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Jón Árnason

  • Popular culture (Manners and customs)Text editionsIcelandic
  • Author:
    Gunnell, Terry
  • Title:
    Jón Árnason
  • Text:

    Generally regarded in Iceland as the father of Icelandic folklore collection, Jón Árnason was born in 1819 at Hof, in Skagaströnd in the north of Iceland. Like so many other folklore collectors of the time, he was the son of a cleric; but having lost his father early, he spent his early years moving between different farms. On the basis of some basic, home-taught education in Latin and mathematics (by another cleric at Oddi in the south of Iceland), Jón won a semi-supported place at the Latin school at Bessastaðir from 1837 until his final exam in 1843. Due to lack of finance, he could not continue his studies in Copenhagen.

    By that time, he was already employed as tutor to the children of the Latin School’s head master, Sveinbjörn Egilsson. Jón held this post until 1855, after the school had moved to Reykjavík. Sveinbjörn was a key conduit of international cultural ideas into and out of Iceland. The translator of Homer into Icelandic, and of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda as well as several sagas into Latin, he was also a founding member of Det kongelige Nordiske Oldskriftselskab (The Royal Society of Northern Antiquities). Through him, Jón would have been aware of the calls for the collection of folk-poetry and folk-tales that had been made by both Hið Íslenzka bókmenntafélag (The Icelandic Literary Society) and the Romantically influenced journal Fjölnir in 1838 (when Jón was still at school); and echoed by George Stephens’s calls for the collection of Icelandic folk-materials in 1846.

    Meanwhile, Jón was busy trying to earn a living. Between 1848 and 1887, he held the position of librarian of the Stiftsbókasafn (from 1881, officially the National Library), and between 1848 and 1854 was also in charge of the books sold in Iceland by Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, something which helped him establish and maintain a number of contacts around the country. The wages were minimal, and between 1856 and 1867 Jón also served as full-time secretary to the Bishop of Iceland, and then from 1867 until his death in 1888 as caretaker of the Latin school.

    Jón’s role in the collection of folklore officially goes back to 1845 (apparently before hearing George Stephens’s call, although one has to take this with a pinch of salt), when he and Magnús Grímsson decided to start gathering folk-narratives and -poems, Magnús (who was still at school at this date) concentrating on legends and wonder tales, and Jón on rhymes and verses. The end product of this work was the first, slim collection of Icelandic folk-tales (for which Magnús seems to have been largely responsible), Íslensk æfintýri in 1852. While this book received comparatively little attention at home, its introduction shows the authors’ awareness of the nationalistic agendas that had preceded similar works elsewhere in Europe: the work of the Grimm brothers and Thiele in Denmark. As they write, “These folk-tales are the poetic creation of the nation. They are the creation of the naivety that the nation experiences and experienced. In them we see both the nation’s longing for history and the special feel that the nation’s narratives tend to be veiled in. [...] the folk-tales are very important for the history of our nation’s education. They are a kind of latter-day Edda, or a mythology, which time has altered or changed.” The use of the word “nation” (þjóð), rather than alþyða or “folk” (“the people”) is of particular interest. Indeed, the later continuing use of the Icelandic word þjóðsögur (“national tales”) for folk-tales retains this sense of a shared “national” belonging.

    Following this first collection, and the full-time work in which both Jón and Magnús (now serving as priest in Mosfell, just outside Reykjavík) were involved, it is unlikely that any more work would have been done on the project had it not been for the arrival in Iceland of the German scholar Konrad Maurer in 1858. Maurer, officially a legal historian, had personal connections with the Grimms and had previously carried out a collection of Bavarian folk-tales. In his travels around Iceland, Maurer collected a large amount of folk-legends which later appeared in his Isländische Volkssagen der Gegenwart (Leipzig, 1860). He was informed of Jón’s and Magnús’s collection, and encouraged them to continue this work, offering help with publication.

    The end result was the two-volume Íslenzkar þjóðsögur og æfintýri (“Icelandic national/folk-tales and wonder tales”), published in Leipzig in 1862-64, the national cultural importance of which is seen not only in the title, but also in the fact that the “father of Icelandic independence”, Jón Sigurðsson, was directly involved in the book’s editorial preparation and in ensuring that Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag paid for copies of the book to be given to all of its 780 members. The format of Íslenzkar þjóðsögur og æfintýri shows that it was directly influenced both by George Stephens and by Maurer. Its dedication to the Grimms also underlines the degree to which, like the work of Thiele, Faye, and Asbjørnsen and Moe, it was closely related to the ripples that emanated from the Grimms’ German folktale collections (although Jón himself makes no mention of the earlier Norwegian collections). The Icelandic collection places less emphasis on wonder tales than Asbjørnsen and Moe’s main work, containing, for the main part, folk-legends which were directly collected from Icelandic storytellers, rather than from books (as had often been the case in the legendary collections by the Grimms, Faye and Thiele).

