Tag Archives: Iceland

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

Heathen? Thank a Christian.


A page from the Flatey Book.

Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.
–G. K. Chesterton, “The Ballad of the White Horse”

It’s pretty well known that Norse mythology is far better preserved than any other European pre-Christian mythology. This is largely because the great saga-writer and poet Snorri Sturlusson, a Christian, persuaded Icelandic churchmen that the old Norse Eddaic poetry was worth preserving, and that a knowledge of the old myths was necessary to preserve it.

In my translation work on the brochure I’m doing for the Flatey Book publication project, I learned about a further debt that Icelandic culture (including modern, reconstituted heathen culture) owes to the church.

Here’s an excerpt from Prof. Titlestad’s essay in the brochure:

In the farthest north of Iceland, at Hólar in Skagafjord, dwelt the mathematician, cartographer, culture-builder and bishop Guðbrandur Þorlaksson (1541-1627). He was the first to draw a good map of Iceland. He had a printing press at his disposal and published/edited 80 books. A graduate of the University of Copenhagen, he was the first to publish extracts of the Bible in Icelandic. In this way he established a more secure basis for a national language than Norwegians possessed – they had to get along for centuries in Danish.

It’s often stated that modern Icelandic is the same language spoken by the Vikings. That’s only approximately true — the language has changed a little. But it’s close enough for general purposes. If Jarl Haakon, who time-travels to the 21st Century in my novel Death’s Doors, showed up instead in Reykjavik, he’d get along fine making himself understood.

But the reason that old language was preserved in its early form, as we see above, is because a Christian bishop wanted to have portions of the Bible printed in Icelandic.

The Flatoy Book

I hope I’m not out of line quoting a paragraph from my own translation, in progress, of a promotional booklet for the Norwegian Flatøy Book project. This passage discusses the decision of the Icelandic bishop Brynjolv Sveinsson to turn the big manuscript (two volumes) over to King Fredrik III of Denmark in 1556. The original author is Prof. Torgrim Titlestad:

Brynjolv built on insight that had been developed within the Icelandic culture ever since Arngrimur’s pioneering work in the 16th Century, but he was possibly more aware than the others of the unique civilization-building impulses contained within the Norse heritage, as especially expressed in Flatøybok. Flatøybok can be understood as a kind of “Noah’s Ark” of ideas, stocked with the fundamental concepts of the Norse world in order to survive as a time capsule in a threatening future. This distinguished Flatøybok from older saga literature. The book was a “generational ship,” laden with the experiences of many people over many generations. The Norse culture had grown up outside the sphere of Roman dominion, and thus was different from European feudal culture with its comprehensive, hierarchical class structure. The Icelandic author Bergsveinn Birgisson (1971-) has expressed himself on the message of these medieval authors to the world (2015): “We had our own unique culture up here in the North, with a value of its own, which we desire to preserve for future generations.” And as his spiritual ancestor Brynjolv might have said, “And we would wish that the world would learn from it.” Brynjolv desired to send this “ark” to Copenhagen so that the book might be published and made available to European readers. Flatøybok was meant to sail out into diverse intellectual harbors and then cast off again for further voyages around the world.

More Viking stuff. More or less.

My life is suddenly full of Viking stuff again. I just got a commission to translate, not a book, but a brochure, for a Norwegian foundation devoted to the translation and publication of a complete edition of the Flatey Book, the largest and best preserved saga manuscript we have from Iceland, and incidentally one of the most beautiful medieval illuminated manuscripts in existence. The publishers are my old friends at Saga Bok publishers, with whom I’ve worked before. It gives me a wholly undeserved sense of importance to be involved in such a project at any level.

Also it occurred to me to share the movie trailer below, a soon-to-come Norwegian adventure film about the Birkebeiners, a legendary Norwegian rebel army that overthrew a king of questionable pedigree to replace him with another king of questionable pedigree. The new king was a baby whom two Birkebeiners (the name means “birchlegs,” because in the early phases they were sometimes so poor they had to wrap their legs in birch bark for lack of warmer leggings) rescued by carrying him over the mountains by ski.

The trailer, alas, is in Norwegian, but I think you can follow the sense of it. This isn’t strictly a Viking story, as it takes place in the 12th Century, after all the pillage and plunder stuff had been pretty much worked out.

Personally I’ve always been ambivalent about the Birkebeiners, because I like to imagine that one of my ancestors might have been a leader of the opposition party, the Baglers. But, like any modern Norwegian, I imagine I had ancestors on both sides.

I have no idea if there are plans to release this movie in English. I just do these things to frustrate you.

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)