Something I’ve always appreciated about people of Icelandic background’s is their ability to laugh at themselves. Sharp witted poetry that deflates egos and reveals less than stellar behaviours have a long history. Vanity and foolishness have always been frequent targets.
Story telling about community absurdities and individual idiosyncrasies are not exclusive to Icelandic society or culture. However, in my experience, such anecdotes, usually verbal, seem exceptionally common.
When the settlers came to New Iceland, they were a homogeneous group. Until they got onto ships to go to England or Scotland, many people had never met someone who was not Icelandic. The port cities in the UK were a great shock. Letters written about the experience are well known. The large horses, the stone buildings, the travel by train, everything, everything was foreign.
Quebec City must have been as strange to people who had spent their lives on isolated farms as some crazed fantasy. Always travelling, trusting to the agents you weren’t sure could be trusted, and sometimes were untrustworthy, by ship to England or Scotland, by train to the next port, by ship to Amerika, by more ships along the Great Lakes, up rivers, into endless wilderness. With people dying on the way, dying on ships, dying in ports, dying on ships travelling westward, dying on rivers, on barges, on wilderness beaches, in lonely cabins.
In Iceland there were the trolls, the huldafolk, the ghosts, the witches and here, in the wilderness were the people they’d been warned about, the Indians, and with them came stories of Wendigo. There were violent, dangerous gods in the forests that were already terrifying, life threatening.
And Wendigo. Who was Wendigo? He was more than one. They roamed the forest. They were humanlike dogs, evil, practicing cannibalism. If a person ate human flesh, he became a Wendigo. They knew no limits but were driven by gluttony, greed and excess. As part of the transformation caused by eating human flesh, they grew in size and, like a troll, became large.
It is not hard to imagine in those early dark winters, huddled in crowded cabins, ill fed, hungry, surrounded by freezing temperatures, howling storms, people believing in Wendigo. A new country, new terrors. Even in a place called New Iceland, the integration has begun. Guttumor Guttormsson says in one of his essays that it was a joyous day when he got his first moccasins to replace his Icelandic shoes. Terror and comfort from a new culture.
The story, though, is not about Wendigo tearing anyone to shreds and eating him. It’s about the foolishness of the community in squabbling over petty issues instead of working together. The early religious conflicts come to mind but there were other conflicts as well. Perhaps the amount of community conflict that existed was because in Iceland people lived on isolated farms instead of in villages. Each farm was its own community. As one farm owner in Iceland said, “I’m Emperor here.”, comparing himself to Napoleon. If farm owners were self-important little Napoleans, it’s no wonder that they were notorious for being in constant conflict. Visitors to Iceland commented on the amount of conflict between and among the farmers. Perhaps, it had to do with conditions further back in time with a society that could charge, arrest, convict but had no way of enforcing a sentence. That was left to whoever had reason to enforce it. Gunnar is not executed by a government executioner but is brought down by a vigilante posse.
When I went to university, I did not know the difference between a discussion and an argument. What I had experienced was argument. When people had different opinions, I was used to hearing adults arguing and the arguing often, especially if fueled by alcohol, turned to shouting and shouting to violence. Instead of reasoned discussion there was opinion, opinion often based on no facts. Instead of a sharing of opinion and information, there were entrenched positions which, if challenged, made the person with a different opinion, the enemy. It took some time before I realized the difference and that people could, with good reason, hold opinions different from mine and that, if I knew my subject matter, I might get them to modify their positions and vice versa. I learned that I didn’t have to be “right” all the time and that there was nothing sacred about my opinions. I also learned that I could work with people who had many different opinions than me: religious, political, social. In a larger way, this was the same struggle that the community in a multi-ethnic society was having to learn.
This story has as a protagonist a young boy who is, in a dishonest and cowardly fashion, chosen by the men in the community to seek out Wendigo, to steal his cache of furs, furs that the community hopes will relieve them of their poverty. The choice of a young boy allows for his naiveté, for his bravery, for his innocence, for his being able to honestly report on what it is that he has learned. Innocence often reveals foolishness.
It is a child who says the Emperor has no clothes.
The community, in spite of its poverty, retains its pretensions, its vanities and its petty conflicts. The sheep farmers, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, stubbornly don’t move to a better, drier place to raise sheep but build rafts. The settlers away from the village are filled with fears and transfer them onto an imaginary villain. Through all these adult fears and weaknesses, the young boy has to search until he reaches an understanding of the community.
The protagonist, Jon Litla (Little Jon), doesn’t find Wendigo or his furs but he does find truth. (“At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children”)