Background notes: The Troll Wife

Folk tale collections often include stories of wishes gone wrong.
Many cultures have stories about the danger of making wishes based on greed or pride.
Sometimes, though, they are about wishes gone right. Those are usually about rewards for those whose behaviour is exemplary.
“The Troll Wife” is about both of these: first, a wish that is granted but not with positive consequences and second, goodness being rewarded.
Such tales often include a challenge or test that requires kindness or an act of faith. That test is usually issued by a woman or a woman disguised or hidden by a curse or spell and it is made to a man. In cultures with royal figures such a young man is often a prince, wealthy, handsome and the troll or ugly figure turns out to be a beautiful maiden worthy of a prince.
You can make much or little of such a tale. It can be seen as a story about the need to test the true love of young men and/or a statement about the relationship of men and women in a given culture. It was not long ago that there was no birth control and folk music and folk stories are filled with sorrow and lamentations caused by young men who seduce maidens, then abandon them.
The most popular song of servant’s maids was “Early One Morning”. “Early one morning, just as the sun was rising, I heard a young maid sing in the valley below, Oh, don’t deceive me, Oh, never leave me. How could you use a poor maiden so.”
It is no wonder that tests of a young man’s faithfulness are a quite common theme. However, it is also not surprising that the emotions of love, jealousy, the desire to be beautiful, are frequent subjects.
In “The Beauty and the Beast” it is love that turns a beast into a human. It is love that rescues Ragnheiður from the curse placed upon her.
“The Troll Wife” goes beyond that to a statement about the difference in substance and appearance.
“The Troll Wife” has a lot to say about values. The values of Eva, the wife, who puts beauty above everything, wants nothing more than popularity, and seeks materialistic fulfillment from other people. The values of Ragnheiður who sees in Eva’s husband, Svein, not a man with a physical deformity but a man with many virtues. The values of Svein who is practical, hard working, kind and loyal.
Ragnheiður is a night troll. If she is touched by daylight, she will turn to stone. She has magical powers for she knows what Eva has wished and she can grant the wish. She is ethical, moral, for she makes no effort to undermine the situation between the husband and wife. She helps Eva with untangling the nets and she offers a warning to Eva about her future life and wishes her well.
Night trolls were usually considered dangerous and terrifying. But Ragnheiður is only a night troll because of a curse. She is actually, under her outward appearance, a beautiful woman. She implies that the curse was the result of jealousy brought about by her beauty. Certainly, beauty is two-edged. It can bring popularity but also jealousy and envy. Ragnheiður, from her experience, grants beauty to Eva but, based on her own experience, doubts it will bring her happiness.
Ragnheiður and Svein prosper because they love each other and work as one, expecting nothing from each other but giving much to each other.
The story also might have something to say about the power of love to transform people.

