Rímur Through the Ages

Dr. John Tucker and Dr. Patricia Baer are to be congratulated on arranging for Guðrún Ingimundardóttir (Rúna) to give a Richard and Beck Lecture on Oct. 17 at the University of Victoria. Guðrun´s lecture and demonstration was on Icelandic traditional music.

Guðrun is the Chair of Rima, a traditional folk singers group in Iceland. She founded Stemma. This is a traditional folk music association. She is the first person to teach Icelandic traditional singing (kvesðkapur) “in an official music school in Iceland (Tónskóli Fjallabyggðar).”

It would be easy to deliver a lecture on a poetic form from the 1400s to the early 1900s and make it so dull that the audience falls asleep. Gúdrun did just the opposite. She electrified the audience. Not only was she able to tell the audience about the history of rímur and its importance for a country with a small population living on isolated farms, she was able to sing the examples of the various kinds of rímur.

The kveðskapur traveled from farm to farm like itinerant troubadors. This was before radio, telephones, film, TV, or the internet. In the evenings, after the day´s farm work was complete, people sat around the baðstofa, the main room of the farmhouse, and knitted or did various tasks such as mending horse bridals or clothes. To keep people awake and entertained, stories were read or told. If a storyteller came to a farm with new stories, he might stay for weeks or months. Many of the rímur were very long and might provide entertainment over the entire winter.

Eventually rímur were written down but for centuries they were oral poems, told and retold, changing with the different tellings and the different tellers. Many, probably most of the rímur, were based on classic stories such as the sagas and skaldic verse. Ironically, it is the survival of rímur that provides proof of the existence of sagas that have been lost.
As well, there are indications in some rímur that they were accompanied with dance. Guðrun mentioned that these might have been similar dances to those of the Faroese. I know from my own research that the Icelandic bishops were violently against dancing of any kind and, with Iceland having such a small population, they were able to supress dancing even in private homes and isolated farms. The result is that evidence of dancing has to be searched for in other activities such as the singing/chanting of rímur.
A particular treat during the lecture was when Guðrun´s husband, Gustaf Danielsson, joined her to sing a ríma.

Among many other things that Guðrun mentioned was that kennings became part of ríma. As with everything, she provided us with examples of the kennings and their meanings. Kennings alone could be the basis for a number of lectures. On my first trip to Iceland, my host was the National Librarian, Finboggi Gudmundson and I still remember his shock when he realized that I didn´t know what a kenning was. They are poetic metaphors that often make poetry so obscure as to not be understandable. For example, instead of saying blood, a poet might say battle sweat. Or so I say and Guðrun seemed to agree, although that didn´t seem to dampen her enthusiasm for them.

Time and again, as Gúðrun went through a list of rímur with their known authors and more recent tellers, she sang for us. She even gave us an example of how and why the tellers/singers chose the voice they chose. When a lecturer can perform what she is lecturing about what a difference it makes!
One surprise was that in the list of ríma writers was Hallgrimur Pétursson, the famous writer of The Passion Hymns. He lived from 1614-74. There are modern advocates such as Steindór Andersen who is “the leading rímur singer in Iceland: he often collaborates with the band Sigur Rós and has also contributed to some of Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson’s works.”

The hour and a half went by so fast for both Guðrun and the audience that it seemed impossible that the lecture was over. Because the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust were fortunate enough to hear that Guðrun was going to be in Victoria and was able to arrange for her to give a lecture, we all benefited, hearing an Icelandic expert on a topic those of us involved in Icelandic culture would normally have to go to Iceland to hear.

To make the experience even more enjoyable, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Guðrun´s husband´s Canadian relatives and hear something of their family´s early years of homesteading in British Columbia. Virginia Guenther came from Sidney, Valerie and Shannon Brickley from 100 Mile House, Victor Lindal and Sherry Thorsteinson from Victoria. The history of Icelandic immigrants in BC is not well known so this Beck lecture didn‘t just educate us about an ancient Icelandic poetic form but brought about a sharing of our local history.