Dreams

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Blanche in one of her plays.

Have you ever asked your parents or your grand parents what their dreams were when they were young? What was it they hoped for? Listen while you get a chance. My mother had to quit school after grade ten. I never realized how much she felt the loss of not finishing high school until I took her to see the movie Educating Rita and I realized that she was crying as Rita struggled to get an education.

I knew a woman who had to drop out of school because of illness. Smart, talented, ambitious but there was no money to pay for her to go back to school. She had to go to work as a servant. Often, as I had coffee with her, I thought how sad fate can sometimes be.

Most of us adjust to the reality of our lives, accept what can’t be changed, make the best of what is available. Nowadays, there are evening school courses, summer courses, education of many kinds is available electronically. You Tube provides short instructional courses on just about everything one can imagine. Yesterday, I watched a short video on how to use a carpenter’s tape measure. I didn’t know three of the four tips.

When I was growing up there was no library in town (a tragedy), no learning to use a library, no books that would create knowledge of the world out there. For adults there were few paths forward. It still wasn’t common for adults to return to school. One exception were the courses for the airmen on the Gimli airbase. The math teacher at our school wasn’t working out to well so I took the course on the airbase to supplement the teaching in the public school. This was an exceptional opportunity. Extension courses were few and far between.

Even with improvements over the decades, access to knowledge and skills can still be hard to come by. College and university are expensive. And can be intimidating.

Yet, most people, if not all, have dreams. If the resources had been available, what would your mother or father like to have done? Your grandmothers and grandfathers? Grandma, you can ask, what was your dream when you were young?

My Icelandic grandmother, Blanche, whom I never me–she died when my father was twelve–wanted to be a successful playwright, actress, director, poet, fiction writer. And she wanted to write song lyrics. Living in a small town, she did all of these, writing her plays, acting in them, directing them, writing poetry, fiction and song lyrics. She knew an actor in Hollywood who was Icelandic and corresponded with him and sent him some of her plays. The family has at least one of his replies.

With four children, living in a small, rural town, she still had big dreams. Even in such circumstances people can still hope to do something exceptional with their life.

I think of this because I was sorting and filing papers over the last few days and I came across an envelope with a copy of one of her published songs.

I wondered as I studied the piece of sheet music what her dream was, did she hope to go to Hollywood? It seems like an impossible dream but there were quite a few Icelanders did go to Hollywood, including Halldor Laxnes, in pursuit of fame and fortune. Laxness stayed in an apartment provided by a successful Icelandic developer. And I wondered how many women in small towns, on farms, in prairie cities harboured dreams of greater things?

Rose Petals

My Grandfather and WW1

 

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Today and tomorrow, i will think a lot about my grandfather, William John Smith (Bill). He was born in Ireland. He emigrated to Winnipeg, Manitoba because his three sisters were already there. When  he arrived in Manitoba, he worked at various jobs available for new immigrants: glazier, drayman. He joined the militia. Joining the militia was normal. He was Northern Irish, loyal to the Crown, and the armed forces had deep connections to England.

He was shipped to France in 1915. During his time in the trenches he was gassed. When he recovered from that, he was sent back into the trenches to be both a sniper and a machine gunner. Men were killed by artillery fire all around him. Killed by bullets. Drowned in the mud and water. He was wounded by shrapnel in his right hand. It would have healed but it became infected. There were no antibiotics.He spent the rest of the war in hospital in England and, at the end of the war, was shipped back to Canada where he spent time in a hospital in Quebec.

He was one of the lucky survivors. Except the damage to his lungs could never be healed. Mustard gas does terrible things to lungs. He never complained about the war except to say that the treatment of ordinary soldiers was dreadful. Officers dined well and the men on the front lines atebully beef out of a tin and strawberry jam. He never had anything to say about the German soldiers except that they were very brave. I once asked him if he’d killed anyone during the war and he said, “Thousands.” And explained about an enfilade, machine gun trajectories crossing over each other on both sides, slaughtering the soldiers charging toward them. It was a slaughter as generals tried to fight battles with outdated strategies against new technology. The senior officers were often so clueless that they matched the French generals who were shown machine guns in action before the war started and one of them said, “Interesting, but what would you use them for?”

