In 1871, William Morris journeyed to Iceland; judging from his journal entries, he did not enjoy it overmuch. The landscape baffles him, and he describes riding across it as "dreadful." Nevertheless, he takes a curious fascination in detailing his experience, at one point describing the countryside as "a waste of loose large-grained black sand without a blade of grass on it," "all ridged and thrown up into hummocks," which "got worse and worse till at last it grew boggy." There's beauty in such desolation, however, and Morris can't quite keep it from the page: "and then we were off it on to the naked lava, which was here like the cooled eddies of a molten stream" (Morris pp. 29-30). The allure of Iceland is perhaps more easily understood through the eyes of one who loves it: "There was little magic in Iceland [. . .] But the black mountains and green fields seemed lovely to him, also the rushing rivers and the waves that beat against the country's coast. He could praise the flight of a falcon across the summer sky or the smooth gait of a running horse. At times he was at the edge of speaking poetry" (Arnason pp. 42-43).
As Morris and Arnason picture it, this is a landscape that frequently tests one's credulity. To accept its bleak, vast beauty requires an ability to believe in any number of improbable things. Like elves, trolls, and ghosts—perhaps even were-puffins, for "the world needs them, and puffins are enchanting" (p. 167). Which brings us to Eleanor Arnason.
I came to Arnason's latest collection, Hidden Folk, as a reader of the sagas and admirer of Icelandic literature. While such background may add some depth to the experience—the first two stories are based on well-known sagas, the third on a folklore hero—this is an accessible collection that does not require prior familiarity with Icelandic folklore. "Hidden folk" traditionally refers to elves, but in the introduction Arnason admits to bending this to include trolls, ghosts, and devils. What she doesn't say is that she also includes "hidden" humans: slaves, housewives, single women, traditionalists in modern times. Her sympathies lie with the voiceless, the oppressed, the marginalized. As such, what success this collection achieves is not from her knowledge of Icelandic history and culture, which is formidable, but through the way she humanizes the mysterious past and skews our no less mysterious present so that we may see both afresh.
The first two tales pick up famous sagas of Grettir Asmundarson and Egil Skallagrimsson, but Arnason is not interested in recounting the exploits of heroes. In the first, "Glam's Story," we see events from the perspective of Thorhall's wife, whose lonely existence is cheered by her talks with the half-Irish slave, Glam. When Thorhall kills him, the dead slave returns to haunt the homestead. Enter Grettir, but we see the great saga hero, "the strongest man who had ever lived in Iceland" (p. 17), as a fidgety, ill-tempered youth who learns to fear the dark from his encounter with Glam. The title claims this is Glam's story, but I read it as the story of our farmwife-narrator. For while Glam's unjust murder gives "him a reason for refusing to be dead" (p. 165), the tale concludes with a reflection from the farmwife who, in a story filled with named male characters, is the only woman and remains nameless. "[I]t seems to me," she tells us, "that a man like Glam was more use to the world than [. . .] a hero like Grettir" (p. 19). Grettir is arguably the greatest hero of Icelandic history, but Arnason takes that familiar story and shifts it: we become the nameless farmwife, and learn that the oft-told tale is not always the full story.
If there is anyone close to Grettir's importance or stature in Iceland, it is Egil, and "Kormak the Lucky" begins near the end of his saga. Once again, we don't follow the hero; like Glam, our protagonist is an Irish slave, and through Kormak's eyes we are told Egil is "bad tempered, avaricious, self-willed, and [. . .] has used brute force to get his way" (p. 22). Eighty-year-old, blind Egil has Kormak and another slave take two chests of silver to a waterfall and dump them in; then Egil murders the slaves so no one will know where he hid the treasure. That's the saga, anyway, and the search for Egil's long lost treasure has consumed many an Icelander's imagination. But Arnason is not content: she writes, "I have wanted to save one of the slaves for years" (p. 166), and the majority of the tale follows Kormak on a long and rambling journey through elven lands, under the sea, and in the alien realm of the Irish fey. The tale idles, and in parts feels more like the author wants to explore dark elves, who are mentioned once in the Prose Edda but never explained, or perhaps to differentiate Icelandic elves from Irish fey: being a human in the fey kingdom, we're told, is "worse than living in Elfland. It might even be worse than Iceland" (p. 59). Meanwhile, Kormak becomes a pawn in the scheme of Volund the smith to rescue his daughter from the fey. Themes of free will and alienation abound in fruitful ways, but they're not fully developed and the plot overall is too episodic to engage.
The third story, and the last based on familiar legend, follows Saemundur Sigfusson on his education in Paris and eventual return to Iceland. Saemundur is most famous for his wisdom, which in this story he uses to variously trick the devil. In a fun but otherwise forgettable tale, there are a few memorable moments: books written in words of fire; hands that come out of the walls to serve food; and the devil as a greedy, persistent, but none too bright figure:
"It's not easy to oppose the devil," the bent man said. "He's not clever, but he does have considerable power..."
