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SEVEN ICELANDIC SHORT STORIES
THE MINISTRY OF EDUCATION
INTRODUCTION BY STEINGRIMUR J. PORSTEINSSON
ANONYMOUS (13TH CENTURY) THE STORY OF AUDUNN AND THE BEAR TRANSLATED BY G. TURVILLE-PEIRE
EINAR H. KVARAN A DRY SPELL (1905) TRANSLATED BY JAKOBINA JOHNSON
GUđMUNDUR FRIđJËNSSON THE OLD HAY (1909) TRANSLATED BY MEKKIN SVEINSON PERKINS
JON TRAUSTI WHEN I WAS ON THE FRIGATE (1910) TRANSLATED BY ARNOLD R. TAYLOR
GUNNAR GUNNARSSON FATHER AND SON (1916) TRANSLATED BY PETER FOOTE
GUđMUNDUR G. HAGALIN THE FOX SKIN (1923) TRANSLATED BY MEKKIN SVEINSON PERKINS
HALLDËR KILJAN LAXNESS NEW ICELAND (1927) TRANSLATED BY AXEL EYBERG AND JOHN WATKINS
Of the seven Icelandic short stories which appear here, the first was probably written early in the thirteenth century, while the rest all date from the early twentieth century. It might therefore be supposed that the earliest of these stories was written in a language more or less unintelligible to modern Icelanders, and that there was a gap of many centuries in the literary production of the nation. This, however, is not the case.
The Norsemen who colonized Iceland in the last quarter of the ninth century brought with than the language then spoken throughout the whole of Scandinavia. This ancestor of the modern Scandinavian tongues has been preserved in Iceland so little changed that every Icelander still understands, without the aid of explanatory commentaries, the oldest preserved prose written in their country 850 years ago. The principal reasons for this were probably limited communications between Iceland and other countries, frequent migrations inside the island, and, not least important, a long and uninterrupted literary tradition. As a consequence, Icelandic has not developed any dialects in the ordinary sense.
It is to their language and literature, as well as to the island separateness of their country, that the 175 thousand inhabitants of this North-Atlantic state of a little more than a hundred thousand square kilometres owe their existence as an independent and separate nation.
The Icelanders established a democratic legislative assembly, the Althingi (Al■ingi) in 930 A.D., and in the year 1000 embraced Christianity. Hence there soon arose the necessity of writing down the law and translations of sacred works. Such matter, along with historical knowledge, may well have constituted the earliest writings in Icelandic, probably dating as far back as the eleventh century, while the oldest preserved texts were composed early in the twelfth century. This was the beginning of the so-called saga- writing. The important thing was that most of what was written down was in the vernacular, Latin being used but sparingly. Thus a literary style was evolved which soon reached a high standard. This style, so forceful in its perspicuity, was effectively simple, yet rich in the variety of its classical structure.
There were different categories of sagas. Among the most important were the sagas of the Norwegian kings and the family sagas. The latter tell us about the first generations of native Icelanders. They are all anonymous and the majority of them were written in the thirteenth century. Most of them contain a more or less historical core. Above all, however, they are fine literature, at times realistic, whose excellence is clearly seen in their descriptions of events and character, their dialogue and structure. Most of them are in fact in the nature of historical novels. The Viking view of life pervading them is characteristically heroic, but with frequent traces of the influence of Christian writing.
Besides these there were short stories (■aettir) about Icelanders, of which THE STORY OF AUDUNN AND THE BEAR (Auunar ■ßttr vestfirzka) is one of the best known. [Footnote: In this edition, the specially- Icelandic consonants ■ and are printed as th and d respectively, and the superstressed vowels ß,Ý,ˇ, and ˙, are given without the acute accent, when they occur in proper names in the stories, e. g. Pˇrur: Thordur.]
