S. E. Waller, artist, 22, gift to Iceland

 The Empty Saddle by S. E. Waller. A friend brings a horse back from battle. The owner is dead. The new widow stands on the balcony.

Six Weeks In The Saddle, by Samuel Edmund Waller, was published in 1874. He traveled to Iceland in the summer of 1872 and spent six weeks with three horses and his local guide, Bjarni. He should have had six horses but the demand for Icelandic horses was so great that the price had doubled before he got to Reykjavik. He didn’t have a lot of money. He’d been making a living by illustrating books.
The astounding thing is that he was born in 1850 and, in 1872, was only 22 years old. He made the trip on a small Danish ship. He arrived by himself in Reykjavik, bought three horses, hired his guide, packed  his belongings onto one of the horses, and went off on a six week adventure filled with danger and hardship. He went to Iceland because he’d read Njal’s Saga and had fallen in love with it. As an artist, he wanted to sketch the landscapes of the saga, plus he wanted to experience as much of Icelandic life as possible.
No wonder he was made so welcome in Icelandic homes. In 1872, there were still no roads. Farms were very isolated. Foreign visitors to any individual farm were rare and, in many cases, the foreigners stuck to themselves bringing tents and food and, except for the guides, being self-sufficient. The big draw were the geysers. They were one of the wonders of the world. Others land in Reykjavik, rent horses, hire guides and drovers, make the trip to the geysers, return to Reykjavik, then they go home.
Waller wanted none of that. He had little money. However, even if he’d had the price of three more horses, he’d have wanted to spend time with Icelanders because he was in love with the sagas and the landscape.
No wonder he was so welcome everywhere he stopped. No wonder the young women played games with him, sang with him, played music for him. While they were exotic to him, he must have been every bit as exotic to them. A young man from England, appearing suddenly, congenial, talented, educated. No wonder beautiful young women kissed him on the cheek.
How exotic he must have appeared can be seen in some of his comments at the end his book. He says, “All over the country I was asked questions upon political economy, the condition of Denmark, the best way of bridging the river Thjorsa, and all varieties of engineering. I was asked to translate Latin and Greek…if I knew the Queen and had spoken with  her..I was asked questions upon fish-curing, upon law-making, and upon currency.
These are people who want to know all sorts of things, who know that knowledge is out there in the wider world, they want to know everything, everything.
One of the last places he visits is Thingvalla. He describes it in detail and tells a bit about its history. “It is impossible to give any idea of the feelings of deep interest with which I regarded every inch of this romantic spot, and tried to imagine what an appearance it must have presented 900 years ago. I wondered where Hallgerda’s booth was. I know that it was just down by the water that Gunnar first saw her sitting in the doorway. Njal‘s booth too, was some two or three hundred yards down the river on the other side. It was here that the desperate battle took place between Njal´s assassins and his avengers, and it was between the water and the lava that so many of t hem were killed.“ How many of us know Njal‘s Saga that well?
Waller’s father was an architect and Waller spent a short time as an apprentice to him;  however, he never practiced architecture but, instead, pursued  his dream of being an artist. He went to art school. He worked for a brief time on a farm and learned to love animals. He was passionate about horses and they figure largely in his paintings. His paintings received acclaim and he had numerous exhibitions at the Royal Academy from 1871 to 1902. He died in 1903 at the age of 53.
If you put his name into Google, you will see a large number of his paintings. They are romantic, sentimental, dramatic, nostalgic, and command high prices. Copies of them are widely available.
I, for one, am glad he made his trip to Iceland and wrote Six Weeks In The Saddle. I’m pleased that I discovered it for it gives a very different view of Iceland and Icelanders than the accounts of many of the explorers and scientists or professional travelers.