But that’s not what I will think about today and tomorrow. What I will think about is that the cold winter weather of Manitoba made it difficult for him to breathe because of his damaged lungs. He could never afford a car and rode his bicycle to work at the railway roundhouse. Sometimes his lungs were so affected by the cold that he couldn’t get his breath and  he would fall from his bike. My grandmother, on more than one occasion, saw him crawling through the snow toward the house.

War is not business as usual. Soldiers are not just another group of civil servants. While my grandfather suffered bombardment, saw his comrades torn to shreds by explosions, killed by snipers, killed by mustard gas, made to mount attacks in impossible situations, politicians in Ottawa and elsewhere lived in comfort and safety. For many, the war was about making money. For them, war was an opportunity to become rich. Once the war was over, my grandfather and all the other cannon fodder were a nuisance, a cost instead of a profit and responsibility for them was cast aside. Read the history of the General Strike in Winnipeg, the unemployment, the refusal to accept responsibility of the plight of the returning soldiers by the politicians who had spent the war in comfort and security.

There was no glory in scarred lungs. No glory in a shattered hand. No glory in a lifetime of memories of the horrors of war. Celebrate the bravery of people like my grandfather but don’t make war glorious. There is no glory in it.

 

Keeping Our Dream Alive

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How do you keep a dream alive? A dream that is impossible, that is guaranteed to shatter against hard reality?

When the Iceland emigrants left for North America, they had little knowledge of the continent and what they thought they knew was often wrong. This was no different from any of the other ethnic groups streaming across the Atlantic.

In Michael Ewanchuk’s book,Pioneer Profiles he says that when the first Ukrainian settlers came to the New Iceland region, they went west where there was still land available, waded in swamps up to t heir waists, and when they came back to their wives and families, they cried. The information enticing emigrants exaggerated the benefits, the quality of the land, and living conditions.

The Icelanders came earlier, arriving in New Iceland in 1875, and instead of finding streets paved with gold, or even decent farm land, found bush and swamp. The marginal land in New Iceland defeated the dream of an exclusive Icelandic community. Faced with harsh conditions many left for Winnipeg or land further to the west.

In spite of this turn of events, they survived and for a hundred and forty years the Icelandic North American community has found ways to preserve its identity.

Although religion divided the community, the various churches provided a community where people could hear a service in Icelandic, could speak Icelandic and could receive help in dealing with the problems of being new immigrants. During my childhood and teenage years, the church still had a lot of authority. It taught religion and morals, a bit of history and provided solace in times of tragedy.

Few people today understand how religious the original immigrants were.The Icelandic immigrants who arrived in Manitoba were devout, intolerant, argumentative and wasted energy and resources in arguments which had little actual purpose. As usual, the religion was a vessel for containing differing views on social behaviour. Should the settlers isolate themselves, create a society that was exclusively Icelandic, that would exclude non-Icelanders, or should they attempt to integrate as quickly as possible? That question split the community.

The church services, once in Icelandic, gradually changed to English. Language is the centre of identity and it was being lost. The church, always a conservative institution loyal to the past, held on as long as it could but, finally, had to face the fact that many of its parishioners only understood English. At the same time, urbanization meant rural communities died, leaving behind graveyards and empty church buildings. The conservative forces of rural life and rural religion largely disappeared.

The Icelanders in Winnipeg created the Jon Bjarnason Academy. It was to be a Lutheran and Icelandic school. Icelandic was taught.
At first, it drew students with Icelandic backgrounds. Over time, the school drew non-Icelandic students because it was allowed to teach the equivalent of first year university. When that right was extended to other schools, the need for people to pay for their children’s education disappeared and the school closed.

Not one but two Icelandic papers were created: Logberg and Heimskringla. One Lutheran and liberal and the other Unitarian and conservative. Once again, time, resources, money were wasted in fierce, bitter battles. Looking back at things that were written by Icelanders about other Icelanders, one is tempted to say shame on them.

