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SEVEN ICELANDIC SHORT STORIES

REYKJAVIK

THE MINISTRY OF EDUCATION




CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION BY STEINGRIMUR J. PORSTEINSSON

ANONYMOUS (13TH CENTURY)
THE STORY OF AUDUNN AND THE BEAR
TRANSLATED BY G. TURVILLE-PEIRE

EINAR H. KVARAN
A DRY SPELL (1905)
TRANSLATED BY JAKOBINA JOHNSON

GUÐMUNDUR FRIÐJÓNSSON
THE OLD HAY (1909)
TRANSLATED BY MEKKIN SVEINSON PERKINS

JON TRAUSTI
WHEN I WAS ON THE FRIGATE (1910)
TRANSLATED BY ARNOLD R. TAYLOR

GUNNAR GUNNARSSON
FATHER AND SON (1916)
TRANSLATED BY PETER FOOTE

GUÐMUNDUR G. HAGALIN
THE FOX SKIN (1923)
TRANSLATED BY MEKKIN SVEINSON PERKINS

HALLDÓR KILJAN LAXNESS
NEW ICELAND (1927)
TRANSLATED BY AXEL EYBERG AND JOHN WATKINS




INTRODUCTION

I


Of the seven Icelandic short stories which appear here, the first
was probably written early in the thirteenth century, while the rest
all date from the early twentieth century. It might therefore be
supposed that the earliest of these stories was written in a
language more or less unintelligible to modern Icelanders, and that
there was a gap of many centuries in the literary production of the
nation. This, however, is not the case.

The Norsemen who colonized Iceland in the last quarter of the ninth
century brought with than the language then spoken throughout the
whole of Scandinavia. This ancestor of the modern Scandinavian
tongues has been preserved in Iceland so little changed that every
Icelander still understands, without the aid of explanatory
commentaries, the oldest preserved prose written in their country
850 years ago. The principal reasons for this were probably limited
communications between Iceland and other countries, frequent
migrations inside the island, and, not least important, a long and
uninterrupted literary tradition. As a consequence, Icelandic has
not developed any dialects in the ordinary sense.

It is to their language and literature, as well as to the island
separateness of their country, that the 175 thousand inhabitants of
this North-Atlantic state of a little more than a hundred thousand
square kilometres owe their existence as an independent and separate
nation.

The Icelanders established a democratic legislative assembly, the
Althingi (Alþingi) in 930 A.D., and in the year 1000 embraced
Christianity. Hence there soon arose the necessity of writing down
the law and translations of sacred works. Such matter, along with
historical knowledge, may well have constituted the earliest
writings in Icelandic, probably dating as far back as the eleventh
century, while the oldest preserved texts were composed early in the
twelfth century. This was the beginning of the so-called saga-
writing. The important thing was that most of what was written down
was in the vernacular, Latin being used but sparingly. Thus a
literary style was evolved which soon reached a high standard. This
style, so forceful in its perspicuity, was effectively simple, yet
rich in the variety of its classical structure.

There were different categories of sagas. Among the most important
were the sagas of the Norwegian kings and the family sagas. The
latter tell us about the first generations of native Icelanders.
They are all anonymous and the majority of them were written in the
thirteenth century. Most of them contain a more or less historical
core. Above all, however, they are fine literature, at times
realistic, whose excellence is clearly seen in their descriptions of
events and character, their dialogue and structure. Most of them are
in fact in the nature of historical novels. The Viking view of life
pervading them is characteristically heroic, but with frequent
traces of the influence of Christian writing.

Besides these there were short stories (þaettir) about Icelanders,
of which THE STORY OF AUDUNN AND THE BEAR (Auðunar þáttr vestfirzka)
is one of the best known. [Footnote: In this edition, the specially-
Icelandic consonants þ and ð are printed as th and d respectively,
and the superstressed vowels á,í,ó, and ú, are given without the
acute accent, when they occur in proper names in the stories, e. g.
Pórður: Thordur.]

