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Five Great Books to Introduce You to Icelandic Literature

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In many ways, the books on this list are intrinsically bound by the Icelandic landscape. It would seem no matter which Icelandic book one reads, the barren expanses, the flat greenery at the centre of the island, the ice sheets and glaciers, the jagged volcanic rock and black sand shores are never far away. It’s a small island with a landmass of just over 100,000 square kilometres. There’s no escape from the terrain, the sea, the elements.

And I feel now, perhaps more so than when I visited the country with my copy of Hrafnkel’s Saga in hand, that Iceland is very much a nation in unison with its surroundings. Its 332,000 people adapted long ago and have used their isolation to their benefit, reaping all that the sea and the land have to offer. And it’s because of this unison, because of their sequestered existence, that the geographical details of the island seep so heavily into the literature, almost as if it is another character itself. Iceland makes for incredibly theatrical backdrops. Theirs is a stark, cold beauty of open spaces and dramatic edges.

Iceland is a country where one in every ten inhabitants will publish a book. A striking statistic. But a positive one. The five books below are not necessarily the best of this tremendous output, but they are excellent and they make for a well-rounded introduction to Icelandic literature; they offer a range of style and genre and they incorporate the country, the land and the people into their pages. 

Hrafnkel's Saga and Other Icelandic Stories

This collection is the ideal starting point for anyone interested in Icelandic literature. It contains seven tales written down by Icelandic monks around the 13th century AD. These tales were taken from a period of time known as the Saga Age, 9th to the 11th century (a time scale that covers the first settlements up until the arrival of Christianity). The eponymous tale tells of the strife between farmers and chieftains in the east of Iceland in the 10th century. Hrafnkel is a fierce warrior and over the course of his life he meets defeat, finds redemption and seeks revenge. It is the standard bearer for Icelandic saga folklore. The other six tales deal with the changing way of life for the peasant, the warrior and the family alike.

The Sworn Brothers

Considered for the Nobel Prize six times, ironically, he lost out to his Icelandic counterpart Halldor Laxness in 1955 (see below). Life can be cruel. Regardless, Gunnarsson is widely acclaimed. This book, first published in 1921, riffs off another of the Saga stories: that of sworn brothers (brothers by blood oath) and Norwegian Viking cousins Ingolf and Leif. Together they roam and fight and explore before finally settling on the rock of Iceland. Gunnarsson’s fluid, passionate voice elevated what had been a rather overlooked saga to epic proportions by using Icelandic history to embellish not only a swashbuckling tale of Viking glory, but to detail the very creation of the island as we know it.

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Independent People

Laxness is Iceland’s one and only Nobel laureate, having won it in 1955, in part thanks to this novel, but also for the span and sprawl of the many works that had come before. As is typical of much of his writing, Independent People is rich with visual depictions of Iceland, and Laxness creates richly drawn characters often pitted against difficult social realist backdrops. The novel deals as much with the big picture stuff—rural poverty and the struggle to survive on an isolated farm—as it does with the smaller issues, namely our protagonist Bjartur’s topsy-turvy personal life. This is a beautiful read, one that completely immerses the reader in the joys and sadnesses of a different way of life.

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Jar City

Jar City is the height of Nordic crime noir with all the necessary elements on hand being used lavishly; the long Icelandic winter and its isolated location working very nicely in the genre. There are hundreds of books in the genre, however, so why this one? Well, this was the first in Indridason’s Detective Erlendur series and his first book translated into English. It was also a fantastic film. But most of all, it really is quite a unique beast. The setting is so integral to the murder mystery as are its criticisms of deCODE genetics, Inc.—a controversial real-life pharmaceutical company based in Reykjavík that plays into the mystery when the body of a 70 year old man is found. It all gets very weird and very complicated, twisting and turning towards its magnificent grand finale.

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The Blue Fox

Set in the 18th century, part fantastical, part morality tale, The Blue Fox has been called ‘enchanting’ and ‘poetic’ but there’s so much more to it than that. It must be mentioned that Sjon is first and foremost a poet who has also contributed to Bjork’s lyrics for 16 years. All his works involve a certain level of magical realism and draw from the folklore of Iceland in crafting very elegant, very beguiling stories littered with symbolism and metaphor. Here, the titular fox binds a trio of loose characters: the pastor hunting the elusive animal, his daughter who has Down Syndrome, and a naturalist. As their human tales are woven like strands wrapping around each other, the blue fox is at the centre of it all. Unusual and wonderful.


Shane O’Reilly has lived in Dublin all his life; that’s 34 years of memories and adventures around the city centre. While he watched as his friends emigrated during the recession, he started ... Show More

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