FOLKLORE

During the first part of the 19th century there was increasing interest in folktales in Iceland, which can be linked with romanticism. National characteristics were in high regard and there was great emphasis on glorifying them. This led to the collecting of Icelandic folk stories which had up until then been passed between people orally and they had become an important part of the Icelanders‘ cultural identity as well as the campaign for independence.

During all his career Ásgrímur Jónsson worked equally at pictures of landscapes and folk tales. He was the first Icelandic artist to be inspired by the national heritage of folk tales and he was particularly effective in that field. Fourteen years before Ásgrímur‘s birth the first volume of the folk tales of Jón Árnason,  Íslenskar þjóðsögur og æfintýri, , was published, so he was well acquainted with them from an early age.

In the Ásgrímur Jónsson Museum there are over 1500 pictures related to Icelandic folk and fairy tales, both pencil and pen drawings, watercolours and oil paintings, and in his sketchbooks there are over two thousand drawings and many of them are folkloric. In spite of the fact that Ásgrímur was very fond of folkloric pictures they were never prominent in his exhibitions. On the other hand his folkloric pictures were for the public to see in his books Lesbók handa börnum og unglingum in 1907 and Nýja stafrófskverið in 1909. Both books were used in their time as the main material for reading instruction, so the illustrations by Ásgrímur were well known to young people in Iceland. Much later, or in 1959, the publishing company bókaútgáfa Menningarsjóðs published the book of illustrated folk tales  Þjóðsagnabók Ásgríms Jónssonar, myndir frá síðari árum – Íslenzkar þjóðsögur.

In the  Þjóðsagnamyndir/Folklore part of the exhibition the pictures are categorised as fairy tales, elf stories, troll stories and ghost stories and other stories, and every picture is accompanied by the path to the folk tale in question.  

Fairy tales

In Iceland there has been a long tradition of storytelling and plenty of myths as well as stories of heroes and Vikings. Around 1200 so -called adventure stories appeared and the Icelandic fairy tales have been favourites of the nation ever since, and they are, together with the folkloric þjóðsögur, an important part of our cultural heritage in Iceland. Most Icelandic fairy tales have their parallels in foreign tales although they are often quite different, especially in the setting of the story which is often adapted to the Icelandic surroundings. In the works of Ásgrímur Jónsson the landscape of the adventures is often quite Icelandic but expressed in a more exaggerated and foreign way than the real landscape and often it seems that the stories grow directly out of the landscape.

ELF STORIES

Elves in Icelandic folklore are special in many ways and the term applies to a particular group of hidden people. It seems that Icelandic folklore does not distinguish between elves and hidden people as those names have been used for hidden beings in hills and rocks from earliest times. In Icelandic folk tales there are many descriptions of communication between elves and people. The hidden people are often described as earthly-looking and dressed while the elves are dressed in more colourful clothes. The hidden people live in the earth and their abodes are usually in mounds, stones and cliffs. The elves on the other hand live in fancy dwellings which often are reminiscent of the world of fairy tales.

Elf stories were Ásgrímur‘s favourite stories and he even used the same stories over and over again. Ever since he was very young Ásgrímur had been fond of folk tales, he was used to hearing stories of elves and one of his first pictures is of the elves/hidden people in the cliff Hróarholtsklettur and their church in the lava field.

TROLL STORIES

Most Icelandic troll stories are very old and many of them are from times before the Reformation. Troll stories blossomed until the 17th century but after that people gradually lost faith in them. In Iceland trolls have been seen as beings of nature but not guardians of the land. They seem to be derived from nature and its unfettered power as they appear to us in many of Ásgrímur Jónsson‘s folkloric pictures.

Next to Ásgrímur‘s fairy tale pictures in number is the group where he addresses troll stories taking place in Iceland. Ásgrímur was very good at drawing trolls and he made hundreds of pictures depicting communication between people and giants from the stories. That does not only apply to the actual troll stories but also to different fairy tales and adventure stories, such as the story of the cow Búkolla and others, where ogres and giants try to harm human beings.

Ghost stories and other stories

Ghost stories are one of the largest categories of folklore and are divided into stories of afturgöngur, people who walk again after death, uppvakningar, dead people who are spirited back by magic for various tasks, and fylgjur, who can sometimes be ghosts or uppvakningar. Special characteristics of Icelandic ghosts, especially before the 20th century, are that the ghosts usually do not seem to be spirits but rather physical beings. More often than not living people have to fight them and in some cases they have even fathered children. Surroundings and nature have no doubt influenced the way ghost stories come about and also how they are told.

A substantial group of tales is of ghosts who are governed by love or hate in their haunting, when the ghosts often show the same feelings as in real life. One of the best known stories in that category is the story of Djákninn á Myrká/The Deacon of Myrká, which has been a favourite subject for poets and artists, both because of its narrative skill and exact point of view. The tale had an immense effect on Ásgrímur and many pictures in his collection show his dramatic and sombre interpretation of it.