Your guide to “the world’s wondrous and curious places” now has everything on one map, “the definitive map of the world’s extraordinary sights.” Atlas Obscura invites you to at least consider planning a trip to the Royal and Ancient Polar Society in Hammerfest, Norway, not too far from the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, which is made of ice. If you like cute animals, perhaps you’ll like Japan’s Cat Island or Zao Fox Village, both near Sendai. But if obscurity is really what pops your doldrums, check out the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum of Logan, Ohio or the Spam Museum of Austin, Minnesota.
Finland is looking forward to its one hundredth birthday next year and it’s Scandinavian neighbor Norway is considering a modest gift to help celebrate. They are discussing adjusting the Norwegian border so that part of Mount Halti will be Finnish territory.
“Geophysically speaking, Mount Halti has two peaks, one Finnish and one Norwegian,” NRK, which is Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, explained back in March. “What is proposed is that Norway gives the Finnish peak to Finland, because it is currently in Norway.”
The proposal has apparently been supported by many citizens, but the prime minister must work out the implications before wrapping the gift. Norway’s constitution may be an obstacle, due to a clause vaguely stating mountains cannot be given as birthday gifts.
Finland declared its independence from Russia on December 6, 1917. Tensions between political parties swelled over the next few weeks until igniting a brief civil war. Once stabilized, Finland became its own republic with its own president in 1919.
So yes, it’s a time to party up, and there’s plenty of fun to be had. But if hiking that particular part of Halti was all you had wanted to do when you visited Norway in a couple years, consider this list of 99 amazing things to do in Norway, such as visit a super big halibut farm, lick a glacier, and milk a goat! Sure, you could do all that on a PlayStation, but this is for real, dude.
I posted the trailer for the Norwegian film The Last King a little while back. You might be able to see it in a theater (I did) but if not, it’s available (I believe) on Netflix. Or will be soon.
In the 13th Century, Norway is torn by civil wars. The opposing forces are the Birkebeiners (birchlegs), devoted to the current dynasty, and the Baglers (crosiers), loyal to the church, which has placed Norway under papal ban.
The young king, Haakon Sverreson, is poisoned to death by his wicked stepmother, the queen mother. When the news gets out, loyal Birkebeiners, Skjervald and Torstein, receive Haakon’s infant son, Haakon Haakonsson, from his mother in order to carry him by ski from Lillehammer to Trondheim, to keep him out of the hands of the Baglers. Their journey becomes a perilous one, as ruthless Bagler warriors pursue them over the mountains. Meanwhile intrigue in the palace in Trondheim leads to betrayal, false imprisonment, and murder.
The Last King is a competent historical action movie. It’s not as great as it wants to be, but the fight scenes and the music are pretty good (especially the music).
Historically, the film is about at the level of Braveheart, which is to say any resemblance to actual events is mostly coincidental. The Baglers (as is the practice in most historical epics) are painted as evil incarnate, capable of any atrocity in their ruthless devotion to the pope. The actual ski journey (assuming it actually happened; historians aren’t sure) was strenuous but not nearly this dangerous. The Game of Thrones-style intrigue and betrayal at the palace is almost entirely fictional. The evil Duke Gisli of this film actually never existed – he’s a place holder for a real Duke Haakon (that name might have confused the audience), who wasn’t particularly evil at all.
Worth seeing. Netflix stuff; probably not worth driving to a theater for. Subtitled.
Photo credit: Robert Holand Dreier
In 1965 a film was made in Britain about the WWII Norwegian Resistance sabotage of the German heavy water project at Rjukan, Norway. It was called Heroes of Telemark, it starred Kirk Douglas, and it was essentially an upbeat and rather frivolous production. Norwegians complained that, in the movie, Kirk personally achieved in about two weeks what it took a whole unit of real saboteurs two years to do.
The 2015 Norwegian/Danish/English production, The Heavy Water War, available for streaming on Netflix, hews closer to the facts. It is artistically superior and far darker.
We follow the main character, Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Høiner; in this production, unlike the Douglas movie, the characters go under their real names, except for several fictionalized characters), a Norwegian scientist who escapes to England and joins the British-trained saboteur company there. Leif becomes their leader and gets emotionally involved with British intelligence officer Julie Smith (Anna Freil; a fictional character), but not so far as to actually commit adultery (they’re both married). We follow Leif and his company through the disastrous initial glider operation meant to destroy the Rjukan plant. Then follows the famous raid, where they succeed in blowing up the equipment, housed in the cellar of the factory. And after that, the hard decision to blow up the passenger ferry carrying the remaining heavy water out of the country, at the cost of civilian lives.
