Ebenezer Henderson’s Iceland

ebenezer

Ebenezer Henderson was the first British traveler to stay over a winter in Iceland. Other travelers had come but they stayed only during the summer. To stay longer was to risk being trapped by the weather. Raging storms regularly sank sailboats. There are many reports of foreign fishing vessels being sunk with no survivors. The evidence of such shipwrecks came in bits and pieces washing onto shore.

ebenezer2

There were no Inns in Iceland, no hotels as in mainland Europe. There were no roads. The weather that modern day tourists in Iceland talk about, horizontal rain, sudden bitter cold winds off the sea, having to take a set of warm underwear even though it is summer, all existed and, to make matters worse, today’s modern insulated, weather proof clothes didn’t exist.

Today, there are cafes and restaurants of many kinds, the tourist can buy a hot dog on the street or a fancy European style meal at the Pearl. In Henderson’s day, you brought your food with you plus all your equipment: cooking utensils, tents, clothes, gifts for farmers where you might stay.

Henderson endured an Icelandic winter because he was driven by his passion for spreading the Bible in a country where there were few Bibles. He was a messenger from both the English and Foreign Bible Society and God. Unlike the Mormon bishop forty years later in Laxness’s novel, Paradise Regained, Henderson was welcome wherever he went. That has to be qualified, of course, by the fact that he was, in spite of being a representative of his church and of God, a snob. He was not a street minister responsible for the welfare of the poor. He was welcome in the homes of Iceland’s upper class. In his daily life, he didn’t spend his time visiting the poverty stricken cottages of tenant farmers or labourers in whatever country in which he happened to be as he distributed bibles.

In Iceland, the ministers, whether pagan or Christian, served their political masters. It was no different in places like England. As Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, makes fun of Collins, the minister who is Elizabeth’s distant cousin, but who will inherit her family’s land through entailment, she gives us a clear picture of how he kowtows to his patron, Lady Catherine. It is Lady Catherine’s right to bestow a living upon the local minister. Collins knows that it is more important to please her than to please God. What the local dignitary can give, she can also take away.

Henderson pays no attention to the misery around him when he is in Iceland. He only wants to associate with those he feels are his social equals. He wants to discuss religious philosophy not the misery in the huts of the fishermen.

He comes with a purpose and a narrow view but, like travelers before and after him, Iceland captures his imagination. In the introduction to his book,

Iceland, Or, The Journal of a Residence in that Island, During the Years 1814 and 1815, he says “It is impossible for a stranger to take a single step in Iceland, without having some uncommon object of this description presented to his view; and I, in taking down notes of his progress, his principal difficulty lies in the selection of subjects where such a multiplicity claim his attention. It not infrequently happens that he is denied the pleasure of seeing a human being for several days together, when proceeding from one part of the island to another. In crossing the deserts of the interior, he may travel two hundred miles without perceiving the smallest symptom of animated being of any description whatever; and, even in traversing the inhabited parts, he still finds himself more surrounded by nature than by human society, owing to the distance from one farm-house to another.”

Today, the population has grown from 40,000 to over 300,000. Where there were horse tracks through the wilderness, there are now paved highways and tunnels. Iceland is the most wired country in the world. Airplanes and ships bring more visitors than there are Icelanders. The isolation Henderson describes has largely disappeared. Iceland is the Connected Country.

Iceland, over the last two hundred years, has drawn explorers and scientists, then wealthy tourists and, finally, the burgeoning of ordinary tourists. Henderson was not an ordinary tourist but, still, he left silver behind. There was a bit of money in some people’s pockets after his visit. Today, there is a lot of money left behind. Iceland has few natural resources outside of hydro electricity, other than its striking natural beauty. The uniqueness of the landscape brings people. They come for the Icelandic experience.

The danger is that in trying to attract those dollars and yen and marks and pounds people will create that which is not Icelandic, that which is something people can find anywhere. Tivoli is a historic part of Copenhagen. Coney Island is an integral part of New York. Disney Land is as brash as America.

