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Part project 3: The Nation, the Folk and the Medieval: The Discovery and Categorization of Icelandic Folktales in the Mid-19th Century

Eline Elmiger

In the wake of the international ‘discovery’ of fairy tales as folk literature in Romanticism, folk tales were also collected and edited in Iceland. Like in other Scandinavian countries, the collection of the alleged literary tradition of the common people took place in close connection to and inspired by the German folktale collectors Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. But not only Icelanders were interested in Icelandic folk tales. Konrad Maurer, a German legal historian, was actively involved in an Icelandic edition and collecting folk tales for his own German translation. The reception of these tales in Great Britain started soon after that, and the Icelandic folktales were translated to English by George E. J. Powell together with Eiríkur Magnússon in 1864 and 1866.

However, the paratextual apparatus and the selection and arrangement of the narratives in the various editions show that these narratives were used for very different discursive purposes: From the Icelandic domestic perspective, the material was mostly regarded as purely Icelandic and used together with the medieval manuscripts and supposed medieval texts from post-Reformation manuscripts to further the movement for Icelandic independence. By establishing evidence of an Icelandic culture that supposedly emerged without external influence, Iceland’s status as a nation in its own right was to be consolidated. The English and German scholars on the other hand embedded these tales into a wider conceptualisation of the North or a quest for pan-Germanic elements, but not without being in close dialogue with central agents of the Icelandic national cause.

Tying in with the core of the national Romantic endeavour and connecting to Herder’s Volksseele and Hegel’s Volksgeist, a key concept in the preoccupation with these texts across the different national discourses were the people (German Volk, Icelandic þjóð). Volksliteratur as “die im ungelehrten volk lebende, nicht individualistische dichtung” (Grimm 1854–1960), perceived and discursivised as a literature with roots in a long oral tradition, was set in close conceptual relation to the medieval literary heritage. In particular the agents abroad, who discovered and studied these texts in the first generation, were across the countries the same who also held an interest for the medieval literary tradition. The Brothers Grimm in the first generation, and Konrad Maurer and Eiríkur Magnússon in the second generation, translated the folktales to German and English alongside their editions and translations of medieval Icelandic sagas, Old Norse Eddic mythology and heroic poetry (Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, see P2) or studies of the medieval Icelandic society (Konrad Maurer, see P4).

Taking the editions and translations of Icelandic folk tales printed between 1850 and 1870 as a starting point, this PhD project will approach the complex discursive Setzungen of the folktales as part of a broader interest in the literary heritage of a people and as part of the building of nations in the mid 19th century. It will analyse the discursive and disciplinary self-positioning of these endeavours as discernible in the complex networks of human agents, texts, and notions while also considering unedited communication between the different agents.

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