When the Icelandic immigrants left Iceland, their leaving was often regarded as treason. Iceland was on the cusp of getting its independence from Denmark. Some people felt that people were leaving who were needed in the struggle for independence. Others, the wealthy farmers, for example, were opposed to emigration because they were losing cheap labour. Ordinary farm workers had been exploited, some so badly that they thought that black slaves in America were better off. The leaving created a lot of hard feelings on both sides.

Somehow, even though lack of experience and knowledge meant that the immigrants went to areas where there was little or no opportunity such as Nova Scotia where all the good land was already taken, to Kinmount, where the land was not suitable for farming, to New Iceland in Manitoba where the land was so marginal that it guaranteed poverty for most people, they survived. Not just survived, but over time, prospered and with absolute determination, kept hold of their Icelandic heritage.

It took time for society to become secular and more tolerant. In the interim, the churches did provide cohesion, education, and direction. Bringing people together for services and various celebrations and events, helped to create community, helped to provide assistance to those in need, helped people deal with all too frequent tragedies. They were a stabilizing force in a changing society. First formally, then informally, they helped preserve the Icelandic language.

Although the Jon Bjarnason Academy closed, the department of Icelandic was created at the University of Manitoba. It became one of the pillars of the community, providing instruction in Icelandic and in Icelandic literature and culture. The Icelandic library became a repository for historical documents and literature.

The two papers, Logberg and Heimskringla, faced with the reality of people moving away from New Iceland and Winnipeg, with fewer people reading Icelandic, joined and became a single paper. Survival required that differences had to be set aside. The compromise created the rules that there would be no sex, no politics, and no religion. No sex was so as not to offend the ammas and aunties, no choosing sides in politics to get over the divide between the Liberal and Conservative ranting and raving, and no religion to stop the feuding between the Lutherans and Unitarians.

The paper, in spite of complaints about it not being just what any individual wants, is essential to the continuing survival of the Icelandic North American community. It is the second pillar of the community. Just saying North American is controversial. When I was editor, I had people threaten to cancel their subscription because I used North American instead of Canadian. As if all those people of Icelandic descent in Minnesota, North Dakota, Washington State, etc. don’t exist or don’t matter. We are a small group. Gathered together, we would hardly be noticed in the population in most major cities. We need every one of us. LH needs every subscription it can get.

LH is critical to the community because it tells us, or should tell us, about each other. It should entertain us but it should also inform and educate us. Without it, I wouldn’t have known about the descendants of the Icelanders in Nova Scotia. I wouldn’t have known about the descendants in Washington State. Our greatest danger is that we will lose touch with each other. We will stop knowing who we are. Outposts that are forgotten die.

In support and recognition of our ethnic identity, an Islendingadagurinn was created in Winnipeg in 1890. It was moved to Gimli in 1932. This celebration is the third pillar of our identity.

This Icelandic Celebration has helped to give the community cohesiveness. Once a year on the first weekend in August, people travel from all over North America and from Iceland to join together. VIPs from Iceland, including the Prime Minister, the President, have come to join the party. Women put on traditional dresses from the time of emigration. Plastic Viking helmets are ubiquitous. There are speeches extolling our virtues and the virtues of our visitors. There is Icelandic Canadian food. There are displays of Icelandic goods and Icelandic Canadian memorabilia. What is important, though, is that the community congregates, renews friendships, re-enforces its ethnic identity.

Sometimes in the not too distant past, some say 1971, others say, 1975, there was a rapprochement between the Icelanders in Iceland and the descendants of the settlers. My great grandfather had so little use for the Iceland he left behind at the age of eighteen that he wouldn’t even walk half a block to the site of the annual celebration. He wasn’t alone. The emigration left a lot of bitterness on both sides of the Atlantic. The schools in Iceland taught that the people who emigrated were traitors, running away when they were needed. The people who left often harboured dark memories. A lot of people on both sides of the Atlantic have worked hard at changing that and turning old enmity into friendship.

Air travel has meant that people could go to Iceland and Icelanders could come to North America. As usual, when people get to know each other, they find their prejudices against others don’t have much foundation. Now, with a tremendous effort by people like Pam Furstenau with her Icelandic Roots project, families are re-uniting. The Icelandic government has also made tremendous efforts to help the community rediscover its Icelandic identity.

