Icelanders are in their nature storytellers with a rich history of legends, mythology, and in-depth description of the different fantasy creatures who inhabit their land. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the Icelandic book industry is as busy as Santa’s Workshop in December.
What are Icelandic Books?
Icelandic people love telling stories, which you will experience the first time you ask a local about some local legend. There is always some story lurking behind the ears of an Icelander, so naturally, many decided to start putting ink to paper and provide the world with some much-needed Icelandic literature. Any book written in this fashion is an Icelandic book. The local belief is that there is a book in every Icelander.
Most Icelandic books will be in Icelandic, but since there are a handful of Icelandic fiction writers that have gotten international recognition, you will find some titles translated into English and other languages.
Icelandic Books and Tradition
The long-standing history of Icelanders and writing things down dates all the way back to when Iceland was settled by the Vikings. The first “books” would be the Icelandic runes brought from mainland Scandinavia, which were also believed to be gifts from the gods, making them incredibly important to the Vikings.
The Icelandic Sagas
The first real set of Icelandic books is the sagas that were written down in the 12th to 15th centuries. This is when the first set of Icelanders decided to put the oral stories on paper and enrich the world with wonderful tales of incredible adventures that took place in Iceland during the first couple of hundred years in Iceland’s history.
Since the Icelandic sagas don’t have dates or authors in them, it’s impossible to know for sure who wrote them or exactly when. However, if you want to read through them, we recommend renting a car in Iceland and reading the sagas at the places where they take place. Nothing says immersion like sitting in Borgarfjord and reading about Egil Skallagrimsson.
Other very popular sagas include Njala’s Saga, Grettir’s Saga, and Laxdaela Saga. If you want to prepare for your trip and impress your (hopefully) new Icelandic friends, you should take a look at those Icelandic books and make a point of seeing the areas on your round trip around the island.
There are two compilations of incredibly important poems and stories that make up pretty much everything that we know today about Nordic mythology and old Icelandic literature composition. The Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda.
The Poetic Edda is a book of poems that describes myths and stories very poetically. The Prose Edda has been attributed as one of the best Icelandic books of all time due to the more technical approach with a more information-oriented structure, telling stories about Norse Mythology as well as how to compose texts (in old Norse) and Snorri Sturlusson’s (the accredited author of the Prose Edda) own compositions.
Both of these books are believed to draw from a common source of stories, poems, and historical accounts, making them incredibly important in the Nordic historical culture.
Christmas Book Flood
Getting a book for Christmas in Iceland has been a long-standing tradition ever since WWII. Since paper didn’t have the same import restrictions on it as many other goods, books became increasingly popular to give away. Books also became popular, since the small Viking Island has a strong Icelandic literature tradition.
The book flood is the time before Christmas when a large number of new books are released in a short amount of time. The aim is to encourage people to buy books for their friends and family as Christmas gifts, which is traditionally followed by families staying up late to read their books and drink hot chocolate and eat gingerbread cookies.
Each year, the Christmas book flood starts when the “Journal of Books” is distributed to every household on the island for free. From that point onward, the continuous release of new titles becomes a welcomed and normal sight for the Icelanders.
Well-known Icelandic Authors
Before we delve into the top Icelandic fiction to read, it seems fair to first highlight some internationally renowned Icelandic authors:
The only Icelander who has won a Nobel Prize in literature. He won the prize in ’53 due to how well he described Iceland and its people in various texts. Halldor is responsible for writing striking Icelandic books that portray how hard life was for the Icelandic people at the beginning of the 1900s.
Crime fiction is a very popular genre when it comes to Icelandic novels, and Arnaldur Indridason is one of the best-known crime fiction authors in Iceland. He has a series of books that are a breath-taking noir-style series about a Detective named Erlandur who is mainly operating in Reykjavik.
Another crime fiction writer from the Icelandic author ranks. Yrsa is excellent at exploring the human psyche whilst painting vivid pictures of crime-solving and near-supernatural elements.
Einar Már Gudmundsson
Known for portraying the complex elements of life through the eyes of his characters, Einar’s stand-alone novels have been widely appreciated and translated into many different languages. One of his Icelandic books, The English Alien, was even made into a film.
Focusing on Icelandic culture and history, Sjón has written several internationally awarded books as well as contributed to the lyrics of some songs by Björk.
The Top-5 Icelandic Books
The following are considered to be must-reads in Iceland:
Independent People – Two Parts
Written by Halldór Laxness, these are the two Icelandic books that paved his way to the Nobel Prize and are now sold in a single volume. The story depicts the life of a sheep farmer, struggling with various hardships that were not unusual for people back then.
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The Blue Fox
Sjón takes us on a journey about love, madness, and guilt, as a priest is set out to hunt a fox but catches more than he bargained for.
Written by Arnaldur Indridason, this is the third book in the series of Inspector Erlendur in Reykjavik and was the first of the books to be translated into English and was also made into a movie. The plot dives into a murder with few clues that lead the detective down the path in history to previous crimes and vengeance.
I Remember You
Renovating a run-down house in the Westfjords in the winter, an intricate mystery about an eerie presence, a young doctor, and the suicide of an old woman comes together to make this renovation anything but pleasant. This book is written by Yrsa Sigurdadottir and brings out some of the best traits in her writing style, making it one of the best Icelandic books to read on a cold winter night in the Westfjords.
Angels of the Universe
Mixing humor with the harsh reality of mental illness, Einar Már Gudmundsson tells the story of an ordinary Icelander with an unordinary life. This book will provide the reader with a rollercoaster of emotions, making them laugh and cry interchangeably.
Getting to Know Iceland Through Books
Many Icelandic novels will be depicted in actual locations in Iceland, and we honestly believe that you should take the opportunity of walking the streets like Detective Erlendur or sit at the same bay as Egil Skallagrimsson from the Sagas of Iceland. The island is full of unique opportunities and you should rent a car in Reykjavik and visit the places that have captured the imagination of a nation.