The Rise of the App

Bruce Batchelor of Agio studios gave a talk last night to the local chapter of PWAC (Professional Writers of Canada). Agio has just completed its first app book, It’s Cool To Be Clever. The cost, 35,000.00. The price from the Apple store, 6.99. The Apple store keeps 30% of that but leaves an astounding 70% for the publisher. Still, Agio will have to sell approximately 7,000 copies (4.90 x 7,000) and, with other likely costs, probably 7,500 copies to break even.
Seven thousand five hundred copies needing to be sold about the guy who invented the internet seems implausible. A best-selling novel in Canada is anything over 5,000. The strategy, however, is that the app can be sold worldwide. Customers will be found in Botswana and Uzgorod. The idea that the entire world is a market seems a bit far-fetched. How many people in Siberia read English, care about some guy who invented the internet, can afford or have access to an iPad or can afford 6.99? As exciting as the technology is,  I have a certain amount of skepticism about likely sales.
Batchelor took us through a quick history of reading. He pointed out that people haven’t been reading for very long. Communication has mostly been oral.
 In Iceland, there were men who travelled from one isolated farm to the other telling stories. To help them remember long stories (and the longer the story, the better for the teller as it meant free room and board for a longer time) they put the stories into rhyme (rimur). A good long saga might mean a travelling story-teller had a place to stay for the winter. You can imagine how boring winter was on an isolated farm. Pouring rain, driving snow, wicked winds, didn’t tempt anyone to go outside unless it was absolutely necessary. When the sagas were written down, finally, it was on vellum (calf skin). Only the most wealthy could afford that. How many hides did it take to make enough pages for a saga? How much did it cost to have a priest/scribe write the saga letter by letter? However, writing was invented, calf skin (vellum) was used. There are still copies of these books at the Arnamagnæan institute in Reykjavik.  
Around 1439, Gutenberg created moveable type printing and with it the printing press. His invention allowed the mass production of printed books, books that printers could afford to publish and people could afford to buy.  In 1530, just about a hundred years later, Jón Arason, brought a bringing press to Iceland. Books and reading quit being the private preserve of a few people.
Improvements were made but there was no radical change. Better, more efficient presses were built. They were automated. Demand meant that paper began to be produced in commercial quantities.
But there was a cost, not in dollars but in culture. When there were no books or they were produced by hand on vellum, culture and story telling remained local. Story tellers had to walk, if they were lucky, ride a horse, but their area of influence was small. Books changed that because they could be sent over great distances.  Books with new ideas, foreign ideas.
Now, from what Bruce Batchelor said, the era of books may be coming to an end. Such a profound shift seems quite impossible but then that’s the way blacksmiths must have felt when cars first appeared. Who would have thought blacksmiths would disappear virtually without a trace. They were central to the community and then they were irrelevant. Become car mechanics or lock the door.
As Bruce told us about the rise of electronic books, of the current version through apps, I thought about the Arab Spring, about the Occupy movement, about how instant communication among many people around the world is already changing how people live their lives. About how books radically changed people´s lives and how electronic communication is changing lives today.
 
There’ll be a cost, of course, just as there was a local cost with the rise of the book. Local cultures will 
give way, become homogenized. Local cultures will be relegated to museums and history apps. They’ll
become a curiosity, something for scholars to study. What will replace these communities based on proximity
will be virtual communities and cultures. Everyone who is interested in a particular topic, no matter where 
they live will be able to join a community of people who are interested in the same subject. That is, if they 
have the price of the iPad. In Mozambique, life expectancy is 38.3 years for males. In Zambia, the average
yearly income is $1461.  
 
Some of the arguments seem self-serving salesmanship, the kind of irrational enthusiasm that comes with new products but the case for electronic publishing over paper does seem overwhelming.
Certainly, an app can provide a lot of formats and additional content compared to a book. The purchaser of an app has a choice of multiple formats, text, audio, video, music, PDFs, animation, games but the question in my head as I listened to Bruce was how would any of these increase my enjoyment of an Indriðason novel? Would I really care if the app also included statistics on crime in Iceland? Icelandic music as background while I read the book?  Links to various things that I could click on as I read? I don’t think so. I´d turn it all off. I just want to enjoy the novel.
The biggest argument for apps was simply the ease of purchase. Already around one quarter of book sales are online. According to Bruce some types of books, such as those for teenage girls, may sell 95% of their copies as ebooks.
We can mourn the loss of our culture, you didn’t think we had culture?, but yes we had, in our lifetime, a culture that has been disappearing all around us. I used to look forward to going to Mary Scorer’s books. It was an experience. The store, the books, the staff, the customers. Going there was a social experience that cannot be replicated online. I ordered a book on line just yesterday. There was no pleasure in it. The experience didn´t enhance my life. It added to its isolation and dehumanization.
Some typed emails or chats are not the same as a discussion, an interaction, coffee together, being in the same physical space. We used to have record stores. Going to them was thrilling, exciting, involving. The internet, in spite of all the hype, does not bring people closer together. It isolates. Those who can afford the technology sit in their electronic caves. The virtual community, in spite of the hype, is no community just as pen pals weren’t pals in the sense of the kids with whom we went to school. Electronic communication is enjoyable but not anywhere near as enjoyable or meaningful as attending a Thorrablot or the INL convention.