We, as a community, need to provide support for Logberg-Heimskringla, the Icelandic Department at the  U. of Manitoba and Islendingadagurinn. We have a history in North America and in Iceland that is worth preserving and celebrating.

Journalism and democracy

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In a democracy, it is the task of the government to protect and manage the assets of the populace. This is true in both war and peace. In war the government, representing us, is prepared to divert resources away from other tasks and to send our young people to fight and to their deaths. We make these sacrifices not just to retain our wealth but also our freedom.

Freedom is so valuable that we are prepared to die to defend it.
During peacetime, when there is an attempt to power away from the people, those who would do so know that one of the first tasks is to seize the means of communication. We have seen numerous coups where those leading the coup have gained control of the broadcast stations so that they can control all news. They can then keep the populace from knowing and responding to what is happening. Once in control, they can provide one message with no dissent.

Even when there is not a physical coup, individual politicians and their parties can attempt to control the media and, so, control the message. This can be done through intimidation or simply by having wealthy supporters buy control of newspapers, television and radio stations. These stations will not follow the supposed purpose of journalism: to inform, to educate and to entertain. Often, they do little except entertain because that is cheap and people will pay more to be entertained than to be informed or educated. However, when they do inform, the information is highly biased. At its worst, this is yellow journalism. It is filled with lies, distortions, and biases.

This is why it is critical to have an independent national broadcaster such as the CBC. It is the task, without fear or favour, of the national broadcaster to ask hard questions, to seek out answers, to point out lies, to provide information. It is not the CBCs, or any other national broadcaster’s job to be a mouthpiece for government.

One has only to compare the CBC with Pravda. When Glasnot first appeared in Russia, there was great hope that Russia would have a free press, that it would fulfill the three journalism functions. Pravda means truth and was the official publication of the Communist party. It had a specific function in spreading the political messages of the Party. With the demise of the USSR and the rise of Gorbachev, there was a time when it seemed that journalistic independence could blossom. Under Putin, the government is not the Russian government, it is the Putin government and Pravda is just another organ for spreading the policies of the Putin government.

How threatening do repressive governments find journalists? In 2014, 80 journalists were killed. So far in 2015 45 journalists have been killed. Not all those deaths represent the deliberate, targeted killing of journalists but many of them are the result of targeted killings. Those deaths also serve to silence others from reporting or voicing an opinion.

The first signs of totalitarianism, whether it be communism or fascism, is an attack on an independent media. That attack may be something as simple as budget cuts, the selling off of facilities, the removal of charitable status. One can silence critics’ voices with more than a bullet or a bomb.

If we want to continue to be a democracy, something that 42,000 armed forces gave their lives for in WWII, we have to demand that the CBC be independent, that it provide us, the people, with the best information possible, that it inform and educate us first and entertain us last. It has, over the decades created a heritage of trust. Not for all of us, unfortunately. I friend of mine said CBC means Can’t Be Conservative. While it is understandable that the CBC at the moment is delighted at the demise of Stephen Harper because he threatened to dismantle it, that burst of relief will fade and those in charge need to do some soul searching and make certain that the CBC represents all Canadians. Nobody, Liberal, NDP, Conservative, Green should get a free ride.

The Canadian people, that is you and me, have the right to own our resources. It is as legitimate for the people of Canada to own the Wheat Board or the CBC as it is for any private company to own a grain trading company or a broadcast company. There is nothing inherently virtuous about ownership by private corporations. History, recent and in the distant past, is filled with evidence of the harm done by private corporations. Private corporations have no morality, no social purpose, their only purpose is to make money their owners. To do that, they’ve enslaved people, created working conditions in sweat shops and mines, in the forests, at sea that kill people without conscience or concern. If you want to see capitalism at its worst go to Moosejaw and take the Chinese laundry tunnel tour.