"I've always heard the devil is cunning," Saemundur protested.
"Men like to believe so," the bent man replied. "Because they want someone to blame for their behavior" (p. 89).
Ultimately, justice is served—the imprisoned Saemundur and his companions escape and find their way home—but as with "Kormak the Lucky," I never became very invested in this tale.
The final two stories are a different matter. As a fan of the sagas and Icelandic folklore, I was initially most excited to read the first three tales; but in the actual reading, it was the last two that most captured me. "The Puffin Hunter" is a modern take on a timeless plot: simple farmer discovers elf in disguise, something goes awry, things have to be set aright. Only the farmer, Harald, is an almost comic figure of rigid self-reliance. He is heavily reminiscent of Bjartur from Halldor Laxness's Independent People, in my opinion one of the great protagonists of the twentieth century. (Arnason hints at this debt in an interview with her publisher, Many Worlds Press, when she admits she's read "his [Laxness's] greatest book, Independent People.") Harald's plight begins when he is hunting puffins with a net and catches an unusual specimen.
"Don't wring my neck," the bird said. "I am actually an elf."
"That seems hardly likely," Harald replied.
"If you let me go, I will reward you."
Harald made an impatient noise, took the puffin from the net, and wrung its neck. (p. 115)
Harald's lack of surprise is part of a wider character trait: when his dog speaks to tell Harald killing the elf was a bad idea, Harald replies "'You can talk as well?' [. . .] Then he went back to netting puffins" (p. 115); when faced with the ghost of the murdered elf, he tells it he doesn't believe in ghosts; later, when he journeys into an elf hall, he reflects, "Meeting elves was unsettling [. . .] It led a person to doubt what was real, though he did not plan to stay in this mood of uncertainty. Life was easier with firm convictions" (p. 128). Harald is a pleasure to read partly because he is so crankily matter-of-fact, but more so because there are cracks in his armor. At one point a female folklorist who is helping the elves remarks that the way he acted was "brutal," and observes, "'Maybe you are simply lonely.' 'That might be,' Harald said, 'though I prefer to think I'm self-reliant'" (p. 129). It's the maybe and the prefer that hint he's aware of the shell he's built around himself. The rare glimmers of vulnerability, coupled with a very dry sense of humor, make Harald the most compelling protagonist in this collection.
Signy, the protagonist of the final story, "My Husband Stein," is more relatable and likeable by far. She shares Harald's matter-of-fact acceptance of the bizarre: when a dead swan shows up on her doorstep, followed by a large fish several days later, she calls the police to investigate but refuses to leave her vacation home for her apartment in the city. When it turns out not to be a prankster, but a troll who is wooing her, Signy shows no doubt or disbelief or fear; instead, she devises a way to capture him till the sunrise can turn him to stone. So far, this, too, is a familiar plot, but this is where Arnason's vision takes a simple tale and makes it into an elegy for many things lost to modernity: the fishing villages of the East; the pristine wilderness to hydroelectric projects; the trolls themselves, who in a moonlit scene of wonder and sadness leave their homes for the final time. The diasporas of twentieth century Iceland are reflected here: the fishing villages stand empty as a result of the post-war boom in international fishing; jobs everywhere are vanishing after the banking crash and recession; and now the trolls themselves—who Arnason equates with the overlooked, impoverished working class (p. 167), and who are strongly associated with the rich folklore of the past—are disappearing as well. Though I loved Harald the puffin hunter best in this book, it was Signy's story of the costs of progress that echoes longest after the cover is closed.
Arnason prefaces this collection with a few words of humility: "Scholars and ordinary Icelanders know far more than I do. My father knew far more than I do. Rather, I am a fan of Iceland and its literature. These stories are written out of affection and for fun" (p. xvii). For the most part, these are fun stories, and Arnason's knowledge of the country's past and people is deeper than she admits. Overall, a sense of love for the sagas and folklore of Iceland permeates this collection, and when Arnason is pursuing that emotion it is fun to follow along. Like Kormak in the second tale, Arnason's love for the landscape is evident: at times, she is at the edge of speaking poetry. But I wanted more than fun from this short book, and I didn't find it in the first few tales, despite the admirable way she retells stories through previously silent characters' eyes. What elevates this collection is how Arnason uses the last two stories to provide a picture of a nation simultaneously rural and advanced, caught somewhere between the past and the future, haunted by its ghosts but unwilling to let them go. This paradox is the Iceland I witnessed circumnavigating its shores on the Ring Road, the Iceland I feel when rereading my favorite Laxness novels, Independent People and Under the Glacier. It is fitting that Arnason captures that duality in these pages: the Norse creation myth (whose record we have thanks to Icelander Snorri Sturluson) depicts the world's creation between opposing realms of fire and ice. While it takes the author the majority of this collection to capture the internecine conflict of past and future, it is well worth digging through the majority of these pages to finally uncover their heart.