Icelandic culture is rich in its literature and language. The Icelandic sagas are well-known and valued for their early written recordings of events from over a thousand years ago. Contemporary literature continues to draw from the sagas. J.R.R. Tolkien, academic linguist and author of the “Lord of the Rings” series and “The Hobbit”, drew on the Icelandic and norse sagas as inspiration for his writings. Iceland has produced many great writers and poets, including Nobel prize winner, Halldór Laxness.
Recommended Icelandic authors and works include:
- Halldór Kiljan Laxness
Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 1955; “Independent People” chosen book of the century
- The Elder (Poetic) Edda & The Younger (Prose) Edda
Epic poetry, key sources for the study of Norse mythology. Tolkien took Middle Earth from the ancient Midgard and many of the names of his key characters from this text.
- The Volsung Saga
Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer is the hero of the anonymous thirteenth-century Icelandic prose epic Völsungasaga. The story of Sigurd the Volsung served as a source for authors from Richard Wagner to William Morris to J.R.R. Tolkien. This story was rewritten in German as Nibelungenlied.
A group of poems from the book ‘Snorra Edda’. They are at least 1000 years old, and probably began much earlier as oral tradition. The name Hávamál means the words of the high one, the Norse god Óðinn (Odin).
The chronicle of the Kings of Norway by Snorri Sturluson
- Stephan G. Stephansson
Iceland’s Poet Laureate, settled in Canada, but continued to write only in Icelandic
- Einar Már Guðmundsson
The most widely translated Icelandic author born in the post-war period, a novelist, short-story writer and poet. Won the Brostes Prize in 1988 and the 1995 Nordic Council Literature Prize for Englar alheimsins (Angels of the Universe). He co-wrote with the director Friðrik Thor Friðriksson the screenplay for the Academy Award Nominee film Children of Nature.
- Böðvar Guðmundsson
Author of “Where the Winds Dwell”. Awarded Icelandic Literary Prize in 1996.
- NEW! The Book About Ice
To purchase your own copy of some of these works, as well as those of Icelandic Canadian authors such as W.D. Valgardson and David Arnason, please visit our page to Purchase Icelandic Books.
The Icelandic Language
The Icelandic language is a beautiful and very enduring one. It is the oldest form of any Germanic language surviving today. It is a member of the North Germanic, or Scandinavian, group of the Germanic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. Spoken chiefly in Iceland, where it is the official language, it stems from Old Norse, the language of the Vikings who settled the sland in the 9th century.
Icelandic is one of the parent languages of English, but, unlike English, it has changed very little since the ninth century. Modern Icelandic has changed so little from its parent language, Old Norse, in the course of the centuries that Icelanders today read the Eddas and sagas of Old Norse literature more easily than speakers of English read Shakespeare. This is why some of our members sign up for our Icelandic classes – so that they can get a better understanding of the sagas and read them in the original Old Norse.
There have been some changes, however. One of the very interesting things we discover in our Icelandic language classes involves the comparison of words used by Icelandic Canadians and those used by modern Icelanders. In Canada, it has often been the older words have been kept.
Another thing class participants find fascinating, is the adaptability and ingenuity with which Icelanders apply existing words to form compound words that perfectly fit new technologies.
Some notes about the Icelandic language:
- It has three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter).
- It four cases for nouns (nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative).
- Icelandic orthography is notable for its retention of two old letters which no longer exist in the English alphabet: þ (thorn) and ð (eth or edh), representing the voiceless and voiced “th” sounds as in English thin and this respectively.
Icelandic Language Classes:
- In the Toronto area – The ICCT offers classes! Visit our Language page for updated class information.
- Icelandic Language and Literature Department at the University of Manitoba is the only place in North America where you can earn a Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree in Icelandic.
- The University of Iceland offers both a courses of Icelandic for Foreign Students as well as a free online course in Modern Icelandic Language and Culture.
Additional Resources and Reading:
- The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies – devoted to promoting Icelandic culture and research, both past and present, in all parts of the world, and to build links between scholars in this field in Iceland and abroad
- Icelandic Literature – in more detail, from the Columbia Encyclopedia
- SagaNet – Icelandic medieval literature – Images of manuscripts and books published before 1901
- The Online Medieval and Classical Library – Berkeley Digital Library of online texts; includes Heimskringla, Laxdaela Saga, Grettir’s Saga, Njal’s Saga, Egil’s Saga, Eyrbyggja Saga, Heitharviga Saga, Volsunga Saga
- “The Complete Sagas of Icelanders” – The beautiful 5 volume set by Leifur Eiriksson Publishing. The first English translation of the entire corpus of the Sagas of Icelanders together with forty-nine Tales. Fifty translators and scholars from seven countries participated in this project. The Sagas of Icelanders are set in the Viking Age but written in Icelandic by anonymous authors during the 13th and 14th centuries. Their action spans the whole world known to the Vikings, but the stories centre on the unique settler society they founded in Iceland.
- Icelandic Word Bank – One purpose of a word bank is to coordinate the terminological usage in both related and different fields; to collect terms, define and unify them to avoid the use of different names of the same concept. The Icelandic Word Bank does serve this purpose. It can give a general survey of Icelandic terminology and contemporary neologisms, thus adding to the coordination of both usage and definitions.
- Stephansson House – the home of the Poet of the Rocky Mountains in Markerville, Alberta.
- Icelandic – at once ancient and modern – A brochure about the Icelandic language from the Icelandic Language Institute.