These may be regarded as a preliminary stage in the development of
the longer family saga, simpler, yet having essentially the same
characteristics. Both types then continued to be written side by
side. Although the geographical isolation of the country was stated
above as one of the reasons for the preservation of the language,
too great a stress should not be laid on this factor, especially not
during the early centuries of the settlement. The Icelanders were
great and active navigators who discovered Greenland (shortly after
980) and North America (Leifr Eiriksson, about 1000). Thus THE STORY
OF AUDUNN AND THE BEAR recounts travels to Greenland, Norway,
Denmark and Italy. It was then fashionable for young Icelanders to
go abroad and spend some time at the courts of the Norwegian kings,
where the skalds recited poems of praise dedicated to the king. In
this story the occasion of the voyage is a less common one, the
bringing of a polar bear as a gift to the Danish king. In several
other Icelandic stories, and in some of other countries, we read of
such gifts, and of how European potentates prized these rare
creatures from Greenland.

In Scandinavia, Germany, and elsewhere, there have been legends
similar to the story of Audunn, where a man, after having been to
the Norwegian king with a tame bear, decides to present it to the
king of Denmark. However, we know of no earlier source for this
motif than the story of Audunn. Whatever its value as historical
fact, it could well be the model to which the other versions might
be traced. This story is preserved in the Morkinskinna, an Icelandic
manuscript written in the second half of the thirteenth century, as
well as in several later manuscripts. [Footnote: The most valuable
edition of THE STORY OF ADUNN AND THE BEAR is that of Guðni Jónsson
in the series Íslenzk fornrit (vol. VI. Reykjavík 1943). The text of
this edition is followed in the present translation, except in a few
cases where reference has been made to the texts of Fornmannasögur
VI, Copenhagen 1831, and Flateyjarbók III, Oslo 1868.] The story had
probably been written down by 1220, if not earlier. It is given a
historical background in so far as it is set in the time of Haraldr
the Hard-ruler, King of Norway (1046-66), and Sveinn Úlfsson, King
of Denmark (1047-76), when the two countries were at war (c. 1062-
64). Both monarchs are depicted as generous, magnanimous men, but
Audunn was shrewd enough to see which would give the greater reward
for his precious bear. For all his generosity, King Haraldr was
known to be ruthless and grasping. What the writer had in mind may
have been a character-comparison of the two kings and the
description of "one of the luckiest of men", about whom the
translator, G. Turville-Petre says: "Audunn himself, in spite of his
shrewd and purposeful character, is shown as a pious man, thoughtful
of salvation, and richly endowed with human qualities, affection for
his patron and especially for his mother. The story is an optimistic
one, suggesting that good luck may attend those who have good
morals."




II


The Icelanders have never waged war against any nation. But in the
thirteenth century they were engaged in a civil war which ended in
their submitting to the authority of the Norwegian king in the
sixties (this authority was transferred to the King of the Danes in
1380). It is interesting that, during the next few decades after
this capitulation, saga-writing seems to reach a climax as an art,
in family sagas like Njáls saga, "one of the great prose works of
the world" (W. P. Ker). It is as if the dangers of civil war and the
experiences gained in times of surrender had created in the authors
a kind of inner tension - as if their maturity had found full
expression in the security of peace. However, with the first
generation born in Iceland in subjection, the decline of saga-
writing seems to begin. This can hardly be a mere coincidence. On
the contrary it was brought about by a number of different factors.

Subsequently, in the fourteenth century, saga-writing becomes for
the most part extinct. From c. 1400-1800 there is hardly any prose
fiction at all. Hence the fact that several centuries remain
unrepresented in this work (though the gap might have been reduced
to four or five centuries had literary-historical considerations
alone been allowed to influence the present selection).

But the sagas continued to be copied and read. After the setting up
of the first printing press (c. 1530), and after the Reformation (c.
1550), religious literature grew much in bulk, both translations
(that of the Bible was printed in 1584) and original works, and a
new kind of historical writing came into being. Side by side with
scholars, we have self-educated commoners who wrote both prose and,
especially, poetry.

