INLReads: Background notes for Wendigo

Something I’ve always appreciated about people of Icelandic background’s is their ability to laugh at themselves. Sharp witted poetry that deflates egos and reveals less than stellar behaviours have a long history. Vanity and foolishness have always been frequent targets.
Story telling about community absurdities and individual idiosyncrasies are not exclusive to Icelandic society or culture. However, in my experience, such anecdotes, usually verbal, seem exceptionally common.
When the settlers came to New Iceland, they were a homogeneous group. Until they got onto ships to go to England or Scotland, many people had never met someone who was not Icelandic. The port cities in the UK were a great shock. Letters written about the experience are well known. The large horses, the stone buildings, the travel by train, everything, everything was foreign.
Quebec City must have been as strange to people who had spent their lives on isolated farms as some crazed fantasy. Always travelling, trusting to the agents you weren’t sure could be trusted, and sometimes were untrustworthy, by ship to England or Scotland, by train to the  next port, by ship to Amerika, by more ships along the Great Lakes, up rivers, into endless wilderness. With people dying on the way, dying on ships, dying in ports, dying on ships travelling westward, dying on rivers, on barges, on wilderness beaches, in lonely cabins.
In Iceland there were the trolls, the huldafolk, the ghosts, the witches and here, in the wilderness were the people they’d been warned about, the Indians, and with them came stories of Wendigo. There were violent, dangerous gods in the forests that were already terrifying, life threatening.
And Wendigo. Who was Wendigo? He was more than one. They roamed the forest. They were humanlike dogs, evil, practicing cannibalism. If a person ate human flesh, he became a Wendigo. They knew no limits but were driven by gluttony, greed and excess. As part of the transformation caused by eating human flesh, they grew in size and, like a troll, became large.
It is not hard to imagine in those early dark winters, huddled in crowded cabins, ill fed, hungry, surrounded by freezing temperatures, howling storms, people believing in Wendigo. A new country, new terrors. Even in a place called New Iceland, the integration has begun. Guttumor Guttormsson says in one of his essays that it was a joyous day when he got his first moccasins to replace his Icelandic shoes. Terror and comfort from a new culture.
The story, though, is not about Wendigo tearing anyone to shreds and eating him. It’s about the foolishness of the community in squabbling over petty issues instead of working together. The early religious conflicts come to mind but there were other conflicts as well. Perhaps the amount of community conflict that existed was because in Iceland people lived on isolated farms instead of in villages. Each farm was its own community. As one farm owner in Iceland said, “I’m Emperor here.”, comparing himself to Napoleon. If farm owners were self-important little Napoleans, it’s no wonder that they were notorious for being in constant conflict. Visitors to Iceland commented on the amount of conflict between and among the farmers.  Perhaps, it had to do with conditions further back in time with a society that could charge, arrest, convict but had no way of enforcing a sentence. That was left to whoever had reason to enforce it. Gunnar is not executed by a government executioner but is brought down by a vigilante posse.
When I went to university, I did not know the difference between a discussion and an argument. What I had experienced was argument. When people had different opinions, I was used to hearing adults arguing and the arguing often, especially if fueled by alcohol, turned to shouting and shouting to violence. Instead of reasoned discussion there was opinion, opinion often based on no facts. Instead of a sharing of opinion and information, there were entrenched positions which, if challenged, made the person with a different opinion, the enemy.  It took some time before I realized the difference and that people could, with good reason, hold opinions different from mine and that, if I knew my subject matter, I might get them to modify their positions and vice versa. I learned that I didn’t have to be “right” all the time and that there was nothing sacred about my opinions. I also learned that I could work with people who had many different opinions than me: religious, political, social. In a larger way, this was the same struggle that the community in a multi-ethnic society  was having to learn.
This story has as a protagonist a young boy who is, in a dishonest and cowardly fashion, chosen by the men in the community to seek out Wendigo, to steal his cache of furs, furs that the community hopes will relieve them of their poverty. The choice of a young boy allows for his naiveté, for his bravery, for his innocence, for his being able to honestly report on what it is that he has learned. Innocence often reveals foolishness.
It is a child who says the Emperor has no clothes.
The community, in spite of its poverty, retains its pretensions, its vanities and its petty conflicts. The sheep farmers, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, stubbornly don’t move to a better, drier place to raise sheep but build rafts. The settlers away from the village are filled with fears and transfer them onto an imaginary villain. Through all these adult fears and weaknesses, the young boy has to search until he reaches an understanding of the community.
The protagonist, Jon Litla (Little Jon), doesn’t find Wendigo or his furs but he does find truth.   (“At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children”)

