Rimur: your literary heritage

Matthew Driscoll

Matthew Driscoll

One is fortunate, from time to time, to come across masterful lecturers, the kind who are precise, organized, know their subject matter perfectly and can explain it to those who don’t.
Matthew Driscoll is one of those. His lecture, “The Icelandic Rimur”, could be used as an example for aspiring teachers.

Rimur, those long, narrative Icelandic poems we’ve all heard about in a rather vague fashion, are complicated. That’s actually an understatement. Yet, in the hour allotted to him, Matthew Driscoll managed to provide history, analysis and appreciation in a way that left me feeling that I now had a grasp of this important part of Icelandic history.

Dr. Driscoll is senior lecturer in Old Norse philology at Nordisk Forskningsinstitut, University of Copenhagen, and curator of the Arnamagnaean manuscript collection. He gets to protect and work with the original Icelandic sagas. Everyone else is a supplicant or a pretender. You know, supplicants, people who want to hold, study, be in the presence of the original sagas (I got to put on white gloves and hold one once) and pretenders (all those people in Viking costumes and blow dried hair).

Somewhere, in the distant past, I first heard of rimur but I never heard of anyone in Manitoba chant rimur. It turns out that I was just not in the right place at the right time because I now know someone from Winnipeg whose father chanted rimur and, when I spoke to Dr. Driscoll after his lecture, he told me that a large number of printed rimur have been recently discovered in Winnipeg.

To appreciate the role of rimur, you have to think back to Iceland before 1900. Icelanders still lived on isolated farms. Travel was extremely difficult and dangerous. During the winter, travel was often impossible. There was no TV and no movies. The winters were dark and long. Entertainment came from reading, story telling and the chanting of rimur.

These rimur are long. They are made up of four line stanzas, and sometimes there are as many as 200 stanzas.

A lot of rimur have been preserved. Pre 1600, there are 78 known rimur. 17th C, 148. 18th C. 248. I found it fascinating that it is in the surviving rimur that evidence is found of lost rimur and lost sagas. The author of a rima sometimes mentions other rimur he has composed. As well, since rimur were verse narratives of myths and sagas, although all the copies of a saga may have been lost, it may be mentioned or may be the basis for the rimur.

There is nowhere else in the world where there is any verse form like rimur.

These poems are highly complex. They have intricate rhyme schemes and internal alliteration. Various metres are used. The language of the rimur was poetic. Kennings were used. Ship, for example, might not fit a verse, but it’s kenning, sea-horse might. Kennings are so much part of Icelandic literary heritage that when I first went to Iceland and my host was the national librarian, Finboggi Gudmundson, and he discovered that I had no idea what a kenning was, he went into a state of shock. However, I’d been raised on Hemingway and he would have thought kennings were affected.

What made rimur so popular was that the authors took interesting stories and told them in rhyme. They were full of romance, battles, sea going adventures, men and women in relationships. The sort of thing that makes soap opera and movies popular today.

In my research into foreign visitors to Iceland in the 19th C., I have come across more than one writer saying that Icelanders have absolutely no musical ability. They sing off key in the most boring way imaginable. However, what those visitors were probably hearing was the chanting/singing of rimur. Singing in harmony doesn’t apply. Dr. Driscoll had some film clips of people chanting rimur (I hate to use the word singing) and they made me feel that only a population with no other entertainment available could want to listen to 200 verses of that.

However, toward the end of the lecture, he showed us a clip of a young woman singing rimur and it was delightful. That event can be accessed on You Tube. The singer is charming, her singing is charming and the fact that the event takes place in a lighthouse is charming.

In recent times the path for rimur has been difficult. Clergy have thought the rimur were awful. They weren’t serious enough. They weren’t religious enough. Viking battles and hot romance was more interesting than someone agonizing over sin. During the Enlightenment the intellectuals thought rimur were holding back modernization and progress. The Romantic poets thought that rimur were just plain crappy verse.

However, rimur has staying power. Those who follow Sigur Ros will know that they are interested in rimur and have been using it with their music.

Dr. Driscoll gave many examples of rimur authors and their poetry along with details of rimur structure. If you are interested in this major component of Icelandic culture and literature, you can access Dr. Driscoll’s lecture on the Margaret and Richard Beck website that is managed and maintained by Dr. Patricia Baer at the University of Victoria.

Dr. Driscoll was in Victoria as a Beck lecturer.