Embrace Our Heritage Part 3


The theme of the Brandon INL annual conference was “Embrace Your Heritage”.
I’d tried to do that some time ago by writing a book of folk tales set in Iceland and New Iceland. What The Bear Said has fourteen stories. Some take place in Iceland. Some take place in New Iceland in Canada. However, I realized that the characters both human and other wise, lived in a third world, a world that only they could experience. I called that the In Between World. That was the world experienced by people who lived in both Iceland and Canada.
Only these people ever could live in this In Between World. Those who stayed in Iceland would remain in their known world. Those born in Canada would remain in their known world. My great great grandparents and my great grandparents, however, would live out their lives in this In Between World.  
Dividing these worlds up made me realize that much of what I once thought of as my Icelandic heritage is actually my Canadian, Manitoba, Gimli heritage. If, when I was young, someone had asked me about my Icelandic background, I’d have talked about pickerel fillets, Lutheran Sunday school, smoked Goldeye, hockey, fishing on Lake Winnipeg, Islindingadagurinn, Tergesen’s general store, Bjarnason’s dry goods and grocery store and, of course, Icelandic food.
When I was young, people still spoke Icelandic over the coffee table. You heard it in the stores. But not in our house. My mother was Irish. Not in my grandfather’s house. After his wife Icelandic wife died, he married a woman who was German and Polish. You also heard Ukrainian in the schools and on the playground. My favorite English dialect was called Bungi, a mixture of Cree, Scots, and Orkney. It was the most mellifluous language I’ve ever heard. My great grandparents, my grandparents, my parents, me—four generations in Canada and the disintegration and integration was well under way.
However, Gimli, the original centre of New Iceland, having a lot of residents of Icelandic background made it feel, when I was a kid, as if hockey had something to do with being Icelandic. The hockey players had names like Sveinson, Bjarnason, Kristjanson, Valgardson, Magnusson. 
The truth is that in small towns all over Canada populated by widely different ethnic groups, hockey was being played. Hockey was a Gimli experience, a Manitoba experience, a Canadian experience. The fact that many of us had Icelandic backgrounds was incidental. Kids of an Icelandic background got to play Canadian hockey but so did Polish, Ukrainian, German, English, Scots, Irish kids.
I knew the world of New Iceland because I grew up in it. Yet, even here, there was a whole background that I didn’t know, partly because most of the material the early settlers recorded was written in Icelandic and by my generation, the fourth generation, the language was lost to most of us. The truth is that the hockey team that won the first Olympic gold medal, the Falcons, made up of Icelandic players, had to fight to be allowed to compete.
To me, the other world, the world of Iceland just before and during the period of emigration was a complete mystery. This was the world in which my great great grandparents and great grandparents were born and lived.
My research has shown that nearly everything I’d been told about Iceland when I was growing up turned out to be wrong. Not because anyone lied but because Iceland was a long distance from Gimli, Manitoba both in miles and time. In many cases people simply misunderstood what they had heard.  Iceland had an early parliament, for example, but it was not a democracy, it was not representation by population, ordinary people didn’t get to vote. Nor were women fierce independent warriors. Most of them were hired help on farms and lived lives of dreadful drudgery and deprivation.
Discovering that my great great grandparents weren’t dashing Vikings but indentured farm laborers living in an agrarian society that had great difficulty feedings itself meant if I were going to embrace my real heritage, I needed to learn as much about Iceland in the 1800s as possible.
Great grandpa, it turned out wasn’t a Viking raider. He was a farm laborer. He didn’t come to Canada to pillage but for the opportunity of having his own farm and dairy business. Kirk Douglas would never have been interested in playing him in a Hollywood movie.