Intergalactic Resurrection

The title of this edition which is called Under the Glacier instead of Christianity Under Glacier offends me.
It offends me in the same way that the White House calling a Christmas tree a holiday tree offends me. The titles of books are usually chosen by marketing departments. The author has little, or even, no say in the title. Nor do his descendants. I assume that Kristanhald Under Jökli was renamed with the idea that dropping the word, Christian, from the title would increase sales. Since the entire book, from the first word to the last, is about the condition of Christianity in Glacier and, by implication, in Iceland, leaving Christian out is both misleading and absurd. Like, we´ll leave Christian out of the title and trick people into buying this book because they´ll think its about glaciers.
As for the book itself, I often found the satire hilarious. As a Lutheran with an Icelandic background, I frequently recognized the foibles and pretensions of myself and my community.
But there´s the rub. A satire, to be appreciated, needs readers who know intimately what is being satirized. Unlike previous novels of Laxness´s that I have read, that contain within them all the necessary information for understanding and appreciation, this novel does not.
The novel begins with Embi, a not particularly committed theology student who isn´t much interested in becoming ordained, being chosen to investigate the state of Christianity at Glacier. With Embi being chosen for a task that should rightly belong to a devout theologian, the satire has begun.
What has sparked the investigation are rumours of odd happenings at Glacier. Burials are often delayed, baptisms and confirmations not performed, and there supposedly has been a strange burial on the glacier instead of in hallowed ground. The church building itself is reported to be in disrepair and a much larger secular building has been built next to the church so the church is overshadowed.
Embi travels to Glacier. On his arrival, he notices a sign that says ‚ “PIMUSES REPAIRED HERE.” Embi discovers that the local pastor, called Jón Primus, has a stellar reputation, not as a theologian, but as a repairer of primus stoves.
The irony and satire of Jón Primus and his many technical skills would be lost on a non-Icelandic audience. The wry smile and laughter would come from the knowledgeable reader who knew how they needed to raise sheep and go fishing to survive. Religious duties for such men had to come second to getting in the hay for without hay their sheep would die and without sheep, the pastor would die. Although there were tithes of sheep and fish for the pastor at some times, by some people, many pastors depended on their secular skills to survive. It is no wonder that it is their secular skills for which they are named and appreciated. 
Henderson, when he traveled in Iceland in 1814-15 distributing and selling Bibles, commented extensively on the condition of the clergy.  “The total number of parishes in Iceland amounts to 184; but as many of them occupy a great space of ground, it has been found necessary to build in some parts two or three churches in a parish, which has increased the number of churches to 305.” The ministers are “all natives of the island, and are maintained partly from certain tithes raised among the peasants. The provision made for their support is exceedingly scanty. The richest living on the island does not produce 200 rix-dollars; twenty and thirty rix-dollars are the whole of the stipend annexed to many of the parishes; and there are some in which it is even as low as five.
Ministers needed, also, to perform many other duties. Henderson says that “besides attending to the spiritual wants of his people, Sira Jon (Jón Jónson of Audabrecka) devotes a considerable portion of his time to the healing of their bodies, and is celebrated all over the north for his skill in medicine. Since last new year, he has had more than two hundred cases.”
In 1872 when Burton is in Iceland, conditions hadn’t changed much.  He says in Ultima Thule that while the bishop’s salary is $3416.33 Danish dollars, thirty-nine ministers make only about 300 rigs dollars a year. This is a very small amount of money and while he says the ministers have some other sources of income, he admits that the clergy are “compelled to be farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen.”
The naming of Jón Primus is an occasion for a smile or a laugh for the tradition of naming people according to their work was so strong that it survived the emigration to Ameríka. In Gimli, Manitoba, and elsewhere in New Iceland, there were many Valdis and Helgis and so the butcher became Valdi Butch and the garage man, Helgi Highway. Much of the naming was, and still is, ironic.
When Embi asks Tumi Jónsen for the whereabouts of the pastor, Tumi says that he has gone to Ness to shoe a herd of horses. Jón Primus also does electrical work. He´s handy to have around. However, when Embi asks about the pastor´s doctrine, Tumi says, “We’ve never been aware that Pastor Jón had any particular doctrine.
Poor Embi, hopeless, hapless, making notes and tape recordings, he tries to make sense of Christianity at Glacier. The answers to even his simplest questions are convoluted and evasive. The rumour that a burial has taken place on the glacier turns out to be true. 
A local Icelander, Gudmundur Sigmundsson, has made a great deal of money abroad, and is the owner of the secular building on church property, a building much larger than the church. He returns. He now calls himself Godman Singmann. 
Although this book was published in 1968, the Occupy protesters would recognize someone who thinks he’s Godman and belongs to the one percent. Today, he would definitely be an Icelandic banker. Godman espouses a new religion that believes in biotelekinesis and intergaltic communication and intergalactic resurrection. Pastor Jón, in spite of his secular activities, has literally nailed the doors of the church shut against such things and refuses its use for an experiment in secular resurrection.
Jón Primus, in reply to Godman´s theories, replies , “That water is good.” He sticks to simple truths instead of bafflegab mixed together from an assortment of religions.
Great fun is made with the stereotypes in the novel, with the theories and fads, with the quirks of Icelandic society. This novel contains the famous scenes of Embi never being offered anything but cakes instead of meals. Many a host both in Iceland and North America has said “There are good treats here but not seventeen cakes.” Icelanders and Icelandic North Americans alike know that it is Pestle-Thóra , Jón Primus´s housekeeper and her many cakes that is being referred to .
I would put this book under the Christmas tree but only for someone who knows Iceland and some Icelandic history. Otherwise, the reader is likely to stop reading among the conversations Embi has with people when he first arrives at Glacier. It would also help if the reader cared about Christianity in Iceland (and elsewhere) for beyond the irony and satire there are serious points made and questions raised. For the knowledgeable reader, this book is as relevant today as it was when it was first published.