That does not mean that all corporations are evil or that capitalism is evil. However, capitalism and corporations must be constantly watched, investigated, chided and, when they does wrong, exposed. The CBC must act as our ears and eyes. And voice. The CBC has a major role to play in informing and educating Canadians about the real conditions in society.
Good journalism holds the politicians and, sometimes, business people’s feet to the fire. That’s a journalist’s job. Unless, of course, you live in a dictatorship.

The Trudeau government gets down to work tomorrow. There are many tasks ahead of it but something that can be done quickly is to restore resources to the CBC, resources that will start to repair the damage done to the corporation.

The CBC is not, in spite of what we have observed for years in the actions of the Harper government, an enemy of the Canadian people. It is our best friend and champion. May it survive long to protect us.

Medieval Romance in Iceland

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The Culture of the Saga Writers
The more lectures on Iceland I attend, the more disillusioned I become. That’s because I didn’t grow up with any knowledge about Iceland. Instead, I grew up with local village legends. You know, Iceland had the first democracy in the world. Everyone in Iceland was equal. There was so little crime that there was no need of police. Iceland was so isolated that Icelanders were one hundred percent Scandinavian. The Eddas and the Sagas, when we heard them mentioned, were purely Icelandic. The Sagas were a hundred percent historic.

Those village legends were all wrong, of course. Part of it was romanticism, part idealism, part nostalgia, part just not knowing Icelandic history or literature.

Still, Dr. Torfi Tilinius’s last lecture for the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust have left me discombobulated.

Normally, in fiction, film, tourism advertising, re-enactments, it is all about the Vikings portrayed in the sagas. It never is about the people who wrote the sagas. Dr. Tilinius lecture gave us a cram-packed look at the people who wrote those sagas. The Vikings didn’t write them. Icelanders two hundred years after the saga events wrote them. We may not know, for certain, there were no copyright rules in those days, who wrote a specific saga but we know a lot about the society of the time. What were those Icelanders like, those who had the talent and ability, the resources, the interest, in writing the sagas. They weren’t those mythic figures murdering and enslaving, burning and butchering. There was still lots of conflict in Icelandic society as powerful land owners struggled for power but much else was also happening.

This third lecture was on Medieval Romances in Iceland: Old Norse translation from Old French. I know it sounds a bit esoteric but I think everybody in the Icelandic North American community should have been there to hear it. It would change the image of Iceland for a lot of people.

The sagas were written in the 13th century. That was two hundred years after the events many of them recount. They were about pagans but written by Christians. Those Christians were educated. They could read and write. They had the time, the resources and the interest needed to have a cultured life. Their interests extended far beyond the boundaries of Iceland. The breadth of that interest can be seen in the large number of translations into Icelandic from a number of other languages.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of these translations into Norse. In some cases, the original of the translation has disappeared in the host country. There are pieces of French literature, for example, that have been lost but we know about them because they exist in Icelandic.

We hear about the Vikings raising and trading but we seldom hear about the tremendous amount of travel between Iceland and other countries like France and Germany, not just Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

This all raises questions about how and why the translations were done. Who did them? How did the translations change the original? Something Torfi didn’t mention but I’ve heard in other lectures was the tremendous cost of creating a book, either an original or a copy. Vellum was used. Vellum means made from a calf (calfskin). If a rich farmer wanted a book, he needed to be able to kill a lot of calfs, have their skins tanned and treated, then pay someone to write a narrative or copy it painstakingly by hand. In spite of this, there were a lot of different types of documents that were translated: treatises on grammar and rhetoric, religion, literature, homilies, saints’ lives, poetry, the science of the day, historical, and romance literature. This points to a vibrant culture but also one with the resources necessary to have these tasks done.

In the 12th C. Latin began to give way to the vernacular, the language spoken by the local people. There were stories of courtly love. In the 13th C. Alexandrs Saga from Latin was very popular. From the French came Chansens de geste, Charlamagne, etc.

Kingdoms were being established and with them a system of nobility. The kings needed to control ambitious nobles. Royalty supported literature because they saw it as a way to control those powerful nobles. The nobles sent their sons to court and that controlled what they were taught.

