Tag Archives: Iceland

Amazon Prime Video review: ‘Trapped,’ Season 2

The second season of the Icelandic miniseries, Trapped, (I reviewed Season One below) was – in some ways – superior to the first (in my view). There were parts I didn’t care for, but I admit that was mostly due to my personal opinions and tastes.

Two years have passed since we last saw our bearded hero, Andri Olafsson (Olafur Darri Olafsson). He’s moved back to Reykjavik to be a cop there again, one assumes to be close to his daughters, who were living with his ex-wife. Only the older one, Thorhildur, has returned to the small town of Siglufjordur to be close to her friends – especially a particular boy. She is now a rebellious teenager, and in the tradition of teenaged girls in thrillers, is a complete idiot when it comes to her personal safety.

Andri is called back to Siglufjordur when a local farmer one day appears near Parliament in Reykjavik, sets himself on fire, and tries to ignite the Minister of Industries along with himself. She is, in fact, his twin sister, a Siglufjordur native who long ago turned her back on the place. He had been involved in protests against the expansion of an aluminum plant near his home, as well as with right-wing nationalist groups. Shortly after Andri is reunited with his old team of local cops, a manager at the plant is murdered, setting off a string of crimes and arrests that culminate in a kidnapping and a pursuit across the heaths.

There were several elements in the series that rubbed me the wrong way. One was the involvement of right-wing groups – though when I think of it, they were treated with surprising understanding. Another was the cliché of the predatory industry that thinks it can make money by killing its customers. Most uncomfortable of all was a subplot about homosexuals. Instead of the brief heterosexual sex scene we saw in the first series, this time we got two men involved in displays of affection – at one point in bed together. These are my principles – I care about whether homosexuals live or die. I care that they not be railroaded for crimes they didn’t commit. But I cannot be made to care whether the boy gets the boy. There is no microscope sensitive enough to detect my interest in that subject.

Another problem is the family relationships. Most of the suspects (and victims) are bound (in classic saga style, I’ll admit) by a bewildering tangle of marriages, divorces, and irregular liaisons. Everybody is a cousin or an in-law of all the others, and for the life of me I couldn’t keep it all straight.

On the other hand, there were some fine elements here. Because this story is set in the fall, we lose the claustrophobia of the snowed-in town that so permeated Season One. Now we’re treated to vistas of Icelandic heaths and mountains, herds of horses and flocks of sheep. Conscious tribute is paid to the sagas, especially in a plot thread where a local boy flees the police on horseback across the fells, looking for all the world like an outlaw of old.

The resolution worked out in the same spirit as Season One – the mystery is solved, the hostage rescued, but in a general environment of ancient injuries, unhealed psychological wounds, and the shock of an Episode 8 plot development that blindsided me (at least).

All in all, fascinating TV, and pretty watchable. Cautions for language and all the stuff I talked about.

Amazon Prime Video review: ‘Trapped’

My part-time job keeps me generally aware of Scandinavian miniseries, but somehow this Icelandic one, a few years old now, had escaped my notice. Trapped (Ófærð) is a crime series that has much in common with so many European crime series these days (except that the main character, instead of being a plucky single mother, is a plucky single father). But it‘s interesting in its own right, and the locations are fresh and scenic.

On a winter‘s day in the small northern Iceland town of Siglufjordur, a headless, limbless torso is fished out of the fjord. Since the ferry from Denmark just came in, the police have to detain the boat and all its passengers – displeasing the passengers, the crew, and the Danish government. The “big boys“ from the Reykjavik police are supposed to come in to investigate, but a sudden blizzard grounds all aircraft and road travel. So the responsibility falls on the three-person local force, most especially on the chief, Andri Olafsson (played by Olafur Darri Olafsson, surely a contender for some award for the most generously bearded TV detective in recent memory).

But Andri’s problems aren’t limited to solving the torso murder. There are the difficulties associated with the blizzard, as well as an avalanche that follows. Questions arise anew over a crime from the past – the death of Andri’s ex-wife’s sister in a fire in a fish factory, for which a young man went to prison (unjustly). There’s also a human trafficking investigation, involving two young Nigerian girls wandering lost in the snow. And there is political chicanery on the part of the town’s governing authorities, all involved in a shady land scheme with the Chinese.

It all works out to be pretty fascinating. The main character is a compelling and principled presence on screen, and the production values are high (this was the most expensive miniseries ever made in Iceland). The resolution ties up loose ends pretty well, though it’s typically Scandinavian in being rather downbeat and bleak. The Icelandic title has a broader meaning than the English word – it also refers to a blocked road. A running theme is the discontent of the town’s young people, who feel trapped in one of the remotest towns in a generally remote country.

