Site Map
Icelandic Folktales ❀ Opening
Section › 7 Set Search Previous Next

Reservations Contents  


Jón Árnason (1819-1888), called the "Grimm" of Iceland by some, was an Icelandic librarian and museum director who collected icelandic legends, at first with Magnús Grímsson and since 1852 "by himself" - that is to say, helped by some 40 persons that sent him material from various places on Iceland (Sveinsson 2003, 135-37).

Inspired by the brothers Grimm's Household Tales, Jón began to collect and record folktales together with Magnús Grímsson, a friend who was a schoolmaster and later a clergyman. Their first collection, "Icelandic Folktales" appeared in 1852, but attracted little notice. The two only resumed collecting after Konrad Maurer, the German legal historian and scholar of Icelandic literature, toured the country in 1858 and encouraged them.

Jón and Magnús relied on present and former pupils and other contacts to send them tales in writing. They or Jón may have "touched up" the wording. But the changes he is known to have made are slight, and the universal admiration for the saga style and relative lack of educational and class differences in Iceland mean that stylistic tastes differed less there than elsewhere in Europe in the 19th century. More recent editions exist too.

The two partners and Konrad Maurer

Very little is known of the collecting activities of Jón and Magnús in the early years, writes Sveinsson. The initial idea had come to them through reading the Grimms' Kinder- und Hausmärchen. The stories were to be Magnús's business. Customs, rhymes, chants and verses were to be Jón's, "but each collected for the other and pointed out to him places where things were to be found."

In 1852 they published a little specimen of what they had collected, naming it Íslenzk æfintýri, 'Icelandic folk-stories'. These were mostly folk-legends with no source mentions, but it is clear that Magnús provided the larger number, says Sveinsson further. Most of the tales of Íslenzk ćfint‡ri were included in Jón's work after Magnús died in 1860.

Magnús had wanted to put stories in a literary dress but soon adopted Jón's attitude that it was better to keep them as near as possible to the oral narrative.

The two partners did not seem to collect much material for a while after 1852, for they had no hope of getting any more printed. However, in the summer of 1858, the German scholar Konrad Maurer (1823–1902) made an exploratory journey to Iceland and became acquainted with the material which the two had gathered, and "he also travelled extensively round the country and discovered that this sort of folklore was to be found in abundance everywhere. He noted down everything that came his way and published it in his book Isländische Volkssagen der Gegenwart (Leipzig 1860).

Maurer's visit put new heart into Magnús and Jón, for he offered to get a publisher in Leipzig to bring out a collection of their folk-materials. Maurer had also told Jón Árnason about various knowledgeable men and women whom he had met on his travels, while the partners knew many others. Hence, in the autumn of 1858 Jón wrote an 'exhortation' that he sent to some 40 people to know more from or to get written reports about several folklore categories he listed up. He soon received a large quantity of material, and added to it steadily.

Also worth noting: Jón Árnason's included older stories collected by such as known Icelandic priests since Medieaval times. Einar Sveinsson details a wealth of old sources from the times Iceland was first settled and tells of many of them in detail. The old stories are added to those of Jón's many contemporary contributors (2003). — Magnús may not have contributed much more to the book than his old collections and his enthusiasm. The work that they were preparing, Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur og æfintýri, was attributed to Jón alone.

(Sveinsson 2003, 135-37 mainly. Extracts).

After Magnús Grímsson died in 1860, Árnason finished the collection on his own. With Maurer's help it was published in 2 volumes in 1862 and 1864 in Leipzig as Íslendzkar Þjóðsögur og Æfintýri (Icelandic Folktales and Legends), comprising over 1300 pages.

Árnason's complete collections were published in five volumes in Reykjavík in the years 1925-39. In 1954–61 they were reissued in Reykjavík in six volumes. A selection of the tales were translated into English in 1864 and 1866, by George E. J. Powell and Eiríkur Magnússon.

Writes Dr Jaqueline Simpson in her introduction to a freshened-up selection of the tales:

Arnason's two large volumes of Íslendzkar Þjóðsögur og Æfintýri ('The Folktales and Fairy Tales of Iceland'), 1862-4, one of the major products of the great nineteenth-century period of folktale collecting, have received only rare and partial renderings into English; moreover, the selected translations by G. E. J. Powell and Eirikur Magnusson in 1864 and 1866, the only ones that can claim to offer a representative range of material, are stylistically most unsatisfactory, being full of repetitiveness, circumlocutions, and pomposity." (Simpson 2004, 1)

That could be good to know. Dr Simpson, (born 1930) a UK researcher and author on folklore and legend, adds that her work, too,

is only a selection, taken chiefly from Jon Arnason's first three chapters, those on supernatural beings, ghosts, and magic. I have thought it better to give a fairly thorough coverage to a few topics. (Ib.)

