Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Iceland and The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow

The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow has long been one of my favorite books. Allen French did a wonderful job when he wrote this book for just as The Secret of Kells really captures Irish history and lore, so this book captures many elements of Icelandic history, culture, and lore.

Just some notes on Icelandic letters that are not in our alphabet and on the Alþingi:

þ makes the "th" sound in "thing" (unvocalized "th").
ð makes the "th" sound in "that" (vocalized "th").
The Alþingi is the Icelandic parliament. It began in 930 A.D. and it was in session for many years until Iceland came under foreign powers. It was started again after WWII and is currently functioning, though it is now located in Reykjavik.
Þingvellir is a plain that is its historic location. 
Here is a list of common elements between the book and things I've learned about Iceland or experienced on my trip.

1. The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow was written in a saga style. Iceland has a collection of sagas called Íslendingasögur, and I am guessing that Allen French read those for he mentions some of the characters in his book. Grettir the Strong, and Njal, namely.

2. The names of at least two of the characters are/have been used recently. In the flea market I saw the name "Einar" as an author's name on a book. "Snorri" appeared on a building from the 18 or 1900s.

Location of Snorri's booth. The wall remnants date from a later time.
3. Snorri the Priest from the book was a real man. I saw the ruins of his booth at Þingvellir (the location of the Alþingi at the time of the story.) In the story, Rolf goes to the Alþingi at Þingvellir, and also to Snorri's booth there.
(See my next post for more on the Alþingi and what Allen French has to say about it.)

Allen French's description of 
Þingvellir fits with what I saw there. 

4. Rolf's family owned sheep. Woolen goods are a hot commodity in Iceland these days. They are in every tourist shop and the Icelanders themselves frequently wear woolen sweaters.

5. In the story the sheep were marked by cuts on the ears, and had to be sorted when they were brought down from summer pastures for the winter. This is still done today. Their ears are marked, the sheep are brought down according to customs set by the Alþingi (Althingi) long ago, and they are sorted using a sheep sorter.

Icelandic cliffs
6.  We are told that there was a great number of birds and that Rolf climbed the craggy cliffs for eggs and young birds. He also shot the adults with his bow. Iceland is still known for its abundance of bird colonies.

7. "Heimskur" is the Icelandic word for stupid and contains the image of one who sits at home and doesn't travel. In the book it mentions that young men would travel abroad and that it was an important part of their passage into adulthood.

8. Ghosts were treated as real in the book. Many Icelanders are a bit into mysticism and believe in ghosts or elves (short, invisible beings).

9. According to French, it was customary for men to keep whatever wealth the sea washed ashore from ship wrecks off the rugged coast. The Icelanders in Rolf's day were delighted with the goods that washed ashore. The same was true in the 1800s. People were glad to get the timbers and things from the shipwrecks, even though it was too bad about the sailors who drowned in the wreck.

One man in Reykjavik collects odds and ends from the sea and has quite a stash of large metal contraptions. The large silver object looks like a space escape pod, other objects stick up like odd towers and are gray and rusty.
What the sea brought

10. Icelanders have traditionally been farmers. Rolf and his family were farmers. Characters in the sagas and folklore were farmers too, even if they were also great warriors.

11. Fishing is also important to Iceland. In addition to his other skills, Rolf knew how to fish. In current day Iceland, dried fish is sold at the flea market and the grocery store. The story speaks of racks for drying fish in the Orkneys and also Icelanders having dried fish on hand.  They still use wooden racks for drying fish.

12. In the book, Grettir cooked his food in the geysers. A tourism video showed some people cooking food in a geyser for amusement.
Geysir (the geyser from whose name the word "geyser" is from.)

All photos are my own except the photo of the book.

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