11. Arts and Media
- Literature of the 19. and 20. Century
“Blind is the bookless man” goes an Icelandic proverb. Iceland has long been thought to be a very literary nation. A great number of books are published in the country, not least in the period before Christmas, sometimes referred to as the “Christmas book flood” (that is, “jólabókaflóð”). The number of books published is, per person, higher than any other country. However, doubts have been raised about this great book readership and many believe that reading is dwindling amongst children and young people, popular entertainment having become much more varied. Others point out that the publication of children’s books and books for young people is increasing, surely an indication that the book is holding its ground with young people.
Romanticism and Realism
Nineteenth-century literature is characterized by the Romantic movement (brought to the country from Denmark) and by the strong nationalism which was formed by Icelanders’ struggle for independence. Many of the nation’s most adored poets are from this time and they are always referred to as the “national poets.” The most famous and dearly loved of these poets is, without doubt, Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807-1845), who composed many of the most beautiful poems to be found in the Icelandic language. He was an energetic campaigner during Icelanders’ struggle for independence, helping their fight with poems like Gunnarshólmi and Ísland, poems which, to this day, fuel Icelanders’ nationalism.
Realism made its first appearance in Icelandic literature in 1882 when four Icelandic students in Copenhagen, under the influence of the Danish literary critic Georg Brandes, commenced publication of the periodical Verðandi. Three of these students are considered amongst the most important realist authors: Gestur Pálsson (1852-1891), who was a pioneer of Icelandic short story writing, and Einar Kvaran (1859-1938), a highly influential author at the beginning of the twentieth-century but who fell into obscurity when still a young author. The third author was Hannes Hafstein (1861-1922), who was only twenty-one year old when he published his first poems in Verðandi. Hannes came as a breath of fresh air in Icelandic poetry and many of his poems are still popular. Hannes was a stately man and was admired by many, not merely on account of his poetry but also for his political role. He was Icelanders’ first Prime Minister after they gained home rule in 1904. Of the same generation as this poet was Stephan G. Stephansson (1853-1927). He moved to America when he was young, but is one of the most highly esteemed poets to have written in Icelandic.
The First Decades of the Twentieth-Century
1900–1930 is the period of the New Romantic movement in Iceland.
At the beginning of the 1900s, there were about 80,000 Icelanders. Reykjavík was the largest town, with some 6,000 residents. In 1925, the number of residents had grown to 20,000. Rapid social changes made there mark during this time, and political struggles again revolved around the national sovereignty issue. The poets did their utmost to intensify nationalist sentiment amongst the people. Amongst other things, many so-called “turn of the century poems” (that is, “aldamótaljóð”) were composed, stressing the unity of the people and an optimistic belief in future progress.
The book market in the sparsely populated Iceland was small. In the first decade of the century, 46 original prose works were published, or about five per year. Books of poetry were more common, with some ten collections of poetry published each year. Under such conditions, it was not to be expected that authors could see their way to devoting themselves to their literary work. As such, many left Iceland’s shores with their art, especially to Scandinavia. The best-known of these authors is Gunnar Gunnarsson (1889-1975). He lived in Denmark and wrote his works in Danish. Amongst his works is Saga Borgarættarinnar (1912-1914).
Þórbergur Þórðarson was a contemporary of Gunnar’s but lived in Iceland. He has had a considerable influence on Icelandic literature, but few of his works are available in translation. His works include Ofvitinn, Bréf til Láru, Íslenskur aðall and Í Suðursveit.
Women in the Circle of Authors
The first woman to make her livelihood by writing was Torfhildur Hólm (1845-1918). However, it was difficult for women to follow in her footsteps as it was thought that such pursuits were not within the range of women’s abilities. In Mánaðarrit Lestrarfélags kvenna Reykjavíkur (1913), the female poet Theodóra Thoroddsen(1863-1954) made the following point about women and literature:
"The situation regarding poetic talent is that, as with most other intellectual talents, we women are considered inferior to men. The cause of this will be left unsaid here, whether our wits should balance poorly in comparison to theirs, as some would have it, or that it has its roots in many centuries of intellectual and physical oppression."
