Jón Árnason was born on August 17, 200 years ago. He passed away on September 4 1888. He was the Head of the National Library from 1848 to 1887, a responsibility he attended with great care and enthusiasm despite acute lack of funding. Jón was also for a while a home tutor for Sveinbjörn Egilsson teacher at the School of Bessastaðir, co-manager of the Antiquarian Collection and a caretaker in the Scholae Reykjavicensis.
He is however most prominently remembered for his work on folklore. In 1845, he began to collect Icelandic folk legends in collaboration with Magnús Grímsson, later priest at Mosfell. Together they published Íslenzk æfintýri (Icelandic Fairy Tales) in 1852. Jón later began a more comprehensive collection project which resulted in the two volumes of Íslenzkar þjóðsögur og æfintýri (Icelandic Folk Legends and Fairy Tales) which was published in Leipzig in 1862 - 1864 and was out of print well before the end of the century. The stories were re-published in 1954 - 1961 in six volumes, an edition which exists in many (Icelandic) homes.
These folk legend manuscripts are gathered in the manuscript collection of the National and University Library of Iceland. There are 23 manuscripts, filed under the registration numbers Lbs 528-538 4to and Lbs 414-425 8vo. The manuscripts were purchased from Jón’s estate in 1891, three years after his passing. They were put in new bindings in 2007, as the former binding had become worn. They have all been photographed and are now accessible on the web handrit.is
Jón collected the tales using various methods. Some were recorded by himself but various tales were also sent to him, which he either copied or kept in the original. He categorized all materials and filed them into the 23 volumes. The folk tale manuscripts are of varying types and quality. Whatever paper was available was used in each case. For example, some tales were written on letter envelopes and one story is written on the back of a church confirmation registry from the county of Snæfellsnes and Hnappadalur.
People of various classes and origins sent materials to Jón for his folk tale collection. Among them were sheriffs, priests, farm housewives, farmers, farmworkers and maidens. There are even examples of children who sent materials to Jón, such as the 11-year old Páll Pálsson who recorded a history from a “vagabond hag”, Guðríður Ingólfsdóttir.