Virgin Mountain Icelandic Film

virginmountain

The Vic theatre was packed. Extra chairs were lined up at the rear. A quick trailer for the movie, Rams, was shown. There was no need for the trailer to encourage people to go to Rams. Both Virgin Mountain and Rams had been sold out for days. The audience for the annual Victoria Film Festival know their films and were aware that Virgin Mountain, the Icelandic-Danish film by Dagur Kári, had won not only the top prize at Tribeca, but also an acting award for lead Gunnar Jonsson. As well, Icelandic films have steadily developed a reputation for excellence.

Helga Thorson, the head of German-Slavic Studies, and the new head of The Richard and Margaret Beck Lectures on Icelandic Literature, greeted the packed house, mentioned that anyone who might be interested in the ongoing lectures could pick up a pamphlet in the lobby and that the Beck was financially sponsoring Virgin Mountain.

The film began brilliantly with nothing but images, no dialogue. It was obvious that this was going to be a film in which we were going to be shown the story, not told about it, and with its quiet beginning that is was going to be a film of subtext that would demand the audiences’ attention. There is no dialogue to break the audience’s focus on images and the need to interpret them. The film creates an intimacy between the main character, Fusi, and the audience, beginning the process of creating an understanding of the silence in which Fusi lives.

Gradually, his life at work, at home and beyond are revealed. At work, he is bullied, at home, he lives with his mother and her boyfriend, and beyond is limited to every Friday going to the same Asian restaurant and ordering the same meal. Often, he sits in his truck and calls a local radio station to ask for the disc jockey to play heavy metal. At home, he entertains himself by reconstructing historic battles with toy soldiers.

At forty-three, his life is settled, determined. He is socially inept and unpracticed. His huge body (the mountain in the title) makes him an unlikely object of an woman’s romantic fantasy. Into this predictable life, a precipitating incident occurs in the person of his mother’s boyfriend who is determined to get Fusi out of the house. He gives Fusi a certificate for line dancing lessons for his birthday. His mother gives him a cowboy hat. Protesting all the while, Fusi does go to the first lesson but before it begins, he retreats to sit in his truck in the falling snow.

He sits in the dark watching the light from the door that leads to the dance lessons. It’s a wicked winter night out. Nearly everyone has left when a figure we can only obscurely see through the falling snow appears, comes up to the truck window, and asks if Fusi would mind giving her a ride. Fusi is taken aback but agrees. And so, as in much good narrative, the repetitious, unbreakable, known present is disrupted.

New possibilities arise as he agrees to give Sjöfn a ride. It is a pattern we have all seen and experienced in both life and drama. What makes this film brilliant is the way Fusi’s the new possibilities are played out.

When learning to write narrative, whether fiction or drama, one of the hardest lessons is to understand and master the relationship between text and subtext. Many students deny subtext exists, that is, until asked if they ever flirt. A discussion of flirting with its subtle suggestions of desire and possibility begins to open an understanding of how to create unstated possibilities. Dagur Kári is someone who understands subtext and uses it to great effect to create both sorrow and laughter.

In an early scene, Fusi goes for his usual Friday pad thai at the same Asian restaurant and the proprietor says, “The usual?” Later, when Fusi takes Sjöfn to the restaurant, not only is her presence such a change filled with hope that the proprietor gives them a complimentary appetizer. The scene is filled with information for the viewer. The delight of the proprietor says something about the fact that Fusi, in spite of his seldom speaking, being a genuinely likeable person.

Sjöfn says to Fusi, you come here every Friday, you must be an expert on the menu and he has to admit that he always orders the same thing. Not only is the scene humorous as she asks her questions and is taken aback by Fusi’s answers, but Fusi’s short confessions reveal how small is the world he has created for himself. The scene is brilliant but it is only one of many that is brilliant.

The restrained dialogue works very well. Life is filled up with silences. But actions can be filled with meaning and dialogue can counter point it.

When Fusi first gives Sjhön a ride, their conversation is both crazy and funny. “You’re not weird are you? You aren’t going to rape me?,” she asks. Fusi has to think about the question before replying with his rather puzzled no. She asks him a number of questions and his answer is always no, but it isn’t a defensive no or an angry no. It’s a no that says what she is asking is inconceivable. In a scene with his mother, he’s cooking in his mother’s kitchen, his mother comments on how his cooking has improved and asks about Sjhön. The dialogue is common, ordinary but filled with his mother’s fears.

This is a movie of deft moves by the director, by right on performances by the actors, major and minor. It is not a big movie with a large landscape, a cast of thousands, a pounding musical score, violent action. It is like a delicately constructed box filled with surprising compartments. Some of the compartments contain tears, some laughter, some deep thought, some hope, some compassion, some disappointment. It creates individuals and scenes that will stay etched on the viewer’s memory for a very long time.

In a film with so little dialogue, every word is important. Every word must move the plot forward and, doing triple duty, reveal character while developing theme. Gunnar Jónsson is known in Iceland as a TV comedian. He understands the importance of words, their pacing, and the way they are said. His (Fusi’s) repeated, not quite comprehending no’s do more than a speech would from someone else. Playing against him is Sjöfn (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir) and she, wracked by euphoria and depression, has a voice filled with emotion. She brings possibilities, not just of sex (as some of Fusi‘s coworker baggage handlers at the airport would see it) and love, but of Fusi escaping the small, insulated life he has created for himself.

After watching Virgin Mountain, I thought of the magic casket that Steinar of Hliöar made for the king of Denmark. “It was divided into several compartments of different sizes. Under the largest compartments, which were detachable, was the bottom; but there was more to that than met the eye, because under it there lay three, some say four, secret compartments which no one could open except by an ingenious special device”. And so does Dagur build his film, scene by scene, each one so there is much more than meets the eye, each one creating the layered reality of what looks on the surface like a simple life.

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

viking cross
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.

Movie Review”: Of Horses and Men

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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.

 

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.