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Snorri Plus Program - Lectures in Reykjavík, 2022

Editor's note: Laura Hackney wrote this report to give a sense of the valuable background information that is a part of the Snorri Plus program. To learn more about the program visit the Snorri website.

By Laura Hackney

Blindur er bóklaus maður

“Blind is a bookless man.”

The best way to learn about a country is through the lens of those who are most passionate about its history, language, literature, landscapes, and culture. Luckily for us, as members of the Snorri Plus program, we were invited to spend a few precious days in the middle of August learning from brilliant individuals who have an infectious passion for their work and for Iceland. We arrived in Hannesarholt, the former residence of one of the nation’s most acclaimed poets and politicians, Hannes Hafstein, in downtown Reykjavík. And over the course of three days, we heard seven different and fascinating lectures from scholars, researchers, filmmakers, and scientists.

Genealogy: We started our knowledge tour with an introduction to Íslendingabók, or The Book of Icelanders, with researcher Svava G. Sigurðardóttir. She explained the history of this vast database along with Icelandic traditions of tracking family lineages. Saga manuscripts, church records, the National Census from 1703, along with thousands of other documents contribute to the records collected to form this project. In 1997, the Icelandic genetic research company, deCODE, started the database that would become Íslendingabók, with the aim to trace all known family connections from the Settlement Age (870-930AD) to the present day. Today, Icelanders with a national registration card can sign up, see their family genealogies, and track their connections to other Icelanders. According to rigorous studies and tests of connections found on the site, the reliability and accuracy of maternal links found on the site are as high as 99.3%, and the rate of false paternities is around 1.49% per generation.

Literature: “[My novels] speak about the small things of everyday life and make them stand for something bigger—for something true,” said Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, an Icelandic author, on her method and writing style. There is an incredibly long and rich literary tradition in Iceland. When I returned from my trip, I compared an Icelander describing a book with how one might describe a fond memory with an old friend. I would also compare Icelanders talking about new books to the excitement some Americans have when describing an upcoming Super Bowl. Jón Yngvi Jóhannsson, a professor of literature at the University of Iceland (Háskóli Íslands), walked us through this long history of embracing literature, the vernacular, and everyday realism in the plethora of novels written in and about Iceland. Starting from the beginning, we discussed the Icelandic Sagas. We would later go see some of the Saga manuscripts at the Árni Magnússon Institute at the University and enjoy the Saga Museum in Borgarnes. I highly recommend both. Jón’s expertise was in 20th-century literature, and he discussed two of the giants, Gunnar Gunnarsson, and Halldór Laxness. We later traveled to Gunnarsson's home on our tour.

Edda by Snorri Sturluson (Judy Dickson photo)
Edda by Snorri Sturluson (Judy Dickson photo)

I highly recommend checking it out (there is a cake buffet! Five stars!). Laxness, in addition to being Iceland’s Nobel Prize winner for Literature, also helped shape some of the later literary movements that started in the post-war period. The rise of modernism and New Realism created forms of poetry and an eventual tension between traditional verse structure and modern inventions. Ultimately, both have continued to coexist, alongside a fierce commitment to the preservation of the Icelandic language itself. From the 1980s to today, Jón explained, Iceland has been in the Golden Age of the Novel. Many authors embrace other art forms and actively collaborate with projects in the fine arts and music scenes. Grants from the government also support these artists, with the recognition that it's generally the Icelandic crime authors who can really make a living off writing. That being said, Icelandic crime authors are great at their craft, and some of us shared stories about sleeping with the lights on after finishing Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s terrifying I Remember You. I hope to make it back soon for the Christmas Book Flood!

Language: Langar þig að læra íslensku? Do you want to learn Icelandic? Já! Is it possible to learn all of the fundamentals of the Icelandic language in a few days? Nei. However, there is no better introduction to the language, its history, and some survival phrases than classes with Sigrídur Kristinsdóttir. She took us on an amazing whirlwind tour of the Icelandic language’s roots in old Germanic and Norse la