.
..... Click the link for more information. and the cosmopolitan dramatist Guðmundur KambanKamban, Guðmundur
, 1888–1945, Icelandic dramatist and novelist. Many of Kamban's plays, among them Hadda-Padda (1914, tr. 1917), were produced in Denmark. His spirited and erudite historical novels, based upon the Icelandic sagas, include Skalholt (4 vol.
..... Click the link for more information. . 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 GuðmundssonGuðmundsson, Kristmann
, 1901–83, Icelandic novelist. Guðmundsson lived in Norway from 1924 to 1937 and wrote in both Norwegian and Icelandic. His sensitive novels and stories of love, remarkable for profound psychological insight, include The Bridal Gown
..... Click the link for more information. 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. LaxnessLaxness, Halldór Kiljan
, 1902–98, Icelandic novelist, b. Reykjavík as Halldór Kiljan Gudjónsson. Although Laxness was converted to Roman Catholicism briefly, The Weaver of Cashmere (1927) expressed his disillusionment with Christianity.
..... Click the link for more information. . 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).