Sigurður Nordal (1886-1974)

Sigurður Nordal

Sigurður Nordal was one of the most influential scholars of the 20th century in the field of Icelandic studies. Through his writings on Icelandic literature, ancient and modern, articles and lectures, as well as his tuition at the University of Iceland, he moulded the understanding and interpretation of Icelandic literature and culture to a greater extent than almost any other Icelander.
Nordal's influence was felt far beyond the bounds of academia; throughout his life he played an active part in Icelandic cultural debate, and he was respected and recognised by scholars in the fields of Icelandic and Nordic studies, throughout the world.
He was one of the champions of the "Icelandic School" in research into Icelandic medieval literature, and has remained an important influence on medieval research until the present day.

This page includes a brief biography of Nordal, a list of some books and articles about him, and a summary of the contents of a new collected edition of his work. The page also includes an article by writer Kristján B. Jónasson, "In the Cultural Midstream," in which Jónasson discusses Nordal's role as a cultural critic, and his character as a master of hermeneutics. In his article, Kristján says: "On the threshold of modern Icelandic society, different attitudes conflicted on what ought to be the ideological basis of the new form of society that was being created by industrialisation and domestic finance, and Nordal was seriously concerned that everything that graced Icelandic culture would be lost in the fray. .. [he wished] to look beyond the framework of contemporary debate, and seek out the essential forms of what was demonstrably Icelandic. He found the foundation of this in medieval literature, whose interpretation was, in his view, the key to the creation of modern society in Iceland."


Brief biography
  • 1886. Born 14 September, Eyjólfsstaðir, Vatnsdalur, north Iceland.
  • 1906 Graduated from the Learned School in Reykjavík.
  • 1912 Mag. Art. degree from University of Copenhagen.
  • 1913 Publishes Orkneyingasaga.
  • 1914 Dr. Phil. from University of Copenhagen, for thesis on St. Olaf's Saga, published that same year as Om Olaf den helliges saga.
  • 1915-18 Student of philosophy in Berlin and Oxford.
  • 1918 Professor of Icelandic Studies at University of Iceland.
  • 1918-19 Hannes Árnason Lectures: during the 1918-19 academic year, Nordal delivered 20 lectures on philosophy, the result of his studies in Berlin and Oxford, for which he had received a grant from the Hannes Árnason Fund. Some of the lectures were published in 1986 in the series Íslensk heimspeki (Icelandic Philosophy). All are printed in his collected works, vol. 2 of List og Lífsskoðun, under the title Einlyndi og marglyndi.
  • 1919 Fornar ástir, a collection of short stories by Nordal, is published. The stories were avant-garde in many ways, especially "Hel," which many scholars regard as a pioneering work of modern Icelandic literature.
  • 1920 Publication of Nordal's book Snorri Sturluson.
  • 1922 Marries Ólöf Jónsdóttir.
  • 1922-23 Rector of the University of Iceland.
  • 1923 Published Völuspá with notes in the University of Iceland Yearbook. The book was republished in 1952. Nordal's notes on Völuspá, and his ideas about the poem as a consistent work by a single author, were in opposition to many older interpretations, but soon became influential. A Danish version of the essay was published in 1927, translated by Hans Albrectsen; an English translation was published in 1978, German in 1980, and Japanese in 1993.
  • 1924 Publication of an Icelandic reader, together with the essay "The context of Icelandic literature." This reader and Nordal's essay are among the most important contributions to the creation of Icelandic literary history in the first half of the twentieth century. Nordal here puts forward the ideas that were to inform all his writings on ancient and modern literature. The principal factor in Nordal's theory on the context of literature is that the history of Icelandic literature is continuous, and no gap can be established between Old Icelandic literature and the literary re-awakening of the 19th century.
  • 1927-29 One of the editors of cultural periodical Vaka together with Kristján Albertsson and others.
  • 1928-36 Gráskinna published: a collection of folklore edited by Nordal with Þórbergur Þórðarson.
  • 1931-32 Professor of Poetry, Harvard University.
  • 1933 Edits Egils Saga for Hið Íslenska fornritafélag. This publication of Nordal's established a precedent followed in the publications of the association. He was editor in chief of the company until 1951.
  • 1933-42 Editor Monumenta typographica Islandica.
  • 1937-51 Editor Studia Islandica.
  • 1939 Edits a publication of Andvökur by Stephan G. Stephansson.
  • 1940 Nordal's book on Hrafnkels saga published in the series Studia Islandica. Nordal's essay on Hrafnkels Saga is, together with the introduction to Egils Saga of 1933, and the essay on Völuspá, one of Nordal's most influential works in the Icelandic school. Nordal maintains that the saga is a novel, the work of an educated 13th-century writer, with almost no basis in oral tradition. The book was published in English translation by R. George Thomas in 1958; this edition was reissued in 1983.
  • 1942 Íslensk menning is published. Íslensk menning is regarded by many as Sigurður Nordal's most important work. He here puts forward in a consistent form his ideas on the form and characteristics of Icelandic culture, and reiterates his previous ideas on the value of the old, and the necessity of preserving it, for the sake of innovation and energy in culture. An English version of the book, translated by Vilhjálmur T. Bjarnar, was published in 1990.
  • 1943 Publication of Áfangar I. Líf og dauði og aðrar hugleiðingar.
  • 1944 Publication of Áfangar II. Svipir.
  • 1946 Uppstigning, a play by Sigurður Nordal, performed at the National Theatre of Iceland.
  • 1950 Publication of Skottið á skugganum, a collection of poetry and verse by Nordal, and poetry translations.
  • 1951-57 Icelandic ambassador in Copenhagen. From 1945 Nordal was also a professor at the University of Iceland, without age-limit or teaching duties.
  • 1960 Publication of Skiptar skoðanir, a literary dispute between Nordal and Einar H. Kvaran, on Kvaran's writing and the philosophy it expressed, which was carried on in various Icelandic periodicals in the period 1925-27. As Nordal pointed out in one of his articles, this dispute was in effect a dispute between two generations, where Kvaran's views, those of the generation of realists who had dominated Icelandic literary life since the late 19th century, came into conflict with new ideas of the neo-Romantic and modernism, which were expressed by Nordal.
  • 1962 Publication of Gráskinna hin meiri.
  • 1964 Publication of an essay accompanying a collection of Einar Benediktsson's poetry.
  • 1966 Honorary doctorate at the University of Iceland.
  • 1968 Publication of Um íslenskar fornsögur. This is a translation of the section Nordal wrote in Nordisk Kultur VIIIB, published in Stockholm in 1953.
  • 1970 Publication of Nordal's book on Hallgrímur Pétursson and his Hymns of the Passion.
  • 1971-73 Three-volume folktale book published.
  • 1974 Sigurður Nordal dies in Reykjavík, 21 September.