Torfi gave examples of important works that had been translated into Icelandic. One he mentioned was The Ethics of Empire. He thinks it was most probably presented by an Icelander as a gift to the King of Norway in the winter of 1262-63. The Icelandic bishop Brandr Jónnson had just been appointed bishop at Holar by the Norwegian hierarchy. 1262 was also the year that Iceland succumbed to pressure and became part of Norway.
What was most fascinating was Torfi´s discussion of how sections of some sagas appear to be borrowed from many kinds of literature. I had learned that the sagas were not pure history and that they were affected by outside influences but Torfi made this very specific when he took us through an original story and then through the episode in the saga that was derived from it.

Incidents being borrowed from other literatures, lays, chansons de geste, romances being available and known among the wealthy, powerful Icelandic families. Large amounts of translation into Icelandic. Once again, my image of Icelanders and their history was modified, expanded. So much for my childhood image of what it meant to be of Icelandic. To us it meant battling around the yard with swords made of lathe as we pretended to be Vikings. That left a lot out.

 

Egill, the brutal poetic puzzle

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Egill isn’t as loved as Erlendur. The audience, while a good size at today’s Beck lecture about Egill´s Saga was about half what it was for Torfi Tulinius´s first lecture on the detective novel in Iceland. Obviously, there are a lot more people reading Icelandic mystery novels than Icelandic sagas. However, this second lecture was just as good as the first. Like all good lectures, it sent me away thinking about things I hadn’t thought about for a long time.

Many decades ago, I took a course on the sagas with Haraldur Bessason. I got to know many strange characters, characters pagan to the core, killing each other in fits of rage, because of jealousy, of honour, out of greed, but today Torfi brought a new way of looking at the sagas. Yes, I knew that the sagas were written two hundred years or so after the events they describe. By that time, Iceland was Catholic Christian. That means it was Catholic Christians who were writing the sagas or influencing the writing of the sagas. Do a little research and you will see how Catholicism dominated Iceland. But Torfi made me look at the meaning of that.

Torfi argued that Egill’s saga and others were written by educated men who knew the Bible, knew the stories of both the Old and New Testament. Many sagas follow the traditions of and are obviously influenced by European story telling. I knew that. But I hadn’t thought of looking at some of the major sagas of earlier times as having as models stories from the Bible.

Too often we think of the Vikings as being hermetically sealed away from the rest of the world while at the same time saying that they went raiding, that they served in the court in Russia, that they founded Kiev. We do the Vikings a disservice. They didn’t just go on a raid, kill everyone they met, steal all their stuff and sail home. They dealt with people from many different countries not just as raiders but as traders.

There’s no direct proof but many scholars believe that Snorri Sturluson wrote Egill’s saga. If that is true, then in reading the saga, we have to look not just at the society in which Egill lived but also the society in which Snorri lived.
Torfi started by mentioning his book, The Enigma of Egill, The Saga, The Viking Poet and Snorri Sturluson published by Cornell University Library in the Islendica series. It is open access and can be read on line.

Egill’s saga was written in the first half of the 13th C. It is about Egill Skalla-Grimsson who lived in the 10th C. The saga tells us about traveling, mythology, poetry, politics, ethics, Viking life and when it gathered together becomes the living memory of a past time.

Torfi talked about the Viking diaspora and once he named it, it was obvious that during Viking times there was diaspora. One has only to look at a map (he provided one) with arrows showing Viking travels: Greenland, Newfoundland, Norway, Britain, Germany, France, Sweden, Russia, Denmark. Relatives and friends went to these places and some stayed.

The Vikings, of course, were able to travel as they did because of their light, shallow boats that allowed them to come ashore and up rivers. Listening to Torfi, I was immediately reminded of watching the Viking movie at the Royal British Columbia museum and seeing the Viking exhibit.

These boats allowed the Vikings to be opportunistic. Their boats allowed them to attack Lindisfarne Abbey in AD 793, a raid which is often regarded as the beginning of the Viking era. They raided Noirmoutie in AD 799, along the Atlantic coast and Galacia and Portugal, through the Mediterranean. Mythology has it that Kiev was founded by two Scandinavian brothers and their sister. The Viking effect may not have been as strong in the East as the West as was explained by a member of the audience but I said to Torfi that when I got off the train in Kiev, the person greeting me said, “Welcome, cousin.”