Uno von Troil: cattle

Uno von Troil says “Next to fishing, the principal support of the Icelanders is the breeding of cattle.
“Their beeves are not large, but very fat and good. It has been reported by some, though without foundation, that there are none among them with horns: it is however true that they seldom have nay.”
“The large cattle are kept at home in their yards the greater part of the year, though some have places appropriated for them in the mountains which they call fatr, where they send their cattle during the summer, till the hay harvest is over. They have a herdsman to attend them, and two women to milk them and make butter and cheese. It is common to meet with oxen running wild about the mountains, which are however drove home in autumn, as everyone knows his own by a particular mark put upon them.
“The principal food of the cattle is hay, and they reckon that a stack of  hay for a cow’s winter provision; a stack consists of thirty cocks (kapal) of hay, grown on manured land, and forty cocks kapal grown on un-manured land. When there is a scarcity of fodder, they feed them in some pars with steenbitr, a kind of fish, which, together with the heads and bones of cod, is beat small, and mixed with one quarter of chopped hay. The cattle are fond of it and yield a good deal of milk after it; but yet it is said to have a bad taste, and they only make use of this food in time of need.
“Their cows yield four kanne of  milk a day, though they have some that give from eight to fourteen in four-and-twenty hours. A cow that yields six quarts is reckoned a good one, and must not stand dry above there weeks before she calves.
“A young calf is fed with milk for ten days or a fortnight, afterwards the milk is mixed with water and chopped hay, and at last they give it whey instead of milk
“The usual price of a cow, as well as of a horse, is one hundred and twenty ells, thirty of which make a dollar. However, sometimes the better sort of horses are sold for eight or ten rix-dollars. They have less trouble with their horses than their cows; for though some saddle-horses are kept in stables during winter, the greater number of them are obliged to provide for their own subsistence, and when they cannot find this on land, they go in search of sea-weeds on the coasts; but when a great quantity of snow has fallen, the natives are obliged to clear it away for them.”
To get this stack of hay needed for each cow to survive the winter, every farm worker (and the small farm owner), has to scythe an area 180 ft. by 180 ft. every day. That’s on the tún where the soil is manured and where the grass grows more thickly. To get that stack of hay for each cow from unfertilized meadows, a man has to scythe a square 240 ft to a side every day. The women working in the fields have to rake as much hay as three men can mow. Every day. The hours were long, The work hard. In Paradise Reclaimed, after the farm at Steinahliðar has been destroyed and Steina has been sent by the parish council to work on a farm, the narrator says, “She was worn out after a summer of drudgery, long days of toiling in the rain with her rake far into the night.” 
Uno von Troil writes about life in Iceland in 1772. Laxness sets Paradise Reclaimed around the year 1874. We know this because the Danish king comes to visit. Little, if anything, has changed.
In 1874, there has been no mechanization. The cattle depend on harvested grass for the winter. The grass was still cut with a scythe and, although there are many tales of witches who can command a host of scythes to cut her grass, the reality is that one man can only wield one scythe. The grass has to be raked. It has to be dried. It has to be stacked. An experienced farmer can look at his stacks of hay and his herd and calculate how long the hay will last and whether or not, before the year is over, he‘ll be feeding his cattle hay mixed with hammered fish bones and sea weed. In a good year, the milk will taste sweet and in a bad year, it will taste of fish. In a very bad year, there‘ll be no milk to taste.