But I enjoyed Trapped, and recommend it, with cautions for language, sex, brief nudity, and disturbing themes. There’s a second season, too.

‘Song of the Vikings,’ by Nancy Marie Brown

The famous phrase, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” was inspired by this book [Heimskringla]: Snorri is indeed a deft biographer.


Any Viking aficionado can’t help being aware of Snorri Sturluson, the Icelandic chieftain who penned Heimskringla, the sagas of the Norwegian kings, and the Prose Edda, which tells us almost everything we know about Norse mythology. He is an essential figure in the lore – Tom Shippey called him “the most influential writer of the Middle Ages.”

And yet, although he has a saga we can read, most of us don’t know a lot about his life (the saga is rather sad and bloody, and was written by a relation who disliked him. I confess I haven’t read it). So Nancy Marie Brown, who wrote Ivory Vikings, which I reviewed not long ago, has done us a service by writing his biography for a modern audience in Song of the Vikings.

Song of the Vikings follows Snorri’s life story, and integrates it with commentary on his important works (some of the attributions have been questioned, but Brown seems to accept them). Thus we get insight on the events of his life through considering the things he wrote that appear to have been informed by them. For instance, the content of Heimskringla bears witness to Snorri’s ambivalent attitude toward the institution of kingship – he was somewhat star-struck by kings (and may have collaborated to subvert the Icelandic republic for a Norwegian king), but he had bitter experience of royal capriciousness. His narrative of Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, may relate to some bad years Iceland suffered following devastating volcanic eruptions, and also the violence that accompanied the breakdown of his own (somewhat cynical) schemes to make himself “the uncrowned king of Iceland.”

The book begins with an anecdote about J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and we learn much about the amazing influence of Snorri’s work throughout the world’s literature and art – for better and worse. This is all the more remarkable because his books weren’t even known outside Iceland until around the beginning of the 17th Century.

I was very impressed by Song of the Vikings. Any reader interested in Norse history or myth will gain many new insights. Author Brown is a good writer and an impressive scholar. I recommend this book.

The Best Icelandic Saga

What’s the best Icelandic saga? You asked yourself that just the other day, didn’t you? Yoav Tirosh says it’s the Brennu-Njáls saga largely because that title could be taken two ways.

It’s the story of a couple fun-loving vikings who want to take over their district. Everything goes swimmingly until someone dies, there’s a power struggle, and then some zealots off the one guy everybody loves. Blood-relatives or not, those zealots are going to have to pay. Lars talked about it more in an earlier post.

Tirosh praises some of the saga’s virtues and suggests the duality in the title clues us into the story’s greatness, because Brennu-Njáls can mean either Burnt Njáll and Njáll the Burner. It’s the story of the burner and the burned, both embodied in one character.

‘The Eyrbyggja Saga and the Story of the Heath-slayings,’ trans. by William Morris

Eyrbyggja Saga

And therewithal Bardi nameth witnesses, and gives forth that he putteth from him Gudrun, Biorn’s daughter “and for this cause,” says Bardi, “that thou art by a great deal too much of a miser for any doughty man to put up with having thee for a father-in-law; nor shalt thou ever have back from me either dower or jointure.”

I figured it was time to read the Eyrbyggja Saga again, and that was before I even knew I’d be speaking to the Icelanders in a week. I like Laxdaela Saga a little better, because it has stronger characters, but the two sagas are often paired, as they share a general locality and several major players.

The big problem with reading any saga is keeping the actors straight. Every saga volume should include a detachable card with a list of characters on it (this is a particular problem with ebooks). And since about 2/3 of the characters have names that start with “Thor,” the struggle is real. I’ll confess that, supposed expert that I am, I lost track of who was who much of the time, and only guessed the teams by who they were fighting against.

Eybyggja means “the Eyr builders,” or the people who settled at Eyr. Eyr is a locality in northwest Iceland, and I visited the area on my one Icelandic trip. The gist of the narrative is that proud men tend to step on each others’ toes, and in an honor culture that leads to bloodshed. Accident leads to insult, and insult leads to blows or seizure of property, and then honor is offended and the killing starts. This continues unabated until the death of the mighty chieftain Arnkel. With him out of the way, his rival Snorri the Chieftain (or Priest, a character who appears in my novel West Oversea) gains power. Snorri is clearly not regarded as highly as Arnkel by his neighbors (or by the saga writer), but it must admitted his sometimes devious schemes tended to promote peace, and the area finally gets some rest from killing under his influence.

