Ancient Icelandic literature has influenced all kinds of art work all over the world, including comics, heavy metal rock, novels and films. Jón Karl Helgason, Professor at the Faculty of Icelandic and Comparative Cultural Studies, is currently studying the afterlife of the Icelandic literary heritage. “Recent products of this kind are two films on Thor, the god of Thunder, based on comics by Marvel Comics and starring Chris Hemsworth,” says Helgason.
“In my experience many young people come to Iceland to learn Icelandic or Medieval Icelandic Studies have originally come across Icelandic literary heritage through American comics, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or other similar avenues. Films, comics and computer games may today have more influence on the world’s understanding of Icelandic Sagas than quality publications and scholarly research,” says Helgason.
Eighteen months ago Reaktion Books, a British publishing house, approach Helgason and suggested he write a book on the re-write of the Icelandic Sagas and eddaic poems, exploring how those writings influenced world renowned artists such as Ibsen, Wagner, Tolkien and Willam Morris, “but also how film makers, comic book writers, computer game designers and heavy metal musicians have in recent years sought inspiration in this Icelandic heritage,” says Helgason.
The study really began in early 2013 and is based on extensive research Helgason made on the reception of Njála; one of the Icelandic Sagas. The study lead to three books, published between 1998 and 2001; The Rewriting of Njáls Saga, Hetjan og höfundurinn (e. the hero and the author) and Höfundar Njálu (the authors of Njál’s Saga). “In the last book I systematically studied how Njála has influenced different literary genres, i.e. been re-written as a play, novel, travel guide and a children’s book, to name a few. The same idea is behind this new book except the research field is more extensive.”
Helgason’s next project is a research trip to Japan where he intends to look into Manga cartoons, since some of these are inspired by Icelandic Sagas.. “Noteworthy authors in that area are Syun Matsuena, Sakura Kinoshita and Makoto Yukimura. Among Yukimura’s work in the last few years is Vinland Saga, which has been very popular from 2005. It is estimated that 1.2 million copies of the first five issues were sold in the first three years and now this material is scheduled to be published in the United States.”
Helgason says it is premature to predict the results of his study but rewriting literature is characterised in general by several connecting factors: the original text, the author’s aesthetics, and traditions within the genre the author is working within, as well as the author’s ideology and the sponsors involved.