Cows, in a way, were regarded as a luxury because they required more grass than sheep for an equal amount of milk. In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses resents it when he is given a cow unasked. With the milk from the cow, the health of his family improves but only at the cost of less feed for his sheep.

When their cow is starving for lack of hay, Bjartur’s wife, Finna asks him to visit some of the other farms to borrow some hay. He refuses and says,
“No power between heaven and earth shall make me betray my sheep for the sake of a cow. It took me eighteen years work to get my stock together. I worked twelve more years to pay off the land. My sheep have made me an independent man, and I will never bow to anyone. To have people say of me that I took the beggar’s road for hay in the spring is a disgrace I will never tolerate. And as for the cow, which was foisted on me by the Bailiff and the Women’s Institute to deprive the youngsters of their appetite and filch the best of the hay from the sheep, for her I will do only one thing.” That one thing is to kill the cow which he does quite happily.
Not all farmers, however, were like Bjartur. The original settlers had brought over dairy cattle before 1000 AD. The cattle though perhaps not as efficient users of grass as the cows, were still efficient. That was good because no grain ripened in Iceland after the Little Ice Age began. Importing grain was prohibitively expensive even for human consumption. There was no tradition of growing vegetables to feed animals. The climate made it increasingly difficult to grow vegetables and those who did or tried to were mostly Danes.
In spite of the preference for sheep, the settlers in New Iceland followed the tradition of raising dairy cows. In the New Iceland area, just outside of Gimli, the tradition is still carried on by the Narfason family. In 1915, Magnus Narfason was selling fluid milk to the City dairy in Winnipeg from a farm he established in 1897. His sons Elli and Mundi took over the farm after Magnus died in 1931. Oli Narfason, who is Elli‘s son, became involved in the farm in the late 1940s. His son Clifford took over the farm when Oli retired. Today, in 2012, that‘s 115 years of commitment to those cows that Bjartur saw as competing with his precious sheep.
My great grandfather, Ketill, after working as a labourer on the railway and in Winnipeg, saved enough money to start a large dairy business in Winnipeg in 1894. He bought a parcel of land on the N. W. Corner of Simcoe St. And Ellice Ave. What is now in the heart of the city was grazing land. He carried on business there until 1903.
Cows. Hay. Milk. Survival. A way of life. Transferred to North America. First just to provide the milk that was a staple in the diet of the Icelandic settlers but, gradually, as many settlers took other opportunities, there came the possibility of producing milk for the community.
Today, there is little evidence of the critical role dairy cattle played in the survival of both the Icelanders and the North American Icelandic settlers but no history of either group is complete without an understanding of how the cattle Uno von Troil describes were critical to our ancestor‘s survival. Gimli has a large viking statue. We all like it. We take relatives and friends to stand in front of it for pictures. Perhaps, what there should be is a statue of an Icelandic dairy cow, our own Bukolla. The Viking raids left nothing for following generations   to eat. Their plunder disappeared. The cows were more faithful. They have fed us for over a thousand years. Maybe a statue of an Icelandic cow standing beside the Viking, as large as he is, would recognize what we owe to whom.
Perhaps, when we reach for the skyr, we should pause for a moment and think of people scything grass long into the night, raking hay in the rain, pounding fish bones and collecting seaweed to mix with hay, so that the milk, cream, butter and skyr would last longer than the winter.
     
