Movie Review”: Of Horses and Men

ofhorses
You usually know that when people start praising the landscape in a movie, that the movie is terrible and they’re desperately trying to find something good to say. Or when people say, weren’t the giraffes, lions, gazelles, porpoises, horses wonderful, you know they’re talking about a turkey. The amazing thing about the movie, Of Horses and Men, that the Icelanders of Victoria watched this afternoon at the University of Victoria is that one can honestly say wasn’t the landscape fantastic, weren’t the horses gorgeous and while both are true, one can also say “What a good movie.”

Benedikt Erlingsson, the director, deserves a great deal of praise for this understated narrative of rural Iceland that is riven through with the unexpected, the tragic and the comic.

Erlingsson obviously understands how to tell a story visually. Easy to say, hard to do. Many directors simply do not understand how powerful subtle visual narrative can be. They burden a movie with dialogue.

Kolbeinn (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), the main male character in this movie whose disrupted courting provides a unifying thread for the middle aged love story, has a white mare that he treasures. She is difficult and it takes some effort for him to get a halter onto her. That the importance of the journey Kobeinn is going to take is made clear by the fact that he has a button come off his good jacket and he stops to sew it back on. He is dressed very much as the rural Icelandic gentleman. Waiting for him on a neighbouring farm is a middle-aged Solveig (Charlotte Boving), her young son, and Solveig’s mother.

The importance of this courting coffee visit is made clear in glances, expressions, body movements and that formality is nicely counterpointed with something as simple as Solveig’s son taking off the horse’s saddle and putting it on the steps.

Packed into this beginning of man, horse, romantic interest, is imagery that is repeated to great effect all through the movie. That is the reality of everyone in the valley knowing everyone else’s business and watching for Kolbeinn to ride over to Solveig’s farm. They do this through binoculars and spy glasses and everyone knows that everyone is watching from the reflection of the sun on the instruments. As a device, it works well for it helps to capture the small, intensely personal quality of the community.

Because there are a number of deaths, this could have been a dark tragedy like Zorba the Greek or a tale filled with great sacrifice such as Babette’s Feast but Erlingsson threads through the narrative’s darkness, human absurdities that make us shake our head or laugh. For example, the motif of the spy glasses, close to the end of the film, are used by two women to observe our hero, Kolbeinn, and our heroine, Solveig, making love on the grass when they should be gathering in horses at the annual horse roundup.

The film opens at Kolbeinn’s house and the camera pans more than once over the wall on which a shotgun is mounted. I immediately thought, the writer knows his Chekov. Chekov famously said, and I taught for years, that if at the beginning you show a rifle hanging on the wall, then you have got to have it used later in the story. Otherwise it is a red herring. I wondered who would get shot. It turns out it was Kolbeinn’s beloved white mare.

The reason Kolbeinn shoots his horse is because when he is leaving his coffee-flirting date with Solveig, a black stallion of Solveig’s has broken free. The white mare, in heat, stops and won’t move. The black stallion, with Kolbeinn on the mare’s back, mounts her. All this is seen by the various residents of the valley who are watching through their binoculars. Kolbeinn, because he is humiliated, shoots the white mare.

It is here where the logic of the film comes apart for me. Not that a vain man couldn’t or wouldn’t shoot his beloved horse if he’d felt humiliated. Rather, that having done something so irrational and vicious, that the rather attractive Solveig would, through the rest of the narrative, continue to pursue him. Is she in desperate financial circumstances? Can she not manage the farm by herself? Would he, I wondered, if she looked like she might stray, shoot her?

The film is broken up into vignettes about various people in the valley with two males being killed. Vernharður (Steinn Armann Magnusson) rides his horse into the ocean to a trawler where he can buy alcohol, then rides back to shore, seemingly none the worse for the freezing cold of the North Atlantic. The sailors have warned him that they are selling him pure alcohol, not vodka, but he drinks the alcohol straight from the containers, falls from his horse, vomits and dies.Since I had to follow the movie through English subtitles, this wasn’t clear to me.