Theodora was known, in particular, for her nursery rhymes.
Nevertheless, one of the most talented poets of the period was a woman. Her name was Unnur Benediktsdóttir Bjarklind (1881-1946), but took the pen name Hulda. She wrote many poems, short stories, and the novel Dalafólk (1936-1939), a mature story with a girl in the main role.
Social Realism 1930-50
Nationalism was still something of a prevailing force in literature of the period 1920-1930, but in the following decade considerable changes occurred. Most of the important authors of the period were supporters of socialism. Authors did their best to write realistic works set in their own time. Emphasis was placed on what light origins and social conditions could shed on characters depicted in the stories, stories in which society was made responsible for the fate of its members and their rebellion against their conditions. Literature during this time often lead to political turmoil in society. This was on account of the criticisms which these works made about the situation of the poor and those with less social influence.
The foremost Icelandic author of the twentieth-century, Nobel Laureate Halldór Kiljan Laxness, was the most influential author of the period. The period began about the time that his novel Salka Valka (translated into English under the same title), came out and ended around the time of the publication of Atómstöðin (1948, The Atom Station). In the time between these dates, the author produced Sjálfstætt fólk (1934-1935, Independent People), a work which generated a great deal of cultural and intellectual disquiet. Many were angered by the image which the author drew of proletarian, independent farmer, Bjartur of Summerhouses, and his way of life: it was felt that the author dealt harshly with Icelandic farming culture. Next, he published Heimsljós (1937-1940, World Light) and Íslandsklukkan (1943-46). He also published many other pieces during the period, including poetry, plays, and essays. Those who have an interest in learning about Icelandic literature ought to read work written by Halldór: his novels have been translated into many languages. Halldór Kiljan Laxness received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.
Heyday for the Novel
During the period known for social realist fiction (1930-1950), there was real heyday for the novel. Radical authors followed the type of subject matter chosen by Halldór Kiljan Laxness and dealt with the “little people” of society and their unjust treatment. Here, one can cite Halldór Stefánsson (1892-1979) and Ólafur Jóhann Sigurðsson (1918-1988), the latter winning the Nordic Council Literature Prize for 1976 for poetry, the first Icelander to do so.
In 1938, the novel Sturla í Vogum by Guðmundur G. Hagalín was published. The novel was looked on as a reply to Sjálfstætt fólk (published in English as Independent People). Sturla, the central character of the novel, is a grand hero in the New Romantic style, the complete opposite to Bjartur of Summerhouses.
One of the most popular Icelandic authors is Guðrún Árnadóttir from Lundur (1887-1975). She wrote a great many novels (which enjoyed exceptional favour) about life in the country, including Dalalíf I-IV (1946-1951). She wrote her last novel, Utan frá sjó I-III in 1970-1972.
Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir (1895-1967) is best known for her books for children and youngsters, and her books about Dóra and Vala have been very popular. Yet, between 1941-1967 she also wrote nine novels for a mature readership. They are about women’s inner and outer conflicts during a period of the nation’s history when enormous social changes were taking place. Dr. Dagný Kristjánsdóttir wrote her doctoral thesis, Kona verður til, about these stories: it is the first doctoral thesis to be written about Icelandic women’s literature.
Other authors set their mark on the period, such as Guðmundur Daníelsson (1910-1990), a very productive novelist, and Kristmann Guðmundsson (1901-1983), who lived for a long time in Norway and wrote his stories in Norwegian. After he returned to Iceland, he became a controversial author. His works include Félagi kona (1947) and he was one of the first in Iceland to write a science fiction novel, Ferðin til stjarnanna (1959). Guðmundur Kamban (1888-1945) was resident in Denmark. His best-known work is the historical novel, Skálholt I-IV, which he published in Danish and Icelandic (1930-1935).
Elínborg Lárusdóttir (1891-1976), wrote and published a number of books on mediation and occult subjects as well as novels and Þórunn Elfa Magnúsdóttir (1910-1995) wrote Dætur Reykjavíkur (1933-1938), pioneering amongst works on Reykjavík.
