Iceland’s Epic Literary Heritage Recognised

Image of Icelandic sulphur pools courtesy Stuck in Customs/Flickr

Image of Icelandic sulphur pools courtesy Stuck in Customs/Flickr

Iceland’s capital city Reykjavik has been designated a City of Literature by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The announcement brings to five the number of Cities of Literature - the others are Melbourne, Edinburgh, Dublin and Iowa - and to 29 the number of cities participating in UNESCO’s Creative Cities network. Other than literature, the Creative Cities network includes cities of film, music, crafts and folk art, design, media arts and gastronomy. Reykjavik is the first non-English speaking City of Literature.

Reykjavik city authorities will officially launch the capital’s City of Literature initiatives next month, and in October Iceland will be the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest book fair.

Halldór Laxness in 1955, the year he was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature, via Wikipedia

Halldór Laxness in 1955, the year he was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature, via Wikipedia

What Iceland’s literary heritage lacks in breadth it more than makes up for with continuity. It is notable for its connection with a rich tradition of epic poetic sagas. Thanks to its isolation and relative smallness (its population is just under 320,000), Iceland’s language has changed at a slower rate than that of English. As a result, Icelanders are more closely connected to their medieval poetry than English speakers are to ours. Whereas we find Chaucer almost unreadable without the help of secondary sources, the epic sagas of Icelandic poetry are more easily read by modern Icelandic readers. This is a feature of Icelandic culture depicted by Iceland’s Halldór Laxness - a Nobel laureate in 1955 - in his most famous novel. Independent People (1934) is set among isolated farmers in the early 20th century, for whom the epics are still a major influence on their language, identity and aspirations.

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