The really fascinating thing about Eyrbyggja Saga is its fantastic elements. There are a lot of ghosts in this story – the Norse kind of ghost, which is corporeal like a zombie (but does not, it should be noted, eat brains). Nevertheless these ghosts have a malign influence wherever they walk, and people tend to sicken and die – or even be assaulted – when they encounter them. There’s Thorolf Halt-foot, a malicious and greedy old man whose body must at last be burned to stop him walking. There’s Thorgunna the rich widow (who appears in West Oversea while still alive). There’s Thorir Wooden-Leg and his crew, who also appear in West Oversea. They provide the saga with a somber flavor that makes it unforgettable.

Appended to this edition (William Morris’s translation) is also The Story of the Heath-Slayings, a fragmentary saga which features (again) some of the same characters, at least in bit parts. The section we have largely involves a raid by northern farmers against southern farmers (for revenge, of course). The story advances by choreographed stages (reminding me, for some reason, of The Magnificent Seven), and also leaves a strong impression on the reader (or at least on this reader).

I’m not sure I recommend William Morris’s version. His intentions were good, if I understand them correctly – to use a lot of antique diction and obscure words to give an impression of the flavor of the Icelandic originals. But frankly, the sagas are hard enough to follow as they are, without all those obsolete words. Eyrbyggja is not the greatest of the sagas, but it’s one the saga fan will not want to miss.

Iceland run, revisited

Althing
Artist’s conception of me addressing the Icelanders

It’s always nice to be asked back, even when you’re a semi-agoraphobic. So I was pleased to be asked to speak for the second year in a row at the annual “Icelandic Leifur Eiriksson Cod Dinner,” in Bloomington, Minnesota. This gala event (some of the best cod I’ve ever enjoyed) will be held at the Bloomington Event Center, 1114 American Blvd., Bloomington on Saturday, Oct. 13, at 5:30 p.m.

The deadline for reservations was Sept. 30, so maybe it’s too late to get in, unless you’re a popular celebrity like me. But you could contact Steingrimur Steinolfson at sicelander@aol.com and check.

It’s a cool opportunity to plug Viking Legacy, which concerns the Icelandic sagas sufficiently that it ought to interest the audience.

I’m moving a lot of copies of this book. It seems to be very well received.

The Westfjords of Iceland

From Atlas Obscura, a nice article, with several impressive photos, about a photographer’s trip to Iceland.

“The Westfjords suffer from extreme weather during the winter months, and after the global financial crash of 2008, many of the properties have been abandoned,” Emmett says. “These structures are often small and empty but amazingly atmospheric, full of the strange sense of other-worldliness you often find in derelict buildings, but that strange feeling is matched by the landscapes that surround them, so you get a double dose of magic. I was totally in my element.”

It doesn’t appear in the photos, but many buildings in Iceland are covered in corrugated steel. It holds up well against the constant high winds.

PowerPoint chronicles

I’m finally back from Høstfest.

“Wait!” you reply. Because you’re an intelligent and attentive reader, you seem to recall that I got back a little more than a week ago.

And you are correct, as always. But you know, there’s the physical journey and the spiritual journey. And my spiritual journey lasted through Saturday.

Which is a pretentious way of saying that I wasn’t able to get out of Viking Presenter mode, because I had two – not one, but two – last-minute lecturing gigs last week.

Which, incidentally, explains my blogging silence Thursday and Friday.

Thursday I lectured to a Sons of Norway lodge which happens to meet quite near my house. When I was setting up, I had a (biblical) Job Experience: “The thing which I have greatly feared has come upon me.” Continue reading PowerPoint chronicles

Dracula Revised and Updated for Iceland 1900

Dracula was published in 1897 by Archibald Constable and Company of Westminster, UK. It was released in the US in 1899 and ran as a serial in the Charlotte Daily Observer for the latter half of that year. In January 1900, Iceland’s newspaper Fjallkonan began its serialization of the novel, translated by the paper’s editor Valdimar Ásmundsson. He gave it the title Makt Myrkranna (Powers of Darkness), and according to The Times Literary Supplement, it was eighty-five years later before anyone noticed the significant changes Ásmundsson made to Bram Stoker’s work.