The challenge for Iceland as it works to repair its economy and finds sources of wealth that will allow it to purchase all those things it does not produce at home (this is a struggle that has existed from the time of Settlement) is to retain its Icelandic character. People came and come for the sagas, for the Viking golden age, for the landscape, for the history, and , nowadays, for the artistic and intellectual events that are regularly held, not to participate in experiences they can better have elsewhere. I don’t want to sound like those Icelandic bishops that got a law passed that said, essentially, that Icelanders shouldn’t be allowed to have any fun but Carnival is best held in sunny climes.

In all the places I have traveled, what has intrigued and interested, fascinated me was the difference between my life and the life of the local people. If there hadn’t been this difference, I might as well have stayed home. Like Henderson, Waller, Burton and uncountable numbers of others, I love those things that make Iceland uniquely Icelandic. The challenge for Icelanders will be to bring tourist money to Iceland to help heal the wounds of the kreppa while retaining their historic, cultural and artistic heritage in this new, connected world.

The Lesson of Lawns

The perfect lawn

The perfect lawn

I’m guilty. I admit it. Although cutting grass when I was a teenager kept me in spending money in the summer, I have abandoned having a yard that looked like a putting green.

In Gimli, Manitoba, where I grew up, the summer campers/cottagers were a source of pocket money for movies, hamburgers and fries, candy, comic books and, later, dates with local heartthrobs. Sometimes, I got jobs painting cottages but, most of the time, the market was for lawn cutting.

Most of the cottage husbands were Friday to Sunday night men. They came down to the beach after work on Friday and went back to Winnipeg Sunday evening. Winnipeg, in high summer, is sweltering, humid, oppressive, and, in those days, there was little, if any, air conditioning. Every summer one of the papers would have a picture of someone frying an egg on the hood of a car or on a sidewalk.

Meanwhile, wives and children were ensconced in Gimli cottages, either owned or rented. The cottages, shaded by large, old growth spruce trees, made of wood with lots of windows and screens so the night air could flow inside and cool breezes from Lake Winnipeg could blow through, didn’t absorb the heat the way that city buildings, built of stone and brick, did.

The husbands, coming down by train or car, were much like the fried eggs by the time they arrived. The cooler air perked them up. They lay in hammocks and napped or had a beer while their bodies cooled off. They were in no mood to mow lawns or cut down weeds. Instead, they hired local kids.

My first lawns were cut with a push mower. This was hard labour, the kind of hard labour that should only be handed to hardened criminals. Gimli was cooler than Winnipeg but when you are twelve, pushing a lawnmower on a lot two chains (66 feet) wide, the sun beats down on you until your shirt is soaking wet and you have to keep going to the artesian well and its ice cold water. The water was so cold that we believed it could crack your teeth.

I can still hear that hand pushed lawn mower. Whirrr, Whirrr. The trick was to get up some momentum. That way you could overcome the resistance of the grass. I didn’t have a grass catcher on the back. That meant when I’d finished cutting the grass, I had to rake it and deposit it at the edge of the back lane. Then, with a pair of hand shears, trim the grass from the sides of the wooden sidewalks and along the edge of the property, from around trees, and along the perimeter of the cottage. Standing, waiting to be paid, I felt like a red twister licorice stick left in the sun.

Payment? One dollar. However, if memory serves me correctly, a movie was twenty-five cents. That was four movies. A hamburger was twenty-five cents and chips (French fries) were a dime. Ice cream cones were a nickel. That lawn was worth twenty ice cream cones or ten comic books.

I went up and down the nearby streets knocking on cottage doors offering my services. Men in shorts and bottles of iced beer in their hands said, “Okay, kid. A buck. Do a good job.” They’d put in their time and come Sunday night would board the train back to the hell of Portage and Main.

Some people wanted their yard kept up but others, whether they didn’t care how the yard looked or didn’t want to spend the money, let their grass grow quite long before hiring me. I quickly learned that those lawns needed negotiating. Pushing the lawnmower through the grass was hard, slow work. Sometimes, the grass, if it was damp, jammed the mower and I had to stop to clear the blades. A dollar fifty.

