The Land of Rocks and Sagas: Icelandic Literature


The land of rocks and sagas; fire and ice; the vertiginous crow’s-nest of the earth – these are just some of the epithets given to the far-flung island, alone and adrift in the North Atlantic, which we call Iceland.

In recent years, it has flourished as a tourist destination and more people than ever now have the chance to experience the midnight sun and black sands of a country which for a long time was defined by its isolation. However, England and her writers have a long tradition of romanticising the distant north – from William Morris, the Victorian artist and writer who visited twice, to Tolkien who was famously inspired by its medieval writings when penning his own great works.

Whilst remarkable for its lunar landscapes and natural hot springs, Iceland holds a particular fascination for medievalists such as myself. During the late Middle Ages, when in mainland Europe the great writers of the day were composing exceptional poetry such as the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knightor Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, in Iceland great prose sagas were being set down. These Old Norse texts covered a range of genres, from the fantastical to the hagiographic, but most famously they dealt with the lives and deeds of the settlers of Iceland and their descendants.

Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, once noted that, had they been written in the language of a continental European country ‘we would have regarded the Sagas as an anticipation or even foundation of the European novel’. The Icelandic Family sagas have all the ingredients of a blockbuster HBO series (family feuds, theatrical violence, doomed romance) but are also laced with the tenderest moments of intimacy.

My own journey into the world of the sagas began with a trip to Iceland in the winter of 2013 and a chance encounter with an exhibition on the saga manuscripts. These have their own fascinating history and their return to Iceland in the 1970’s, having been purloined by Denmark for many centuries, was a source of national celebration.

Having been enraptured by Iceland and its literary culture (1 in 10 Icelanders is a published author, and the rush of books sales in the run up to Christmas is known as Jólabókaflóð, “Yule book flood”), my medievalist mind wanted to find a way of keeping this amazing country in my life, and consequently I devoted my master’s degree to studying the Family sagas.

However, it is not just medieval literature about Iceland which intrigues me. In recent years there have been many excellent books about or based in Iceland by both Icelanders and by writers of other nationalities who have, like me, fallen in love with this most unique of countries and literary cultures. Here is a list of my top 5 recommendations, hopefully they will peak your interest in Iceland if you are unfamiliar with it, or tide you over until you can visit if you are already hooked:

  1. Burial Rites, Hannah Kent
    Burial Ritesis the debut novel by Australian author, Hannah Kent, and is one of my favourite books to date. Set in the winter of 1829, it tells the story of the final few months of the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland, and the family who were charged with her care until her execution could take place. Although we know Agnes’ fate, the tension throughout the novel is of the constant and palpable kind that leaves a gnawing sensation in your stomach, and the northern Icelandic winter, as much a part of the novel as the characters, is the perfect backdrop for a narrative about the juxtaposition between the harshness and beauty of the human experience. (And if you can pick up the hardback edition it is a gorgeous book to behold, with black edged pages).
  2. Iceland’s Bell, Halldór Laxness
    Laxness is Iceland’s only Noble Prize Laureate so no list recommending Icelandic books would be complete without him. Iceland’s Bellis an early example of the Icelandic social realism novel and deals with questions of national identity and literature’s effect on it – I may have been prejudiced in picking this particular Laxness novel because it features a medieval manuscript collector…
  3. Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland, Sarah Moss
    This is the autobiography-cum-travel memoir of Sarah Moss, an English Literature lecturer who moved to Reykjavik with her family to work at the University of Iceland. Whilst beautifully written it is also the perfect anecdote to the romanticization of the North, frankly discussing the drawbacks as well as the delights of her year abroad.
  4. Letters from Iceland, W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice
    This 30’s classic is made up of poems and prose written by Auden and MacNeice during their 1936 trip to Iceland – Sarah Moss’ Names for the Seais named after a passage in Auden’s poem ‘Journey to Iceland’. It is a humorous and generally light-hearted book that can be picked up and put down at will, but at its edges lie the gathering clouds of the Second World War which was to transform Iceland entirely.
  5. Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, Sjón
    Although this book is set in 1918 and deals with the effect of the Spanish Flu on the population of Reykjavik, it is in many ways a fable that parallels the Aids Crisis. Its protagonist is Máni Steinn, a young queer man trying to find his place in a society as small and seemingly homogenous as early 20thcentury Iceland. But it is also a narrative about the power of cinema and storytelling to help us imagine other worlds and to transport us to other places.

Hannah Armstrong is master's student at the University of Oxford where she is currently working on a dissertation examining Old Norse literary representations of women and honour. Her chequered past includes stints working as an actor and a writer, and as of September she will be taking a break from research to make the jump to university management. She can be found on Twitter at @hjp_armstrong.