Powers of Darkness: The lost version of “Dracula” has roughly the same bone structure as Stoker’s original, but is split in­to two parts, the first being the journal of Jonathan Harker (his name is changed to Thomas Harker), recounting his stay in the castle in the Carpathians. In the latter part, however, there is no epistolary element, and the story is taken up by an omniscient narrator. Part One reads like a long first draft, in which the author maps out his characters and surroundings – it is, in fact, almost twice as long as the original.

(via Prufrock News)

‘No Snakes in Iceland,’ by Jordan M. Poss

No Snakes in Iceland

What do you say when you imagine yourself the only author in the world to write a certain kind of novel, and then find yourself reading a novel of a very similar kind, in a very similar style?

If you’re me, you breathe a sigh of relief. Because it means you’re not the only one who sees a need for such a book.

I don’t mean to suggest (let me hasten to add) that I think Jordan M. Poss, author of No Snakes in Iceland (he could have found a better title, I think) borrowed from my work in any way. I think he’d have handled some things differently if he’d read my books. But this is a Christian fantasy story of Vikings, told from an outsider’s point of view, written in a style that leans heavily on Old English vocabulary in order to convey a flavor of the time and the original language.

Edgar, the hero of No Snakes in Iceland, is an Englishman, a poet and a chronicler, formerly in the service of the king of England. Following a personal tragedy he went slightly mad, and the archbishop of Canterbury bade him go abroad somewhere where his enemies dwell, to learn to forgive them. So now he’s living in a missionary monastery in Iceland (a fictional institution; I’m pretty sure no monasteries existed there at that point). When a distant chieftain asks his abbot to come to his home to “kill a ghost,” the abbot pleads his age and sends Edgar instead, along with a pair of monks.

There Edgar engages, mostly against his will, with a variety of Icelanders, chieftains, common folk, and slaves, and faces the challenge of an Icelandic ghost – the Norse kind who walks by night in a physical body, grown to giant size, kills livestock and people, and rides houses like horses. Gradually he learns to respect and even like these people, as he tries to find a way to do the seemingly impossible.

It’s a good book. I liked it a lot. The author has clearly done a respectable amount of research, though I can point to a number of minor inaccuracies – he has a thrall carrying a sword, he thinks there were towns in Iceland in the Viking age, he makes wine more common than it was, etc., etc. But the overall effect is admirable. He excels in descriptions of nature and the conveyance of atmosphere. And the Christian passages are handled well, generally the chief challenge for the Christian novelist.

So I recommend No Snakes in Iceland highly. If you liked my Erling novels, I think you’ll like this one. Cautions for a very small amount of coarse language.

‘The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga, by Margaret Clunies Ross

The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga

I’m scheduled to give a lecture on the Icelandic sagas for a Sons of Norway lodge next month. Consequently, in an unaccustomed spasm of integrity, I thought I ought to check out the latest scholarship, since the information I’ve been operating on is a decade old or more. I chose The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga, by Margaret Clunies Ross. I think I chose well.

I had learned from my efforts translating Torgrim Titlestad’s work (still awaiting publication in English, dash it all) that there has been some upheaval in saga studies of late. This Cambridge Introduction concentrates mostly on different aspects of saga studies from those Titlestad does (he’s mostly interested in the use of sagas in historiography), but it reinforced the impressions I got from him.

During the 20th Century, scholarly interest concentrated mostly on what are often called “the Icelanders’ sagas” (designations of categories seem to be a continuing problem in the field), the famous “wild west” stories of individuals and families involved in feuds and lawsuits, sometimes over generations. But Ross reminds us that there are in fact many different kinds of sagas – the sagas of ancient times, the chivalric sagas, the saints’ lives, the historical sagas, etc. Scholars are beginning to appreciate the other genres, and to admit that a) the earlier sagas aren’t necessarily better, and b) they’re not sure which ones are earlier anyway. As in biblical studies, textual critics in the 20th Century got a bit grandiose in their certainties about the evolutions of textual variants and which variants have priority. Scholars today are becoming a little less snobbish, and are broadening their range of tastes.

I enjoyed The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga. Recommended for anyone looking for a fairly accessible, up-to-date guidebook.

Mine, mine, mine!

Among the great joys of life, at least for me (I’ll admit that my joys are somewhat circumscribed), getting a nice book for free is among the chief… examples.

Today when I got home from work (late) I found three volumes like this on my porch, all the way from Norway.

Flatey Book

They are the volumes published so far of the Saga Bok translation of the Flatøy Book, which has never been translated in full before – into any language, I believe. Saga Bok is engaged in producing a Norwegian version in full, in seven volumes. But the first three volumes constitute a distinct unit, with a different writer than the rest. This is the chief historical section of the work, and invaluable for a historical novelist like me.

