1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Vígfússon, Gúdbrandr

Vígfússon, Gúdbrandr (1828-1889), the foremost Scandinavian scholar of the 19th century, was born of a good and old Icelandic family in Breidafjord in 1828. He was brought up, till he went to a tutor's, by his kinswoman, Kristín Vígfussdottir, to whom, he records, he “owed not only that he became a man of letters, but almost everything.” He was sent to the old and famous school at Bessastad and (when it removed thither) at Reykjavik; and in 1849, already a fair scholar, he came to Copenhagen University as a bursarius in the Regense College. He was, after his student course, appointed stipendiarius by the Arna-Magnaean trustees, and worked for fourteen years in the Arna-Magnaean Library till, as he said, he knew every scrap of old vellum and of Icelandic written paper in that whole collection. During his Danish life he twice revisited Iceland (last in 1858), and made short tours in Norway and South Germany with friends. In 1866, after some months in London, he settled down in Oxford, which he made his home for the rest of his life, only quitting it for visits to the great Scandinavian libraries or to London (to work during two or three long vacations with his fellow labourer, F. Y. Powell), or for short trips to places such as the Isle of Man, the Orkneys and Shetlands, the old mootstead of the West Saxons at Downton, the Roman station at Pevensey, the burial-place of Bishop Brynjulf's ill-fated son at Yarmouth, and the like. He held the office of Reader in Scandinavian at the university of Oxford (a post created for him) from 1884 till his death. He was a Jubilee Doctor of Upsala, 1877, and received the Danish order of the Dannebrog in 1885. Vígfússon died of cancer on the 31st of January 1889, and was buried in St Sepulchre's Cemetery, Oxford, on the 3rd of February. He was an excellent judge of literature, reading most European languages well and being acquainted with their classics. His memory was remarkable, and if the whole of the Eddic poems had been lost, he could have written them down from memory. He spoke English well and idiomatically, but with a strong Icelandic accent. He wrote a beautiful, distinctive and clear hand, in spite of the thousands of lines of MS. copying he had done in his early life.

By his Túnatál (written between October 1854 and April 1855) he laid the foundations for the chronology of Icelandic history, in a series of conclusions that have not been displaced (save by his own additions and corrections), and that justly earned the praise of

Jacob Grimm. His editions of Icelandic classics (1858-68), Biskopa Sögur, Bardar Saga, Forn Sögur (with Mobius), Eyrbyggia Saga and Flateyar bók (with Unger) opened a new era of Icelandic scholarship, and can only fitly be compared to the Rolls Series editions of chronicles by Dr Stubbs for the interest and value of their prefaces and texts. Seven years of constant and severe toil (1866-73) were given to the Oxford Icelandic-English Dictionary, incomparably the best guide to classic Icelandic, and a monumental example of single-handed work. His later series of editions (1874-85) included Orkneyinga and Haconar Saga, the great and complex mass of Icelandic historical sagas, known as Sturlunga, and the Corpus Poeticum Boreale, in which he edited the whole body of classic

Scandinavian poetry. As an introduction to the Sturlunga, he wrote a complete though concise, history of the classic Northern literature and its sources. In the introduction to the Corpus, he laid the foundations of a critical history of the Eddic poetry and Court poetry of the North in a series of brilliant, original and well supported theories that are gradually being accepted even by those who were at first inclined to reject them. His little Icelandic Prose Reader (with F. York Powell) (1879) furnishes the English student with a pleasant and trustworthy path to a sound knowledge of Icelandic. The Grimm Centenary Papers (1886) give good examples of the range of his historic work, while his Appendix on Icelandic currency to Sir G. W. Dasent's Burnt Njal is a model of methodical investigation into an intricate and somewhat important subject. As a writer in his own tongue he at once gained a high position by his excellent and delightful Relations of Travel in Norway and South Germany. In English, as his “Visit to Grimm” and his powerful letters to The Times show, he had attained no mean skill. His life is mainly a record of well-directed and efficient labour in Denmark and Oxford.

 (F. Y. P.)