The Vikings went on to create petty kingdoms or domains in Ireland, Orkney, Scotland, Caithness, Helsinki, and Normandy. Finally, when they lost the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, the Viking age was considered over.
Iceland, with its separation from Europe, kept and cultivated the memory of this diaspora. At the same time, the age provided a social structure made up in part of free farmers led by chieftains or petty kings, a tradition of assemblies and a rule of some kind of law.

During all the Viking era and afterwards, Icelanders were in constant interaction with Christian Europe. They didn’t just kill the Christians and loot churches. Christianity brought cultural influences. Viking leaders, Kings, adopted their values and behaviour. So much so that by the early 12 C the Nordic countries had become part of Christian Europe.

If anyone is interested in this Viking diaspora, Torfi suggested reading The Viking Diaspora by Judith Jesch.

By the middle of the 12th C. the church was providing new organization and learning. The chieftains had political power and were judges so they had great control. They started to learn to write. It became important to write down poetry, narration and law, not just religion.

While languages changed in Europe, Icelandic remained much the same. That meant that as time passed Icelanders had the ability to read their past literature. They became the keepers of the collective memory. Icelanders traveled to European courts as skalds. They brought knowledge of the past but not just as history but also as poetry, drama and laws. It became part of the role of Icelanders to be the keepers of Scandinavian culture. That led to the development of writing techniques and to commissions to write biographies of kings.

The sagas that resulted were composed in Iceland. They were prose narratives. The main characters were Icelanders. Some, if not all the action takes place in Iceland. They cover from the settlement period to the Conversion or a short period after that.

Torfi took us through the arguments for Egill’s saga to have been written by Snorri Sturluson and then told us about Snorri. Snorri lived from 1179-1241. He was a chieftain, ruled over a large domain, a poet, a historian, a courtier (he went to Norway to live at court at times), a manipulator and became powerful because he knew how to use the resources available.

During the lecture, I wished that Joan Cadham hadn’t died last week. I would like to have emailed her and asked her what she thought of looking at Egill’s saga from the point of view of a Catholic writing it. She was an intellectual Catholic, knew her religion and history, knew a Catholic point of view.

Torfi said here we have a Christian telling the story of a pagan. Why was the writing of the story so important? Why tell a story about Egill? He’s brutal, does horrible things but is also a poet. Toward the end of his life, Snorri has gone to Norway, returned to find his domain fallen into disrepair. He’s in conflict with his older brother. He attempts to bring people together. What does his rise and fall have to do with how he sees the past and the present? Is a Christian story is being told in Egill´s saga? Perhaps, Torfi said during the question period, it was the story of King David. There are numerous parallels.

Egill, King David, the saga as a Christian tale. Perhaps as one of the audience said it is merely an attempt at revisionist history. Or, maybe that niggling problem I’ve had ever since I studied sagas with Haraldur Bessason, that problem of knowing that when the sagas were written, Iceland was Catholic and Christian and the writers were Christian and educated, that problem of wondering why they wrote them.

During the question period, Torfi recited eight lines of poetry from memory. The lines were from a long poem. The king of Norway has had a chieftain killed because he’s becoming afraid of him. The chieftain’s relatives capture and kill the king’s messengers and two royal children. The poetry tersely describes what has been done to the victims. I could imagine if that verse had not been recited in a well-lit classroom but in a baðstofa with nothing but a few weak candles as I sat on a bed and knitted mittens with the wind screeching and the rain falling and shadows everywhere. For a moment I knew the power of the old stories.

The Detective Novel in Iceland: Beck Lecture

Dr. Tulinius

The place was packed. I quit counting at sixty.

And it wasn’t just the numbers but who was there. This is Victoria, remember, not Winnipeg, and there were the Consul General, Hjalmar Hannesson and his wife, Anna. With them were Bill and Heather Ireland. Heather is the Honorary Consul in Vancouver.

Dr. John Tucker, Medievalist, has retired. He has directed the Richard and Margaret Beck Lectures from the very beginning. Dr. Helga Thorson, Chair of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies is the new director. She introduced herself and the speaker Dr. Torfi Tulinius.