Life and capitalism became easier when my father bought one of the new gasoline power mowers. The price stayed the same but I could cut more lawns per day. In those days no adult male would have been caught dead cutting lawns as a job. It was kid’s work. Today, grown men arrive in trucks, towing trailers filled with equipment.

Spruce trees were a mixed blessing. In those days Gimli had a forest of large spruce trees. Yards with a lot of spruce trees often had untidy grass in patches that were easy to cut. However, spruce tree roots lie on the surface of the ground and I had to bump my mower over them.

Occasionally, I’d get someone asking me to cut knee high grass and I’d have to go at it with a scythe. I liked that work. There were two types of scythe, the S shaped one and the straight handled one. I preferred the S shape. I learned to be wary of the blade, treating it with respect. I learned to sharpen it and to keep the point up and not jam it into the ground. I loved the rhythm of the work, the way the grass fell as I swept the blade ahead of me. I sharpened the blade with a whetstone and watched that I never brought my hand against the gleaming edge.

Maybe because cutting grass was, for me, paid work, I’ve never had any great desire to create a putting green lawn. I see them as some sort of mental aberration and think uptight, controlling, type A owner. However, that may just be an excuse for my indolence.

I’ve owned three houses in Victoria, BC. The first had hardly any front yard, a bit of side yard and a grassed back yard. However, I was busy writing and teaching and, sad to say, out of despair, my neighbour, a great air force guy from Gimli, when he couldn’t stand my back yard messiness anymore, would cut my grass when I wasn’t home.

House two had a double lot. It had gardens, gardens and more gardens but it still had a lot of lawn. I kept the lawn cut, in those days, in spite of the slope, running behind the gas powered mower. However, to the chagrin of some neighbours, I did my best to turn the lawn back into a Garry Oak meadow. One of my neighbours swept her lawn with a broom after cutting it. Random daffodils in the lawn, grape hyacinth by the thousands, tufts of this and that. I was rewarded by my attention to meadow and shrubs by three magnificent stages sleeping in my front yard one summer evening. They knew where they were welcome.

My latest house has no grass, except for some quack grass that I’m gradually pulling up by the roots. The yard is all granite with some soil dumped on top of it, enough to grow some trees and a variety of flowering bushes and plants. There’s not a flat spot anywhere and granite hogbacks with soil filled pockets doesn’t a putting green make.

I feel that I’ve betrayed my beginnings, those summer days spent cutting lawns, those quarters and fifty cent pieces and dollar bills. There lingers within me that boy laboring under the sun learning about lawns and earning a living and deciding, at some point, to be like the husbands lounging in the hammocks having a cold drink, napping, reading a book, rather than the hired help. Perhaps, I tell him, I benefited more from cutting those lawns and those long, hot days than just the few dollars that I earned.

Icelandic tourism

Almannagja, 1862, sketch by A. J. Symington

Almannagja, 1862, sketch by A. J. Symington

So, you are going to Iceland this summer. Dropping from the sky to Keflavik, taking a bus ride to Reykjavik, staying at a hotel with fine food and comfortable beds. A bus will take you on the Golden Circle. It will be air conditioned. You ride will be warm and dry.
However, when A. J. Symington went to the Geysers in 1862, it wasn’t so simple or so comfortable.

He lands from the steamer between 7 and 8 o’clock. He finds his “baggage and riding horses with the relays, twenty-four in all, assembled at the hotel court; Zöga, the guide, with his brother and a boy who were also to accompany us, busy adjusting saddles, stirrup straps, &c. For four days we shall be thrown entirely upon our own resources, so that provisions, tent, plaids and everything we are likely to need during a wilderness journey, must be taken with us. Our traps had been sent on shore late on the previous evening. The mode of loading the sumpter ponies is peculiar; a square piece of dried sod is placed on the horses back, then a wooden saddle with several projecting pins is girded on with rough woolen ropes; to either side of the saddle, is hooked on, a strong oblong wooden box generally painted red; while on the pins are hung bags, bundles, and all sorts of gipsy looking gear. These need frequent re-adjustment from time to time; as the ponies trot along, one side will weigh up the other, or the animals get jammed together and knock their loads out of equilibrium, the saddles then perhaps turn round and articles fall rattling to the ground. The strong little boxes are constructed and other arrangements made with a view to such contingencies, and however primitive, rude or outlandish they may at first seem to the stranger, he will soon come to see the why and the wherefore, and confess their singular adaptation to the strange and unique exigences of Icelandic travel.
The baggage train at length moved off, accompanied by the relief ponies, which were tied together in a row, the head of the one to the tail of the other before it.“

