The Færøe Islands: a small place for a great literature


Despite its recent history, Faroese literature has managed to become the most read literature in the islands, surpassing the interest towards literatures of the neighbouring and much bigger countries like the Nordic countries. The first recorded sign of literature is the written version of the “Væði“, popularly called “Faroese ballads“, a series of tales that had been transmitted orally through the centuries. In fact, Nólsoyar Páll first referred to the islands as a nation in the Faroese language with his “Fuglakvæði” (in English “Bird ballad“, 1805) and thus established himself as the first major author of modern times in the Færøe Islands (and this work also influenced culture in such way that the Islands chose the oystercatcher as their symbol).

As Jens Christian Svabo and Hans Christian Lyngby studied the old Faroese language (its structure, its grammar) and produced new writings in the language, thus giving it a new direction in the contemporary age, Jens Christian Djurhuus and later his son Jens Hendrik Djurhuus wrote ballads that are still sung during the Faroese traditional dances.

But it’s in the XX century that Faroese writers like William Heinesen and Hedin Brú shape the Faroese literature and give it a more concrete form. International recognition will then make them the most popular exponents of the Faroese literature abroad. However, William Heinesen never wrote in the Faroese language but, despite it being his native tongue, preferred to write in Danish. As a matter of fact his best work, “Det gode håb” (in English “The Good Hope“, 1964), which was awarded the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 1965, had been written in XVII century Danish. Heðin Brú‘s “Feðgar á ferð” (in English “The Old Man and His Sons“), was published in 1940 and later translated in Icelandic, Danish, German and English, becoming one of the country’s favourite books and receiving recognition from the neighbouring cultural environments. “Feðgar á ferð” is the only work by Brú to have been translated into English, and tells the story of Ketil and his irrational decision to buy more whale meat than he and his family can afford. The ironic style of Brú is the icing on the cake of a tale of old and new generation of people living in the Færøe Islands. To this day, this is the most popular novel to have been written by a Faroese writer and the first ever Faroese novel to be made available in the English language. Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen is another name of relevance for the Færøe Islands, as his most read novel “Barbara” has been translated (from Danish, as he only wrote in Danish, just like his cousin William Heinesen) into many European languages after its publication in 1939. The novel tells of Barbara, a woman who is in love with Pastor Poul but does not seem to be able to tame her attraction towards other men.

Poetry also holds a special place in the country’s literature: the brothers Janus and Hans Andrias Djurhuus contributed a great deal to the evolution of poetry in the Faroese language. Janus’s first collection of poems “Yrkingar” (in English, “Poems“) was the first of its kind in the Færøe Islands, while his brother Hans Andrias published many anthologies throughout his career, but is mostly remembered for having compiled the first book on the history of the islands in Faroese. These brothers, together with Jacobsen and his cousin Heinesen formed an amazing quartet, the fundamental pillars on which the Faroese literature still stands today. Thanks to their hunger for the arts and creativity, they managed to give the Færøe Islands a cultural identity, a place amongst European literatures and a firm point of reference for inspiration and historical tradition.

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