Tag Archives: Iceland

Not a spy, but a cool story

There was big news in the world of C. S. Lewis studies today. Christianity Today released an article by Harry Lee Poe about the discovery of a previously unknown recording of a radio talk by C. S. Lewis. Not a talk for the BBC, but for Iceland, on Her Majesty’s Secret Service, so to speak:

Until now, the general public and the world of scholarship had no idea that C. S. Lewis began his wartime service by undertaking a mission for MI6. Long before James Bond, Lewis rendered service to this clandestine branch of British Intelligence, which was so secret for so long that few people knew of its existence, and few of those knew its actual name. Alternatively known as Military Intelligence, the Secret Service, and MI6, its actual name may be the Secret Intelligence Service. Ian Fleming gave the head of this spy network the code name of M, but in real life he is simply known as the Chief. When Lewis came on board at the beginning of World War II, it was still a fledgling group of amateurs desperately working to save their island home from disaster.

The story is interesting, not only for the revelation of Lewis’ work for British Intelligence, but because it involves one of his all too rare explications of his passion for Norse literature and myth.

I think the title’s a bit misleading, since Jack Lewis was nothing like a spy, but the story’s a big deal nonetheless. Kudos to Harry Lee Poe for his discovery.

Iceland Opens Pagan Temple

Iceland has been officially Christian for 1,000 years, but according to journalist and atheist Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir, “Icelanders have never really been strictly Christian.” She said they accepted Christianity with the understanding that that they would be allowed to quietly practice paganism. “It’s not that people necessarily believe in the old Norse gods or have secret ceremonies in their basement,” she explained. It’s just a cultural value.

Now they’re opening a pagan temple. (via Prufrock)

‘House of Evidence,’ by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson

Here’s another of the Scandinavian mysteries I read in convalescence, House of Evidence by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson. Ingolfsson is also the author of The Flatey Enigma, which I reviewed positively a while back. I liked this one as well, except for an ideological problem.

Like the Flatey book, House of Evidence is a very Icelandic novel, gentle and quiet at its heart. There are no super detectives or murderous psychopaths here, just a shocking puzzle investigated by cops who (with one exception) go about their work in an almost apologetic manner; embarrassed, perhaps, that any violence could happen in their polite society.

When Jacob Kieler Junior is found shot to death in his home one morning in 1973, it’s doubly strange because his father was killed in a similar fashion in that very room around 30 years before – shot by the same pistol, as they learn. Jacob was a man of no great social consequence, but his father, who built the grand house in which he lived, was a rich and important man whose life goal (though never achieved) was to build an Icelandic railroad. Jacob Jr.’s great goal was to preserve his family home as a museum, something that will now never happen.

As the police detectives look into the story, they gradually find the roots of the crime in old secrets having to do with the prospective railroad, Nazi Germany, and a failed attempt to make Iceland a monarchy.

The final revelation is devastating – and also a gentle (though in my opinion slightly manipulative) appeal for the social acceptance of homosexuality.

Aside from my ideological objections, I liked the book. Nothing very objectionable in language or adult themes, except as noted above, beyond a single horrible act of police brutality.

Season of the Witch, by Arni Thorarinsson

I am brought out of my musings by Jóa, who produces a plastic bag from the roadside café in Varmahlíd. She takes from it two small chocolate eggs and offers me one.

“It’s a bit early, isn’t it? A week before Easter. Aren’t they for Easter Sunday?”

“That’s so last century,” answers Jóa like a continuation of my thoughts at the wheel. “Now everything is allowed, always.”

Back in 2008, I posted a reading report on an Icelandic play called “The Wish,” by Johann Sigurjonsson. It’s a drama about a young man who throws his life away in pursuit of power and self-gratification in magic. Oddly enough, that play (under an alternate title, “Loftur the Sorcerer”) is at the heart of a mystery novel I just read, Season of the Witch by Arni Thorarinsson. I’ve been dipping into Scandinavian mystery novels for a while now, and as often as not haven’t been much impressed. Season of the Witch, I’m glad to report, pleased me quite a lot.

Einar (I’m not sure if his last name is ever given. Can’t find it) is a recovering alcoholic and a reporter for an Icelandic newspaper. He used to cover crime in Reykjavik, but a recent management shake-up sent him up to the small northern town of Akureyri. Here, along with a couple of colleagues sent into exile with him, he’s reduced to reporting on petty crime and local politics, and asking “Questions of the Day” to people on the street. He hates it. He also hates his local editor. He’s attracted to the female photographer who is the third exile, but she turns out to be unavailable. Also he’s separated from his daughter, the only person he really cares about.

But then things start happening. The wife of a local industrialist is killed in a kayaking accident, and her old mother insists she was murdered. Then a popular high school student who was to star in a school production of “Loftur the Sorcerer” is found murdered in a junk yard. There are rumors of drug dealing, and tensions rise between native Icelanders and immigrants (this book was written back before the Icelandic financial crash).

