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The ones that got away

One of my favourite columnists, Guðmundur Andri Thorsson, writes a brilliant piece in Fréttablaðið today called “Á Íslendingaslóðum” which may be loosely translated as “Where the Icelanders Are”. It begins:

The old [Icelandic] folk stories tend to begin with a man who is chasing sheep up on some mountain. He gets lost, winds up in a fog and wanders around, cold and lost. If he is unlucky he runs into a troll that either boils him in a pot and eats him, or turns him into a sex slave – or both. Eventually he may come back to civilization, and after that be considered “taciturn”.

Yet if the shepherd in these stories is lucky he meets a mortal man, “of strong physique”, wearing sheepskin, who bids the shepherd follow him; he then leads him out of the fog and into a vast and fertile valley where fat sheep graze and the butter drips from every straw. In this valley, tucked away somewhere in the highlands of Iceland, there is a lovely village composed of beautiful, happy people who welcome the lost man, offer him fatty meat to eat at will, and then lead him to sleep in a comfortable bed …

These are outlaws, and usually the shepherd winds up staying with them, marrying the daughter of the house, and leading an easy, comfortable life from then on. Naturally, these were the fantasies of a starving people. These old stories reflect the old dream of the Icelandic proletariat: to get away. In that sense, the outlaws are not the people who were banished, but the ones who got away.

The piece then goes on to talk about the “Western Icelanders” – those people who actually did get away, and formed a new society in North America.

Having been one myself, I am not sure I entirely agree with Guðmundur Andri that being a Western Icelander is preferable to being a “traditional” Icelander [if that is what he’s saying – it’s somewhat unclear]. And anyway, that’s not the main thing that caught my attention in the piece. It is the passage above. I remember those stories, very well. I soaked them up as a child. [There is even one or two in the book of Icelandic Folk Legends that I have translated.] I so remember the attraction of that remote valley, far beyond civilization, where everything was so much better than it was in the real world. It was a fantasy that you could easily sink into, of a life that was easy and simple and good.

Those fantasies helped the Icelandic nation survive, and they manifest in so many of the old folk stories. The belief in elves and hidden people, for example, was one manifestation of this – the elves were always tall and regal and led infinitely better lives than the mortals, living right alongside them, albeit hidden to human eyes [unless the hidden people expressly wished to be seen, that is]. Over the centuries, hidden people and outlaw stories somehow merged, so that the outlaws took on some of the characteristics of the elves with their charmed lives – such as in the passage above.

icelandic turf farm

Where my grandmother lived in North Iceland at the beginning of the last century.

The Icelanders in centuries past are very much in my thoughts these days. I have just finished a degree at the University of Iceland where I did ethnology as a minor, including the ethnology of the Icelandic nation. I was so taken with the stories of my ancestors and the amazing and brilliant and poignant and tragic things they did just to survive that I went and wrote a whole book about it. Mind you, I wrote it in a light and humorous style because I wanted it to be fun to read, but beneath it all there is an undercurrent of the tremendous oppression and hardship and poverty and darkness that the people of this nation had to endure for centuries on end … and yet they managed it. They made it. And it has made them what they are today – strong and resilient, with a dry sense of humour that frequently gets puts to use in the most adverse circumstances, something that foreigners often find highly inappropriate but which is a throwback to the days when there was just no other option than to laugh at your misfortunes – or die.

Those of you who are Western Icelanders may be interested in the rest of the piece – but I’ll have to refer you to Google translate for the rest;)