Guy Maddin made a film called My Winnipeg. Not your Winnipeg, My Winnipeg. Winnipeg from his point of view. None of this, Our Collective Winnipeg, the kind of boring, everybody agrees on Winnipeg and offends no one. Tough on his mom maybe. Might not be great to be one of his sibs since only Guy gets to tell the story. But, it is an eccentric act of genius, because it is his Winnipeg and no one else’s, except, of course, that all of us from Winnipeg, recognize ourselves.
That’s what I was thinking about as I stared out the window today at the relentless rain. Guy Maddin and his point of view and I was thinking about it because I was pondering the question about My Iceland and My Icelandic Canada. My eccentric point of view about my Icelandic heritage. My Icelandic Heritage has a sort of fuzzy edge to it. The fuzzy edge is made up of My Icelandic United States but if I got into that, it really would be a kind of surreal because I don’t really know much about Point Roberts or Boundary Bay or the shenanigans in Chicago.
This is where, on a rainy day, statements like, “I’m a proud Icelander,” lead. Especially when they force me to think about what it is I’m proud about. Once I’ve eaten the vinarterta and the rullupylsa and the plate is empty, what’s left?
I’m not proud of Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. I know they looked great as Vikings, although Tony Curtis looked pretty wimpy. Kirk looked more like someone who might strike terror into the hearts of helpless English or Irish villagers who had no way of protecting themselves. Curtis looked more like the kind of guy who’d be filling up a sack with the local abbot’s silver while Kirk, baby, was sticking his sword into an abbot who wouldn’t know what to do with a sword even if he had one.
That’s the problem with Vikings. Viking means pirate. If someone says, let’s go Viking, he means, let’s get a bunch of the guys together and go steal, kill and rape. It’s interesting, in the many lectures I’ve attended over the years, the archeologists, anthropologists, historians, and others, when asked by audience members who are doing heavy breathing at the word Vikings, to tell them all about the Vikings, the archeologists, anthropologists, historians, and others, describe them as a bunch of young gangsters, criminals, juvenile delinquents. If there’d been motorcycles, they’d have been characters in the movie, The Wild One. Except Marlon Brando just wouldn’t have cut it as a Viking.
There are always some people who want to reach back to when their ancestors were pirates. The conveniently forget that there are about eight hundred years of their ancestors being sheep farmers who couldn’t defend themselves when some Turkish pirates turned up in 1627 and did the killing, raping and enslaving. Tending sheep doesn’t exactly turn out hard bitten commandos.
It’s true that in places in Europe, the Vikings settled down, had kids, planted crops, raised animals, produced beautiful artifacts. There is a whole academic industry that studies and writes about it. There are massive coffee table books showing stuff made by Vikings. There’s also an entire sub culture that creates a romanticized version of Viking life. In fact, not much is really known about Viking culture. It’s mostly deduced from stuff dug out of graves and reading the sagas. That doesn’t stop people from adding in their versions of idealized Viking life. If you can be Sigurd, warrior princess on weekends, it helps make selling shoes or being a barista bearable.
Think about what it must have been like after people had been killed, their houses burned down, and you sailed into the harbour in front of your Icelandic farm (there were no villages). You pull your boat onto the shore and said, proudly, “Hey, babe, look at all the good stuff that I managed to steal.”
The problem is that settling down in these various coastal areas in Europe, having kids, ploughing fields, raising sheep doesn’t produce fierce warriors so when the Barbary pirates appeared and killed, raped and pillaged, there wasn’t much opposition. They cleared out whole villages in Holland, Ireland, England, all along the coat. It was payback time. Bad karma being acted out. Where were Kirk and Tony when they were needed?
It’s fun to put on fake fur and a helmet and wave a sword around at Islindingadagurinn. Especially after an Icelandic beer or two. The Viking village on the hill in Gimli is great. The people who set up the village and populate it go to tremendous lengths to make it authentic. They make chain mail and cook meat on a spit over an open fire. They give demonstration battles. Except they’re rather clean, have good teeth and credit cards. They’re not going to suddenly start slaughtering the spectators. Thank goodness.
I admire the sagas but those were written long after the Viking age was over. I admire the sagas as pieces of literature. They are a major part of world literature. Thank goodness not all those vellum pages were cut up to make patterns for dresses. However, I can’t say that I admire the behaviour of most of the characters in the sagas. I wouldn’t have wanted most of them for neighbours.
So, when I say I’m proud of My Icelandic Heritage, Vikings don’t rank very high. They did when I was a little kid and I and my friends ran around the yard having sword fights but that was a while ago.