Review by Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir, photo courtesy of Forlagid.
The moon casts a ghostly glow on your otherwise familiar surroundings. A bird hauls in the distance. Suddenly the rock in front of you seems to come alive… is someone there? You make a run for it. The snow creaks under your feet and you could swear that someone is stalking you.
Lava, waterfalls, deserts, glaciers, mountains… landscapes that are painstakingly beautiful on a bright summer’s day, but dark and dreary when night falls; an endless source of inspiration and fuel for the imagination.
Iceland has a wealth of fairytales, ghost stories and myths that for centuries traveled from mouth to mouth and were finally collected and documented in the mid-19th century.
Thjódsögur vid thódveginn by Jón R. Hjálmarsson was first published in 2000 but has now been released in English as A Traveller’s Guide to Icelandic Folktales in the translation of Anna Yates.
This is a guidebook for those who would like do more than look at and admire Iceland’s nature, visit some of the country’s remotest places and hike up a mountain or two. This book not only leads you around Iceland, it also gives you a tour of the country’s history, culture and soul.
With folktales from all corners of the country and detailed descriptions of their points of origin, Hjálmarsson adds another layer to your journey.
The book is divided into six sections, West Iceland, the West Fjords, North Iceland, East Iceland, South Iceland and the Highlands. Each section begins with an illustration of the region in question, mapping out the places mentioned in the folktales.
There are six categories of folk stories in this book, each of which is labeled with an illustration; stories of elves and magical places, stories of ghosts and other supernatural beings, stories of wizards, stories of humans, animals and miracles, stories of heaven and hell and the Devil’s misfortunes in his relations with human beings and stories of trolls and monsters of various kinds.
Each chapter begins with a description of the area you’re about to enter, complete with geographic descriptions and historical notes, and leads you to exactly the place which inspired the story you’re about to read.
Then the book invites you to sit down, bring out your lunch pack and read the story out loud to your traveling companions while admiring the surrounding countryside.
A Traveller’s Guide to Icelandic Folktales takes you both to remote and uninhabited places and frequently-traveled tourist destinations. It includes some of Iceland’s most famous folktales, like the gruesome ghost story of the Deacon of Dark River, the Giant Serpent of Lake Lagarfljót and the Ogress Gilitrutt, but also lesser known tales that not many locals can recite.
The book contains legends originating in the old Norse religion of Ástrú that are as old as the Settlement of Iceland, like the story of how the giant hoof print of Ásbyrgi came to be. But there are also more recent folktales in the book, some that are based on true events, like the tragic story of children who drowned in a waterfall and of the forbidden love between a maid and a priest.
You can either use this book to organize your journey or to compliment your already planned trip. Either way, it is a brilliant traveling companion. It contains a wealth of information and interesting stories that say a lot about the nation whose country you’re visiting, yet is an easy read with short, concise chapters.
As a guidebook, A Traveller’s Guide to Icelandic Folktales serves its purpose almost perfectly; although I must say that the cover could be more exciting.
An audio book based on A Traveller's Guide to Icelandic Folktales has also been released, including sound effects, music and environmental sounds. The audio book, Icelandic Folktales, is published on CD-format by Heyr heyr. For further information, email the company at [email protected].
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Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir graduated with a Bachelors degree in communication studies from the University of Erfurt, Germany, in 2004. In 2006, she graduated with a Masters degree in journalism from the University of Westminster, London. She has worked as the web editor for Iceland Review since October 2006. Eygló received an award for her entries in a nationwide short story competition in 1997, 1998 and 1999.