Professor Hermann Pálsson

Professor Hermann Pálsson, Icelandic scholar and translator

Born: 26 May, 1921, in Iceland Died: 11 August, 2002, in Bulgaria, aged 81

DR Hermann Plsson, Professor Emeritus of Icelandic Studies at the University of Edinburgh and one of the most eminent scholars of his generation, died in hospital in Bulgaria following an accident during a family holiday there.

Hermann Plsson taught Icelandic Studies at Edinburgh from 1950 until he retired in 1988, first as lecturer, then senior lecturer, then reader and finally (from 1982) with a personal chair.

He was born in the north of Iceland on the farm of Sauanes sum, near Blndus on Hnafjrur, the sixth child in a family of 12. He learned to read and write at the age of three by eavesdropping on his elder brothers’ lessons, and quickly developed an insatiable passion for books.

His father died when Hermann was ten years old, and hard times followed; but Hermann proved himself an able scholar at Akureyri High School, and an academic career beckoned. He earned a degree in Icelandic Studies at the University of Iceland (1943-47), and then took the unusual step of gaining an honours degree in Irish Studies at the National University of Ireland in Dublin (Ollscoil na hireann, Baile tha Cliath) in 1950. It gave him a significant insight into Celtic influences on Old Norse literature which few specialists in Icelandic could boast at the time.

He was appointed lecturer in Icelandic Studies in the Department of English Language at Edinburgh University in 1950. He set about creating a centre of excellence there which became a magnet for students and the envy of many other institutions. In addition to his teaching duties, he continued his researches into Celtic literature; indeed, two of his first publications were a collection of translations of Irish stories into Icelandic (rskar fornsgur, 1953) and a lively book for the Icelandic general reader on the Gaelic-Norse culture of the Hebrides (Sngvar fr Suureyjum, 1955), with numerous translations of Gaelic poetry from the Hebrides.

In 1971, Hermann organised the first International Saga Conference, which was held at the University of Edinburgh and attended by more than 100 scholars from all over the world. The central theme of the conference was "The Icelandic Sagas and Western Literary Tradition", and the underlying purpose was to clarify and elevate the position of the sagas as a subject of university study. It was voted an unqualified success, and became the forerunner to a triennial series of international saga conferences held in various countries - Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy and Australia. The next one is to be held in Bonn in 2003.

Throughout his long career in scholarship, Hermann’s most significant work was on the vast medieval literature of Iceland and its relationship to European humanism. He published several books in which he explored this fertile field: he showed that the sagas were not, as many earlier scholars had claimed, a uniquely indigenous flowering of native genius sprouting from the virgin soil of Iceland, but had benefited immensely from influences from abroad - not just from Ireland but also from mainstream European thinking and literature.

He published studies on many of the major prose sagas and Eddaic poems, as well as illuminating books and articles on the origins and context of saga writing (and reading) in medieval Iceland, for which he coined the term sagnaskemmtun ("saga entertainment").

For my own part, I would highlight his huge contribution to introducing the Icelandic sagas to the English-speaking world with a series of ground-breaking translations. He translated all of the "Big Five" of the saga canon (two of them with me, for the Penguin Classics series): Njll’s Saga, Egill’s Saga, Grettir’s Saga, Laxdla Saga and Eyrbyggja Saga. But he did not confine his indefatigable efforts to the "great", now-fashionable, sagas: with other collaborators he translated Orkneyinga Saga, Hrafnkell’s Saga, Gunnlaugur’s Saga, Gsli’s Saga and many others, as well as volumes of the later "Legendary Sagas" and the important Landnmabk (Book of Settlements), Iceland’s equivalent of the Domesday Book - a twelfth-century compilation of the 440 original Norse settlers of Iceland and their descendants.

Hermann’s latest publication, which came out in June, was an edition of the 13th-century religious poem Slarlj ("Song of the Sun"), an epic ecstasy by an unnamed visionary monk - a remarkable poem which has not been widely accessible before.

But at the time of his death Hermann had already delivered the manuscript of yet another pioneering book: Grettissaga og slenzk simenning ("Grettir’s Saga and Icelandic culture"), a study of the cultural influences from abroad which helped to inspire that great classical Icelandic saga. The book is due out this autumn, and will be awaited all the more eagerly.

But there is still much unpublished work lying around in his book-lined Edinburgh study - especially his verses. Hermann was a magical wordsmith, a poet of no mean ability (although he was never satisfied with his compositions). His wry verses, carefully crafted and shot through with irony and pawky humour, remind me of aspects of Norman MacCaig - and there can be no higher praise than that.

With Hermann’s death, the academic world of Icelandic studies has lost one of its most distinguished practitioners. His myriad friends have lost a steadfast comrade, always ready to help others in their work, and an endlessly entertaining and stimulating companion. For myself, I treasure the privilege of having had the opportunity of working with a scholar who wore his immense erudition so lightly.

His favourite Icelandic composition, about which he published an important commentary, was the Eddaic poem Hvaml ("The Words of the High One"), a collection of the sayings of inn, chief god of the Norse pantheon. One of the stanzas reads:

Cattle die, kinsmen die,

You yourself must one day die;

But one thing never dies -

Word-fame, if truly earned.

Hermann truly earned his word-fame, and thereby he has truly earned his immortality. It is a fitting epitaph.

Hermann Plsson is survived by his wife, Stella (Gurn) orvarardttir and their daughter, Steinvr, and granddaughter, Helena.