“The road terminated when we reached the outskirts of the town and the track lay over a wild black stony waste with little or no vegetation;‘ everything seemed scorched. The relay ponies were now loosed from each other, and perfectly free, driven before us.“

“They were apt to scatter in quest of herbage, but Zöga, when h is call was not enough or the dogs negligent, quickly out-flanked the stragglers, upon which, they, possessed by a salutary fear of his whip, speedily rejoined t heir fellows.”

1862. Ten years before the exodus to Amerika really begins. Iceland is still without roads, without wheeled vehicles, travel is slow and arduous. There is one bridge in the country. Rivers must be forded and often these are filled with glacial debris that can knock a horse off its feet, knock a rider into the current. Ferries are little more than row boats. A Reykjavik guide will have to enlist the aid of local people to keep his charges on their path and over a river.

Symington is part of the transition that is happening with travelers coming to Iceland. Sailing ships are giving way to steam ships. The prohibitive costs of having to rent or buy a yacht, hire a crew, are being replaced by advertised fares.

Iceland is still exotic, off the beaten path, requires the ability to ride a horse for days on end, sleep in churches and tents, cook over an open fire. Although the scientists, the explorers are being replaced by the curious, the flood of tourists has not yet begun. However, the stream has started and will, as the years go by, increase until Iceland is overrun by tourists. Nine hundred thousand tourists are expected to visit Iceland in 2015. This, in a country of just over three hundred thousand people.

Tourism was once considered pollutionless economics but nothing could be further from the truth. Nine hundred thousand people walk on the soil, use toilets, create waste from fuel used for cooking to food remnants, from exhaust from vehicles, from everything they do during their stay. Tourism is the classical example of privatizing profits and socializing costs. Those people who benefit from tourists, tour operators, airlines, restaurants, gift shops, and others make the profits but everyone pays to deal with tourist pollution.

The Blue Lagoon now requires a booking be made. Here, on the West Coast of Canada what, at one time seemed impossible, The West Coast Trail, one of the great hikes through wilderness, now requires a booking be made. The very people who come to admire and experience the uniqueness of Iceland and the West Coast of Canada threaten to destroy both.

The steam ship, then the commercial airplane, cheap travel, have made it possible for all of us to be world travelers. However, our travel changes, often dramatically, the cultures we travel to. The Iceland Symington visited had to change, had to pull itself out of the Medieval Age, had to become more involved with the larger world. Yet, reading his book, Faroe and Iceland, it is hard not to be nostalgic for the world he experienced and, ironically, wish it could be shared and, once again, gives its uniqueness to this traveler but not all those others.

Change is inevitable. Perhaps, though, it is by admitting that tourism cannot be limitless without destroying that which the tourists admire, that we can preserve our historic, geologic and cultural treasures.

On the Way to Iceland

Faroese boats at Thorshavn

Faroese boats at Thorshavn

Travelers on the way to Iceland usually stopped at the Faroes. The descriptions of the Faroese and their houses are similar to what is later described in Iceland but with some surprising differences. Symington, like travelers before him, gets off the boat at Thorshaven and keen observer that he is, has this to say about the town.

