Eiríkr Magnússon

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Eiríkr or Eiríkur Magnússon (1 February 1833 – 24 January 1913) was an Icelandic scholar who was Librarian at the University of Cambridge, taught Old Norse to William Morris, translated numerous Icelandic sagas into English in collaboration with him, and played an important role in the movement to study the history and literature of the Norsemen in Victorian England.

Born in Berufjörður in the east of Iceland, Eiríkr was sent to England in 1862 by the Icelandic Bible Society,[1] and his first translations there were of mediaeval Christian texts.[2]

In 1871, with the assistance of Sir Henry Holland and of Alexander Beresford-Hope, MP for Cambridge, he became a librarian at the University of Cambridge,[3][4] where he worked until the end of 1909.[5][6] In 1893 he also became lecturer in Icelandic.[7]

Eiríkr lectured and organised famine relief for Iceland in 1875 and 1882[8][9] and fell out with Guðbrandur Vigfússon, a fellow Icelandic scholar who was at Oxford and had been his friend, over that[10][11] and his preference for modernised Icelandic in translating the Bible; Guðbrandur was a purist.[12]

Like many Icelandic scholars in Britain at the time, Eiríkr gave Icelandic lessons as a source of income; his first pupil was probably Sir Edmund Head in 1863, and he taught some by post.[13] Another was George E.J. Powell, who had supported him financially when he first came to England and with whom he translated Jón Arnason's Icelandic folktales and worked on a translation of Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings that remained unpublished.[14]

Most famously, he taught William Morris and collaborated with him on translating a number of sagas. Within a year of Morris beginning his studies with Eiríkr, their Story of Grettir the Strong was published (1869). In 1870 they published the first English translation of Völsungasaga. In 1871 Eiríkr and his wife accompanied Morris to Iceland, where Eiríkr went with Morris on a tour of "saga steads" and other places of interest.[15] Between 1891 and 1905 they published a six-volume Saga Library, which included Heimskringla and the first English translations of Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings, Hænsa-Þóris saga and Eyrbyggja Saga.[16][17] Eiríkr defended Morris against York Powell's criticism of his archaic style.[18] Volume 6 of the Saga Library, volume 4 of the Heimskringla, is an index that is entirely Eiríkr's work, published in 1905 after Morris's death.[19]

Eiríkr was married to Sigríður Einarsdóttir,[20] a descendant of Egill Skallagrímsson.[21] She campaigned to improve education for girls in Iceland.

He is buried in the Mill Road cemetery, Cambridge.

Further reading[edit]

  • Stefán Einarsson, Saga Eiríks Magnússonar í Cambridge, Reykjavík: Ísafoldarprentsmiðja, 1933, OCLC 23541599
  • Stefán Einarsson, "Eiríkr Magnússon's Saga Translations", Scandinavian Studies and Notes 7 (February 1923), 151–68
  • Stefán Einarsson, "Eiríkr Magnússon and His Saga Translations", Scandinavian Studies and Notes 13 (1933–35), 17–32, repr. in Stefán Einarsson, Studies in Germanic Philology, ed. Anatoly Liberman, Hamburg: Buske, 1986, ISBN 9783871187551, pp. 150–64
  • Andrew Wawn, "Fast er drukkið og fátt lært": Eiríkur Magnússon, Old Northern Philology, and Victorian Cambridge. H.M. Chadwick Memorial Lectures 11 (2000). Cambridge: Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, University of Cambridge, 2001, OCLC 47118621
  • Eiríkr Magnússon at Dansk Biografisk Lexikon (in Danish)


  1. ^ Karl Litzenberg, The Victorians and the Vikings: A Bibliographical Essay on Anglo-Norse Literary Relations, University of Michigan Contributions in Modern Philology 3 (1947), p. 15.
  2. ^ Andrew Wawn, The Vikings and the Victorians: Inventing the Old North in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Cambridge: Brewer, 2000, ISBN 0-85991-575-1, p. 12.
  3. ^ Wawn, Vikings, p. 57.
  4. ^ Andrew Wawn, "The Spirit of 1892: Sagas, Saga-Steads and Victorian Philology", Saga-Book 23 (1990) 213-52, p. 234; pdf.
  5. ^ "University Intelligence", The Times, 13 July 1910.
  6. ^ Report of the Library Syndicate, Cambridge University Library, March 5, 1913.
  7. ^ Stefán Einarsson, Saga Eiríks Magnússonar í Cambridge, Reykjavík: Ísafoldarprentsmiðja, 1933, OCLC 23541599, p. 194.
  8. ^ Wawn, Vikings, pp. 11–12, 356.
  9. ^ Richard L. Harris, "William Morris, Eiríkur Magnússon, and the Icelandic Famine Relief Efforts of 1882", Saga-Book 20 (1978-81), pp. 31-41, pp. 32-33 (pdf)
  10. ^ Wawn, "Spirit of 1892", p. 233.
  11. ^ Harris, pp. 38-39; Guðbrandur was not alone in doubting the famine was as bad as the Mansion House Committee had advertised, and published in The Times on 13 October 1882 arguing that "They are teaching my countrymen to beg and to play the pauper".
  12. ^ Wawn, Vikings, p. 356; Eiríkr wrote Mr. Vigfusson and the Distress in Iceland (1882) and Dr. Gudbrand Vigfusson's Ideal of an Icelandic New Testament Translation, or The Gospel of St. Matthew by Lawman Odd Gottskalksson (1879).
  13. ^ Wawn, Vikings, pp. 358–59.
  14. ^ Wawn, Vikings, p. 361.
  15. ^ Richard L. Harris, "William Morris, Eiríkur Magnússon, and Iceland: A Survey of Correspondence", Victorian Poetry 13.3/4 (1975) (accessed via JSTOR, subscription required).
  16. ^ Litzenberg,p. 13.
  17. ^ Wawn, Vikings, p. 259.
  18. ^ Wawn, Vikings, p. 260 and note 71.
  19. ^ Litzenberg, p. 9, note 19 calls it "tremendous . . . It demonstrates Magnússon's erudition as completely as anything he wrote or translated".
  20. ^ Stefán Einarsson, p. 12.
  21. ^ Wawn, Vikings, p. 366.

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