The scenes of Vernharður riding his horse through the ocean waves and then, astoundingly, riding back to shore, are quite amazing. I immediately thought of Independent People (Laxness) and Bjartur of Summerhouses riding a reindeer across a river in winter.

The second death occurs when Grimur (Kjartan Ragnarsson) cuts down a barbed wire fence that Egill (Helgi Bjornsson) has built. The fence blocks what should be a public through way. In the ensuing pursui9t, Grimur is blinded in one eye by barbed wire and Egill, in his desire for revenge, rides his tractor over a cliff.

The deaths create two rather attractive widows who become competition for Solveig. However, she is determined to have Kolbeinn for a husband. When the locals gather for the annual horse roundup, there is some very nice visual sexual competition as the women try to take their place beside him. There are shared flasks of whiskey as they ride and jockeying for position. Solveig is determined to take charge. Rather than waiting for Kolbeinn to make up his mind, she insists on being his partner in exploring an isolated nook. There, she takes off her rain pants, then her long underwear and pulls down Kolbein’s pants and tells him to get the rest of his underclothes off. They do the same as the horses did at the beginning of the movie but I hoped that Kolbeinn wasn’t going to go for his shotgun afterwards.

The movie ends in marvelous scenes of the gathered horses being driven to the pen where they will be sorted out by their owners. The best images of Kolbeinn and Solveig in the movie are in the horse pen. They are obviously happy and Solveig, in spite of our not getting to know her very well, tugs at our heart for we hope that all works out well. And Kolbeinn? I hope he treats her better than his beloved mare.

So, there you have it. A romantic comedy filled with vignettes that end in tragedy or near tragedy, a strange mix that could have been a Bergman but isn’t, could have been a Monty Python, but isn’t. The horses are wonderful. The countryside is wonderful. And I’m not saying that because I have nothing good to say about the movie. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I recommend seeing it. The acting is good. The directing is good. The cinematography is good. David Thor Jonsson’s music is strange, surprising and highly effective. I just wish I knew what someone as attractive as Solveig sees in Kolbeinn.

 

The New Iceland Diaspora

michal-mountains
When I first moved to Victoria many years ago, one of my colleagues said, “On the prairies, people live to work. On the West Coast people work to pay for skiing, scuba diving, drinking wine, smoking weed, sailing, surfing and, as soon as they have enough money to live on, they quit their job and buy a few acres so they can raise prize animals, fruit or vegetables and pour their passion into producing the best wines or peacocks. Or plums. Or peaches. Or kiwi fruit. Or sheep. Or llamas. Or they buy a boat and sail.”

People who move west and then further west and then even further west until they can’t go any further west end up on the shores of mainland BC or on the many islands that dot the coast.

In Vesturfarar, Heather Ireland, (from Winnipeg but moved to Vancouver long ago with her husband Bill Ireland) the grand daughter of Guttormur Guttormson, tells us that she said to her uncle that she wished her amma and afi Guttormson had moved to the Coast. Her uncle said, they’d been to the coast a number of times but wouldn’t have moved there because life was just too easy. It was also a world beyond imagining. Think what those early arrivals must have thought of the world represented by this masks like this one by Bill Henderson of the Kwakwaka’wakw?

Bill Henderson,Kwakwaka'wakw

Joan Thorsteinson Linde says that when her parents were on the train to Winnipeg and they arrived, her mother took a look at the city and said, “Let’s keep going.” She said Point Roberts was a wonderful place to grow up and she was grateful her parents stayed on the train.
Jerry McDonald says she is grateful that her grandparents moved to the Coast in 1943. Her grandmother read a poem about the West Coast and insisted on moving there.

Years ago, Bob Asgeirson, told me that he had been working for a radio station in Winnipeg. He had holidays at Christmas. He got on a train during a blizzard and arrived to a light rain and everything green in Vancouver. He immediately bought a ticket back to Winnipeg, quit his job and moved permanently to Vancouver.