In Iceland, being a "poet" has never been considered out of the
ordinary. On the contrary, a person unable to make up a verse or two
would almost be considered exceptional. Yet, this requires
considerable skill as the Icelanders are the only nation that has
preserved the ancient common Germanic alliteration (found in all
Germanic poetry till late medieval times). We frequently find this
device accompanied by highly complicated rhyme schemes. Despite this
rather rigid form, restrictive perhaps, yet disciplinary in its
effect, exquisite poetry has nevertheless been produced. This
poetry, however, is not within the scope of this introduction.
Suffice it to say that from what exists of their verse it is clear
that poets have been active at all times since the colonization of
the country. It is this uninterrupted flow of poetry that above all
has helped to preserve the language and the continuity of the
literary tradition.

During the centuries we have been discussing - especially, however,
the seventeenth - the Icelanders probably wrote more verse than any
other nation has ever done - ranging in quality, to be sure, from the
lowest to the highest. When, in the sixteenth century, they had got
paper to take the place of the more expensive parchment, they could
universally indulge in copying old literature and writing new, an
opportunity which they certainly made use of. It was their only
luxury - and, at the same time, a vital need.

We have said that the Icelanders had never waged war against any
other people. But they have had to struggle against foreign rulers,
and against hardships caused by the nature of their country. After
the Reformation, the intervention of the Crown greatly increased,
and, at the same time, its revenues from the country. A Crown
monopoly of all trade was imposed (in 1602). Nature joined forces
with mismanagement by the authorities; on the seas surrounding the
island pack-ice frequently became a menace to shipping, and there
also occurred unusually long and vicious series of volcanic
eruptions. These culminated in the late eighteenth century (1783),
when the world's most extensive lava fields of historical times were
formed, and the mist from the eruption was carried all over Europe
and far into the continent of Asia. Directly or indirectly as a
consequence of this eruption, the greater part of the live-stock,
and a fifth of the human population of the country perished.

Still the people continued to tell stories and to compose poems. No
doubt the Icelanders have thus wasted on poetical fantasies and
visionary daydreams much of the energy that they might otherwise
have used in life's real battle. But the greyness of commonplace
existence became more bearable when they listened to tales of the
heroic deeds of the past. In the evening, the living-room
(baðstofa), built of turf and stone, became a little more cheerful,
and hunger was forgotten, while a member of the household read, or
sang, about far-away knights and heroes, and the banquets they gave
in splendid halls. In their imagination people thus tended to make
their environment seem larger, and better, than life, as did Hrolfur
with his fishing-boat in the story When I was on the Frigate.




III


About 1800, things began to improve. The monopoly of trade, which
had been relaxed in 1787, was finally abolished in 1854. In the year
1874 Iceland got self-government in its internal affairs, and in
1904 its first minister of state with residence in the country. It
became a sovereign kingdom in union with Denmark in 1918, and an
independent republic in 1944.

The climate of the country has improved during the last hundred and
fifty years, though there were a number of severe years in the
eighteen eighties. It was at this time that emigration to the North-
American Continent reached a peak, especially to Canada, where one
of the settlements came to be called New Iceland - the title given to
the last story in this book. Many of these emigrants suffered great
hardships, and, as the story tells, several of them became
disillusioned with the land of promise. Their descendants, however,
have on the whole done well in the New World.

Until recently, the Icelanders were almost entirely a nation of
farmers, and the majority of the stories in this collection contain
sketches of country life. A certain amount of perseverance and even
obstinacy was needed for a farmer's life on an island skirting the
Arctic Circle (The Old Hay). Only about a quarter of the country is
fit for human habitation, mainly the districts along the coast. The
uplands, for the most part made up of mountains, glaciers, sand-
deserts, and lava, are often awe-inspiring in their grandeur.

Nevertheless it would be wrong to exaggerate the severity of the
land. In many places the soil is fertile, as is often the case in
volcanic countries, and - thanks to the Gulf Stream, which flows up
to the shores of the island - the climate is a good deal more
temperate than one might suppose (the average annual temperatures in
Reykjavík are 4-5° Centigrade).

