Gusti, like the vast majority of Icelanders combines being a poet with superstition and a relationship to the natural world that goes beyond logic. When a starving bear with a cub appears, he doesn’t kill it. He shows it mercy. He feeds it and the cub with waste fish, maria, a fish he won’t eat because it doesn’t have scales. “Of all the marine animals, these are ones you may use for food. You may eat anything from the water if it has both fins and scales, whether taken from salt water or from streams. (Leviticus 11:19)
Folk tale collections often include stories of wishes gone wrong.
Many cultures have stories about the danger of making wishes based on greed or pride.
Sometimes, though, they are about wishes gone right. Those are usually about rewards for those whose behaviour is exemplary.
“The Troll Wife” is about both of these: first, a wish that is granted but not with positive consequences and second, goodness being rewarded.
Such tales often include a challenge or test that requires kindness or an act of faith. That test is usually issued by a woman or a woman disguised or hidden by a curse or spell and it is made to a man. In cultures with royal figures such a young man is often a prince, wealthy, handsome and the troll or ugly figure turns out to be a beautiful maiden worthy of a prince.
You can make much or little of such a tale. It can be seen as a story about the need to test the true love of young men and/or a statement about the relationship of men and women in a given culture. It was not long ago that there was no birth control and folk music and folk stories are filled with sorrow and lamentations caused by young men who seduce maidens, then abandon them.
The most popular song of servant’s maids was “Early One Morning”. “Early one morning, just as the sun was rising, I heard a young maid sing in the valley below, Oh, don’t deceive me, Oh, never leave me. How could you use a poor maiden so.”
It is no wonder that tests of a young man’s faithfulness are a quite common theme. However, it is also not surprising that the emotions of love, jealousy, the desire to be beautiful, are frequent subjects.
In “The Beauty and the Beast” it is love that turns a beast into a human. It is love that rescues Ragnheiður from the curse placed upon her.
“The Troll Wife” goes beyond that to a statement about the difference in substance and appearance.
“The Troll Wife” has a lot to say about values. The values of Eva, the wife, who puts beauty above everything, wants nothing more than popularity, and seeks materialistic fulfillment from other people. The values of Ragnheiður who sees in Eva’s husband, Svein, not a man with a physical deformity but a man with many virtues. The values of Svein who is practical, hard working, kind and loyal.
Ragnheiður is a night troll. If she is touched by daylight, she will turn to stone. She has magical powers for she knows what Eva has wished and she can grant the wish. She is ethical, moral, for she makes no effort to undermine the situation between the husband and wife. She helps Eva with untangling the nets and she offers a warning to Eva about her future life and wishes her well.
Night trolls were usually considered dangerous and terrifying. But Ragnheiður is only a night troll because of a curse. She is actually, under her outward appearance, a beautiful woman. She implies that the curse was the result of jealousy brought about by her beauty. Certainly, beauty is two-edged. It can bring popularity but also jealousy and envy. Ragnheiður, from her experience, grants beauty to Eva but, based on her own experience, doubts it will bring her happiness.
Ragnheiður and Svein prosper because they love each other and work as one, expecting nothing from each other but giving much to each other.
The story also might have something to say about the power of love to transform people.
The short story, What The Bear Said, takes place in New Iceland. The settlers have lived there long enough that they have spread out from the first settlement at Gimli and have built cabins. In Iceland, these people survived by raising sheep and dairy cows plus going cod fishing once the hay harvest was over.
Something that many people don’t understand is that the Icelandic settlers were not farmers. That cannot be stressed too strongly. They cultivated no land in Iceland. The home field, that precious island of grass, simply received a topping of dried and pulverized sheep manure once a year. Nothing was ploughed. No seed was planted. Land in Iceland that was productive was pasture for grazing by sheep and cows. The term bonder or farmer is, in a Canadian context, misleading. Icelanders were shepherds and/or dairymen. The land that did grow grass was often marginal, grass production scanty. No matter how hard anyone worked, sheep and cattle could not produce enough food for the population. Essential protein had to come from fishing.
This dual production of food led the settlers away from arable, farmable land in Canada. The settlers chose to settle along the shores of Lake Winnipeg even though the land close to the lake was often swampy. Those who were fortunate, like Gusti Axelsson, claimed higher ground.
The settlement at Gimli has been established, enough that Gusti can row there in his skiff to get supplies.
Gusti lives in what I call the In Between World. He was born and raised in Iceland, emigrated to Canada with his wife and one child. In New Iceland, they have had two more children, a son and a daughter. The daughter, Ninna, is the apple of Gusti’s eye.
Gusti and his wife are clearing and planting the land. The children do whatever work they can and have the task of picking potato bugs off the potato plants. Survival requires that everyone help.
New Iceland is a truly foreign place. In Iceland, except for the occasional polar bear that arrives on an ice flow and is quickly killed because of its danger to both people and sheep, the Icelanders have no experience with large wild animals.