“Houses, stone for a few feet next the ground, then wood, tarred or painted black, and generally two stories in height; small windows, the sashes of which are painted white; green turf on the roofs. The interiors of the poorer sort of houses are very dark; an utter absence of voluntary ventilation; one fire, and that in the kitchen, the chimney often only a hole in the roof. Yet even in these hovels there is generally a guest-room, comfortably boarded and furnished. In such apartments we observed chairs, tales, chests of drawers, feather-beds, down coverlets, a few books, engravings on the walls, specimens of ingenious native handiwork, curiosities, etc. This juxtaposition under the same roof was new to us, and struck every one as something quite peculiar and contrary to all our previous experiences. The streets of Thorshavn are only narrow dirty irregular passages, often not more than two or three feet wide; one walks upon are rock or mud. These passages wind up steep places, and run in all manner of zigzag directions, so that the most direct line from one point to another generally leads “straight down crooked land and all round the square.” Observed a man on the top of a house cutting grass with a sickle. Here the approach of spring is first indicated by the turf roofs of the house becoming green. Being invited, we entered several fishermen’s houses; they seemed dark, smoky, and dirty; and, in all, the air was close and stifling. In one, observed a savoury pot of puffin broth, suspended from the ceiling and boiling on a turf fire built open like a smith’s forge, the smoke finding only a very partial egress by the hole overhead; on the wall hung a number of plucked puffins and guillemots; several hens seen through the smoke sitting contentedly perched on a spar evidently intended for their accommodation. In the corner of the apartment; a stone hand-mill for grinding barley, such as Sarah may have used, lay on the floor; reminding one of the East, from whence the Scandinavians came in the days of Odin.

Faroese boatman

Faroese boatman

In passing along the street we saw strips of whale-flesh, black and reddish-coloured, hanging outside the gable of almost every house to dry, just as we have seen herrings in fishing-villages on our own coasts. When a shoal of whales is driven ashore by the boatmen, there are great rejoicings among the islanders, whose faces, we were told, actually shine for weeks after this their season of feasting. What cannot be eaten at the time is dried for future use. Boiled or roasted it is nutritious, and not very unpalatable. The dried flesh which I tasted resembled tough beef, with a flavour of venison. Being “blood-meat,” I would not have known it to be from the sea; and have been told that, when fresh and properly cooked, tender steaks from a young whale can scarcely be distinguished for beef-steak.”

This description is one of the best I’ve read simply for its details. Symington sees a man on the roof of a house with a sickle cutting grass for his livestock. Spring is heralded by the roofs of the houses turning green. He actually gives us a description of cooking being done and of both plucked birds and live chickens in the house. He tries the whale meat and describes it as tough beef.

The Faroese are less well known than the Icelanders. That may be for a wide variety of reasons. Perhaps, in part, it was their greater willingness to be part of the Danish empire, partly because it was the Icelanders who had the sagas, partly because Iceland excited a great deal of curiosity during the 19th C. because of its geology. However, the Faroes have always been a safe harbour, a stopping point on a dangerous journey, and Icelanders have, through the centuries, sought shelter in Faroese harbours. The climate is just enough different that grain can be grown. There has been enough prosperity that as Symington describes, there are a variety of crafts, often admirably done in spite of the dark, dank, unhealthy living conditions.

It is a shame that the visitors who came to Iceland were more interested in the geology than the people. Because they come from wealthy, often noble families, they have little or no interest in ordinary people and if they comment on the fishermen or the paupers, it is dismissively. Even Ebenezer Henderson, the minister who comes to distribute Bibles is a snob, interested only in associating with individuals he considers worthy of his attention. His Christ would have been quite comfortable in the temple of the money changers.

The scientific reports that came of all the expeditions to Iceland have long ago become irrelevant. The mechanisms of the geysers have been revealed, the rocks, classified. Quite by accident, the simple fact that there were no commercial inns or hotels, meant that the people where the travellers stayed were described. That, ironically, is what is valuable.

It is impossible to separate the Faroes and Iceland. Historically, they are joined. Politically they were joined. They are bound by custom and circumstance. Symington is quite right to call his book Faroe and Iceland.

It is by comparing the Faroese and the Icelanders that we can obtain a deeper understanding of our ancestors. Too often we talk and write of Iceland as if, somehow, it was separate from all the islands between it and Europe but nothing could be further from the truth. Ships and sailors seek shelter. They seek trade. They establish social and business relationships. It is in these other places where we can get a glimpse of what our ancestors were and were not like.

