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Conversation with Professor Terry Adrian Gunnell on Background, Informal Culture, Native Americans and Icelanders, Choosing Iceland, and Mythologies: Professor, Folkloristics, University of Iceland (1)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/03/15


Terry Gunnell is Professor of Folkloristics at the University of Iceland. He is author of The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia (1995); editor of Masks and Mumming in the Nordic Area (2007) and Legends and Landscape (2008); and joint editor of The Nordic Apocalypse: Approaches to Vluspá and Nordic Days of Judgement (with Annette Lassen, 2013); and Málarinn og menningarsköpun: Sigurður Guðmundsson og Kvöldfélagið (with Karl Aspelund), which received a nomination for the Icelandic Literature Prize (Íslensku bókmenntaverðlaunin) for 2017. He has also written a wide range of articles on Old Norse religion, Nordic folk belief and legend, folk drama and performance, and is behind the creation of the on-line Sagnagrunnur database of Icelandic folk legends in print (; the national survey into Folk Belief in Iceland (2006-2007); and (with Karl Aspelund) the on-line database dealing with the Icelandic artist Sigurður Guðmundsson and the creation of national culture in Iceland in the mid-19th century ( E-mail address: He discusses: family background; highly informal culture; well-preserved culture; Iceland; and Celtic mythology, Native American mythology, Icelandic mythology.

Keywords: culture, Celts, Folkloristics, Iceland, Native American, old Norse, Scandinavia, Scotland, Terry Adrian Gunnell, Tolkien.

Conversation with Professor Terry Adrian Gunnell on Background, Informal Culture, Native Americans and Icelanders, Choosing Iceland, and Mythologies: Professor, Folkloristics, University of Iceland (1)

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

*Interview conducted May 23, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: This is one of the earlier interviews for a series on Iceland. Let’s discuss some family background, personal history, to give a grounding where you’re coming from. What is some family background, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof?

Professor Terry Adrian Gunnell[1],[2]: Born in Brighton and Hove in East Sussex, south of England, father worked with the BBC. From school there, I went onto university to do drama and theatre arts, which is my main subject.

After taking a year between school and university, I went to work in Norway in a hotel. That’s my first connection with Scandinavia. That’s where I met my wife as well working at the same place. She is Icelandic.

She went back to Iceland. I went back to university. She found a way to coming to Birmingham afterwards, where we went on from there. After doing drama, which is not just practical, I ended up doing my B.A. in Icelandic Drama.

I was into Scandinavia at the time. People had written about Norwegian drama, certainly. So, I interviewed people and looked at Norwegian drama, which led me back to Viking times. The beginning of drama and some ancient poems from the Viking Period, certainly monologues and dialogues.

The next step was to do a teaching qualification. A year in my life, as far as I am concerned, a wasted year because you learn much more by teaching practically. One year in teaching in Birmingham in inner-city schools there.

Then we moved to Iceland. I learned Icelandic. I started teaching in the Hamrahlíð College, which had no objection to people having long hair, wearing jeans. Which is part of my problem in Britain, everyone is supposed to wear suits and ties. People are supposed to call the teacher, “Sir.”

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Gunnell: Then I taught English there for roughly 18 years. In between in the summertime, we would be regularly going to Norway and teaching there, doing lectures for tourists, especially American tourists, on Vikings and Scandinavian folklore.

In between, I do a doctorate where I continue with that idea on the background or origins of Scandinavian drama. Then a sense that performance subjects are something that I’ve done since. It brings together things that I’m writing, doing, and in terms of teaching.

1998, I had been teaching for 18 years doing courses. We could do a whole range of experimental courses because it was meant to be an experimental school. We took up a course on Native Americans. We wanted to underline that pigeon-holing isn’t really helping the world.

That if you’re going to understand Native Americans, you need to understand their way of living, and their beliefs and their culture. To understand their beliefs and culture, you need to understand their history and their way of living. Everything was connected.

So, we had a history teacher, an anthropology teacher, and me teaching literature and the beliefs of the different people. We connected the students with Native Americans through the web. That picked up quite a lot of attention around the country.

It was new and making use of the new media. Anyway, 1998, I was offered a position at the university teaching folkloristics. I’d also applied to teach drama as part of comparative literature. I got the folkloristics position. That’s where I’ve stayed since.

Teaching courses on Scandinavian folklore, Celtic folklore, Scottish folklore, Icelandic folktales and beliefs, festivals, Tolkien, old Norse religion, I teach a lot of it. Formal studies of a whole range of stuff, which is what I have been doing now.

I have been moving into retirement from now until next year. That’s basically the story. Strong context with Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, and then Britain at the same time. I have a lot of international students coming and taking my courses. Does that do it?

Jacobsen: It’s good [Laughing]. An earlier part of the response, with the transition of teaching in Iceland or even living in Iceland, which is going by a first name, “Terry,” rather than “honourary” this or “Sir” that.

Is that reflective of a highly informal culture where everyone is brought to the same playing field?

Gunnell: It is, certainly, very similar to Germany and Britain, where you have this element of “sir,” “professor,” “doctor,” and whatever else. I’ve got little patience for that. What was great about teaching in senior high, which was where I was before, I was in my early 20s. The students were 18, 19, 20.

The ones, who I were around, were fairly young. There’s a lot more equality. Students and the staff, I did not have much space for the professor. In Iceland, you’re never called “Mr.”