Flatey Book III

Written in the 14th Century, Flatøy Book was originally compiled for the last king of Norway, who died before it was finished. At that point Norway was united with Denmark. In the 17th Century the book was relocated to Copenhagen, where it remained until 1971, when Iceland got it back, to great national rejoicing. It did spend a number of years in Norway, though, in the home of the scholar Tormod Torfæus (1636-1719), who lived at Avaldsnes, Karmøy, where my great-grandfather was born. Torfæus used it as a source for his great Latin history of Norway. So I feel some kinship with the book.

An English edition is planned, but I won’t be involved in that project. An Icelandic translator will, quite properly, handle that important job. But in the course of my ongoing translating relationship with Saga Bok I employed my ninja negotiating skills to request and receive these volumes.

Booty! I got booty! And not in the hip-hop sense.

Reviews: ‘Gisli’s Saga:’ Book and movie

Outlaw: The Saga of Gisli

I’d been meaning to check out the 1981 Icelandic film, Outlaw: The Saga of Gisli, for some time. Not a great film by any means, it has genuine pleasures and rewards for the saga enthusiast.

Gisli Sursson’s Saga is one of the best sagas, and offers interesting distinctions when compared to others. It’s a tragedy of fate, like all good sagas, but in this case the legal and ethical rules by which the Norsemen lived create unintended (and insoluble) problems for a decent man. If your blood brother and your kinsman get into a fight, whom do you support?

Gisli has sworn blood brotherhood with his friend Vesteinn. But Vesteinn is murdered by Gisli’s brother-in-law. Gisli feels obligated to avenge him, thus keeping his honor (as he sees it) but turning almost the whole world against him. He is outlawed, which in Iceland meant that any man could kill him without penalty, and no one was permitted to assist him.

There are a few people who help him, though, notably his faithful wife. And with their help he manages to survive as an outlaw — without fleeing the country – longer than any other man, except one (Grettir, who also has a saga). Continue reading Reviews: ‘Gisli’s Saga:’ Book and movie

Amazon Prime Video Review: ‘Fortitude’

Frankly, if I’d known the kind of show Fortitude was, I probably wouldn’t have watched it. I took it for a police procedural, sort of an extreme Broadchurch, but it turned out to be more like science fiction/horror (though the Wikipedia article calls it a “psychological thriller”).

It is sort of an extreme Broadchurch, though. Extreme in every way – more violence, more blood, more sex, less plausibility, and a far more extreme geographic location.

“Fortitude” is a fictional mining town on the Norwegian arctic island of Svalbard (though the filming was done in Iceland). It’s illegal, we are told, to die in Fortitude, because any pathogens in a body would be eternally preserved in the permafrost. Times are hard. The mines are playing out, and the governor is trying to interest investors in the idea of a “glacier hotel” to bring in the tourist trade.

There’s a heavy element of soap opera in the production. The central character seems to be the “sheriff,” a seemingly decent man with a dark secret. He’s obsessed with the hot Spanish waitress in town, but she’s having an affair with the rescue pilot, a married man. He sneaks out for a few minutes from watching his sick son to have a slap and tickle session with her. When he gets home he finds that the boy has wandered out into the snow. When he gets home, he’s covered in blood, which turns out to be that of a local scientist, who was murdered with a potato peeler and a cleaver.

Meanwhile, a couple local miners have discovered a frozen mammoth, which they hide away, hoping to sell it for a fortune. A detective from Scotland Yard (why would a Scotland Yard detective work in Svalbard? Something to do with mine ownership. It gets worse – he’s an American) comes to town to investigate the murder (a different one) of a mining engineer. A local photographer, who is dying of cancer and due for sanitary deportation, knows something about the death, but isn’t talking.

As I said, if I’d known the sort of story it was I probably wouldn’t have watched it, but by the time I figured that out I was seven episodes in (there are twelve in all) and too interested to stop. The mystery is intriguing, the acting excellent, and the visuals stunning (I was very impressed with the effects the cinematographer achieved with snow).

There’s lots to warn you about here. Sex, nudity, violence, graphic blood and guts, lots of foul language. But it caught me up, I’ll admit it. Not only the Icelandic locations, but the interesting character interactions. There’s some dialogue that questions the goodness of God. But the character dynamics actually argue to the contrary, it seems to me.

So it’s a good series, from the technical point of view. I can’t recommend it to our readers on moral grounds, but you can make your own judgments.

The Saga of Tormod

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