The period around the 1950s and on is called the modernist period in Icelandic literature. At that time, there was a real surge in Icelandic poetry which challenged old Icelandic poetic traditions and which, a little later, influenced a similar surge in prose fiction. Short story writers allowed themselves more freedom in form than had, thus far, been customary and used various features of poetic composition. The style of these stories became more poetic and less importance was attributed to an exciting plot, before considered the central feature of a short story.
Thor Vilhjálmsson (1925-2011) is one of the chief pioneers of modernist prose in Icelandic literature. He wrote books about the “modern man” during the seventies and eighties in a very poetical and pictorial way. His modernist novels are Fljótt, fljótt sagði fuglinn (1968, in English Quick, Quick said the Bird) and Óp bjöllunnar of 1970 (lit. “The Bell’s Cry”). In 1972, he published the novel Folda, which enjoyed enormous popularity. In the historical novel, Grámosinn glóir (1986, lit. “The Grey Moss Shines”), Thor applies his stylistic talents to full and wonderful effect: the book earned him the Nordic Literature Prize.
Ásta Sigurðardóttir (1930-1971) was an author and artist. She had a strong influence on the direction of modernism with her short story Sunnudagskvöld til mánudagsmorguns (1951, lit. “Sunday Evening to Monday Morning”), which both moved and shocked people.
There was something of a decline in number in literary fiction between 1950–1960, but the most important novel of the decade is, without doubt, Gerpla (1952, published in English as The Happy Warriors) by Halldór Kiljan Laxness. Gerpla is a parody of the Old Icelandic saga Fóstbræðra saga (The Foster Brothers’ Saga). Amongst other things, the story reveals how the author deals with the past. The next of Halldór’s novels, Brekkukotsannáll (published in English as The Fish Can Sing), was published in 1957, Paradísarheimt in 1960 (Paradise Reclaimed), Kristnihald undir jökli in 1968 (Under the Glacier), and Innansveitarkronika in 1970 (The Bread of Life).
The fate of the generation of people who moved out of the country and into town is well illustrated by Indriði G. Þorsteinsson (1926-2000) in his novels 79 af stöðinni (1955, lit. “Seventy Nine Leave the Station”) and Land og synir (1963, lit. “Of Land and Sons”).
Jakobína Sigurðardóttir (1918-1994) awoke interest in her unusual narrative techniques in the stories Dægurvísa (1965), which was the first “hópsaga” in Iceland (or story with more than one main character or hero), and Snaran (1968, lit. “The Trap” or “The Noose”).
Svava Jakobsdóttir (1930-2004) has developed a good reputation, in particular for her short stories. Her best known story, Legjandinn (1969), has been interpreted keenly as a symbolic representation of the relations between the Icelandic people and the American troops. But she has also been read from the point of view of women’s liberation.
Guðbergur Bergsson b. 1932 published his first novel, Músina sem læðist, in 1961 and in 1966 he published the most remarkable book of the decade, Tómas Jónsson: Metsölubók. Guðbergur’s stories are generally seen as protests against the traditional constraints of the novel form, including the way time is reckoned and characters delineated. Guðbergur’s stories stimulated a lively discussion, even debate, about literature and related topics.
The Contemporary from 1970
Student protests associated with the generation of ’68, and with the doubts over bourgeois values and other social issues which marked that generation, had their effect on literature. There was a lot of discussion about peace and environmental matters in these years, and the Vietnam War played its part in this. The struggle for equal rights for women increased in strength and manifested, amongst other things, in the debate about women’s place in society. Important articles on this issue appeared around the mid-1980s, including those by the literary scholar Helga Kress. Many of these papers can be found in a collection of her articles published under the title of Speglanir in 2000.
After 1970, a new generation of authors came forward, born in a country which was now an independent republic and undergoing rapid social change. The work of these authors was, to begin with, realistic but later they came to lay their emphasis on style, and much of the work by contemporary Icelandic authors is very lyrical. In particular, one might cite authors like:
- Vigdís Grímsdóttir (b. 1953), who has received notice for her particularly lyrical style: her novel Kaldaljós (1987) is a good example of magical realism in Icelandic literature;
- Einar Már Guðmundsson (b. 1954), one of the most accomplished novelist of the 1990s: he was awarded the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize (In Icelandic, “Bókmenntaverðlaun Norðurlandaráðs”) in 1995 for his novel Englar alheimsins and a movie based on the story, directed by Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, was released in 2000 and;
- Steinunn Sigurðardóttir (b. 1950), known, in particular, for short stories and novels written in the modernist and postmodernist spirit: her works include Tímaþjófurinn (1986) and Hjartastaður (1995).