But there are actually three main threads in the narrative. We follow the manager of the heavy water plant (another fictionalized character) as he self-justifies his collaboration, and his troubled wife, who diverts her fears by mothering the daughter of her house maid. We also follow scientist Werner Heisenberg in Germany, singlemindedly focused on the scientific aspects of the atomic bomb project, refusing to think in moral categories. Each of these characters is treated as a full, complex human being. The viewer is left to make judgments.
My complaints are few. I wish the actors had looked more like the people they portray. The producers made the decision to suggest strongly that the explosion of the ferry was probably unnecessary (this, I believe, is a matter of dispute among historians).
The Heavy Water War is challenging, and sometimes tragic, but definitely worth watching. Recommended, for grownups.
Last month I did a lecture for the annual Viking Feast of our Viking group. This is it. About 36 minutes.
It may come as a surprise to many, but most Norwegians were never particularly proud of their Norse ancestry. The little knowledge they had of the Viking Age and our common ethnic and cultural heritage was usually horribly outdated. Until recently, in popular culture the Vikings were almost always portrayed as dumb, brutal rapists and villains. Also, Norse mythology was a subject of parody and not to be taken as anything more than naive stories told by our stupid ancestors. Those of us who thought differently, those of us who had already connected with our Norse ancestry, were ridiculed.
Aside from its praise for the awful History Channel “Vikings” TV series, I was pleased but not especially surprised by this article “How the Americans Taught Us Norwegians to Love Our Viking Heritage.”
One thing I learned in my translation work for Prof. Torgrim Titlestad (they tell me our book’s coming out this spring at last. We’ll see. Watch for it in any case; it’ll be called The Viking Heritage), is that for several decades now the Norwegian school system has taught almost nothing about the Viking Age. The main reason was a higher critical view of the Icelandic sagas, our main source of information about Norwegian politics in that time. The same kind of destructive skepticism that scholars have applied to the Bible, they also applied to the sagas. Since the sagas were written a century or more after the events described (much longer than is the case for the gospels), they argued that no information of value could be derived from them.
Scholarly views are changing, though. Sociological studies have shown that substantial useful information can be preserved by oral (non-literate or semi-literate) cultures for much longer than is the case in cultures which rely on books for their records.
Bjørn Andreas Bull-Hansen, the writer, is a novelist, screenwriter and blogger living in Norway. A brief perusal of his site indicates that he’s not crazy, which is generally a good thing.
I’ve written before, somewhere on this blog (or its previous incarnation) about doing some genealogical detective work. I found a grave for a distant relative in Norway who was curious to find out what had happened to his great-grandfather. I took some pride in hunting the grave down, because I’m not a man designed by nature for sleuth work. Curiosity is not my strong suit, and I’d rather go to the dentist than ask a stranger a question.
There was another family mystery I thought I’d solved too. One of my great-grandfathers was mysterious in his origins. I didn’t know where he was born, and I wanted to know.
But my mother had told me some things about him, and I’d taken notes. One thing she said was that he came from an island known as the “middle island,” which was the largest island in Norway.
I did some web searching, and at last discovered that the island of Hinnøy, almost in the Lofotens, is in fact the largest in Norway, and somewhere I found it referred to as the “middle island.” So obviously, my ancestor must have come from there.
“Wrong, Watson,” said Holmes, smacking him with the Persian slipper.
A family member recently made contact with some relatives who had the straight dope, documents and all. Our great-grandfather came from the island of Ytterøy, near Trondheim.
I plead in my defense that Mom’s clues were misleading. Or someone misinformed her.
This is what comes from unreliable genes. No wonder I grew up to be a novelist.
Tormod Torfæus (1636-1719) was accustomed to more comfortable lodgings. An Icelander who had lived many years in Norway, he was an officer of the king and used to being treated with respect. But this old Danish inn offered nothing but cheap beer and food, and a room he had to share. He was bone-tired and wanted his sleep, but another Icelander kept blundering into the room and trying to turn him out of his bed.
The year was 1671. Tormod had sailed home to Iceland to clear up some estate matters following the death of his brother. He decided to return home by way of Copenhagen, but his ship was wrecked near Skagen, though the passengers all survived. They had to make a long foot march to get passage on another ship, and then bad weather forced the new ship to seek harbor on Samsø Island. And that was how Tormod came to be overnighting in this miserable hostelry.