She presents 85 Icelandic tales (1972, 2004), mostly from Árnason's work. There is background information for each story. Moreover, instead of publishing a loosely focused cross section, Jacqueline Simpson's book contains a selection of tales from three Árnason chapters. The tales were originally told by a folks in a poor, hard-working community. Infused with humour and pathos, the tales reflect earlier Icelander wishes, and also beliefs in trolls, elves, and hidden people.

The Folk-Stories of Iceland (2003) by Einar Ólafur Sveinsson was first published in Icelandic in 1949, and an English translation was begun by Benedikt S. Benedikz in 1970. He was assisted by Jacqueline Simpson, Sveinsson and two more competent persons who made some revisions in the Icelandic text. Some of the materials Sveinsson deals with received considerable scholarly attention during the sixty years before the English translations was finished. Experts include Gwyn Jones, Laurits Bødker, Reimund Kvideland, Hennig K. Sehmsdorf, Danish Inger Boberg, and Jacqueline Simpson.

Sveinsson had previously compiled a thesis of an "Annotated index of Icelandic folktales," which was published as Folklore Fellows Communication [FFC] 83 (1928) under the title "List of Icelandic Variants of Märchen [Wonder Tales]" in German. Sveinson wrote and edited much in his career.

Dr Timothy R. Tangherlini teaches folklore, literature and cultural studies at the University of California, where he is a professor in Scandinavian Section, etc. In an Acedemic Journal article, " Western Folklore: ◦The Folk-Stories of Iceland" (Winter 2005), he comments on the many years it took to arrive at the present translation of Sveinsson:

The question that echoes through the mind of the critical reader of this recent revision and translation of Einar Ólafur Sveinsson's mid-twentieth-century survey of Icelandic folktales (1940) is, "Why this book and why now?" The alarmingly short preface . . . does little to clarify the mystery, and the answer to this nagging question remains elusive even after one finishes the book."

Dr Tangherlini considers whether or how far the information in the translated Sveinsson work is relevant, valid in its field and tidy or up to date - even valuable to others than folklorists. He finds it lacking somewhat:

[I]t does not rise to the standard of a classic in the field of Nordic folkloristics. Accordingly, this revised translation cannot be seen as a companion to translations such as those of [Axel] Olrik's Principles for Oral Narrative Research (1992) or the important articles and excerpts in Nordic Folklore: Recent Studies (1989) or even the Krohns' Folklore Methodology (1971). (Ib)

Tangherlini finds that "In the present volume he [Sveinsson] is at his best when he explores the relationship between Old Norse literature and folktales and folk belief. Yet while his command of the literary record is extraordinary, he seems to be somewhat adrift discussing oral tradition, particularly stories recorded in more "recent" times, such as those found in Jón Árnason's nineteenth-century collections of Icelandic folk narrative (1862-1864)." Also, "The student of Old Norse literature who has folkloristic tendencies may find this work useful in isolating instances of folk belief and folktale motifs in the earliest literature - but . . ." Still, "Given this book's theoretical datedness, one wonders why it was chosen for translation."

Granted much of what Dr Tangherlini is into in his critique of the Sveinsson translation, two lessons stand out: To turn to specialists may show up to be cumbersome. It may obscure matters too. Also, if you want to read folk tales, there are folk tales collections; and if you want to read about folktales, books by theoreticans with different orientations exist too. Search out the most rewarding ones well.

The legends that Árnason collected from all parts of Iceland contain both firm sense and wisdom. And they tell of enigmatic elves and other beings - some horrible, some milder. Many folktale motifs of Norwegian folklore may be found too. The somewhat darker tone of Icelandic tales presumably reflects Icelandic ways of life earlier. Folktales illustrate, explain, warn and entertain. Ghosts and fairies pop up to such ends, as do trolls and giants.

Many strange tales can instil respect for nature and creatures, or imagined spirits of many sorts. Values can be passed on to children to show them some ways of their ancestors.

As for books, those by Booss og Hall (further down) contain nice selections. Moreover, eight of the tales in this selection are from "Colour Fairy Books" edited by Andrew Lang. They are listed below.

Some words and phrases have been slightly updated for this edition.

Click on the map to enlarge it

Icelandic folk tales and legends from Iceland, Icelandic folk stories, Literature  


Árnason, Jón, Icelandic Legends (First Series), trs. George E. J. Powell and Eiríkur Magnússon. London: Bentley, 1864. ⍽▢⍽ "[A] representative range of material," but "stylistically most unsatisfactory, being full of repetitiveness, circumlocutions, and pomposity, "Jacqueline Simpson (2004, 1) sums up.