Fort Victoria had been first settled in 1843. By the time the first Icelanders started arriving with the railway reaching Vancouver, there were scenes like this.

Tea Party at Point Ellice House

Although my wife and I visited my wife’s grandmother in Victoria during the summer of 1967, I’d never thought of moving here. In 1974, I had a job in Missouri, was heading for a better job in Texas, when I was asked if I’d like a job at the University in Victoria. I said I’d come for a year. That was forty years ago. I did try to move back to Winnipeg. However, try as I might, no job was forthcoming. I was following an old pattern created by the Icelandic immigrants. Go where there is work.

Most Icelanders left Iceland because of poverty, hunger, lack of opportunity, bad weather, political oppression. Although the fares were small and, in some cases, subsidized, many could not afford to pay for the trip from Iceland to Scotland, from Scotland to Quebec, from Quebec to their final destination in the United States or Canada. If they could, they sold their land and animals to pay for their trip. It was the bad luck of some that stormy weather delayed the sailing ships and the would-be travelers’ funds were used up paying for room and board at the harbours. Not only did these people not get to go to Ameríka but they now were landless and were going to be poverty stricken farm workers.

However, times were so desperate that it was worth taking risks. Living conditions were poor. Sod and lava huts nowadays are made for museums and tourists so they are constructed to look romantic. Sod and turf huts were not romantic. IN 1845 Madame Pfeiffer says ‘Small and low, built of lava, with the interstices filled with earth…A dark narrow passage about four feet high, leads on one side into the common room, and on the other to a few compartments, some of which are used as storehouses for provisions and the rest as winter stables for the cows and sheep…The rooms of the poorer class have neither wooden walls nor floors, and are just large enough to admit of the inhabitants sleeping, and perhaps turning round in them. …Above the beds are fixed rods, from with depend clothes, shoes, stockings, &c….Stoves are considered unnecessary, for as the space is very confined, and the house densely populated.

Rods are also placed round the fire place, and on these the wet clothes and fishes are hung up in company to dry. The smoke completely fills the room.”

Houses were cold. They was no stove. They were crowded. There was little light because glass was scarce. Laws were passed by the landowners to control all the workers who, by law, were forced to work on a farm. They could only change jobs on one day a year. Marriage was not allowed unless a man had the equivalent of four hundreds. This meant that many men and women had no hope of marriage. With wages appalling low, in some cases a few dollars a year, there was little opportunity for a man to save enough money to put down on a piece of land and some animals. It might take a careful, tight fisted man twenty years working as a farm hand to save enough for a down payment on a farm. When he did he also had to rent the sheep or cows from a wealthy landowner at exorbitant rates. What land was available for men who wanted to become independent farmers in the years of good weather was marginal land.

Good land had long ago been taken. The land that became available was usually on the edge of lava deserts. With a cold summer that same land quickly became uninhabitable. A cold summer meant the grass didn’t grow. No grass, the sheep and cows didn’t survive. Without them, there was starvation. People farming marginal land could with one or two cold summers lose everything and become paupers with family members sold off to whoever would keep them for the smallest amount of money. A volcanic eruption that destroyed hay land was a disaster.

Even when the weather was decent, farming alone was not enough to sustain most people so the men walked to the coastal fishing areas. Fishing conditions on the North Sea were dangerous. Boats frequently sank, taking ten or fifteen men with them.

Richard Burton, 1875, says that “The storekeeper must advance goods to the farmer, and the latter refunds him when he can, especially in June and July, September and October, when wool is pulled (Icelanders did not shear sheep. The wool was pulled as it became loose.)and wethers (castrated male sheep)killed. A few of the farmers have money at the merchants, who do not, however, pay interest; many are in debt, and the two classes hardly balance each other. Prices are generally high.” That is the prices of goods available at the store are high.

Those people who chose to make two dangerous sea voyages, first to Scotland or England, then to the North America, were people prepared to take risks and endure hardship. Sailing ships were at the mercy of the weather. Conditions on board the ships for steerage passengers were appalling. Narratives of those voyages often record burials at sea.

