Iceland had in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a strong original literature, valuable in form and content. In no other country were poets and storytellers held in such high esteem. The vast island, separated from the rest of Europe, kept its language almost unchanged for a millennium and with it, at least in part, the style and type of ancient poetry: only the language of prose is entirely modern. The oldest Icelandic literature is found in the Edda poems and the songs of the skalds, but many of those were composed in Norway and the Norwegian colonies of the British Isles and two in Greenland (see edda). Almost all the skalds who lived in the courts of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, England, Orkney and Dublin were Icelandic, a few of Celtic origin. Their best-known poems are called drápur (plural of drapa) and were made in praise of some king or chief, and their names are mentioned by Snorri Sturluson and in the two Skaldatals ; many of these poems have been preserved to us, inserted in the prose of the Sögur. These compositions, with very complicated verses and artificial and mannered language, went out of fashion due to the influence of foreign poetry of the Middle Ages. The purely alliterative meters were followed by le rímur (plural of ríma), stanzas with alliteration and rhymes, which developed in the 16th century. XIV and imitated the French novels of the cycles of Charlemagne, of Arturo and also of Alexander, sometimes retaining a lost original. In addition to rímur epic and historical (the oldest is the ‘ Ólafsrima Einar Gilsson, about 1350), there are the rímur sacred subject and hagiographic The religious element is accentuated further in the time of the Reformation and is represented mainly by Hallgrimur Pjeturson (1614-74; Hymns of the Passion, 1666, published in numerous editions). The saga it is the most notable and most vital product of Icelandic literature, and differs from epic poetry only in that it is written in prose interspersed with poetry. Thus the story of a famous person and his family is told in a simple and well-ordered plot, with precise details of the places and characteristics of life and customs and also with digressions, but without comments and intervention by the narrator. All of this is done according to a traditional scheme. Characteristic of these compositions is the scarce use of dialogue, limited to a few words or lines to concentrate the dramatic effect. The saga was meant to be recited aloud (segja sögu “tell a story”) and it was considered a great art to recite stories. The sagas were written only after they had been recited for three or four generations.
There are still about 40 sagas, which are usually grouped according to the places where they took place. Among the most important and valuable for the form and for the content we must remember the Saga of Njál (960-1016), full of judicial processes; The Saga of Egil (870-980), which contains the dispute between the great poet Egil and King Harald Haariagre and continued in the Saga of Gunnlaug Ormstunga (Gunnlaug was called “snake tongue” for his scathing verses); the Saga Laxdaela (910-1026), dramatic and full of local color; the Vatnsdaela Saga (890-980) of the Ingimund colony in northern Iceland and the Grettir Saga (1010-1033), which narrates the life of the national hero Grettir interspersed with ghost stories and legends.
The first to write in Icelandic was Are Thorgilsson (1067-1148) who was also the first historian of the island, sober, trustworthy and precise. Of his voluminous Íslendingabók (circa 1130) only a brief compendium remains, but it is one of the sources from which the large compilation called Landnámabók (Land Occupation Book), which deals with the colonization of Iceland with minute details on the names, genealogies, events, origins of local names, etc., and although it contains 4000 names of people and 2000 of localities, it also knows how to rise to the dramatic narrative. The Kristni – Saga tells of the Christian missions in Iceland and the introduction of Christianity in the year 1000. Other great historians are Saemund Sigfússon (1056-1133), famous for his vast culture and most likely collector of Eddic poetry, and Snorri Sturluson. Very early on, numerous “lives” of kings and bishops and “annals” were published, and it continued down to 1700 and even later, to the present day. The sagas recount the events that occurred not only in Iceland and Norway, but also in other countries, in the Faroe Islands and Orkney, in Greenland and Denmark, and also, but only incidentally, in Sweden and Russia. Much more important are the sagas concerning the mythical-heroic cycle in the Edda, which repeat the Eddic chants in prose mixed with verses. Volsunga, faithful relationship of the ancient tradition, with the addition of a few romantic elements. The legendary Fridhthjof Saga is known thanks to the poem written about it by Esaias Tegner. With the introduction of printing in Iceland (1530) by Bishop Jón Arason, the decline of literary production on the island partially halted. In 1584, Bishop Gudbrand Thorláksson published the translation of the Bible (a part of the Old Testament had been translated by him) with characters engraved by him. Oddur Gottskalksson’s New Testament in Icelandic dates back to 1540.
The renaissance of Icelandic literature at the beginning of the 19th century is due to Bjarni Thorarensen (1786-1841) and Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807-45), the former being Goethe and the latter Schiller of Iceland. The greatest lyric poets of the second half of the century. XIX are Steingrímur Thorsteinsen (1830-1913); Matthias Jochumsson (1835-1920), who achieved the highest flights of modern Icelandic poetry and was also a playwright; Thorsteinn Erlingsson (1857-1914), author of beautiful historical ballads but above all of anticlerical social satires; Grimur Thomsen (1820-96), master of an essentially national lapidary style, and Hannes Hafstein (1861-1922) excellent at singing love and Icelandic landscapes. In the century XX stand out on the other poets Einar Benediktsson and David Stefansson, to which we can add St. G. Stephansson, Icelandic resident of Canada. Of the novelists, the first chronologically is Jón Thoroddsen (1819-68): his Piltur og Stúlka (Boy and Girl) from 1850 was translated into Danish, Dutch and German; Also important is the novel Madur og Kona (Husband and Wife), published after his death in 1876, which is a faithful painting of country life in Iceland. Gestur Pálsson (1852-91) wrote bitter social satires (Thrjár Sögur “Three Stories”, translated into German by C. Küchler). The most eminent living novelist is Einar Hjörleifsson Kvaran, while the works of Gunnar Gunnarsson, who lives in Denmark and writes mainly in Danish, were translated into German, English and other languages. Indridi Einarsson, a veteran of playwrights, has managed, almost exclusively with his tireless efforts, to have a national theater built in Reykjavik; three of his plays, Sverd og bagall (Sword and crosier), N ý jársnóttin (New Year’s Eve) and Dansinn i Hruna (The dance of Hruna) have been translated into German. Jóhann Sigurjónsson (1880-1919) wrote two strong plays Fjalla – Eyvindur (translated into German in 1913), and Galdra – Loftur (The Sorcerer Loftur). Gudmundur Kamban had some plays performed at the royal theater in Copenhagen.