Other well known contemporary authors are:
- Pétur Gunnarsson (b. 1947), who made his breakthrough (and received great praise from readers) with his first novel Punktur punktur komma strik (1976). A continuation of the story came out in three volumes between 1978-1985;
- Fríða Á. Sigurðardóttir (1940-2010) was awarded the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for 1992 for her novel Meðan nóttin líður;
- Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson (b. 1962), who has written both short stories and novels in the spirit of the realistic tradition. His most recent novel, Endurkoman, came out in 2015;
- Þórarinn Eldjárn (b. 1949) is a poet and novelist. He has enjoyed great popularity for his poems and, amongst other things, has published funny books of poetry for children. He has written a number of historical novels, the most recent being Hér liggur skáld (2012);
- Einar Kárason (b. 1955) is known for his novels about life in Reykjavík’s barracks district. Barracks left from the years of military occupation (during World War II) were used as apartments in the years after the war when there was a shortage of housing in the town. Einar makes life in these distinctive areas his theme in a three-part story: Þar sem djöflaeyjan rís (1983), Gulleyjan (1985), and Fyrirheitna landið (1989). The movie by Friðrik Þór Friðriksson called Djöflaeyjan (or Devil’s Island, 1996) is based on these stories;
- Kristín Ómarsdóttir (b. 1962) is a novelist and playwright. She is counted amongst the most daring experimentalists of Icelandic literature of the last few years. Amongst her works is the novel Elskan mín ég dey (1997);
- Gyrðir Elíasson (b. 1961) is a poet and novelist. He has drawn notice for his eloquent style and distinctive use of figurative language. He was awarded the Nordic Council Literature Prize for 2011 for a collection of short stories called Milli trjánna (2011);
- Guðrún Helgadóttir (b. 1935) received the Nordic Book Prize for Children’s Literature (in Icelandic, “Norrænu barnabókaverðlaunin”) for the novel Undan illgresinu (1992);
- Hallgrímur Helgason (b. 1959) is an novelist and poet. His works include 101 Reykjavík, a novel about contemporary society in Reykjavík. A movie based on the story and directed by Baltasar Kormákur, has been made under the same title.
- Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (b.1958) is a novelist and a lector in art history and theory at the University of Iceland. Amongst her works is Afleggjarinn (2007) and her most recent novel, Ör, came out in 2016.
- Arnaldur Indriðason (f.1961) is one of the most popular author today. Arnaldur has twice won The Glass Key for the best nordic crime novel and in the year 2005 his book Silence of the Grave (Grafarþögn) won the CWA Golden Dagger Award.
- Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, Sjón (f. 1962) is a novelist and a poet. His book Skuggabaldur (e. The Blue Fox) won the Nordic Council Literary Prize in 2005.
A Small Note on Poetry
Period of the national poet
The nineteenth-century was the heyday of the Romantic movement in Icelandic literature. The most distinctive theme of the literature of the period, not least of all poetry, was the Icelandic struggle for independence. Poets took an active part in the struggle by composing intensely patriotic poems. The best known and most loved national poet, Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807-1845), was alive during this time. His poems are as alive amongst the people today, with beautiful melodies set to many of them. A selection of his work can be found on a special web site which has been set up by Dick Ringler of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States.
There was a certain amount of growth in nationalistic poetry during the establishment of an independent Republic of Iceland in 1944 and in the years proceeding. This is exemplified by Snorri Hjartarson (1906-1986) who composed one of the most famous national poems of the period. It begins with the following stanza.
Land, þjóð og tunga, þrenning sönn og ein,
þér var ég gefinn barn á móðurkné;
ég lék hjá þér við læk og blóm og stein,
þú leiddir mig í orðs þíns háu vé.