Icelandic emigrants tried Nova Scotia.The good land was taken. They tried Kinmount, Ontario. The Pennsylvania Dutch (Germans) already had taken up the good farmland in Ontario. The land in Kinmount was not suitable for farming. The immigrants then made a long and hard journey that ended on the beach at Willow Point with winter closing in and no milk cows because hay had not been put up to feed them. The land was mostly swamp and higher ground was heavily forested. Icelanders were not farmers. When an Icelander answered bondur to the question about his employment on his immigration paper, he was not describing himself as a farmer but as a herder of sheep and milk cows.

Having endured living in ratty tents, then packed into roughly made log cabins because there could only be as many cabins as there were stoves, they endured more hardship. The settlers must have wondered when their suffering would be over. If ever.

Gimli may mean the home of the gods but these people were not gods. They were farm folk who had made a heroic journey from Iceland to Canada only to suffer from lack of food, from poor shelter, from diseases such as smallpox and scurvy. It is no wonder that nearly all of them abandoned New Iceland. They’d already made the decision to leave Iceland to search for a better life. For many, New Iceland was not providing a better life. It was cut off from trade. Except for some work provided by the government, jobs were non-existent. In breakup and freezeup, it was impossible to travel over the lake. There was work in Winnipeg. There was work, at least at harvest time, further west where farms were already established. Many walked west.

Will Kristjanson, in The Icelandic People in Manitoba, says, because of the exodus from 1878 to 1881, the colony was reduced to 250 people. It would be replenished as more Icelandic immigrants arrived. However, a pattern of arrival and departure was established that continues to this day.

They went to Brandon. They went to Argyle. Always looking for good land. They went to North Dakota. The good land in North Dakota filled up quickly so those who didn’t get some of it, went back to Manitoba and settled in the Arborg area. The immigrants traveled for years, making a living where they could. Magnús Jónsson with his wife, Margét, and two daughters, settled in New Iceland in 1887. In 1891, they homesteaded in the Argyle district. In 1902 they moved to Blaine, WA.

Metúsalem Vigfússon moved to New Iceland in 1876. He moved to Winnipeg and worked around Manitoba wherever he could find work. He and his wife, Borghildur bought 80 acres southeast of Mountain, North Dakota. After seven years they moved to Roseau, Minn. They lived there eleven years. In 1917, they moved to Yakima, WA.

Many settlers went to Swift Current when the railway line ended there. From there they went by horse and wagon north. They went to Alberta and settled in places like Markerville.

Good land. A place where they might prosper, where they might have a Canadian farm, grow grain, raise animals and, when they got over the mountains into the Okanagan, as unlikely as it seems for Icelanders, create orchards.

The railways opened up land, made it possible to ship produce and to receive necessities. In New Iceland the railway, first stopping at Winnipeg Beach and then Gimli and, finally, Riverton, created the cordwood economy. While those people in New Iceland were struggling in the second poorest part of Canada, only ahead of Newfoundland economically, their brethren, the original settlers and their children, were moving west. Some of those found jobs, land, possibilities. Many stayed in Winnipeg, the new Chicago, a dynamic city, for a time, but then the Panama Canal was built and the boom began to fade. Others gathered in places like Wynyard and Foam Lake, Regina, Moosejaw, Calgary, Edmonton, eddied around the base of the mountains, but with Olafur Norman arriving in Victoria in 1883, the path to the coast was established.

Gerri McDonald says that a survey in the 1930s showed that only 5% of people of Icelandic descent lived in BC. In 2011 25% of people of Icelandic descent lived in BC.

That is not surprising. Although there was no organized group movement to the West Coast, many people during the Depression moved from the Gimli-Riverton area to Steveston to fish, work in the canneries and build boats. A group did settle Osland on Hunter Island in the mouth of the Skeena.

