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Posts Tagged ‘Iceland’

Words Could Not Fell Me

December 29, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

All photos by Karl Steel

Reciting sagas in the Westfjords of Iceland.

Haymaking time had come, warm, dry, and cloudless, on a late summer’s morning roughly a millennium ago. All the men had gone out to mow, except for Thorkel, who lingered in bed, eavesdropping on the women in the next room, digesting his breakfast, and, with less composure, the revelation of his wife Asgerd’s infidelity. At last Thorkel roused himself, to speak a verse:

Hear a great wonder,
hear of peace broken,
hear of a great matter,
hear of a death
—one man’s or more.

Thorkel’s prophecy came true with the help of a big spear. After an anonymous assailant stabbed Asgerd’s lover, Vestein, Vestein’s and Thorkel’s brother-in-law, Gisli—“a man of great prowess, [yet] fortune was not always with him”—initiated the obligatory, inexhaustible cycle of revenge killings. Honor and familial chore-shirking would doom Gisli to a life of feud, outlawry, and death by mob, but not before he, too, had seized the chance to speak a great many verses.

When I first heard the medieval Icelandic Gísla saga Súrssonar, I was sitting on a mound where archaeologists had excavated a Viking-era burial site, where Gisli might very well have buried Vestein, in the Haukadalur valley, on the banks of Dýrafjörður, in the Vestfirðir, or Westfjords of Iceland. It was July, and the grass grew high, spangled with toadstools, wildflowers, and dried sheep dung, but it wasn’t haymaking weather. Under a gray, drizzly sky, beside the subarctic waters of the fjord, I huddled with my husband, Karl, on a gray wool blanket. Read More >>

Words Could Not Fell Me

November 30, 2015 | by

Reciting sagas in the Westfjords of Iceland.

All photos by Karl Steel

Haymaking time had come, warm, dry, and cloudless, on a late summer’s morning roughly a millennium ago. All the men had gone out to mow, except for Thorkel, who lingered in bed, eavesdropping on the women in the next room, digesting his breakfast, and, with less composure, the revelation of his wife Asgerd’s infidelity. At last Thorkel roused himself, to speak a verse:

Hear a great wonder,
hear of peace broken,
hear of a great matter,
hear of a death
—one man’s or more.

Thorkel’s prophecy came true with the help of a big spear. After an anonymous assailant stabbed Asgerd’s lover, Vestein, Vestein’s and Thorkel’s brother-in-law, Gisli—“a man of great prowess, [yet] fortune was not always with him”—initiated the obligatory, inexhaustible cycle of revenge killings. Honor and familial chore-shirking would doom Gisli to a life of feud, outlawry, and death by mob, but not before he, too, had seized the chance to speak a great many verses.

When I first heard the medieval Icelandic Gísla saga Súrssonar, I was sitting on a mound where archaeologists had excavated a Viking-era burial site, where Gisli might very well have buried Vestein, in the Haukadalur valley, on the banks of Dýrafjörður, in the Vestfirðir, or Westfjords of Iceland. It was July, and the grass grew high, spangled with toadstools, wildflowers, and dried sheep dung, but it wasn’t haymaking weather. Under a gray, drizzly sky, beside the subarctic waters of the fjord, I huddled with my husband, Karl, on a gray wool blanket. Read More »

Click-Bait, and Other News

October 17, 2013 | by

lolitalarge

  • College Humor improves bestsellers with click-bait titles (although we would have said Eat, Pray, Love was doing okay already).
  • The rough guide to why Penguin Classics is publishing Morrissey’s autobiography.
  • The most specific niche calendar ever created: “Tattooed Librarians of the Ocean State.”
  • Herewith, famous books from every state.
  • One in ten Icelanders will publish a book. As one young author tells the BBC, it can indeed get competitive. “Especially as I live with my mother and partner, who are also full-time writers. But we try to publish in alternate years so we do not compete too much.”
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    Andri Snær Magnason, Reykjavik, Iceland

    August 9, 2013 | by

    A series on what writers from around the world see from their windows.

    Andri_Magnason

    This is my window. Or my windows—the view from my living room, where I sit and write. Might not seem very inspiring. I wish I could offer green mossy lava, roaring waves, a glacier mountain top. I do have other spaces—in an abandoned powerstation, a favorite fisherman’s cafe by the harbor, a summer house on the arctic circle—but this is my honest view, what I really see most of the days. This house was built in the 1960s when people were fed up with lava and mountains; they were migrating to the growing suburbs to create a new view for themselves. The young couple who dug the foundation with their own hands dreamed of a proper garden on this barren, rocky strip of land. They dreamed of trees, flowers, shelter from the cold northern breeze. What is special depends on where you are, and here, the trees are actually special. They were planted fifty years ago like summer flowers, not expected to live or grow more than a meter. The rhododendron was considered a miracle, not something that could survive a winter. It looks tropical, with Hawaiian-looking pink flowers; Skúli, the man who built the house and sold it to me half a century later, took special pride in it.

