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.

 

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.