Now there is Monsters and Men, then there was…

Sketch from Faroe and Iceland by A. J. Symington

Sketch from Faroe and Iceland by A. J. Symington

A. J. Symington, in 1862, going to an evening that included Icelandic music with two of his friends. The three of them “spent the evening, by invitation, at the Governor’s—the Count Von Trampe. I had a long conversation with him in German, during which he mentioned that all the old Saga and Edda MSS, had been removed to Copenhagen; and, in answer to sundry enquiries, told me that the “lang spiel” is the only Icelandic musical instrument now in use. It is something like a guitar or banjo, has four strings, and is played with a little bow. The airs now played are chiefly Danish dance music, and other foreign melodies.

“The Icelanders, like the natives of Madagascar, have adopted the music of our “God save the queen” as their national air. The words to which it is sung were composed In the beginning of the present century, by the late Biarni Thorarensen, Governor of the northern province of the island, when he was a student at the university of Copenhagen. The song is called “Islands Minni,” or the “Remembrance of Iceland;” and finely illustrates the intense love of country displayed by Icelanders, who, wherever they may travel or sojourn, always sooner or later return home though but to die; for to them, as their own proverb has it, “Iceland is the best land on which the sun shines.”

“One or two old Icelandic airs linger amongst the people, but are seldom heard; and as there was—so I understood the Governor to say—no musical notation to hand them down, little reliance can be placed on their accurate transmission.

“I was introduced to the Compte d’Ademas of the Artemise frigate, an officer who speaks English well. He is Lord Dufferin’s cousin. There were several other French officers present. After leaving the Governor’s we called for M. Randrop, the state’s apothecary, who received us in the wonted hospitable Icelandic manner. Madam Randrop kindly played to us on the piano-forte “Robin Adair,” “Cheer Boys,” “Fin chan dal vino,” “Hear me, Norma,” a Danish dance, and an Icelandic song. Her two daughters, the Misses Muller are learning English, and her son is going south by our steamer to attend the university at Copenhagen.”

The contrast is amazing. This happens in travelers’ books all the time. Even though there is no attempt to make a comparison, the travelers visit both Icelanders and Danes and describe both.

The Icelanders had no way of making musical notations so there are no music sheets. The Danes had the knowledge of musical notation and so their music is preserved. The Icelanders only have one musical instrument, the langspiel, and it is a simple four-stringed instrument played with a bow. The Danes have a piano-forte.

Icelandic music and dancing had not died out on its own. It was destroyed by the Icelandic church. The bishops railed against dancing because it led to sex and sex to babies and babies to more paupers that the rich farmers had to pay a tax to keep.

In Europe dancing had rules passed against it but it was mostly to stop dancing in churches and churchyards. In Iceland, the church persecuted and prosecuted frivolous activities in private homes. Punishments were meted out.

The sagas, after all, were long, complicated tales and were handed down through the generations orally before being written down and even after being written down. Rimur, often hundreds of verses long, were shared orally. It took a long time and great effort to get the Icelandic people to the sorry state that Symington reports in 1862 where there are only a couple of Icelandic airs and the authenticity of those are in question.

The astounding thing is that it was not the Danes who were fanatically opposed to music and dancing, after all, they were the people with the piano-forte and the sheet music for Danish and foreign songs and dances. It was the Icelandic clergy who were rabidly opposed to anything except church music.

The Icelanders did their best to have a good time in spite of disease, hunger and political repression and, if I remember correctly, it was Richard Burton who said that when he went to a harbour where the Danish trade ships had arrived and the Icelandic farmers had gathered, there was a lot of loud, drunken singing of hymns. That might not be as much fun as dancing a farm girl off to a haystack but it was a lot better than nothing.

If we can take any consolation about the destruction of Icelandic music and dancing, it has to be that the wonderful choir music of today is the direct result of the religious and political strictures imposed on the Icelandic people.

Rimur: your literary heritage

Matthew Driscoll

Matthew Driscoll

One is fortunate, from time to time, to come across masterful lecturers, the kind who are precise, organized, know their subject matter perfectly and can explain it to those who don’t.
Matthew Driscoll is one of those. His lecture, “The Icelandic Rimur”, could be used as an example for aspiring teachers.