Every time he began to fall asleep, the door would open, and a drunken Icelander, Sigurd, would come barging in and try to push him out of his bed. Then they would fight, and the landlord would come and tell Tormod to go back to bed. Finally Tormod begged the landlady to give him a different room. She complied, and he lay down with some hope of a few hours’ sleep. But he’d grown suspicious of this establishment, and lay his rapier on the table, near at hand. Continue reading The Saga of Tormod
Eve Tushnet writes, “Kristin Lavransdatter is an epic tale of fourteenth-century Norway, a saga of marriage and motherhood, sin and penitence, suffering and acceptance. I read it for the first time at age thirty four, and that’s a good age to meet it. But I wish I’d read it earlier. I wish I’d devoured it as a teen, let its view of life sink into me and change me long before I could really understand it. I suspect this would be a good book to grow up with.”
I’ve mentioned before the book on the Viking Age which I translated a while back. There’s still no word on when the English version will be published, but the publisher, Saga Bok, has posted an excerpt on their blog here.
How far back in time the oral Thing system functioned, no one knows. It was likely not as highly developed during the Migration Era as it became after the start of the Viking Age in the 9th Century. It is also remarkable that the Norse Thing system has not up till now attracted much interest in the world at large. But in all probability that is easily explained. The Norwegians of that age left behind no monumental structures, in contrast to, for example, the Egyptian, Greek, and Mayan civilizations. On top of that, Scandinavia lay on the outskirts of civilization, and encompassed only a small number of people. In this matter European scholars (including Norwegians) have allowed themselves to be deceived by appearances – the impressive structures and statues of southern Europe. Those who did not erect such monuments must not have had any significance in historical development.
The eyes of the world were on Norway today. Not one but two international stories focused on that small country, something that doesn’t happen very often.
It isn’t every blogger who’s up to the job of tying the sentencing of mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik together with the opening of a mysterious, 100-year-old package, but I am prepared to take on that challenge.
First of all, there’s the sentencing of the semi-human terrorist, Breivik. Early reporting made it sound as if his 21-year sentence, absurd enough in the eyes of most Americans (and plenty of Norwegians, to judge by my own contacts), might actually end up being only ten years. That doesn’t appear likely. He’ll be evaluated in a sort of parole protocol after ten years, but unless he alters the cut of his jib drastically he’s not likely to be released at that time. He has, after all, made himself hated particularly by his country’s bleeding heart class, and the law-and-order people don’t love him any better. When the 21-year sentence is finished, the authorities have the power to recycle the sentence as many times as it takes, for the rest of his life. Continue reading Looking to Norway
Gunnar Sønsteby. Photo credit: Arnephoto.
I was planning to post something about Occupied Norway today anyway (you’ll find it below), but it happens that one of Norway’s last living Resistance heroes died today. He was named Gunnar Sønsteby, and he was the most decorated man in Norwegian history. If you followed my advice and watched the movie, “Max Manus,” Sønsteby was one of the characters portrayed in it. But he could have carried a movie all on his own.
OK, here’s a strange story.
A while back, I posted a piece I called Survival Story. It concerned a strange character I discovered in a Norwegian-language book I read about my ancestral community, Kvalavåg, in Norway. During World War II, one of the German occupation officers who served there was a Jew named Konrad Grünbaum, who ended up in the Wehrmacht due to a clerical error.
One of the commenters on that post was an actual descendent of Grünbaum’s. He contacted me through Facebook and asked if I had any further information. I didn’t, but promised to check with my relatives over there.
And they came through, past all hope. As it happened, an article on Grünbaum had been published in the Haugesunds Avis newspaper back in 1986. The article was illustrated by a photo of part of Kvalavåg which Grünbaum took during the war. Because of that, my relatives kept a couple copies, and they were happy to send one to me. I have forwarded it to my correspondent, and it’s on its way to him by mail.
My translation of the article can be read below:
THE GERMAN IN KVALAVÅG
By Ida Nydstrøm (July 23, 1986)
Konrad Grünbaum, a Jew by birth, is now 70 years old and a retired city council member in Fürth. He lived in that city before the war as well. He was a metal worker in a factory, and an active member of the SAJ: The Socialist Labor Youth. Continue reading Concerning Norway and World War II
What do you do when you’re recovering at home from a medical test, still under the influence of a mild sedative, and have stupidly left your Kindle at the office?
If you’re me (which is admittedly doubtful) you go to Netflix and stream a Norwegian movie you’ve heard interesting things about. That movie was A Somewhat Gentle Man, directed by Hans Petter Moland and starring Swedish actor Stellan Starsgård (in a marvelously underacted performance).
