Icelandic Folk Legends

As you’ll have seen from the post below, I’m not updating this blog as frequently these days, the better to focus my attentions on learning Icelandic and getting settled in Reykjavík, my current hometown. Nevertheless, I won’t pass up the opportunity to post the occasional casual book review here, as well as what published ones I am able to write–keep an eye out here for my forthcoming review of Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas (in The L Magazine) as well as Per Petterson’s It’s Fine By Me (on the website Three Percent).

I’ve been making frequent visits to the Reykjavík Public Library these days, and on my last trip ran across Icelandic Folk Legends, translated by Alda Sigmundsdóttir. Readers of this blog may remember Alda as the author of The Little Book of Icelanders and also the blogger behind the very entertaining and informative blog The Iceland Weather Report.

Icelandic Folk Legends was actually a much earlier project for Alda; it was first published in 1997 and then a second edition was published in 2007 (this is the edition I read). Although another print run doesn’t seem likely, Alda has now reissued the collection as an e-book, with two additional stories, as well as an introduction and “a “field guide” to the apparitions.” You can read more about the e-book and purchase it on her website, here. The collection also received a very positive review in The Reykjavík Grapevine when it was reissued in 2007; you can read that review here. Below you’ll find my own (casual) review of the collection.

***

One of the strengths of Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s short essay collection The Little Book of Icelanders is its intimacy, the fact that in reading you feel as though you are listening to someone relate the quirks of neighbors and friends over a cup of coffee. It seems no surprise, then, that part of what stands out about Alda’s translations in the concise and plainly-worded collection Icelandic Folk Legends is the immediacy of the stories. Right from the start, you’re told that some of the stories explain how places currently in existence were named, that there are differing accounts of what precisely happened in some instances, that certain features of the tale have led people to believe that it is meant to represent such and such a farm or mountain pass. An example from the last lines of the story “Þorgeir’s Bull,” which tells of a sorcerer who creates a menacing magical bull endowed with many forms and powers, the better to harass the woman who turned down the sorcerer’s offer of marriage, his neighbors, and eventually he himself:

“It is said that the bull outlived Þorgeir, for he had not managed to slay it before he died. Some say that when he was on his deathbed a grey cat–some say a black pup–lay curled up on his chest, and that would have been one of the bull’s guises. Some people claim that the bull was created at the beginning of the 18th century; others that is was near the middle of that same century.”

Public debates about whether a mythical bull had been created at the beginning or in the middle of the 18th century might not generally be of that much relevance to the author–or the reader. But in these stories, it very much matters, because while called ‘folk tales,’ these stories are really all being presented as truth. A further illustration of this is in the fact that most of the stories are about characters whose full names are known, but when it happens that the names of characters aren’t, no fake character names are inserted. The statement “their names are not known,” then adds to the sense of veracity overall–the narration is sticking to plain facts here, and not even making up names for the sake of simplicity.

There’s little to no embellishment within the text–no introduction to explain folk traditions to the reader, no real attempt to create follow more traditional patterns of Western narration–you’re not really going to find the exposition, rising action, falling action, and dénouement here. This is not uncommon of orally-based storytelling, of course, but the abruptness of certain tales may surprise those who are more familiar with retellings which attempt to round out story lines for contemporary readers. Instead, there is a sort of layering effect: as you read more of the tales and are more immersed in the rural village and farm settings, becoming more familiar with what kinds of occurrences are possible–such as hidden people taking humans into their homes inside of boulders; witches riding horses’ thigh bones for their annual Christmas meeting with the devil; charms which spirit away whole flocks of sheep–the happenings become less fantastical feel more true, more possible.

There is also a wry, underlying sense of humor that runs through many of these tales, with one–“Kráka the Ogre”–standing out the most in this respect. This story tells of “…a menacing creature…[with] a penchant for the masculine sex and an aversion to being alone.” As such, Kráka regularly kidnaps farmers and shepherds and takes them back to her cave for company. In two instances the abductee refuses to eat anything except some very difficult to obtain delicacy (12-year-old cured shark; fresh buck’s meat) and so Kráka goes on long journeys to find these foods only to discover that her ‘guest’ has escaped when she returns. (We’re told that while running after the first man she yells out to him, “‘Here is the shark, Jón; cured not 12 but 13 years,’ to which he made no reply.”) Later we’re told that this lonely villain “was planning a large Christmas celebration which she took great pains to prepare for. The only thing that was missing, in her opinion, was a bit of human flesh, which she considered the greatest delicacy.” It’s not said who was going to attend the ogre’s Christmas party, but just the fact of it, alongside the missing hors d’oeuvre of human flesh (I pictured an ogre in an apron), seems so wonderfully absurd.