Modernism in Icelandic Poetry
Icelandic poetry has, from its origins through to the mid twentieth-century, been characterized by alliteration (generally), of the start of odd lines known as "höfuðstafir", and by rhyme. In the years 1945-1965, Icelandic poetry saw poets casting traditional constraints aside and begin to compose unrestricted poetry. Steinn Steinarr, Jón from Vör, Hannes Sigfússon, and Snorri Hjartarson are amongst the most prominent poets of the time. With his collection of poems called The Time and the Water (in Icelandic, Tíminn og vatnið), which first appeared in 1948, Steinn Steinarr became the most important pioneer of the modernist movement in Icelandic poetry. The first of the poem reads:
Tíminn er eins og vatnið,
og vatnið er kalt og djúpt
eins og vitund míns sjálfs.
Og tíminn er eins og mynd,
sem er máluð af vatninu
og mér til hálfs.
Og tíminn og vatnið
renna veglaust til þurrðar
inn í vitund mín sjálfs.
The metre is unusual, although it has been composed with traditional rhythm as well as rhyme. Yet the poems overall picture is impenetrable and those who were accustomed to poems "being about something" found it difficult to make out the meaning. Little by little modernism acquired its place in Icelandic poetry and one may say that, with the close of the 1970's, it had gained a respected position in Icelandic literature.
The Origins of Icelandic Theatre
It has been customary to see the history of Icelandic theatre as beginning at Skálholt around the middle of the eighteenth-century with the so-called “Herranótt”. The “Herranótt” was a kind of play which school boys would perform once during winter. The subject matter of the play is a coronation whereby the best student would, each year, be crowned king. Others played the bishop, priests, lawyers and other high office bearers. While the crown is being set on the king’s head, a speech is read out in Latin, the so-called “Skraparotsræða” (in French, “Sermon joyeux”). Next, the noble men approach the king and recite a congratulatory verse to him in Latin. Later, in 1785, the play (in a somewhat altered version) moved with the school from Skálholt to Reykjavík. The celebration was banned in 1798, when the king in the play got the idea to discard his power as he did not wish to be greater than others, preferring to work for the happiness of the state in cooperation with others. The authorities thought this to be dangerous, being afraid that it could result in the type of revolution that took place in France.
The first play
The oldest play written in Icelandic is generally reckoned to be Sperðill, composed around 1760 by the Reverend Snorri Björnsson at Húsafell. However, people disagree about whether the play was ever intended for performance. The first Icelandic play which is thought to have been composed for an audience is Bjarglaunin or Brandur (1790) by Geir Vídalín (1761-1823), later bishop of Iceland.
The father of Icelandic theatre
Sigurður Pétursson (1759-1827) has been named the father of Icelandic theatre: he was the first to put together what can be considered to be a mature artistic play in Icelandic. As such, although he wrote only two plays, he was a pioneer of Icelandic theatre. The plays were satires in the style of Holberg and were performed by school boys in the Reykjavík School on 28 January 1799, one year after the Herranótt had been banned. The first play was called Hrólfur or Slaður og trúgirni and the latter Narfi or Sá narratugi biðill, a comedy in three parts. It tells of Narfi, who shows up at Guttorm the lawyer’s farm. Narfi claims to be the “assistant” of a Danish merchant. He woos legislator’s daughter and reckons that his prospects are most promising if he holds forth in Danish as much as possible. The outcome is a ridiculous gibberish and he is defeated by his rival, Nikulás the labourer. The author deals with Icelanders’ upstart ways in the play, ways which lead to everything foreign being thought better and, in the process, which downplay the values which have, for a long time, been the nation’s dearest, language and culture. It is thought that with this work Icelanders succeeded for the first time in creating an artistic play.
The First Steps
In the rural society of the past centuries, the inhabited parts of Iceland were decentralized and transport was often difficult. Theatre was tied to schools in that it needed spectators in order to thrive. At the close of the eighteenth-century, urban areas began to form in Iceland and Reykjavík and a number of other towns were granted municipal rights. In the first decade of the nineteenth-century, only about 300–400 people lived in Reykjavík, but little by little Reykjavík came to be looked upon as the capital. It was to there that most positions were moved, including those which were involved in governing the country. With urbanization and the advent of a middle-class, a basis for theatrical life was formed.