But most were like me or Robert Asgeirson, moving west to take or find a job. My contact with the West Coast wasn’t Icelandic. My wife’s grandmother and grandfather were English. The Oak Bay neighbourhood was still referred to as behind the Tweed Curtain. I knew of no one in Victoria of Icelandic background before I arrived. I’d come to take a good job. There were tea houses, not coffee houses. Doormen in historic English outfits stood outside tourist establishments. The accents on the streets and in the stores were not Icelandic or Ukrainian. They were English, Irish and Scots.

It took a while to discover other people of Icelandic background. Halli Johnson, Mattie Gislason, then a meeting organized by Alphonse Hansen at a restaurant in the country to discuss forming an Icelandic club, the Icelanders of Victoria. Fred Bjarnason was there. We did form a club. We went on to have Thorrablots. We do celebrate June 17.

Richard Beck, that great champion of all things Icelandic, retired to Victoria. He died, then his wife, Margaret, died and their joint will left the University of Victoria their house to sell and create a foundation for the dissemination of Icelandic literature, language and culture. The Beck lectures began in 1988. Since then the Richard and Margret Beck Trust, under the direction of Dr. John Tucker, has funded around two hundred lectures by Icelandic experts.

This is how a diaspora is created. Travelers settling somewhere, meeting each other, forming a cultural club, or a church group, or an educational group. Point Roberts, Bellingham, Blaine, outposts held together by memories, evidence found in photo albums, club records, graveyards. Outposts like Osland on Smith Island, now nearly abandoned, its existence attested to by the book, Memories of Osland. The Jonassons, Haldorsons, Johnsons, Philippsons, Freemans, Oddsons, Grimsons, Kristmanssons, Longs, Snidals, Bjornsons, Einarssons, Laurassons, Erlendsons, Emmersons.

Think on it. The people who have gone west. My uncle Earl (Gimli) went to Edmonton. My uncle Alan (Gimli) ended up in Calgary. My sister in law (Riverton) moved to Victoria. My nephew and niece (Gimli) are here. My cousin, Rudy (Gimli), is on the mainland. His wife, Sig (Riverton) just died. His daughter (Winnipeg) is with him.  Keith Sigmundson (Gimli) has a place here. Dennis Oleson (Riverton) is in Victoria. Glenn Sigurdsson (Riverton) in Vancouver. His mother. (Riverton) His father died here not too long ago. Ruth and Randi Jonasson (Riverton). Christine Anderson (Riverton).

The list seems endless. Linda Bjarnason (Gimli) in Naniamo. Carol Bjarnason (Gimli) Whiterock. Margaret Bjarnason (Gimli) Vancouver. If I tried to list all the people of Icelandic descent in Vancouver, it would fill pages. It far outnumbers the people of Icelandic descent now living within the boundaries of New Iceland. If all these people had stayed in New Iceland, what would they do? They are teachers, architects, lawyers, stock brokers, art gallery owners, veterinarians, chefs, secretaries, professors, city planners. They are myriad.

The Icelanders were not alone in their experience. The Finns came to the coast of BC. They created a village called Sointula on Malcolm Island in 1901. It was to be the new Finland, led by a charismatic leader Matti Kurikka. They came as a group, rowing their way north from Naniamo.

In 1908, led by Verigin, 6,000 members of the Doukhobor sect migrated to BC. Neither of these communities survived in their ideal form. This was the fate of most immigrant groups. They left the mother country, Finland and Russia, in these cases, formed communities in Canada bound by ethnicity, religion and isolation, and these communities could not remain cohesive. Even isolation is not enough to keep the community together. So, there was the original diaspora and then the diaspora from the original settlements. All such cases can be looked at as failed dreams, failed ideal images. On the other hand, they can be looked at as successes because the original communities provided a place for its members to prepare to enter Canadian society.

New Iceland lost many of its original settlers. However, others came, settled in an area where they knew some of the earlier settlers, where people spoke Icelandic, where the harshness of immigration could be softened a bit as people adjusted to a new life. They moved to take up greater opportunities, that often meant leaving the mother colony. That is they stayed true to their original purpose in emigrating, to create a better life for themselves, their children, and future generations.

