The Poet from Arnes: background notes

Poetry, like hymn singing, was okay in Iceland. Both came with the settlers. The poetry and hymn singing expanded to become secular but still was an important part of the daily life of the settlers. Even today, numerous books of poetry in Icelandic written by the first generation of immigrants still exist. Also, still existing, are anecdotes about the struggle between farming and writing. It has been said about more than one farmer that “he’d have been a better farmer if he hadn’t spent so much time writing poetry”. I’ve noticed that some people feel the need to defend Stephan G’s farming, as if his life work of poetry was, somehow, an abdication of his responsibilities as a farmer, father and husband. His accomplishments as a poet absolve him of any accusation of neglect for a muse is a demanding mistress and his books could only be written by him while others could grow crops on his land.  It is true, crops, cows and sheep are demanding. The weather waits for no man. But, so is the creative spirit, the demanding internal mistress who wants all of an artist’s time and attention.

There is a struggle within some of us, if not all of us, between the practical and the romantic. To follow either to the extreme leads often to disaster. Following one with no attention to the other deprives us of joy or the material things we need. I have seen the creativity of individuals crushed by rigid, narrow minded views of reality. A middle aged woman once came to me in my role as creative writing teacher and said she wanted to write, there was a need, a burning desire to write. She had wanted to write for years but had belonged to a small religious group led by a man who considered creative activities evil. If you believe in reincarnation, he was probably an Icelandic bishop reincarnated. No slander on current bishops but even a cursory look at Icelandic history makes many of the religious leaders the foes of creativity.

There were many like this cult leader. In Iceland, two bishops went to the king of Denmark and got a law passed that said Icelanders were not to spend their time in frivolous pursuits. The bishops, of course, got to define frivolous. In their view of life, you cut hay, spun wool, lived a life of drudgery and when you weren’t working, you prayed. On the other hand, I’ve known poets who, for some strange reason, believe, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that they are going to make a living from writing poetry and expect to live off the excitement of their creativity.

These parts are filled by Oscar and his wife, Snolag. Both of them are good people but each takes a position that diminishes their lives. There are no bad people in this story.

The difference between them can be seen in the attitude of the cows toward them. The cows respond to Oscar’s thoughtfulness and singing. Snolag is more businesslike. The cows still produce milk but it is now a duty instead of a pleasure. One can extrapolate that to all sorts of situations in society. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, officers, bosses, police. The outcome might be much the same but the feeling is different. How we feel matters.

Oscar disappears in a storm. There’s the assumption that he’s drowned. Snolag takes over the farm, makes decisions for the present and the future, does a good job.

Oscar has tried to bring romance into their lives with no success. The garden he planted for Snolag died.

He disappears, nearly is drowned in icy water, nearly freezes to death. Make what you will of that. He is rescued by a woman who keeps  him safe all through the winter. She’s a mythic figure, native, passionate, if you want, his creative soul. Somehow, magically, at a terrible price, she provides him with what he most wants in life, a son. The price is that he may sing for no one else. Folk tales are full of instances of bargains made, rewards given, bargains broken, betrayals, and the price paid.

Snolag, at Oscar’s reappearance, behaves in character, completely and totally practical, she starts breakfast. Her behaviour, although surprising, even shocking to some, has its roots in reality. Men were ever wanderers, often traveling far from home in search of game or a job. They could leave their family for long periods of time, then simply turn up. Odysseus took ten years to come back home.

However, even though she has earlier resented the time Oscar has spent on his singing, now that she has found love with the arrival of a child, she is aware that something is missing with Oscar no longer singing. The love she has experienced and is able to extend to her relationship with Oscar means she recognizes and feels the loss. However, she makes the mistake of shaming Oscar into breaking his vow and the cost is everything that has made her happy.

This story is filled with magic. The mundane and the practical struggle against the creative. The magic transforms people’s lives, allows Oscar to survive, to return, for him and Snolag to have a child, gives them happiness, takes it away. This struggle goes on every day in every place. Within a person and between and among people.

A simple promise broken in the Garden of Eden. The opening of Pandora’s Box. There was a time when a man’s word was his bond. Even in recent times, pioneers on the prairies would, according to Broadfoot, write a note saying, “I owe you ten dollars. I’m good for it.” Not keeping one’s word was an unforgiveable sin. You paid your debts. You kept your word.

Folk tales are not politically correct, nor are they Disney’s prettified stories that no longer reflect the human condition. Grimm’s tales reflect the human condition, human desires, they coddle no one. They are not for children. They are stories for adults about adult subjects. Taking away what folk tales have to say about our lives, separating the narratives from how people really feel so that a romanticized view of life is left, demeans and diminishes them, demeans and diminishes us. Saturday Evening Post covers by Norman Rockwell were wonderful but presented such an idealized, romanticized view of American life that it reflected hardly any segment of daily life for American society.  That doesn’t mean that every piece of art has to force reality on the viewer. Some art is solely for entertainment. Thinking isn’t required.

However, the lives of Oscar and Snolag, the conflict between them, the outcome, require, I believe, some thought about our own lives.