    The collection also contains variants of legend, underlining their oral background and nature. Nonetheless, it should be borne in mind that apart from the earlier corpus collected by Magnús (who died in 1860, preventing further participation), most of the material in these volumes reached Jón in written form, sent by contacts around the country responding to his calls for material (clerics, scholars, and other interested parties). Jón then went over this material, before sending it on to Denmark for further editorial work and consideration (by Jón Sigurðsson and others), after which it was sent on to Maurer and the printers in Germany. There is thus good reason to question exactly how close the material is to the original oral accounts, or how nationally representative it was. Indeed, the fact that the later (1954-61) publication of Jón’s complete corpus collection filled six volumes, a certain degree of editorial filtering must be assumed to have taken place. None of this, however, diminishes the achievement of the Íslenzkar þjóðsögur og æfintýri, which holds a respectable position alongside the other folklore collections of its time.

    Jón’s role in cultural nationalism went beyond the collection of folk-tales. The four-volume Íslenskar gátur, skemmtanir, vikivakar og þulur (“Icelandic riddles, games, dance songs and rigmaroles”) published in 1887-1903 by Jón’s young cousin Ólafur Daviðsson, contains a great deal of material originally collected by Jón. One must also consider Jón’s early, active membership of the influential secret Icelandic society, the Kvöldfélag (Evening Society; called Leikfélag andans, the Theatre Society of the Spirit from 1862). He was particularly closely involved with another key member, the highly influential painter Sigurður Guðmundsson, especially in his attempts to establish a national museum, and with the national poet and playwright, Matthías Jochumsson, both of whom were actively involved in collecting folk-tales for Jón. Indeed, Jón, Sigurður and Matthías were all living in the same house in Reykjavík in 1860 when Matthías wrote his first play, Útilegumennirnir (“The Outlaws”), based on Icelandic folklore material.

    Word Count: 1298

    Skagafjörður (IC)

    Leipzig (DE)

    Copenhagen (DK)

    Reykjavík (IS)

    Mosfellsbær (IS)

    Hafnarfjörður (IS)

    Sveinbjörn Egilsson

    Asbjørnsen, Peter Christen

    Faye, Andreas

    Grimm, Jacob

    Jón Sigurðsson

    Magnús Grímsson

    Matthías Jochumsson

    Maurer, Konrad

    Moe, Jørgen Engebretsen

    Ólafur Davíðsson

    Sigurður Guðmundsson

    Stephens, George

    Thiele, Just Mathias

    Political-historical background note : Iceland

    Literary societies, reading clubs, book clubs : Iceland

    Publishing ventures / periodicals : Iceland

    Historical societies : Iceland

    Museums : Iceland

    Universities, university chairs : Iceland

    Patriotic poetry and verse : Icelandic

    Critical writing : Icelandic

    Manners and customs : Icelandic

    Oral literature and popular culture : German

    Oral literature : Icelandic

    Oral literature : Norwegian

    Education : Icelandic

  • Article version:
    1.1.1.1/a
  • Gunnell, Terry; 2010. “From daisies to oak trees: The politics of early folktale collection in Northern Europe”, Folklore 121.1: 12-37

    Helgason, Ögmundur; 1991. “Upphaf að söfnun íslenzkra þjóðfræða fyrir áhrif frá Grimmsbræðrum”, Árbók Landsbókasafns 15: 112-123 [“The beginning of the collection of Icelandic ethnology influenced by the Grimm brothers”]

    Pálmason, Pálmi; 1947. “Jón Árnason”, in: Merkir Íslendingar: Ævisögur og minningargreinar, ed. Þorkell Jóhannesson (Reykjavik: Bókfellsútgáfan) 201-220

    Sveinsson, Einar Ólafur; 1971. “Jón Árnason (1819-1888)”, in: Leading folklorists of the north, ed. Dag Strömbäck (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget) 419-435

    Sveinsson, Einar Ólafur; 2003. The folk-stories of Iceland (transl. Benedikt Benedikz, rev. Einar G. Pétursson, ed. Anthony Faulkes London: University College London)

    Ólina Þorvarðardóttir,; 1998. “Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar: Tilraun til heimildarýni”, in: Þjóðlíf og þjóðtrú: Ritgerðir helgaðar Jóni Hnefli Aðalsteinssyni Jón Hnefil Aðalsteinsson (Reykjavik: Þjóðsaga) 245-269


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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Gunnell, Terry, 2018. " Jón Árnason", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version 1.1.1.1/a, last changed 10-08-2018, consulted 12-12-2019.