In this collection of translated tales, the oral legends of Iceland come to life on page in a way that reflects their origins as spoken tales. Ghosts, apparitions, deacons, and even Satan make appearances in these tales that feature elves and ogres just as easily. Legends have played a role in the history of Iceland and just as easily reflect the modern country as many of these tales are well known to Icelandic children growing up.
What is Icelandic Folk Legends about?
In this collection, Alda presents a few key legends as they were compiled in the 1800’s by a contemporary of the Grimm brothers. She selected stories that seemed to really encompass the superstitions of Iceland and the way they tangle with reality and religion. Additionally, minor explanations of phenomena in the stories were included such as the “new pair of shoes” phrase that accompanies upcoming journeys for characters.
- “The Deacon of Myrká Church”
- “The Vanished Bride”
- “The Legend of Úlfvatn Lake”
- “The Hidden Man and the Girl”
- “Kráka the Ogre”
- “Þorgeir’s Bull”
- “The Outlaw on Kiðuvallafjall Mountain”
- “The Hidden Woman’s Curse”
- “Satan Takes a Wife”
- “The Church Builder”
- “Fostered by a Hidden Woman”
- “The Story of Himinbjörg”
Themes: Ghosts and Shoes
Some of the most significant parts of these stories are the cultural references that are explained by the editor, such as the presence of ghosts in a way that is peculiar to the beginnings of Icelandic culture. Or the fact that travelers are given a new pair of shoes because the way shoes were traditionally made they wore out during the journey. These aren’t just tales for the fun and supernatural, these are explanations of Icelandic culture.
I think my favorite story was “Satan Takes a Wife” because the premise itself is hilarious and then the execution even funnier. Essentially, Satan finds a beautiful and pure mortal woman and decides he’ll marry her so he can sexually corrupt her, but finds he can’t get close enough to touch her. He trades his false face to another man in exchange for the man’s first born child. The couple then tricks Satan out of the child. #SatanDidNothingWrong
I enjoyed reading this stories in part because my husband has described (and even read) some of them to me. These were aspects of his childhood just like the fairy tales I’m used to from growing up, and it was a really lovely insight into his culture. I also enjoyed the notes the author left that explained certain tropes that pop up a lot, or gave further context to these stories and how they reflected her own childhood.
This is more of a comment than a complaint, especially because the author mentions this in the beginning. Sometimes the writing in these tales is a little clunky and that’s because of how they used to be told. Alda chose to remain true to the stories rather than polish them up for written consumption, and so sometimes you have to deal with strange word choice and weird sentence structure as a result.
I can’t say I have any super solid “bad” points in mind. Some of the stories weren’t particularly interesting to me, but in a collection of this size I figured that was to be expected.
I really enjoyed this collection, especially for the way Alda explained her choices and included explanations of tropes and themes present in the stories. I think that even in English these stories were interesting and funny, as well as fit with what I’ve started to come to know of Icelandic culture. I appreciated the ghosts for their nature, and can see how some of these would be serious tales in another time. I also liked how some of the tales represent how universal some themes in cultural folk legends are and I think it was the choice of stories that really brought out all these thoughts for my reading experience. Well curated, explained, and edited/translated this collection was definitely worth the read!