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  

Our Icelandic North American Heritage: food

 Icelandic Canadian perogis with high bush cranberry jelly
Our Icelandic food heritage is greatly different from our Icelandic North American food heritage. How could it not be?
Ingredients in Iceland were severely limited. With one crop, grass, with meat and milk as staples, with fish that had to be preserved by drying, with no grain except what could be imported and that was nearly always rye, with even the hay crop failing sometimes because of cold summers, Icelandic women had few resources. Throw in a lack of fuel and, as a result of that, no stoves or ovens, and what Icelandic women did create bordered on the miraculous.
In the beginning, New Iceland was a food disaster. Nets too big, a lake that froze over, no cows for milk, land overgrown by thick bush, no experience hunting.
But that didn’t last long. With aboriginal help, hunting was learned, fishing under the ice was learned. Ground was cleared, root crops were planted. Grain was planted. Cows were obtained. There was lots of wood for stoves.
Right from the beginning, New Iceland wasn’t exclusively Icelandic. There were non-Icelanders already settled there. The most obvious were the local aboriginal people. There were Scots and Orkney men. They could not be expelled and the boundaries of New Iceland could not be hermetically sealed.
The first Icelandic settlers arrived in 1875, followed by the big group in 1876. In 1887 in the origins of the population were 835, Icelandic, 31 Scottish, 7 English, 1 French, 12 Scottish Metis, 1 Swedish and 1 Danish. In 1897 this dominance of Icelandic settlers would end. Icelandic immigration had fallen off and many Icelandic  settlers, attracted by better land and greater opportunities elsewhere, left New Iceland. The government opened up the area to anyone. Immediately, the first Ukrainian settlers arrived and settled in the Foley and Willow Creek districts. These were followed by Poles, Ukrainians and Germans.
The first Ukrainians to settle in the New Iceland area had come a long and difficult way. Emigrants who left the village of Kopychentsi, traveled by train to Lviv. From there to Antwerp. Then to Liverpool and, after a two week crossing of the Atlantic, to Halifax, then by immigrant train to East Selkirk. From there to Gimli. Their arrival made them part of our New Iceland heritage. By the time I was born in the late 1930s, while Gimli still had an Icelandic character with Icelandic being spoken in many homes, my school mates were from all the groups mentioned and many students, like me, had one parent who wasn’t Icelandic.
My Gimli food was the smorgasbord of a new land. My meals were made of rabbit, venison, beaver tail, moose, pickerel fillets, stuffed whitefish, smoked sunfish, smoked Goldeye. I ate Ukrainian, German, Polish food. My mother cooked, not on a hearth in a stone floor but on a wood stove with an oven and every year someone brought cords of wood to stack in the back yard and, then, someone else came and sawed it and split it. Once I was big enough, it was my job to throw the wood into the basement. I took it for granted that we had a basement,  that our house was made of wood, the roof shingled, instead of being made of layers of rock and turf.
Cookbooks reveal society and one of my mother’s locally made cookbooks reveals our culinary heritage. It’s made up of Mrs. T. E. Thorsteinson’s Apple Pie with crumb topping, Mrs. H. G. Hunter’s Pumpkin Pie (pumpkin was a new world food unknown in Europe), Mrs. S. Eyjolfsson,s Tomato mince meat, Marshmallow Delight by Mrs. E. Montague, Mrs. Vopni’s Green Pepper salad, and there is Strawberry Jam, Apricot Preserve, Cranberry Jelly. Mrs. A. Sigurdsson from Foam Lake, Sask makes Nine Day Cucumber Pickle while Mrs. F. Lindal makes Seven Day Sweet Mixed Pickles.  
There are 128 pages. Only two pages of Icelandic Dishes.  Flatbruað, Kæfa, Skyr, Mysuostur, Pönnukökur, Rúllupylsa, Fiskibollur, Lifrarpylsa, Sago Soup. Enough has changed that Mrs. B. Pell, of Leslie, Sask. felt it necessary to explain that Mysuostur is an Icelandic whey cheese.
The women nearly all have Icelandic names and those who don´t, I expect, are Icelandic but have married non-Icelanders. They’re cooking with items they could not have dreamed of having in Iceland. Lots and lots of wheat flour, canned pineapple, chicken, peppers, corn, spaghetti, apples, pears, oranges.
In our house, we ate no dried cod, no singed sheep heads, no rotted shark, no Icelandic moss, no ram’s testicles. We only ate barley in vegetable soup.
My food heritage was made of occasional Icelandic food, blood sausage, skyr, ponnokokur, vinarterta, kleinar but equally often, of perogis (although we often ate them with high bush cranberry jelly instead of sour cream), hollopchi, borscht, kubysa, poppyseed cake. It was made up of freshwater fish. Of wild game. It was made up of fruit pies (Saskatoon pie, Saskatoon pie, If I don’t get some I think I’m going to die), a wide variety of seasonal vegetables, of white bread, of green grapes and apples and oranges and, in season, plums and pears and peaches. My fondest food memories are of beef stew and dumplings, of lemon pie, of shepherd’s pie and my grandmother’s unmatchable baking powder biscuits with homemade strawberry jam.
We weren’t rich. My father was a commercial fisherman and, in the off season, a barber. But we weren’t poor, either. My Canadian food heritage has been a cornucopia from which spill out things like maple syrup, clover honey, crab apples, high bush cranberry, stuffed whitefish, morels, moss berry tarts. It includes short breads and making toffee on winter evenings, popcorn, hot chocolate after skating. Weiners roasted over an open fire, relish, mustard. Hamburgers with the works. Rolled sandwiches with Velveeta cheese and a pickle in the centre.
My food heritage, at just one level, was Canadian because the ingredients were mostly sourced in Canada. It was Canadian because it was the result of a multi-cultural mix even before the community itself had become multi-cultural, when all the contributors to my mother’s cookbook still had nearly all Icelandic names.
We tend not to think about our Icelandic Canadian food heritage but the smorgasbord of food we ate (Sam Toy’s Chinese food in the Gimli Cafe; the food we shared at Ukrainian weddings; the English, Irish and Scot’s foods we ate at the neighbours; the aboriginal foods (bannock, wild rice, blueberries) on our table are all part of that Icelandic North American heritage.