Rimur, those long, narrative Icelandic poems we’ve all heard about in a rather vague fashion, are complicated. That’s actually an understatement. Yet, in the hour allotted to him, Matthew Driscoll managed to provide history, analysis and appreciation in a way that left me feeling that I now had a grasp of this important part of Icelandic history.

Dr. Driscoll is senior lecturer in Old Norse philology at Nordisk Forskningsinstitut, University of Copenhagen, and curator of the Arnamagnaean manuscript collection. He gets to protect and work with the original Icelandic sagas. Everyone else is a supplicant or a pretender. You know, supplicants, people who want to hold, study, be in the presence of the original sagas (I got to put on white gloves and hold one once) and pretenders (all those people in Viking costumes and blow dried hair).

Somewhere, in the distant past, I first heard of rimur but I never heard of anyone in Manitoba chant rimur. It turns out that I was just not in the right place at the right time because I now know someone from Winnipeg whose father chanted rimur and, when I spoke to Dr. Driscoll after his lecture, he told me that a large number of printed rimur have been recently discovered in Winnipeg.

To appreciate the role of rimur, you have to think back to Iceland before 1900. Icelanders still lived on isolated farms. Travel was extremely difficult and dangerous. During the winter, travel was often impossible. There was no TV and no movies. The winters were dark and long. Entertainment came from reading, story telling and the chanting of rimur.

These rimur are long. They are made up of four line stanzas, and sometimes there are as many as 200 stanzas.

A lot of rimur have been preserved. Pre 1600, there are 78 known rimur. 17th C, 148. 18th C. 248. I found it fascinating that it is in the surviving rimur that evidence is found of lost rimur and lost sagas. The author of a rima sometimes mentions other rimur he has composed. As well, since rimur were verse narratives of myths and sagas, although all the copies of a saga may have been lost, it may be mentioned or may be the basis for the rimur.

There is nowhere else in the world where there is any verse form like rimur.

These poems are highly complex. They have intricate rhyme schemes and internal alliteration. Various metres are used. The language of the rimur was poetic. Kennings were used. Ship, for example, might not fit a verse, but it’s kenning, sea-horse might. Kennings are so much part of Icelandic literary heritage that when I first went to Iceland and my host was the national librarian, Finboggi Gudmundson, and he discovered that I had no idea what a kenning was, he went into a state of shock. However, I’d been raised on Hemingway and he would have thought kennings were affected.

What made rimur so popular was that the authors took interesting stories and told them in rhyme. They were full of romance, battles, sea going adventures, men and women in relationships. The sort of thing that makes soap opera and movies popular today.

In my research into foreign visitors to Iceland in the 19th C., I have come across more than one writer saying that Icelanders have absolutely no musical ability. They sing off key in the most boring way imaginable. However, what those visitors were probably hearing was the chanting/singing of rimur. Singing in harmony doesn’t apply. Dr. Driscoll had some film clips of people chanting rimur (I hate to use the word singing) and they made me feel that only a population with no other entertainment available could want to listen to 200 verses of that.

However, toward the end of the lecture, he showed us a clip of a young woman singing rimur and it was delightful. That event can be accessed on You Tube. The singer is charming, her singing is charming and the fact that the event takes place in a lighthouse is charming.

In recent times the path for rimur has been difficult. Clergy have thought the rimur were awful. They weren’t serious enough. They weren’t religious enough. Viking battles and hot romance was more interesting than someone agonizing over sin. During the Enlightenment the intellectuals thought rimur were holding back modernization and progress. The Romantic poets thought that rimur were just plain crappy verse.

However, rimur has staying power. Those who follow Sigur Ros will know that they are interested in rimur and have been using it with their music.

Dr. Driscoll gave many examples of rimur authors and their poetry along with details of rimur structure. If you are interested in this major component of Icelandic culture and literature, you can access Dr. Driscoll’s lecture on the Margaret and Richard Beck website that is managed and maintained by Dr. Patricia Baer at the University of Victoria.

Dr. Driscoll was in Victoria as a Beck lecturer.