Besides, the surrounding sea makes up for the barrenness of the
country by having some of the richest fishing banks in the world.
Hence, in addition to being farmers, the Icelanders have always been
fishermen who brought means of sustenance from the sea - usually in
primitive open boats like those described in When I was on the
Frigate and Father and Son. In the late nineteenth century decked
vessels came into use besides the open boats, succeeded by steam
trawlers at the beginning of the present century. For the last few
decades, the Icelanders have been employing a modern fishing fleet,
and, at the time of writing, fishery products constitute more than
ninety per cent of the country's exports.

With the growth of the fisheries and commerce there began to spring
up towards the end of the nineteenth century a number of trading
villages in different parts of the country. Reykjavík, the only
municipality of fairly long standing and by far the biggest one, had
at the turn of the present century a population of only between six
and seven thousand - now about eleven times that number. We catch
glimpses of these small trading stations at the beginning of the
twentieth century in A Dry Spell and Father and Son.

Nowadays, four fifths of the population live in villages and
townships - where some light industry has sprung up - and, in
Reykjavík alone, more than two fifths of the population are
concentrated.

In the last fifty years, the occupations of the people and their
culture have changed from being in many respects medieval, and have
assumed modern forms. The earlier turfbuilt farmhouses have now been
replaced by comfortable concrete buildings which get their
electricity from a source of water power virtually inexhaustible.
Many of these, - e. g. the majority of houses in Reykjavík - are
heated by water from hot springs, so that the purity of the northern
air is seldom spoilt by smoke from coal-fires. The reliable
Icelandic pony - so dear to the farmer in New Iceland, and for long
known as "a man's best friend" - has now for the most part come to
serve the well-to-do who can afford to use it for their joy-rides,
its place in farmwork being taken by modern agricultural machinery.
As a means of travel it has been replaced by a host of motorcars,
and by aeroplanes, which in Iceland are as commonly used in going
from one part of the country to another as railway trains in other
countries. In fact, it has not been found feasible to build railways
in Iceland. Besides this, a large number of airliners make daily use
of Icelandic airfields on transatlantic flights. What with most
other nations has been a slow and gradual process lasting several
centuries, has in Iceland come about in more or less a revolutionary
way. It is therefore not to be wondered at that there should have
been a certain instability in the development of the urban and
economic life of the country. In this field, however, there appear
to be signs of consolidation.

Foreigners who come to this country in search of the old saga-island
are sometimes a little disappointed at finding here, in place of
saga-tellers and bards, a modern community, with its own university,
a national theatre, and a symphony orchestra. Be this as it may,
literature still holds first place among the arts and cultures. A
collection of books is indeed considered as essential a part of a
home as the furniture itself. For such visitors, there may be some
consolation in the fact that in some places they may have quite a
job in spotting the grocer's among the bookshops.




IV


In literature there had, especially in poetry, been a continuity
from the very beginnings. Yet, in the field also, the early
nineteenth century saw the dawn of a new age. The Romantic Movement
was here, as elsewhere, accompanied by a national awakening, so that
literature became the herald and the principal motive force of
social improvement. There was at the same time a new drive for an
increased beauty of language and refinement of style, where the
classical, cultivated, literary language and the living speech of
the time merged. With Romanticism there also emerged poets of so
great merit that only a few such had come forward since the end of
the saga period. But henceforward - let's take as our point of
departure the second quarter of the nineteenth century - each
generation in the country has indeed produced some outstanding
literary works, comparable in quality with the accomplishments of
the ancient classical Edda and saga periods.

During this new golden age, several literary tendencies and genres
may be observed. But Romanticism remained the most lasting and
potent literary force for about a century. However, one of the
characteristics of the Icelandic literature of later ages is the
infrequent manifestation of literary trends in their purest and most
extreme forms. Here the stabilizing and moderating influence of the
ancient sagas has, without doubt, been at work. In most cases this
middle course may be said to have been beneficial to the literature.