Dr. Tulinius wasn’t intimidated by a room full of Arnaldur Indriðason groupies. He launched right into his eagerly awaited talk, “The Detective Novel in Icelandic: From Jóhann M. Bjarnason to Arnaldur Indriðason“.

Torfi has a Phd from the Sorbonne, is Professor of Medieval Icelandic Studies in the School of Humanities at the U. Of Iceland. He is interested in a broad subject matter: Medieval Icelandic Literature, Medieval history, narrative theory, and psychoanalysis. He used something from all those fields to tell us about Indriðason´s writing and Indriðason himself. However, he first put Indriðason´s novels in context.

The detective novel in Icelandic could first be attributed to Jóhann M. Bjarnason in 1910. JMB, an Icelandic Canadian writer, wrote a short story that had a protagonist who uses Conan Doyle´s techniques to solve a mystery.
Not much happens from then until after the war when Valur Vestan writes some mystery fiction However, it really isn´t until the 1970s that detective fiction, murder mysteries start to appear by people like Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson, Gunnar Gunnanson, Brigitta Halldórsdóttir, and Leo Löwe.
In 2001 crime fiction was still not taken seriously because Icelandic writers felt that there was so little crime in Iceland that there was nothing to write about.

It wasn´t until the late 90s mystery writing started to catch the attention of both Icelandic writers and public.

Because of the importance of literature in Iceland, crime fiction created a reaction. It was a stranger in the family where poetry and serious literary work were admired and understood. Literature in Iceland is an important part of the national identity. People didn´t know quite how to react. The Sagas and Eddas had preserved the language and kept it distinct from other languages. As well, the Eddas and Sagas had played an important part in Iceland´s gaining independence from Denmark.

Modern prose writers such as Gunnar Gunnarsson and Halldor Laxness were considered serious writers. They fitted into the literary image held by Icelanders. Sixty years ago in 1955 Laxness received the Nobel prize and with it created recognition world wide of Icelandic literature.

Crime fiction intruded into the serious literariness of the Icelanders but, because of its success abroad, it had a driving force that could not be ignored. Iceland was the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2011. That was, at least in part, because of the wide readership and praise for crime fiction written by Icelandic writers.

Torfi gave a slide show as he lectured. It made following the historic story easier to follow. He entitled one section “Is crime fiction a stranger to the family?”

He answered this question by demonstrating that there are elements of mystery solving in the sagas. One of those was the mysterious murder of Vésteinn and then Gisli´s murder of his bother-in-law, Porgrímur. In another saga episode the dead are brought back to reveal that a crime has been committed. Even in societies that don’t have police forces crimes need to be discovered and dealt with.

At this point, Torfi turned to telling us something about Indriðason´s background. Like his father, he was a journalist. Arnaldur reviewed Scandinavian crime fiction. He developed a wide knowledge of Icelandic modern history. Using that knowledge, he recreates a fictional world that incorporates modern elements that people know about. In The Draining Lake, he has as an important element of Russian spy equipment. It is a little bit of history that people only remember when prodded.

While he creates the Iceland that was rushed pell-mell out of history into the present by WWII, he is influenced by the sagas with their themes of revenge, honour, and family loyalty. His novels often revolve around families and their relationship.

One particularly interesting fact was that the name of his main character, Erlendur, means foreigner or stranger. It immediately made sense for Erlendur, the depressed, moody detective, obsessed with the missing and the past, is from the country, from old Iceland. He lives in Reykjavik, in new Iceland. He is uncomfortable there. As a policeman he sees the stresses and strains, the ruptures and disruptions of family life, the cost of urbanization.

Torfi finished by telling us that Indriðason writes a book a year. He is looking forward to the new one being released, as usual, on November 1. You could tell from the reaction of the audience that there will be a lot of people at the bookstores in Victoria when this latest novel becomes available. I´ll be one of them.

If you get a chance to hear Dr. Torfi Tulinius talk about the detective novel be sure to attend. He´s a good lecturer and will leave you satisfied but wanting to know more.