The one thing that I think this collection is missing is an explanation of where the source material was derived from. Alda is listed as the translator, not the author, so these are apparently not her own retellings. I would be very interested to know from what source these stories were collected, whether they were brought together from many collections or one, and whether or not these are stories that many Icelandic readers are familiar with, or just representative of the folk tradition in Iceland.

(These questions might be answered in the new e-book introduction, of course.)

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8 thoughts on “Icelandic Folk Legends

  1. Well, OK, let’s take “Thorgeir’s Bull” for an example. In Konrad (von) Maurer’s collection of then-contemporary Icelandic folk beliefs, he also tells the story of the bull — but not quite as in the recounting. Von Maurer nets it out in his German vol. as follows where he deals with beings awakened from the dead:

    “…it’s not always that the awakened have human bodies to thank for their reawakening. In one case — although I was emphatically assured by Sèra Magnús that this was the only case he knew of — it is rather an animal that is used for a similar purpose.

    At the start of the 18th century, a powerful magician named Þorgeirr lived in Fnjóskadalur (just east of the Eyjafjördur). He came into conflict with another magician in the valley, and tried repeatedly to send a draugr (ghost) or uppvakníngr (awakened one) to kill the other magician. Finally he killed a bull, skinned it and then using magic arts gave it such strength that it killed his antagonist.

    Since then, “Þorgeirr’s bull”, as it is called, roams the valley hunting all the descendants of the dead magician and trying to cause them harm. It still drags its rotted hide behind it by its tail, similar to a cattle plague demon (Viehschelm) in some parts of Germany. It is often seen rustling around outside farmyards and occasionally it has been known to break in to the farm.”

    His reference to his source is “Sèra Magnús” (Rev. Magnús Grímsson), one of Iceland’s foremost story collectors along with Jón Árnason (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C3%B3n_%C3%81rnason_%28author%29) and others. You see that this tale varies quite a bit from the one you’ve read — but that’s one of the neat things about folktales and lore. My own work includes links to the real places in Iceland where you can actually see them; the location of this version of the “bull” story can be seen on the excellent Iceland map at:

    http://goo.gl/meGFJ

    I’m presently translating von Maurer’s volume, and if you like you can have a peek at parts of my previous translations (Hugo Gering, Avenstrup/Treitel) as e-books here:

    https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/webistrator

    Cheers!

    J. Turbes

  2. Hi, J.

    Thanks for your comment–the alternate telling of the story of Þorgeirr’s bull is quite interesting, and I’m glad to know about the German collection of Icelandic tales that you are translating. Had von Maurer been to Iceland when he collected these tales, or was he just working off of the reverend’s text? I’m also interested in the process of translating Icelandic folk legends through German versions written in the late 1800s/early 1900s. It seems like a most productive narrative version of that game “Telephone”–like you said, a neat aspect of folklore is the constant variations in common stories’ retellings.

    I like the idea of including a map of locations around Iceland which correspond to the tales–I am still surprised at how many of the sites from sagas and folktales one can visit in Iceland without finding a fast food chain or similar popped up on top of them.

    Thanks for the link to your work as well!

    Larissa

  3. Hi, Larissa

    Sorry for not responding sooner…I forgot to set the “heads-up” option.

    Konrad (v.) Maurer traveled through Iceland in 1858 to collect these stories, and if history is not a total “lie agreed upon” then his work motivated both the more noted collectors Jón Árnason and Magnús Grímsson to complete their work, “Íslenzk Æfintýri” (similar title as H. Gering’s work, “Íslendzk Æventýri” that I translated). People with “skin in the game” back then were more willing to exchange information, it appears. Maurer also did a separate book on his actual travels “Íslandsferð 1858” which was only published recently (’97) in Iceland/ic.