But the saga-literature may also well have had a restraining
influence on later authors in so far as it set a difficult standard
to be emulated. It is probably here that the principal explanation
of the late re-emergence of prose fiction is to be sought. It was
not until about the middle of the nineteenth century that modern
short stories, novels and plays began to be written on anything like
a scale worthy of note. The earliest of these were romantic in
spirit, though most of them had a realistic tinge. With Realism, the
short story came into its own in the eighties and nineties of the
last century. This trend came like a fresh current to take its place
side by side with Romanticism, without, however, ousting it from the
literary scene. But owing to the realistic technique and the tragic
endings of much in the ancient literature - Eddaic poetry and sagas
alike - Realism was never the novel force it generally was felt to be
elsewhere. Still, it brought social criticism into our literature.
This was introduced through the activity of young literary-minded
students who, while studying at the University of Copenhagen, had
become full of enthusiasm for Georg Brandes and his school.

One of these young men was Einar H. Kvaran (1859-1938), a
clergyman's son from the North, who, after beginning as a student of
politics, soon turned his attention to literature and journalism. He
became editor of Icelandic newspapers in Canada (1885-95), and,
later, in Iceland, mainly in Reykjavík. His chief preoccupation,
however, became the composition of short stories and novels, and
besides these he also wrote some plays and poetry. The delicacy and
the religious bent of his nature could not for long remain the soil
for the satirical asperity and materialism of the realist school,
though his art was always marked by its technique. As he advanced in
years, brotherhood and forgiveness became an evergrowing element in
his idealism, and he became the first bearer of the spiritualist
message in this country. With his stories he had a humanizing
influence on his times, especially in the education of children, and
in the field of culture he remained actively interested right up to
a ripe old age. If somewhat lacking in creative fervour and
colourful raciness of style, he made up for it by the abundance of
his intelligence, his humanity and culture.

He wrote A Dry Spell (Ðurrkur) at the beginning of the present
century, when he had disengaged himself from the strongest influence
of Realism, but before moral preaching and the belief in the life
hereafter had become the leading elements in his stories. He had
then, for a few years, been living in the north-country town of
Akureyri, which obviously provides the model for the setting of the
story. It was first printed in the 1905 issue of the periodical
Skírnir.

In addition to the travelled, academic realists, there appeared a
group of self-educated popular writers, some of whom had come into
direct contact with this foreign school. They were farmers, even in
the more remote country districts, who had read the latest
Scandinavian literature in the original, and who wrote stories
containing radical social satire. Guðmundur Friðjónsson, for
instance, had begun his career in this way. In many of these
authors, however, we find rather a sort of native realism, where
there is not necessarily a question of the influence of any
particular literary tendency. Their works sprang out of the native
environment of the authors, whose vision, despite a limited horizon,
was often vivid. They convey true impressions of real life.

Of this kind are most of the works of Guðmundur Friðjónsson
(1869-1944), a radical who later turned to conservatism - and the
best works of Jón Trausti (1873-1918). These, who had their debut as
writers about the turn of the century, are the authors of the next
two stories in our collection. Both were North-countrymen. The
former, a farmer's son from a district enjoying a high standard of
culture, himself settled down as a farmer in his native locality in
order to earn a living for his large family. In his youth he had
attended a secondary school in the neighbourhood for a couple of
winters, but he never had his experiences enriched by foreign travel
and was during the whole of his life anchored to his native region.
Jón Trausti, the son of a farm labourer and his wife, who had been
born on one of the northernmost farms in Iceland in a barren and
outlying district, was brought up in dire poverty. From an early age
he had had to fend for himself as a farmhand and fisherman, finally
settling in Reykjavík as a printer. Apart from his apprenticeship
with the printers, he never went to any sort of school (school
education was first made compulsory by law in Iceland in 1907); but
on two occasions he had travelled abroad.

These energetic persons became widely read, especially in Icelandic
literature, and wrote extensively under difficult circumstances: - in
fact all the modern authors represented in the present book may be
said to have been prolific as writers. Guðmundur Friðjónsson was
equally versatile as a writer of short stories and poems. He has a
rich command of imagery and diction, and his style, at times a
little pompous, is often powerful though slightly archaic in
flavour. The ancient heroic literature doubtless fostered his manly
ideas, which, however, sprang from his own experience in life. One


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