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.
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.