Book Review: Icelandic Folktales & Legends by Jacqueline Simpson

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While Iceland’s Sagas have been recognised as one of Europe’s most significant bodies of literature its folktales have received comparatively scant attention. The popular conception of European folklore has been largely defined by the Grimm brothers work in preserving Germanic traditions of fairy tales.
For too long Iceland’s rich and distinctive version of the form was largely unknown in the English-speaking world. First published in 1972, Jacqueline Simpson’s study was an attempt to redress the balance. The text presents a selection of narratives which demonstrate that Icelandic folklore and fairytales were localised and aetiological. The author argues that the tales were originally told by a desperately poor hard-working community as a way of understanding their environment and also to reaffirm beliefs. Infused with humour and pathos, the collection provides an invaluable insight into early settlers beliefs and wishes.
Icelandic Folktales & Legends is not a definitive account of the nation’s mythology. Choosing to present thematic consistency rather than a loosely focussed cross section, Jacqueline Simpson has sourced tales from the first three chapters of Jón Árnason’s The Folktales and Fairy Tales of Iceland. The author’s decision to emphasise narratives featuring ghosts, magic, and supernatural beings has resulted in the exclusion of topics and themes which are arguably of equal historical and cultural significance.
Viewed as an introduction, not a definitive overview, the collection is an intriguing voyage into a world filled with trolls, elves, and hidden people.

Icelandic Folktales & Legends is published by The History Press

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