Icelandic Quirks

This is the second time I’ve read The Little Book of The Icelanders. It was just as funny and as insightful as the first time. Although I’m four generations away from Iceland, I still recognized quirks and behaviours that made me both laugh and cringe.

Tragedy is easy to discuss. We all agree on tragic. Humour is hard to discuss. What is funny to one person isn’t funny to another. However, there is likely to be something humorous for everyone in Alda Sigmundsdóttir´s ebook.

Laxness is concerned with social injustice, Yrsa and Indridason with murder. That can all be leavened by laughter.

Alda moved abroad at the age of five. She returned to Iceland twenty-five or so years later in 1994. Although she was Icelandic and had been in the Icelandic school system between the ages of seven and ten, she was now a foreigner with a foreign perspective. That has allowed her to observe her fellow Icelanders with a keen eye and make note of their quirks and oddities. She is definitely not heimskur.

She points out in her introduction that tradition and conforming are important to Icelanders. Because of their history, sticking together and not rocking the boat have been important. Something that should be interesting to readers is how this has changed with the financial meltdown and its aftermath but those comparisons you will have to do for yourself.

 She explains about people, young and old, being addressed by their first names. We should have had this explanation when I was in high school and we got a new principal who was outraged by our disrespect because we addressed him by his first name.

She explains about the oddity of the phone book listing everyone by their first name and their profession. While there are official controls over what you can call a child, there are no controls over what profession you can claim. The result is that the Icelandic phone book has “nine sorcerers, three alien tamers…59 Jedi Masters and (my personal favourite) two hen whisperers.”

Some people have written essays on whether or not Icelanders have a sense of humour. They obviously didn’t grow up in an Icelandic community. Alda says “The Icelandic sense of humour is dry, self-effacing, sarcastic and has a special penchant for the absurd.” Taking yourself too seriously is considered a minor offense in Iceland. In the Icelandic community in Canada, the tradition holds because a cutting criticism is to say that someone is full of himself.

She explains naming, family names, the politics around the naming of babies including the role of að vitja nafns.

A section on driving in Iceland made me greatly relieved. There are things I do that I can now blame on my Icelandic genes. “Take indicator lights, for example. Icelanders use them very sparingly, if at all. Frequently they’ll put them on in the middle of a turn (as in: look, I’m turning!) or right after they’ve turned (I just made a turn!).

Twenty-to-twenty-nine year-old Icelanders are 95% on Fésbók. Fésbókarlýðræði, or Facebook Democracy is having a major influence on the politics in Iceland.

There are too many topics covered to mention them all but only a book about Iceland and the social habits of its population would have a chapter on „The Invaluable Social Function of the Hot Tubs”.

Buy it. You can’t put it under the tree but you can put it on someone’s computer for Christmas. Laughter is good medicine. 

Alda says she’s signed a deal with Forlagið, Iceland’s largest publisher, for the publication of this book in print form (and electronic form too, in fact). Publication slated for 1 May 2012.

If you want a paper copy, you should be able to buy one in Iceland this coming summer.

To order the book, use the url above or Google The Little Book of the Icelanders. That should give you a page with the title of The Iceland Weather Report and a picture of the book cover. Below the cover of the book there is a picture of a credit card. Just click on a credit card symbol on the page. It will open up and provide PayPal. The book is 24.99 and worth every penny.