What The Bear Said: review by John Johansen

What the Bear Said: Skald Tales of New Iceland

(from The Goose Issue 11 2012 page 98)


Turnstone, 2011 $19.00


In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—unlike the present— Iceland was one of the poorest countries in the world. The harshness of life in Iceland at that time beggars belief and is powerfully rendered in Halldor Laxness’ famous Icelandic novel, IndependentPeople.

As a result of this brutal poverty, over twenty percent of the population emigrated. The Interlake district of Manitoba was a particularlypopular destination for Icelandic immigrants, and Canadian novelist and short-story writer W.D.Valgardson is a product of this New Iceland. Most of Valgardson’s fiction since his debut in the early 1970s draws on his upbringing in the Icelandic communities of New Iceland. His latest work,

What the Bear Said, does this in spades, consisting of fourteen short stories explicitly modelled on the storytelling and Icelandic folktales he grew up hearing around his parents’kitchen table (“Preface”).

In the title story, Gusti hears a hungering bear speak to him—it’s “like ink being dropped into water…spreading and dissipating.” He feeds the bear and in return his daughter is saved in a blizzard by “a large brown arm” that “reached from the den and pulled her down.” “Ingrid of the Lake” is saved from drowning by a giant lake sturgeon. In return, she saves it from capture, then disappears. Over subsequent years two sturgeon are seen “sunning themselves in the shallows.” The protagonist of “Halldor Vitlaus,” Halldor Witless, thoughtlessly shoots a wolf for no reason and is afterwards haunted by wolves until he realizes that when “you do something wrong, it follows you around,” and walks out intoa blizzard to meet the ghost of his victim.

Spurned and jealous suitors send the ghost of a starving eighteenth century outlaw totorment Pall and his wife, Sigurbjorg. The ghost follows them to New Iceland, where they have pity on him, give him food and a pallet to sleep on, and finally add on a room for him to their house (“Loftur”). Kristin—the younger, less favoured sister—shows hospitality to strangers on a bitterly cold winter night and is rewarded with a gift of beautiful clothes: an “embroidered dress, a fur cloak with velvet lining, and fur-lined boots.” Her greedy mother, selfishly trying to replicate her daughter’s success, is paralyzed for her miserliness (“Gypsy Clothes”). A good woman endures hard and lonely treks to Winnipeg for medicine and supplies. Instead of succumbing to promises by the “devil’s handyman,” she rejectshis offers and in turn tricks him instead (“Quarantine”).

In the new world, the Icelanders come into contact with other peoples: first nations (“Quarantine”), Galicians, Russians, and Germans(“Gypsy Clothes”), and especially Ukrainians (“Shlandy”). But their world, in both Icelands, is full of other beings too. Like devils and Loftur’s ghost, they travel to Manitoba as stowaways, and most notably include trolls (“Sigga’s Prayer,” “The Troll’s Wife”) and invisible people with magicalpower, huldufolk, who live in an unseen parallel but utopian world (“Gypsy Clothes,” “The New World”). In Canada, in addition, they encounter the indigenous cannibalistic giant, “Windigo.”

Although the Icelanders are Lutheran and read the Bible, they also make offerings and pray to trolls (“Sigga’s Prayer”), and their ethical mettle is continually tested by devils and huldufolk. Their interaction with these beings, and with bears, sturgeon, and wolves, suggests both an intimate connection with and an ongoing negotiation of their place in the natural world where they struggle so hard to survive.

Although Valgardson’s book has some of the apparatus of a scholarly collection —preface, acknowledgements, glossary—what he offers here, to be clear, are not translations or even retellings of Icelandic folktales, but instead newstories that deploy themes and tropes of those tales. Just as they thus straddle the genres ofshort-story and folktale, so the stories themselves sometimes begin in Iceland and end in NewIceland (“Sigga’s Prayer,” “Loftur,” “Sidewalk of Gold,” “Freyja”). And many of the tales make itclear that poverty, hunger, cold, and disease afflicted Icelanders as much in the new as in theold Iceland—though in Manitoba no one was reduced to eating “softened fish bones” (“Whatthe Bear Said”)!

What is also clear—and remarkable—is that among the struggling farmers and fishermen who immigrated, and even in such grim circumstances, there were poets and singers(“What the Bear Said,” “Loftur,” “The Poet from Arnes,” “The New World”). Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson, one of the greatest poets in Icelandic, was also one of these, and Valgardson himself is perhaps their cultural and spiritual descendant.

JOHN JOHANSEN, who is a professor of English at the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta in Camrose, where he teaches courses in medieval literature and on the English language.