These may be regarded as a preliminary stage in the development of the longer family saga, simpler, yet having essentially the same characteristics. Both types then continued to be written side by side. Although the geographical isolation of the country was stated above as one of the reasons for the preservation of the language, too great a stress should not be laid on this factor, especially not during the early centuries of the settlement. The Icelanders were great and active navigators who discovered Greenland (shortly after 980) and North America (Leifr Eiriksson, about 1000). Thus THE STORY OF AUDUNN AND THE BEAR recounts travels to Greenland, Norway, Denmark and Italy. It was then fashionable for young Icelanders to go abroad and spend some time at the courts of the Norwegian kings, where the skalds recited poems of praise dedicated to the king. In this story the occasion of the voyage is a less common one, the bringing of a polar bear as a gift to the Danish king. In several other Icelandic stories, and in some of other countries, we read of such gifts, and of how European potentates prized these rare creatures from Greenland.
In Scandinavia, Germany, and elsewhere, there have been legends similar to the story of Audunn, where a man, after having been to the Norwegian king with a tame bear, decides to present it to the king of Denmark. However, we know of no earlier source for this motif than the story of Audunn. Whatever its value as historical fact, it could well be the model to which the other versions might be traced. This story is preserved in the Morkinskinna, an Icelandic manuscript written in the second half of the thirteenth century, as well as in several later manuscripts. [Footnote: The most valuable edition of THE STORY OF ADUNN AND THE BEAR is that of Guni Jˇnsson in the series ═slenzk fornrit (vol. VI. ReykjavÝk 1943). The text of this edition is followed in the present translation, except in a few cases where reference has been made to the texts of Fornmannas÷gur VI, Copenhagen 1831, and Flateyjarbˇk III, Oslo 1868.] The story had probably been written down by 1220, if not earlier. It is given a historical background in so far as it is set in the time of Haraldr the Hard-ruler, King of Norway (1046-66), and Sveinn ┌lfsson, King of Denmark (1047-76), when the two countries were at war (c. 1062- 64). Both monarchs are depicted as generous, magnanimous men, but Audunn was shrewd enough to see which would give the greater reward for his precious bear. For all his generosity, King Haraldr was known to be ruthless and grasping. What the writer had in mind may have been a character-comparison of the two kings and the description of "one of the luckiest of men", about whom the translator, G. Turville-Petre says: "Audunn himself, in spite of his shrewd and purposeful character, is shown as a pious man, thoughtful of salvation, and richly endowed with human qualities, affection for his patron and especially for his mother. The story is an optimistic one, suggesting that good luck may attend those who have good morals."
The Icelanders have never waged war against any nation. But in the thirteenth century they were engaged in a civil war which ended in their submitting to the authority of the Norwegian king in the sixties (this authority was transferred to the King of the Danes in 1380). It is interesting that, during the next few decades after this capitulation, saga-writing seems to reach a climax as an art, in family sagas like Njßls saga, "one of the great prose works of the world" (W. P. Ker). It is as if the dangers of civil war and the experiences gained in times of surrender had created in the authors a kind of inner tension--as if their maturity had found full expression in the security of peace. However, with the first generation born in Iceland in subjection, the decline of saga- writing seems to begin. This can hardly be a mere coincidence. On the contrary it was brought about by a number of different factors.
Subsequently, in the fourteenth century, saga-writing becomes for the most part extinct. From c. 1400-1800 there is hardly any prose fiction at all. Hence the fact that several centuries remain unrepresented in this work (though the gap might have been reduced to four or five centuries had literary-historical considerations alone been allowed to influence the present selection).
But the sagas continued to be copied and read. After the setting up of the first printing press (c. 1530), and after the Reformation (c. 1550), religious literature grew much in bulk, both translations (that of the Bible was printed in 1584) and original works, and a new kind of historical writing came into being. Side by side with scholars, we have self-educated commoners who wrote both prose and, especially, poetry.
In Iceland, being a "poet" has never been considered out of the ordinary. On the contrary, a person unable to make up a verse or two would almost be considered exceptional. Yet, this requires considerable skill as the Icelanders are the only nation that has
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