The first official performance
In the winter of 1853-54, the first official performance in Iceland was held (i.e. to which tickets were sold). The choice was the Danish play Pak by Thomas Overskous. The play was performed in Icelandic and, for the first time, women took part in the play.
A turning point in Icelandic theatre came in 1862 with the performance of the play The Outlaws (in Icelandic, Útilegumennirnir or Skugga-Sveinn) by the national author Matthías Jochumsson (1835-1920). The work was produced by Sigurður Guðmundsson (1833-1874), a painter who was very influential in Icelandic cultural life during his brief life (he is, amongst other things, known for having designed the Icelandic national costume). Events in The Outlaws are drawn from Icelandic national life of the seventeenth-century. The play enjoyed enormous popularity and has been put on stage more often than any other play in Iceland, both in theatres and by amateur theatre groups, in sports venues, depots and storehouses spread far and wide over the country.
New Year’s Night
When performed in a reconstructed version in 1907, New Year’s Night (in Icelandic, Nýársnótt) by Indriði Einarsson (1851-1939) announced the start of a heyday in Icelandic theatre. The play actually premiered in 1872, ten years after Matthías’s The Outlaws. New Year’s Night comes next in popularity after The Outlaws. For the first time, a play used elves for its characters (in Iceland, there has been strong interests in elves). In his handling of drama, the play was thought to show signs of the great talent of this young author.
Sorcerer-Loftur and Mountain-Eyvindur
In the wake of the 1907 New Year’s Night there came, amongst others, Jóhann Sigurjónsson’s (1880-1919) play, Sorcerer-Loftur (in Icelandic, Galdra-Loftur, 1914) and Mountain-Eyvindur (or Fjalla-Eyvindur, 1911), both based on Icelandic folk tales. These plays are amongst the most wonderful plays in the Icelandic theatrical corpus.
Guðmundur Kamban (1888-1945) wrote Vi mordere in 1920: Guðmundur wrote the fictional work in Danish but the play came out in an Icelandic version in 1969, called Vér morðingjar (that is, We Murderers).
The National Theatre 1950
When the National Theatre was established in 1950, Icelanders came into possession of a professional theatre house. The Reykjavík Theatre Company (that is, “Leikfélag Reykjavíkur) had, since 1897, operated at a building called Iðnó. With the establishment of the National Theatre it was thought that the activity of the Reykjavík Theatre Company would fall away, but that was not the experience, rather the existence of two professional theatres. With that, Icelandic theatrical life came into bloom and Icelandic playwriting began to thrive. During the 1960s, 13 new Icelandic plays were premiered.
Most Productive Playwrights
Amongst the most productive playwrights is Jónas Árnason (1923-1998). His plays include musicals with his brother, the musician Jón Múli (1921-2002), which have enjoyed great popularity.
Jökull Jakobsson (1933-1978) was the most productive playwright of the first years of the professional theatre. At the same time, he wrote many interesting radio plays. One of his plays, Hart í bak (1962), was performed more than 200 times.
Ólafur Haukur Símonarson (b. 1947) is the most productive playwright of recent years. He writes realistic plays in which he tries to shed light on the lives of ordinary people.
Information about Translations
Information about the works of Icelandic authors available in foreign translation can be found here and in the following texts:
Knüppel, Christine. Isländische Literatur 1850-1990 in deutscher Übersetzung. Bibliographie anlässlich der Ausstellung Isländische Literatur und Kunst aus Island in der Württembergischen. Stuttgart: Deutsch-Isländisches Kulturforum, 1990.
Mitchell, P. M. and Ober, Kenneth H. eds. Bibliography of Modern Literature in Translation. Islandica XL. Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1975.
Ober, Kenneth K., ed. Bibliography of Modern Icelandic Literature in Translation 1981-1992. Scandinavica Supplement 1997.
Ober, Kenneth H., ed. Bibliography of Modern Literature in Translation: Supplement 1971-1980. Islandica XLVII. Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1990.