Einar isn’t the kind to settle for easy answers. He keeps poking at the evidence after everyone else is satisfied.

But he does more than that. Einar also acts as a dispenser of grace. He performs kindnesses for people he doesn’t like, and covers up evidence in cases where the law would only add to the tragedies.

Not at all a Christian novel, Season of the Witch is a Christ-haunted novel. Einar walks in a culture full of the old landmarks of the Faith, and the absence of faith is always conspicuous in his mind. Without offering specific answers – aside from allusions to Jesus and to the Christian play “Loftur the Sorcerer” – this story asks all the right questions.

Cautions for rough language, adult situations, and earthy humor. I liked the book, and I especially liked the hero Einar. Recommended.

Kindle here. Paperback here.

The Flatey Enigma, by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson

It’s my judgment as a translator in a different Scandinavian language that the English title of Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson’s Icelandic novel The Flatey Enigma was poorly chosen. The Flatey Riddle or The Flatey Puzzle would have better expressed the idea (I found much, frankly, to criticize in the translation in general). On top of this, the use of the name “Enigma” in World War II codebreaking suggests to the reader that this book is probably some kind of thriller. But that’s not what it is at all.

It’s actually hard to assign The Flatey Enigma to a category. It seems to resemble the “Cozy” school of mysteries, but that’s misleading. Cozies are generally set, as the name implies, in comfortable settings. Middle or upper class homes, tea in the afternoon, that sort of thing. The setting for this book, on the other hand, is what we Americans would call “hardscrabble.” It’s the Icelandic island of Flatey, in the Breidafjord (I think I saw it from a distance on my one visit to Iceland), only a little more than a mile long, where the locals eked out a meager existence in the early 1960s (the time of the story) by fishing, hunting seals, gathering eiderdown, and anything else they could do to get by. Radio service was limited and electrical power almost unknown.

When a skeletonized body is found on a nearby islet, Kjartan, the hero (so to speak) of the book is sent to investigate. He’s not actually a policeman of any kind. He’s an assistant to the district magistrate, a summer job he took because he’s a law student and wants experience with legal documents. In fact he’s extremely shy with people, and dreads going around asking lots of questions of strangers. Continue reading The Flatey Enigma, by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson

The International Viking Seminar

I don’t generally do long posts while out of town, especially on weekends. But I think the best way to deliver my report on the International Vinland Seminar today is to write up a summary while my memory’s fresh.

We met at North Park University in Chicago, a school with Swedish roots that I wasn’t familiar with. It reminds me a little of my alma mater, Augsburg College in Minneapolis, in that it’s set (I suspect the admissions brochures say “nestled”) in an urban neighborhood. Nice place, though.

We met in a lecture hall called Hamming Hall, and I got permission to set up my book table. I was in the back of the room, but it gave me a good view, so I just stayed there through the entire event, selling my books during breaks. Continue reading The International Viking Seminar

Njal’s Saga

I just finished reading Njal’s Saga again today (actually Magnusson’s and Pálsson’s translation, not the new one pictured above). It would be pointless to review such a classic, but I thought I’d jot down a few reader’s impressions, fancying myself (as I do) a fairly knowledgeable reader.



Njal’s Saga
is often named as the greatest of all the Icelandic sagas. It’s not my favorite; I prefer the more action-oriented sagas like Egil’s and Grettir’s. That’s not to say Njal’s Saga lacks action. There’s plenty. The body count piles up like kills in a Stallone movie. But Njal’s is perhaps the most reflective saga, the saga that worries most about its soul.

The central character, of course, is the title character, Njal Thorgeirsson. He’s not the hero; there are actually two heroes, Gunnar and Kari, both mighty warriors of whom Schwarzenegger is not worthy. Njal, by contrast, is a man of peace. He’s famed for his wisdom and shrewdness, not for his martial skills. He can’t even grow a beard, a fact that makes him the target of some contempt. In spite of his efforts, his family gets caught in a cycle of killing and revenge that leads to his death (and his family’s) by burning, in his own house. Continue reading Njal’s Saga

Njal come back now, ya hear?

I’ve seen the artifact pictured above, in an exhibition. It’s one of the main reasons we believe the Vikings wore “nasal” helmets like the one I wear, even though none of that sort from the period has ever been found in Scandinavia.

I’d seen it pictured in books many times before I saw the real thing. Its size surprised me. It’s only about as big as a man’s thumb, an object somebody probably carved for fun out of a piece of antler, for no reason other than to pass the time.

A friend who reads this blog recently complimented me, in a personal note, on my “erudition” in Viking studies. I suppose I know a fair bit, when graded on the curve (I describe myself as a knowledgeable amateur), but I keep getting surprised by things.

Grim of Grim’s Hall has been moderating a reading of Njal’s Saga this summer, over at his blog. I drop in my two cents now and then, but I’m constrained slightly by the fact that a lot of things that confuse ordinary readers actually confuse me just as much. Especially when it comes to Norse law. Continue reading Njal come back now, ya hear?