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DOTH volumes of the SCANDINAVIAN Classics selected
D to appear in 1916 are by natives of Iceland. They belong, however, to periods of time and to modes of writing remote from each other. Snorri Sturluson, the greatest of Icelandic historians, was born in 1179. His Prose Edda, the companion-piece of the present volume, is a Christian's account of Old Norse myths and poetic conceptions thus happily preserved as they were about to pass into oblivion. More than seven hundred years separate Jóhann Sigurjónsson from Snorri, and his work is in dramatic, not saga form. But even as in outward appearance modern Iceland is not unlike ancient Iceland, so the Icelandic writers of the present have marked kinship with the past. Despite many centuries of relative neglect, the old traditions lived on, cherished by scholars, until now, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Icelandic mind appears to be again renascent and creative. Einar Jónsson, the sculptor, has his counterpart in the domain of letters in such recent writers as Jónas Jónasson, Einar Hjörleifsson, Gudmundur Magnússon, Jónas Gudlaugsson, Gunnar Gunnarson, and Gudmundur Kamban, while every important fjord and valley can claim its own poet or novelist. As yet, the most distinguished performance of these younger authors is the play printed in this volume, Eyvind of the Hills (Bjærg-Ejvind og hans Hustru), by Jóhann Sigurjónsson. Among literary phenomena Eyvind of the Hills is a surprise, almost as though Iceland woke to find her naked mountains clothed in forest in a night.
Let Sigurjónsson tell his life story in his own words: '“ I 1 A letter dated November 7, 1912, to M. Leon Pineau, published in La Revue (Paris), July 1, 1914.
was born June 19, 1880, on a large farm in the northern part of Iceland. Our household numbered about twenty people. A broad stream, well stocked with salmon; on both sides of the river, rocks where thousands of eider-ducks had their nests; a view out over the Atlantic with high cliffs where sea-birds lived; lava-fields with unusual flowers; and in the distance blue mountains; such was the theatre where . I acted my childhood pieces and where I wrote my first poems.
“When fourteen years old, I was sent to school at Reykjavik; but after pocketing the diploma of the upper class, my longing led me down to Copenhagen, where I chose the study of veterinary science. For three years I worked zealously at my studies and took all the preliminary examinations required, until suddenly I burned my ships and resolutely threw myself into the work of a playwright, At first one difficulty piled up after another. To begin with, I had to write in a language not my own. And then, what knowledge I had of human nature was limited to a most incomplete knowledge of myself and of a few college chums of my own age. Besides, it was not long before I had to concern myself about mere bread and butter.
“My first victory was an appreciative letter from Björnstjerne Björnson, wherein he promised warmly to recommend me to Gyldendal’s, the great publishing house, which subsequently published my first play, Dr. Rung.
“My second victory was the acceptance by the Dagmar Theatre of The Hraun Farm. After the sometime directors of that theatre resigned, my play passed into the control of the Royal Theatre. Finally, I made my stage debut with Eyvind of the Hills, which was received with much enthusiasm both by press and public.
“ In order to give as much actuality as possible to this drama, I traversed Iceland on foot from north to south and saw the places high up in the wild mountain waste where Eyvind lived with his wife. In my little garret in Copenhagen I had learned by my own experience the agony of loneliness.”
Sigurjónsson's first drama, Dr. Rung, was written in Danish and published in 1905. This tragedy presents a young Copenhagen physician, Harold Rung, who is endeavoring to find a specific against tuberculosis. In order to test the effect of his serum, he decides to inoculate himself with the disease, and the pleading of Vilda, who loves him, fails to shake him from his purpose. The remedy proves a failure; the young scientist goes mad, giving Vilda poisoned grapes.
The Hraun Farm was published in Icelandic in 1908 (Bóndinn á Hrauni), and in Danish in 1912 (Gaarden Hraun). In rewriting the play for the Copenhagen stage, Sigurjónsson gave it a happy ending, thus changing a tragedy into a pleasant dramatic idyl of contemporary country life in Iceland. It is the familiar Scandinavian theme of the struggle of human love with love of the homestead. An old farmer, Sveinungi, is a veritable patriarch living at the edge of the “ hraun,” the lava-field. His only daughter, Ljot, he has destined for a sturdy neighbor's son, who will keep up the estate. But the girl falls in love with a young geologist and arouses her father's wrath, until the play ends with a scene in which Sveinungi is won over by Jorunn, his persuasive wife. The action is interrupted by an earthquake. The dialogue is well maintained and rises to heights of lyrical splendor. In point of dramatic effectiveness, The Hraun Farm may be regarded as only a preliminary study com
pared to the next play, but its picture of pastoral Iceland makes it a fitting companion-piece to the greater drama in the present volume.
All other work of Sigurjónsson and the younger Icelandic dramatists pales beside Eyvind of the Hills, written in Danish and published in 1911.' The high sky of dramatic vision, the simple nobility of the characters portrayed, and the poetry of exalted passion raise above the ordinary this stern tragedy of natural lives in the wilderness. Eyvind is a man of heroic mould, who was forced by circumstances and hunger to the state of a common thief. When outlawed, he fled to the mountains. Seeking human companionship, he now descends into a valley where his identity is unknown and takes service with Halla, a rich young widow. She learns of his disguise only to fall in love with his real character. Persecuted by her brother-inlaw, who wishes to marry her, and possessed by a great love, she insists on sharing the outlaw's lot and escapes with him to his old haunt in the mountains. Here they have two children, but she is obliged to sacrifice them both in turn, and to flee ever farther away. The last act finds the outlaw and his wife facing each other in a lonely hut, in the midst of a snowstorm which has shut off every avenue of sustenance. Although the beautiful reality of love is there, they are tormented by hunger and utter need into doubts and mutual reproaches, and at last seek death in the snow.
According to the historical facts upon which the story is based, a stray horse found its way to the hut of the starving couple, and so their lives were saved. Sigurjónsson used
'The English translation combines features of the offiginal edition and a revised version printed in 1913. The play appeared atso in Icelandic (FjallaEyvindur) in 1912.
this ending when he rewrote the last scenes of the fourth act for Fru Dybvad, who played the part of Halla in Copenhagen, concluding with Halla's exclamation:“ So there is then a God!” With Eyvind, as with The Hraun Farm, we can thus take our choice of two endings.,
The Wish (Ønsket), Sigurjónsson's latest play, was published in 1915. Gloomy and terrible, but strong and restrained, it is built on a theme of seduction, remorse, and forgiveness in death, woven about the legendary figure of Galdra-Loftur, who lived in Iceland at the beginning of the eighteenth century. It ends with an intensely dramatic scene in the old cathedral church at Hólar.
In addition to these four plays, Sigurjónsson has also written some beautiful verse.
In Mrs. Schanche, Sigurjónsson has a translator well fitted by artistic family traditions for the task. Herself of Norwegian descent, she has been for upward of thirty years a resident of Philadelphia. She has interpreted the pure idiom of Sigurjónsson's dialogue with real dramatic perception. In editing the volume the Publication Committee has had the valuable assistance of Hanna Astrup Larsen.
Georg Brandes, the veteran Danish critic, though not given to over optimism, has recognized Sigurjónsson's distinction, and the Icelander is acclaimed by the public who best know Ibsen and Strindberg, in Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Christiania. Eyvind has been successful also on the German stage. “Poetic talent of high order,” says Brandes, “manifests itself in this new drama, with its seriousness, rugged force, and strong feeling. Few leading characters, but these with a most intense inner life; courage to confront the actual, and exceptional skill to depict it; material fully mastered and a corresponding confident