Rímur Through the Ages

Gudrun
Dr. John Tucker and Dr. Patricia Baer are to be congratulated on arranging for Guðrún Ingimundardóttir (Rúna) to give a Richard and Beck Lecture on Oct. 17 at the University of Victoria. Guðrun´s lecture and demonstration was on Icelandic traditional music.

Guðrun is the Chair of Rima, a traditional folk singers group in Iceland. She founded Stemma. This is a traditional folk music association. She is the first person to teach Icelandic traditional singing (kvesðkapur) “in an official music school in Iceland (Tónskóli Fjallabyggðar).”

It would be easy to deliver a lecture on a poetic form from the 1400s to the early 1900s and make it so dull that the audience falls asleep. Gúdrun did just the opposite. She electrified the audience. Not only was she able to tell the audience about the history of rímur and its importance for a country with a small population living on isolated farms, she was able to sing the examples of the various kinds of rímur.

The kveðskapur traveled from farm to farm like itinerant troubadors. This was before radio, telephones, film, TV, or the internet. In the evenings, after the day´s farm work was complete, people sat around the baðstofa, the main room of the farmhouse, and knitted or did various tasks such as mending horse bridals or clothes. To keep people awake and entertained, stories were read or told. If a storyteller came to a farm with new stories, he might stay for weeks or months. Many of the rímur were very long and might provide entertainment over the entire winter.

Eventually rímur were written down but for centuries they were oral poems, told and retold, changing with the different tellings and the different tellers. Many, probably most of the rímur, were based on classic stories such as the sagas and skaldic verse. Ironically, it is the survival of rímur that provides proof of the existence of sagas that have been lost.
As well, there are indications in some rímur that they were accompanied with dance. Guðrun mentioned that these might have been similar dances to those of the Faroese. I know from my own research that the Icelandic bishops were violently against dancing of any kind and, with Iceland having such a small population, they were able to supress dancing even in private homes and isolated farms. The result is that evidence of dancing has to be searched for in other activities such as the singing/chanting of rímur.
A particular treat during the lecture was when Guðrun´s husband, Gustaf Danielsson, joined her to sing a ríma.

Among many other things that Guðrun mentioned was that kennings became part of ríma. As with everything, she provided us with examples of the kennings and their meanings. Kennings alone could be the basis for a number of lectures. On my first trip to Iceland, my host was the National Librarian, Finboggi Gudmundson and I still remember his shock when he realized that I didn´t know what a kenning was. They are poetic metaphors that often make poetry so obscure as to not be understandable. For example, instead of saying blood, a poet might say battle sweat. Or so I say and Guðrun seemed to agree, although that didn´t seem to dampen her enthusiasm for them.

Time and again, as Gúðrun went through a list of rímur with their known authors and more recent tellers, she sang for us. She even gave us an example of how and why the tellers/singers chose the voice they chose. When a lecturer can perform what she is lecturing about what a difference it makes!
One surprise was that in the list of ríma writers was Hallgrimur Pétursson, the famous writer of The Passion Hymns. He lived from 1614-74. There are modern advocates such as Steindór Andersen who is “the leading rímur singer in Iceland: he often collaborates with the band Sigur Rós and has also contributed to some of Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson’s works.”

The hour and a half went by so fast for both Guðrun and the audience that it seemed impossible that the lecture was over. Because the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust were fortunate enough to hear that Guðrun was going to be in Victoria and was able to arrange for her to give a lecture, we all benefited, hearing an Icelandic expert on a topic those of us involved in Icelandic culture would normally have to go to Iceland to hear.

To make the experience even more enjoyable, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Guðrun´s husband´s Canadian relatives and hear something of their family´s early years of homesteading in British Columbia. Virginia Guenther came from Sidney, Valerie and Shannon Brickley from 100 Mile House, Victor Lindal and Sherry Thorsteinson from Victoria. The history of Icelandic immigrants in BC is not well known so this Beck lecture didn‘t just educate us about an ancient Icelandic poetic form but brought about a sharing of our local history.

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.