Monday, November 6, 2017

Land of Magic and Enchantment (Following folktales around the world 50. - Iceland)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

We have reached Europe! It will take almost a whole year to get through all of its countries. Settle in!

Hildur, Queen of the Elves
And other Icelandic Legends
J. M. Bedell
Interlink Books, 2007.

The book contains fifty-one Icelandic tales; most of them are legends, stories about events people believed to be true, featuring beliefs and creatures that are very prominent in Icelandic folklore. The stories are grouped according to these themes: There are separate chapters for Elves, Trolls, Ghosts, Water Monsters, Magicians, and other folktales. The tales have been translated from the Icelandic, and then re-told by the author; they provide and enjoyable reading experience, while retaining all the names and details that give them their unique flavor. There is an extensive Introduction by Terry Gunnell, who talks about the context of Icelandic legends, their cultural background, origins and collections, and the beliefs and customs they represent. He points out that Iceland was a culturally diverse country even in the middle ages, and therefore the stories show elements from Scandinavian, Celtic, and several other traditions. There is a list of sources at the end of the book, and each story comes with a citation of its original text.


Bjarnarey, one of the Westman Islands
I have to say that Iceland is exceptionally great at wizard stories. There are countless legends about magic schools (Saemundur in the Black School), and priests and wise men who have magical powers. My absolute favorite was the tale of the Magicians of the Westman Islands, in which eighteen magicians fled to the small islands from the Black Plague, and some time later sent one of them back to check if anyone survived. The magician only found one survivor, a young woman, with whom he fell in love, and never returned to the others. In revenge, the other magicians sent ghosts to destroy him - ghosts which the girl managed to outwit, in order to save the man she loved.
Knowledge of magic was usually gained from books of magic. For example, Loftur the Enchanter summoned the ghosts of Iceland's old bishops, to gain their books of secrets from them. Eiríkur of Vogsós, on the other hand, tested his prospective students by seeing if they were willing to kill an old woman for knowledge (and if they were, he kicked them out). Björn the Fiddler was tested by his uncle through summoning up talking corpses and other demonic visions - but handled all of them with patience and good humor, earning his uncle's respect. Some enchantments were more chilling than others. The darkest was Thorgeir's Bull, a creature created by bored magicians and brought to live with the use of nine souls (one of them human). The monster haunted the countryside for a long time, and eventually killed its own master.
Similarly chilling was the legend of the Elf-Steeple. It told about two brothers, one strong and brave and the other quiet and gentle. The quiet brother spent time with his Elf friends a lot, and was to be initiated into the Elf priesthood - but his sibling broke in and interrupted, for which the Elves killed him. The young priest traveled far, for the Elves promised he would die if they say each other again. One day as he celebrated mass, a storm broke the church doors open at the same time as the Elf church opened - and the moment the priest looked into the eyes of the Elf priest, he dropped dead.
Picture from the ABC blog,
which I highly recommend to
everyone interested in creatures
Redhead the Whale, one of Iceland's most famous monsters, was also a victim of Elf revenge. He stayed with the hidden people, and got a girl pregnant; but refused to acknowledge the child. He was turned into a whale in revenge, and terrorized the waters until an old priest-magician lured him up a river, where he died.
The title story is also quite beautiful. Regarded as a variant of the Dancing Princess tales, it tells about Hildur, an Elf queen who was exiled from home by her mother-in-law, cursed to work as a servant among humans. She could only return home one a year at Christmas, and only freed when someone was brave enough to secretly follow her.
Some of the troll tales were also great. I especially liked the ones where priests left some rocks and cliffs on every shore unblessed, so that trolls would have somewhere to live too.


Huldufolk homes. Picture from here.
Celtic connections were very obvious in the tales about the hidden people / fairy folk. There was a Fairy Midwife story (I already found one in the USA, and it is very popular in Ireland), a changeling legend (Father of eighteen elves), and a Selkie story (Better a seal skin than a child), among others.
I found the Icelandic variant of the Magic Flight titled Búkolla endlessly endearing. In it, a boy rescues a cow from a troll, instead of a girl; Búkolla moos to bring her savior to her, and then they escape together by throwing things behind them to slow down the troll. I was also happy to find one of my favorite strange folktales, The Dreamer and the Money Chest, in this book. In it, a traveler follows the soul of his friend as it escapes during sleep, and sees where it wanders.

Where to next?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks I'm going to ask our library to find me a copy of that book!