The great thing about Iceland, your name is your Christian name. The surname is a patronymic. Everybody here is called by their first name. The phone book goes by the first name.

Yes, it was healthy. It was nice. This way of doing things. In my case, I had three names, which made it even more confusing.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Gunnell: I had to change my name when I was given citizenship here. My name didn’t fit into the rules of names, which has to be a Scandinavian name. So, I went to one of the earliest names in the phonebook and found Axel.

“Axel,” we were worried about the axel on the car crashing. We were in Britain for a while. So, I became Axel for a few years.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Gunnell: Then the University of Iceland refused to have three names and ordered me to just go back and change it. Somehow, Irish names were allowed and Terry was accepted. So, I became Terry, again.

Jacobsen: Iceland is a very well-preserved culture in terms of language. You studied some of Native American history. Is there a similar trend – of those that have been kept – of an accepted norm that the languages have been more or less the same, or is this an incorrect comparison?

Gunnell: Of course, we know very well in terms of Native Americans. We know so little because so little is recorded. We have no idea how the languages developed at the time. Iceland, on the other hand, we have literature.

While it would have sounded slightly different in the Viking times, Icelanders can read that material. It is much easier for them, for example, than for us to read Chaucer. Reading Sagas for them is easier for them than people reading Shakespeare when it comes down it, it comes down to the culture of the Sagas being read on farms for a long time.

It keeps the language in that mode. Languages developed and changed over time. It is a way of speaking and spelling things in the Sagas, but it is not difficult to read. A large number of people can read from an early point.

Literacy in Iceland is much higher than in many other countries. I wouldn’t really compare it to the Native Americans. The pride of the language is, certainly, there. But it is old and an older language in a sense than others that we find around elsewhere.

Jacobsen: Why did you choose Iceland in the end?

Gunnell: [Laughing] My wife’s Icelandic [Laughing], we were working in Norway every Summer. Our plan had been to move to Norway to work. She survived living in England for three years. The idea was that I would survive living in Iceland for three years.

Then we would move to Norway after. She was happy moving back here. I was happy teaching in that school. We found a way of doing both in the sense of going to Norway in the Summer while being here.

I learned Icelandic. It was a good place to work if you could get out in the summertime. Which you can’t at the moment, this year, the first time in, roughly, 40 years [Laughing]. You can’t go anywhere in the summertime.

Jacobsen: If you’re looking at Celtic mythology, Native American mythology, Icelandic mythology, what are some common themes that tend to pop up?

Gunnell: Take them separately, what makes Icelandic mythology and folklore different from other Scandinavian countries, Iceland is definitely Scandinavian. The Celtic side was wiped out, a little bit like the Native American languages were wiped out in the schools. The slaves were not allowed to use their language.

The interesting thing about Iceland is it’s a blend of Scottish, Irish, and Nordic. 50% in terms of DNA, 50% of the women, female DNA, is Gaelic, Celtic. Male, I think, is about 80% Nordic and 20% Gaelic. So, there’s a lot of slaves brought from the Celtic area.

You can see that in the faces and can see it in a number of the folktales and ideas within the Sagas. We are dealing with a culture that is blended. You go to the west of Ireland. You see similar things here, almost Medieval culture, where the land is very much alive and people have respect for rocks.

There are places that you don’t touch or go anywhere near at particular times of the year. Everyone has taken note of Iceland and the elves here. Western Ireland, you have the fairies. You have roads that go around particular trees. You have a strong respect for the land.

It is that that we can connect to the Native Americans. The respect for the land and the sense that the land is alive; that you need to work with it and, certainly, think long-term. Iceland in a sense is split.

Everything you hear me say about Iceland is like two sides of a coin. You were talking about a similar thing in Canada before [Ed. Long, off-tape discussion]. The rightwing is about making money off the land today.

The rightwing is very much an American dream of making cash. The left is more Scandinavian and more aware of the long-term and the need to preserve the landscape. It is a 19th-century romantic sense of respect for the land, which you see among the Native Americans too.

You see this clash in Iceland. Both sides have a historical background. The rightwing, in the 1700s in Iceland, the people were well-aware that you had to live for the day. They were living so much on the edge. They were surrounded by pack ice. The volcanoes were going off, killing 50% of the domestic animals and 1/5th of the population.

This was a time of survival, thinking about just today, became quite instilled within Icelanders. Everybody knows a volcano could go off at any moment. A hot spring could go off in your kitchen at any time.

One is the sense of living for the moment, taking what you can get out of the land. The other is this sense of preserving it, looking at the landscape as beautiful, which is something people in the past didn’t have time.

It is something that you get used to and live with. There is a difference. If you look at Icelandic farms to farms across Denmark and Norway, which are, often, very, very beautifully preserved buildings, in Iceland, you rebuilt your buildings endlessly.

Farms here are more of a dump. A little bit like what you find in Shetland or elsewhere, which I know very well. Because you are living for the moment, ‘Why should we make the farm pretty for anybody. It is just a place that you live.’

That’s one side. On the other side, it is a sense of the power of the country. For everyone, they’ve been brought up with a sense of the country being unique and something that you need to work with and is reflective of those beliefs. It is similar to the Native Americans.

We know it was the same right across Scandinavia and Britain. It is a very long answer.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Professor, Folkloristics, University of Iceland.

[2]Individual Publication Date: March 15, 2021:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2021:


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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