Bears in New Iceland were, in fact, a problem. Even at my father’s fish camp in the 1960s and 70s, they were a problem, tearing apart fishing camp kitchens, ripping open icehouses and stealing meat. Bears are powerful and fast. The bears of New Iceland must have seemed like mythical, mysterious creatures, lurking in the wilderness.
Folktales often include animals with extraordinary powers and relationships between people and animals that are magical.
The tradition goes back into the earliest Scandinavian mythology. There are Odin’s wolves, Geri and Freki, plus Huginn and Munnin, his ravens. There are selkies who can transform themselves from seals into humans and back again. There are troll fisks, eight legged horses, Fenris, the wolf, and the nykur or water horses. And many more. There is nothing strange about an Icelander having a special relationship to an animal.
One of the great hardships for the Icelandic settlers was the weather. People with no experience of Iceland assume it is like the arctic. Instead, because of the Gulf Stream, the climate while wet and windy and highly unpredictable, doesn’t have the extreme temperatures of Manitoba. Everything for the settlers was new. The ways of securing food, the plants, the animals, the weather, the landscape. The long cold winters, the sudden blizzards that left deep drifts of snow that lasted sometimes from early fall until late spring were new.
Gusti, in befriending the sow and her cub goes against the general mores of the community. He’s advised to shoot the bear or to hire someone to shoot the bear. He tries to explain what happens to him when he communicates with the bear but is mocked.
His kindness is repaid when Ninna is lost? Or is it? Is it just a myth created by people who have come from a land filled with ghosts, trolls, huldafolk, and magical creatures such as sea cows?
When I was a boy, someone shot and killed a sow with two cubs. The cubs adopted our fish camp and the people in it. They were “wild” animals but they threatened no harm. They were quite curious about what people did. Any danger from them would have been something done on our part that startled or threatened them. However, people often kill other species not because they pose any great danger but because people are afraid. The logic seems to be, “I’m afraid of you so I will kill you.” The same rule appears to be regularly acted out in human relations. At the moment, there’s a tragic case in Florida with a young man being shot because someone was afraid of him. Also, some years ago a Japanese student (in Florida again) went out on Halloween trick or treating. He was wearing a mask. A homeowner shot and killed him.
Perhaps this story is not just about a different way that the early settlers could (and sometimes did) relate to t heir environment but might be seen as a way of approaching all that is not us.
There is pleasure in reading a well constructed murder mystery. The beginning punctuated by minor incidents and details that seem no more than background and setting but, by the end, are crucial to the solving of the mystery.
A well written novel doesn´t trick the reader by withholding information. Instead, the evidence is there in the story and, as the story unfolds, the reader, along with the detective, can fit the pieces of the puzzle together. The skill and talent of the author is in the creating of the puzzle, in the pacing of the information, in the creating of suspense. Done right and the book is a page turner, a book a reader doesn´t want to put down.
My Soul To Take by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir fits the bill.
Her novel begins with a crime being committed in the distant past as a little girl is lowered down a hole to her death. The novel then shifts into the present in which a current murder occurs. Then a second murder occurs in the present. The murder in the distant past is known to the reader but not to the lawyer/detective. As the original story of the little girl threads its way through the present events, it give the novel a heart. By the time we reach the end of the novel we are prepared to weep along with Lara for a tragedy that has occurred many years before
Thora Gudmundsdöttir, the lawyer with an insatiable curiosity and a determination to know why and how things happen, is an interesting type of detective. Her life is complicated by her being a single mother with two children, an ex –husband, and a German boyfriend who doesn’t speak Icelandic. Her personal relationships add both a sense of pathos and hilarity. The children, with their natural self-involvement, are not the slightest bit interested in either their mother’s work as a lawyer or as a solver of crimes. They are more concerned with having to listen to a father who thinks he’s a great Karaoke singer.
What makes this novel particularly Icelandic isn’t just the setting but also the use of Icelandic folk lore. The folk lore isn’t just background colour but an essential part of the story.
For example, the both Thora and the reader are mystified by the details of foxes and pins only to have their importance revealed little by little until it is obvious that they are crucial to the unraveling of the mystery.
As a reader, I appreciate the flashes of humour created by the inclusion of minor characters such as the sex therapist who works at the resort where the murders take place. Yrsa even uses her boyfriend Mathew’s not knowing Icelandic as a plot element and a device for adding levity. Nothing is wasted in Yrsa’s novels for both the sex therapist and Mathew, Thora’s boyfriend, have a role to play in the plot.
The opening of the novel is heart wrenching but I didn’t let that keep me from reading the rest of the story. Thank goodness, for as a reader of murder mysteries, I was intrigued by how the author handled plot, setting and character and how, gradually, a complex puzzle was finally assembled. Yrsa, in her day job, is an engineer, and it is obvious that she is used to fitting complex structures together.
I’d add this My Soul To Keep to my list of books by Icelandic authors to put under the Christmas tree.
(If you are in Gimli, Manitoba, all of Yrsa’s novels can be found at Tergesent’s bookstore.)