Trollope’s picnic, Iceland,1878

Sketch by Jemima Wedderburn Blackburn (1823–1909)

In 1878, Iceland, faced with disastrous weather, recent volcanic eruption, the continuing domination of Denmark in spite of the new constitution brought to Iceland by Christian IX in 1874, was riven with conflict. Some, seeing the end of Danish rule, the actual appearance of coinage brought in payment by the English and Scottish traders who were buying cattle, the possibility of Icelanders becoming merchants and traders instead of just the providers of goods to trade in a monopoly situation, were strongly opposed to the emigration that was going on. These were the nationalists and idealists. Also opposed were the better off large landowning farmers who were seeing their cheap labour disappear and, as a result, wages, little as they were, going up. In a marginal economy with one crop, hay, even well-to-do farmers could be reduced to penury by a summer when the grass didn’t grow. Conservative, opposed to change, the dominant land owners’ solution was to keep costs as low as possible. That meant keeping the majority of the population as indentured servants. On the other hand those who had no future were determined to leave. They rode, or often walked, to the coast, waited for ships that were frequently delayed by bad weather. The conflict between those who wanted no emigration and those determined to search for a life where there was opportunity was often bitter.
In the midst of this social upheaval, the Mastiffs, Trollope says “were all engaged in frivolous pursuits of buying silver ornaments and talking to the good-natured people in the shops, – all of whom seemed to possess a little English”
John Burns, the wealthy host of the trip, was busy on his own errands. He was going about Reykjavik asking “all the greater people of the town to come and eat dinner on board the Mastiff.” Burns also decides that there should be a picnic in the afternoon of the Saturday even though the dinner is Saturday night. None of the travelers, of course, has anything to do but be presentable. The food was prepared by the on-board cook.
Trollope has mentioned before that except for curds (skyr?), milk and cream, none of the travellers try any Icelandic food. On the coming Monday, they intend to pack a hundredweight of English cooked meat and bread with them to the Geysers.
The picnic is a great success. Thora “the divine” goes with them. She’s fluent in English and can translate for them. They sail three or four miles to an island devoted to the breeding of eider ducks.
Thora leads them to the home of the owner of the island. For Iceland, he has a fine house. Trollope can’t resist a little sarcasm by saying that Icelanders all seem to like English gold and gives as an example a lot of Icelandic silver work set out on the piano that is obviously there so the English visitors will buy it. Word, it would seem, has gone ahead about the Mastiffs shopping for trinkets in Reykjavik.
Trollope says that it was while they were having their picnic that “Thora made herself so divine that our Wilson seemed altogether to succumb to her attractions.”
 According to Trollope, the picnic lunch was stupendous. However, they didn’t dally as they had to get back to the Mastiff to prepare for “the grand dinner.”
The English travellers are worldly, used to the best of everything. Their lives could probably be described as sumptuous. There is nothing in Iceland to compare with Castle Wymess or even the grand houses of the other members of the party. To these visitors, intent not on geology, politics, history, ornithology, but only on seeing the famous geysers, what must be, for them, a primitive and poor society is no more than amusing. It’s a diversion paid for by someone else. Unlike Charles Lock they are not in search of the Eddas. Of course, it is impossible to know what any of the other party members thought or felt for it is throughTrollope’s lens that everything is reported and his description is constrained by good manners and obligation.
There is probably no more telling detail of the attitude of the travellers to the Icelanders than the attitude toward Icelandic food. What was available, it is true, was limited. And, one might add, when the Danish king came to Reykjavik, the food for the banquet in the city was brought with him. However, when the reception in his honour was held at the Almannagjá, it was Icelandic food that was served him and no one mentioned that he declined.
The only items of value to the English travellers, it seems, are the bits and pieces of silver jewelry that are bought as souvenirs and, even some of these, Trollope says, may have come from the British Isles. Unlike S. E. Waller, a young painter who, inspired by the sagas, had so little money that he could not afford more than three horses and a single guide, the Mastiffs were not seeking the home of Burnt Njál. Waller travelled across Iceland to paint scenes from the sagas. Even a small amount of money would have made his travels less arduous. However, the Icelandic farmers, recognizing that he was not rich, befriended him. He learned something of the Icelandic people’s generosity and kindness. They often provided food and accommodation without charge. Nor did they charge for their precious grass. Waller came to Iceland with a deep appreciation of Icelandic literature and history. He sought, in the face of hardship, to create something of lasting value. The Mastiffs brought nothing, it seems, with them beyond English gold and took away nothing but trinkets.