Árnason, Jón, Icelandic Legends. Second Series, trs. George E. J. Powell and Eiríkur Magnússon. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1866. ⍽▢⍽ "[A] representative range of material," but "stylistically most unsatisfactory, being full of repetitiveness, circumlocutions, and pomposity," Jacqueline Simpson (2004, 1) considers.

Avenstrup, Åge Eskil und Elisabeth Treitel, Ü,bersetzern. 1919. Isländische Märchen und Volkssagen. Berlin: Axel Juncker Verlag.

Booss, Claire, ed. Scandinavian Folk and Fairy Tales: Tales from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland. New York: Gramercy Books, 1984. ⍽▢⍽ Booss draws on Icelandic Legends by Jon Arnason (1864), translated by George E. J. Powell and Eirikur Magnusson. Her collection contains forty-one Icelandic legends and other tales.

Carter, Angela. 1990. The Old Wives' Fairy Tale Book. New York: Pantheon Books.

Gering, Hugo. 1882. Islendzk aeventyri; isländische Legenden, Novellen und Märchen (1882-83). Vol. 1. Halle A. S. Waisenhaus.

Hall, Mrs. A. W., tr. and ed. Icelandic Fairy Tales. London: Frederick Warne & Co, 1897. ⍽▢⍽ Seventeen fine fairy tales.

Jones, Gwyn. Scandinavian Legends and Folk-Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956. ⍽▢⍽ The book includes nine tales from Iceland.

Kvideland, Reimund, and Henning K. Sehmsdorf, eds. 1988. Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ⍽▢⍽ Here are brief tales for most part, and some of them are Icelandic.

Laboulaye, Edouard, ed. 18--?. Fairy Tales. Philadelphia: David McKay. ⍽▢⍽ Two of these tales are from Iceland.

Lang, Andrew, ed. The Yellow Fairy Book. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1894.

⸻. The Crimson Fairy Book. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1903.

⸻. The Brown Fairy Book. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1904.

Simpson, Jaqueline. 2004. Icelandic Folktales and Legends. Stroud, UK: The History Press. ⍽▢⍽ Here are 85 tales, mainly or wholly from three of the sections of Arnason's books.

Sveinsson, Einar Ólafur. 1929. Verzeichnis isländischer Märchenvarianten: Mit einer einleitenden Untersuchung. FF Communications No. 83. Helsinki: Suomalinen Tiedeakatemia, Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1929.

⸻. 2003. The Folk-Stories of Iceland. Revised by Einar G. Pétursson, translated by Benedikt Benedikz, edited by Anthony Faulkes. London: Viking Society for Northern Research. University College London. ⍽▢⍽ Einar Sveinsson (1899–1984) was an Icelandic scholar and Professor of Icelandic Literature at the University of Iceland. The publisher says that in Iceland, people transfer beliefs onto stories so that a glow of the super-human is shed over many of them. That may well be. By Icelanders projecting themselves into folk stories, some peoples' lives and characters seem reflected somehow. This book details some fifty types of Icelandic folk-stories, and deals with their history and sources, the groping folk-beliefs they represent, and meanings as they have been understood later. In short, it is a work about stories, but does not contain many of them, if at all.

Symington, Andrew James. 1862. Pen and Pencil Sketches of Faröe and Iceland. With an Appendix Containing Translations from the Icelandic and 51 Illustrations Engraved on Wood by W. J. Linton. London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts.

Uther, Hans-Jörg. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. Vols 1-3. FF Communications No. 284-86, Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2004.

Icelandic tales in the Colour Books edited by Andrew Lang

"The Cottager and His Cat" is in The Crimson Fairy Book

"Three Robes" is in The Crimson Fairy Book

"Rogue and Herdsman" is in The Crimson Fairy Book

"Horse Gullfaxi and Sword Gunnfoder" is in The Crimson Fairy Book

"Asmund and Signy" is in The Brown Fairy Book

"Prince Ring" is in The Yellow Fairy Book

"Hermod and Hadvor" is in The Yellow Fairy Book

"Witch in Stone Boat" is in The Yellow Fairy Book

"Habogi" is from Andrew Lang's The Brown Fairy Book

"How Geirald the Coward Was Punished" is in The Brown Fairy Book

"Geirlug the King's Daughter" is in The Olive Fairy Book

"Kisa the Cat" is in The Brown Fairy Book

"Which Was the Foolishest?" is in The Brown Fairy Book

"Story of Sigurd" is in The Red Fairy Book

Icelandic folk tales, legends of Iceland, Icelandic folk stories, To top    Section     Set    Next

Icelandic folk tales, legends of Iceland, Icelandic folk stories. User's Guide   ᴥ    Disclaimer 
© 2007–2018, Tormod Kinnes, MPhil [Email]