Oversexed Soldiers in Iceland

britsoldiersmarchingiceland

The Brits came in the night, landed at Reykjavik with no fuss, no bayonets, no shots fired. They arrived to occupy Iceland because the Nazis had been sending delegations, were showing great interest in Iceland. Their interest was understandable since Iceland was like a great aircraft carrier in the North Sea. It provided a critical link in the supply route from North America to England.

Iceland has never had an army, navy or air force, no experience of warfare and, for centuries were forbidden to carry weapons, so the arrival of the British army occasioned a great deal of curiosity. Efforts were made on both sides to make the occupation as conflict free as possible. There were restrictions on when armed forces personnel could leave their base, on their behavior when off the base.

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The problem, however, was that first the Brits and then the Americans arrived in large numbers for such a small country. The soldiers were young, male, had some money to spend, were different. It was inevitable that there would be clashes between young Icelandic men and the soldiers. It was equally inevitable that many of the Icelanders would resent the occupation and the disruption of their lives.

Daisy Neijmann gave a talk at the University of Victoria (sponsored by the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust) during the Learneds on the way that British and American soldiers have been portrayed in Icelandic fiction.

She pointed out that the soldiers were seen by some as engaged in trangressive behaviour exploiting women and children. The victims of this behaviour were women and children. The occupation was described as a fairy tale, a fantasy realm where monsters violated social order. It’s not surprising that some writers saw the soldiers as monsters. They were not “us” but “other”. They had uniforms, their behaviours were strange, they carried weapons, they spoke a language few Icelanders spoke and they didn’t speak Icelandic. With Iceland just emerging from a Middle Aged society, there was no previous experience of how to behave toward an occupying force.

Because the soldiers came in such large numbers, they were seen not as individuals but as indistinguishable from one another with references to them not with names but as the soldier, the major, with dark skins, moustaches, sharp facial features. They seemed to have no individuality. Given the number of soldiers, the uniforms, the military behavior, it is not surprising that they were seen that way.

The general attitude toward the soldiers was summed up by the Prime Ministers telling the people to avoid the soldiers as much as possible but to be polite.

Daisy gave examples from numerous books. In some of them the soldiers are seen as made of steel. In another, the lack of individuality of the soldiers is compared to the individuality of the Icelanders and the military ability of the soldiers is mocked.

Some of the books, Daisy mentioned were “Lover’s Gifts” (1955), “Jon the Cobbler”(1940), “Dancing by Daylight(1947), “North of War”(1971).

Through everything there is sexual tension. How real it was can be ascertained by the fact that women found consorting with soldiers were forcibly removed to the countryside away from temptation.

In “Her”(1968), there is this little dialogue.
“Hev jú sister?”
“Jes.“
“Is sí bjútifúl?“
“Jes.“

Those few lines capture the attitude about the soldiers. Oversexed, predatory, interested in nothing but seducing Icelandic women.

In “Lover‘s Gifts“ there is this line. “And these soldiers, well, they have nothing else to do but sleep with girls.“

What surprised me was not the attitude toward the soldiers. I‘d seen the same thing toward all the single airmen at the Gimli airbase. There was many a fist fight over some local girl. The local boys didn‘t like the competition by guys in snazzy uniforms who represented exotic places far away.

What did surprise me is that the writers repeatedly express contempt for women. And, more difficult yet, that the few women who wrote stories that included soldiers were just as contemptuous of women. It is as if women were the enemy.

However, in 1955, in a novel by Svava Dún, the main character says ‚ ”It had never been as fun to live in Reykjavik as these past days.“ The arrival of the soldiers is seen as very positive and life as better.

Daisy finished by saying that Indridason in one of his recent novels portrays an American soldier in a very positive light. The soldier is kind, empathetic, and protects a brutally abused Icelandic wife from a dreadful, violent Icelandic husband. This is a reversal of the way that the soldiers have been portrayed in the past.

Not many people of Icelandic descent in North America know much about the early occupation of Iceland by the British and then the Americans. It was interesting to hear how that era was experienced and reported by Icelandic authors.