Titled En Ganske Snill Mann in Norwegian (I’d have translated it A Rather Nice Man myself, but this translation is good), A Somewhat Gentle Man was marketed as a “hilarious” comedy according to the DVD box. I think it’s more of a quirky, updated Noir, including large doses of black humor. Instead of the angular shadows of classic Noir, this is a Film Gris. The whole world of Ulrik, the film’s antihero, is gray, from the gray Norwegian winter sky, to the gray concrete buildings of Oslo’s seedier side, to the gray basement room he rents (almost indistinguishable from the prison cell from which he’s just been released) to his gray clothing and gray hair. Occasional flashes of color, especially red, compel the eye and signal moments of hope in his life.
Freshly released after 12 years’ incarceration for murder, Ulrik quickly reunites with his old underworld buddies. But he’s not eager to go along with their plan for him, which primarily involves his killing the man whose testimony got him convicted. Basically he wants a quiet life, to work as a mechanic and avoid confrontations (he’s almost quintessentially Norwegian in this). Most of all he wants to reconnect with his son, who is now living with a pregnant girlfriend who has no wish to have a felon grandfather involved in her coming child’s life.
As is expected in such stories, sex is a complicating issue. Ulrik’s sexual encounters are relatively explicit, and possibly the least titillating you’ll ever see on film. The whole movie has a gritty, realistic look. The women generally aren’t very beautiful, and Ulrik’s participation is as often as not merely dutiful, to avoid giving offense. His old and ugly landlady acts as if she’s doing him a favor. He’s more enthusiastic about coupling with the secretary at the garage, from whom he’s been warned off by the owner (who speaks only in paragraphs, and very fast).
In all these relations Ulrik takes a passive role, until his refusal to murder the “snitch” for his gangster buddies forces him to take personal initiative, which—not surprising in a modern film—brings about what we’re meant to regard as a happy resolution. I share James Bowman of The American Spectator‘s skepticism about the moral congruity of the ending.
Do I recommend the movie? Not generally. Certainly not to younger viewers, or to anyone offended by foul language, nudity and sex scenes (especially unappealing nudity and sex), or violence. Still, if you care for this sort of thing, and are interesting in seeing a quirky take on classic themes, A Somewhat Gentle Man contains much of interest.
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
[Having no useful thoughts to share this evening, I turn to the second installment in my translations of a series of letters from my great-great-grandfather in Norway to my great-grandfather in America.lw]
Letter addressed to: Mr. John Walker, Millington, Po., Ills., Kendall Co., North Amerika.
Kvalevaag, the 30 June, 1891.
Mr. Jan H. Olson
Having received your lively letter, for which I am very thankful, and say thank you for, and from which we can see and hear both of and from you, that everything is well and good with all of you in every respect, ja, it is precious to hear from one’s dear ones that everything is fine in every way, for which we must thank the Lord, who upholds us each day. Ja, it is grace upon grace for our part that He does not turn His back on us also, as so many others have done in our misery, and at an inconvenient time. Ja, thanks and praise to His holy name for all good both for soul and body. Ja, I can also tell you today that we are all sustained in life by God thus far, although in many infirmities, so that we aren’t always so brisk in health, we who are now old. Mother especially has [been] and is so very poorly, and so she has been for a long time now. She spent no little time in bed, but now in Pentecost she has been in bed most of the time. But what shall we say? We have to suffer through anything. We endure much evil and hard work every day, for we haven’t much help in our old age.
I myself have been sick a while, but now, thank God, I am better again; and it’s a good thing, because I haven’t had much of anyone to help me with the farm work this year. There’s me and Marte [sister] and the mare—we are the ones who have done the farm work this year. I myself have plowed every furrow this year. I haven’t hired a day-laborer this spring, but now I am going to have hired help with me in the peat bog, for you have to have people for that, and I was ready, although I was alone, as soon as the others. And for that I can thank the Lord, who has strengthened and helped me, and He is a good helper to have with you in everything.
Ja, it is certainly hard to think that we, who have brought up so many as we have, are now alone in our old age. Ja, it is sorrowful to think of, that we should have two sons in America, and [they] go and work for day wages, with nothing of their own to hold on to, and will not be at home in their own home and country. Ja, it is amazing how a person can be, ja, I often wonder about it when I think of you, that you could forsake your dear home, and live in that America. Ja, it is certainly said of America, this time by me, “for I would not live there, although I got gold and green forests.” Ja, I know that for sure. Continue reading Olsen letter #2