    I am not a great gardener. We are thinking of buying an apple tree, though they don’t really thrive in this climate. I would plant it like a flower, not really expect it to grow, and hope for a miracle. —Andri Snær Magnason

     

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    Sjón, Björk, and the Furry Trout

    May 16, 2013 | by

    iceland landscapeLARGE

    Photo courtesy of the author.

    When Icelanders talk to Americans about Iceland, sooner or later talk is going to turn to fairies, or hidden people, or elves. And while it seems many Icelanders do truly believe in those things, often you’ll get a response like the novelist Sjón gave Leonard Lopate the other day: “If you actually lean on an Icelander, most of us will confess to believing that nature has the power to manifest itself in a form understandable to humans. So the hidden people, you know, we would say, ‘Well of course I don’t believe that there are actually cities inside our mountains, but it’s possible that nature has a way of manifesting itself in a human form to, you know, have an interaction with the humans.’”

    Similarly, when Americans talk about Iceland, sooner or later (probably sooner) we’re going to start talking about one specific fairy, or hidden person, or elf. And despite my not having any photos or videos to back it up, you’ll have to believe me that last week at Scandinavia House, the sprite-like Reykjaviker you’re thinking of did indeed manifest herself in a striking, stiff, white-and-purple dress for a ten-minute interaction with book-reading humans on behalf of her longtime friend and collaborator Sjón.

    It’s a young crowd, trendy, expectant, giddy even, though I’m surprised to see so many empty seats. It turns out Scandinavia House closed their RSVP list weeks earlier, almost immediately after announcing the event, grossly botching the numbers and no doubt needlessly turning away scores of would-be attendees. But it’s no matter to those of us here—in fact it makes the evening feel all the more intimate.

    It’s a coming-out-from-under-the-mountain kind of moment for Sjón himself. Although a well-known writer in Iceland, if Sjón’s name rings a bell at all in the States it’s been as Björk’s frequent lyricist—notably on her Biophilia album, her 2004 Olympic theme song, and Dancer in the Dark, her Lars von Trier film. Things have changed for him in a hurry though, as Farrar, Straus & Giroux sent the poet/novelist on a U.S. tour (Seattle, Portland, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, and New York) to promote the three simultaneously released books: the full-length From the Mouth of the Whale and the novellas The Blue Fox and The Whispering Muse. Move over Blue Lagoon, Americans are about to have a new second-favorite Iceland reference.

    The five-city, three-book, one-author tour culminates in the event at Scandinavia House, where Björk treats the assembled to the kind of intimate, I-knew-him-when introduction usually reserved for siblings at wedding parties. Then again, it quickly becomes clear that there’s a sort of brother-sister camaraderie between the two. Read More »

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    Happy Dagur Islenskrar Tungu!

    November 16, 2012 | by

    Jónas Hallgrímsson. Self-portrait (1845). Pen and ink

    Today is Icelandic Language Day (literally, “day of the Icelandic tongue”), a festival designed to coincide with the birthday of Jónas Hallgrímsson.

    As well as an accomplished poet, author, and naturalist, Hallgrímsson was a committed Icelandic nationalist and founder of the journal Fjölnir. He died in 1844 at only thirty-seven, but to this day is considered one of Iceland’s most beloved poets.

    It is said that Hallgrímsson’s poetry, which dealt often with Iceland, its landscapes, and its people, resists easy translation. Nevertheless, even in the following translation, the themes come through.

     

     

    A Toast to Iceland

    Our land of lakes forever fair

    below blue mountain summits,

    of swans, of salmon leaping where

    the silver water plummets,

    of glaciers swelling broad and bare

    above earth's fiery sinews —

    the Lord pour out his largess there

    as long as earth continues!

     

    In 1945, Hallgrímsson was at the center of a rather bizarre controversy. A fan, one Sigurjón Pétursson, spearheaded a campaign to move the poet’s body from Copenhagen, where he died, to his childhood home of Öxnadalur, Iceland. The Icelandic government disagreed: they wanted him reburied at the national burial ground at Þingvellir. Undaunted, Pétursson raised the funds himself, supervised the excavation (which involved digging up four other bodies), and escorted the coffin, defiantly, to Öxnadalur. Once there, however, he couldn’t get any priest to perform the service, and the coffin stood in the church for a week before the government had it moved to Þingvellir, where it was buried and remains to this day.

    The poet’s legacy, however, is a happier one. Every year, the Jónas Hallgrímsson Award is given to someone who has contributed to the language.

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