“Loftur” starts with Sigurbjörg, a pretty young girl being courted by a number of older men. She is pressured by her parents to choose one of them. This was very much the case. For a man to marry he had to have enough resources to prove that he could support a family. The minimum amount was four hundreds. Since the only means of support in Iceland was farming, that meant having enough land to support four cows or their equivalent. Few men could manage this before they were middle aged.
S. E. Waller in his book, Six Weeks In The Saddle, gives a description of a wedding he attends where the groom is a fat, old man and the bride a pretty young girl. There was no birth control and families were often large. The houses were small, often with everyone sleeping in the same room, two to a bed, head to foot.
Food was frequently in short supply, especially in the spring. When one could marry off a daughter to someone with land and cattle, it was an opportunity not to be missed. For the young woman, there were no other opportunities except taking work on a farm as a domestic servant. Not only was the work sheer drudgery but young women working on farms were often regarded as property like the cows and sheep and sexually exploited.
Sigurbjörg is fortunate. A young man, Páll, has inherited land and cattle and, although his holding is small, he can afford a wife. He wants to marry Sigurbjörg.
They marry but the scorned suitors decide to take revenge for their rejection. They hire a magician to capture the ghost of a man who has died during the Móðuharðindin, the death mist.
The Móðuharðindin, the Mist Hardships of 1783-85 came after the Laki eruption. This was no tourist eruption like Eyjafjallajokull. Lava continued to flow for five months. But worse than that were the poisonous gases. Even if a lava flow is large, it is still localized. Poisonous gases can spread over vast distances. Florine and sulpher dioxide from the eruption destroyed and poisoned grazing areas. Some historians believe that 80 percent of the sheep and cows died. Eighty percent in a country where life depended on milk products.
There were 50,000 people in Iceland at the time. Ten thousand of them died. Imagine what it would be like if, when Mr. St. Helens erupted, twenty percent of the population of North America died. In a small municipality like Gimli, Manitoba, with 8,000 residents, that would mean 1,600 people would die. How would we cope?
Loftur died at this time. Crazy times make people crazy and he is treated unjustly. Turned away from farm after farm, he dies of starvation and exposure. His angry ghost is vulnerable, available for revenge.
The belief in magic and magicians was wide spread. So was the belief in ghosts. Today, with the magic of antibiotics, surgical procedures, etc. we have little experience of death. In the 1800s there were four doctors for all of Iceland. Their medications were, on the whole, useless. Operations were largely confined to chopping off arms and legs. Diseases like measles and diphtheria killed people in massive numbers. Inoculations were not available. Poor nutrition weakened people and made them susceptible to disease. With death appearing suddenly, unexpectedly, frequently, it is no wonder that people believed in ghosts. How could people, losing loved one´s time and again, having their lives shattered, their hopes destroyed with a cold summer, a sunken row boat, an avalanche, an outbreak of smallpox, not believe that there were malevolent, unseen forces at work?
There were Móri and Skotta, male and female ghosts. There were sea ghosts and talking skeletons, ghosts for every occasion. These Icelandic ghosts weren´t like North American ghosts, like swamp gases, insubstantial. They were like flesh and blood, they ate, drank, fought, committed murder and mayhem. They could be called up and controlled, given tasks. Many of them were angry and why wouldn´t they be? There was lots to be angry about.
The farmers were not satisfied with having Loftur torment the young couple. They also started law suits against Páll. Their goal was to beggar the couple, have them separated and to have Sigurbjörg under their control. As paupers, neither Páll nor Sigurbjörg would have any legal rights. Accept help from the parish and all rights were extinguished until the money loaned for your keep was paid back. Sigurbjörg says she doesn’t want to have any children except Páll´s. She knows what is in store for her if they are made paupers. In some syslas, one third of the children were born out of wedlock. The attitude of some farmers toward young girls can be seen in Laxness´s novel, Paradise Reclaimed. Bjorn of Leirur, a wealthy, married farmer, travels the countryside buying sheep and cattle for the Scots and leaves a trail of pregnant young women behind. To make sure we understand that it is not just Bjorn, Bjorn´s friend, the sherrif says that he is kept busy having to find men to bribe to marry young women whom Bjorn and his friends have got pregnant. In Independent People the woman Bjartur of Summerhouses marries is pregnant with the child of the wealthy landowner´s son.
Páll and Sigurbjörg flee to North America. There, they escape the lawsuits but not Loftur. Times are hard but there are opportunities. The new world also creates new possibilities and solutions.
When Pál and Sigurbjörg are talking about Loftur, they mention that with his bones were found a copy of The Passion Hymns. The Passíusálmar or Passion Hymns by Hallgrímur Pétursson were frequently placed in a coffin. The hymns were well known, revered, and the fact that Loftur kept them with them all through his suffering means to Pál and Sigurbjörg that no matter what he did as he struggled to survive, he must still be redeemable.
Local histories frequently say that a newly arrived family stayed with so and so for the winter or until they could get their house built. The sharing of food is a common occurrence. In some ways, in the new world, kindness is more possible.
As hard as pioneering was in Canada, the land was good, surpluses were possible. The struggle, as told by pioneers in books like Broadfoot’s The Pioneer Years, was because the settlers were naïve, inexperienced, not because the land was marginal. Hard, endless work in Iceland on poor land, subject to an unpredictable climate, often didn’t produce enough for people to survive. In Canada, a wide range of crops of grain and vegetables and fruit could be grown. Even the wilderness, once people learned about the plants and how to hunt and fish, provided abundance.
The ghosts who have come with the settlers, like their memories, gradually fade. The circumstances that gave rise to them have changed. You might say that like Loftur, there is a place for them, for people´s memories of past injustices, but it´s a new world and, although it is not perfect or anything like it, there has been food and shelter, slavery (indentured servitude, serfdom) has disappeared or mostly so, and it is possible to be at peace with the past.