Old Icelandic


Course Convenor: Prof Richard North

Gods and heroes, Eddas and Sagas: written by and large in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by a mixed Irish and Norse population on the edge of the then known world, Old Icelandic literature is a striking phenomenon of its time, comparable in depth, range and importance to the great literatures of medieval Europe, English, French, German or Italian. The heroes of Old Icelandic literature are the Vikings, some of whom terrorized England in the ninth to eleventh centuries; the geographical spread is as wide as their ships could take them: Vínland in North America; the rivers of Russia; Constantinople and the cities of the Mediterranean; the British Isles. This course will appeal to any reader with the same spirit of adventure.

Preliminary training in Icelandic takes place in Term 1 and the first half of Term 2 in the student's second year, enabling him or her to read without difficulty major extracts from sagas already read fully in translation, such as Egils saga (the biography of a warrior poet who fought for King Æthelstan in Brunanburh and later saved his head from King Eiríkr Bloodaxe with a poem in York), Njáls saga (a tale of a femme fatale, warring wives and repressed homosexual husbands in SW Iceland), Hrafnkels saga (a stallion sacred to the god Freyr as the starting point of a political essay in narrative form on what makes a chieftain) and Old Norse mythology in extracts from Gylfaginning ‘the beguiling of Gylfi’ in the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson (politician, poet and historian, killed in his home in 1241). Norse poems on gods such as Óðinn, Þórr and Freyja, and heroes such as Gunnarr, Guðrún and Attila the Hun, datable to the pagan tenth century, will also be read from the Poetic Edda.

The aim of this course is to provide students with sufficient knowledge of the Icelandic language and background to the period to enable them to analyse the texts in terms of both their literary value and their social and cultural context. The long-term objective of this course is to produce graduates with a knowledge of some of the greatest works of Old Icelandic literature. Enough of the Old (and incidentally Modern) Icelandic language will also have been learned to equip the student for postgraduate study, or indeed life.

Students choosing Old Icelandic study this course over two years, starting the course in their second year and completing it in their third, when it is also examined. For purposes of registering options, the Old Icelandic course should be entered as a third-year option on the form (as is the case with Medieval Italian), even though teaching begins earlier. The course is taught at one hour per week each week of the teaching terms for the two years and is examined at the end of the third year in a 3-hour written examination containing seen translations and essay questions (NB: it is not possible to be examined by Course Essay for this course). Either Old English I or Old English II (or, if you like, both) is a pre-requisite for this course. Students who want to do this course should aim to contact Richard North (richard.north@ucl.ac.uk or on facebook). Reading lists and other instructions will be available by the end of May. Course availability will depend on the take-up rate, so why not get your friends to study it too?