    But probably the most hallowed collectors of these tales was Árni Magnússon (http://goo.gl/rTbnp) from the 17th/18th centuries. He scrounged old vellum writings, some apparently used to plug holes in roofs and to patch shoes. Thanks to his financially well-endowed wife he was able to pay the light bill and pursue his work that resulted in the Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection, not only of folklore but sagas and historical records.

    For the most part, it seems that the more literate clerics were the best source for what folklore there was still remaining. A good read is T. Gunnell’s work on how clerics were a primary source of Icelandic lore, their sometimes reluctance to further these “pagan” interests, and how they interacted is at:

    http://goo.gl/6zRqQ

    Cheers!

    J.

    • More great information here! I will read the Gunnell article with interest. I should really get up to speed on Árni Magnússon–his namesake institution is responsible, in great part, for my being able to come here to Iceland to study the language. Your mention of the vellum writings that had been used for shoes and insulation reminds me of a passage in Halldór Laxness’ Iceland’s Bell, where a character is going around trying to save vellum manuscripts from exactly this type of fate. I don’t remember if the character was specifically a reference to Árni or not, but I want to say that he was?

      I’ll have to double check now…

      • Hi, Larissa

        In the contributor’s list in your softcover copy of the sagas you’ll see that T. Gunnell was one of the participants in putting that redacted collection together — just like he was for the full-blown 5-vol. hardcover set from Leifur Eiriksson pub. from whence the Penguin book was taken.

        Cheers!

        J.

  4. Oh, and a P.S. …

    You might like Nancy Brown’s “The Far Traveler/Voyages of a Viking Woman”:

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Far-Traveler-Voyages-Viking/dp/0156033976

    Like you’re doing now, Nancy spent considerable time in Iceland doing archeological and other things. I believe she also raises Icelandic horses at her place in New England.

    This book is about what history more and more justifiably claims to be the first European woman in America, her experiences at what is now L’Anse aux Meadows, NF and her later life. She’s mentioned in the old Greenland and Leifur Eiriksson Sagas. There’s a 2007 NYT review of the book at:

    http://goo.gl/zLhx6

    As for the sagas themselves, an excellent (but pricey) hardcover library in English is available from Leifur Eiriksson Publishing in Reykjavik:

    http://sagas.is/yfirlit.htm

    If you can afford them, they’re the best. And sometimes “furriners” can get a break from any tax that might be levied — worth checking out. But if not, a select paperback subset is available in “The Sagas of Icelanders”:

    http://www.amazon.com/Sagas-Icelanders-Penguin-Classics-Deluxe/dp/0141000031

    Cheers!

    J.

    • Thanks for these recommendations! I actually just read (slowly, with the help of many dictionaries) an article in one of the daily papers here about Nancy Marie Brown’s new book, which declares Snorri Sturluson “the Tolkien of his time.” It was a very interesting article, on the strength of which I went to the university library and picked up the book you suggested here. Glad to know that it is worth the read!

      I don’t think I currently qualify for the furner (my local accent seems to smush even more syllables out of that word) discount, since I’m living here at the moment, but the LEP editions sound like a worthy investment the next time I head out of the country (and can therefore get the VAT refund). Luckily, I bought the Penguin edition a few years ago and made sure to bring it with me. I’ve been hopping between it and some free-standing saga editions. I’m working my way through slowly, but surely…

  5. … a trick with the Icelandic (or any language) that you might try is to read local comic books where the pic’s follow the text and help you learn “street lingo”. They’re usually written in the spoken vernacular and use simple sentence structures — not so overwhelming and usually a great confidence builder. That, and a good TV program — maybe a dubbed one from the States or G.B. that you’re familiar with and where you like the plot lines.

    The key is “total immersion” to the point of exhaustion — then suddenly you’ve surrendered to it and you’re thoughts are in Icelandic instead of mentally converting to English. Then you know you’ve “arrived”. And forgive the natives for always speaking to you in English — they’re trying to be accommodating, bless them. But they’re also keeping their own fluency — somewhat at your expense, in a way!

    Cheers!

    J.

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