Sunday, October 5, 2008

Keeping the Peace in Iceland

Having moved into a house where one of the roommates receives Harper's Magazine on a subscription basis, it was my privilege to encounter an article on one of my many favorite subjects; Iceland and its inhabitants. The article dealt with the history of democracy in the little volcanic island. Over breakfast, I learned how medieval Icelanders would meet on a yearly basis in a spectacularly lush and picturesque valley called "Thingvellir" to discuss governance, recite laws, and sentence wrongdoers to fines or punishments. I imagined them civilly discussing the matters at hand in a Hans Blix-esque fashion, possibly issuing formal complaints to those who sold their sheep at too high a price or borrowed a neighbor's boat without asking, and then I learned several stoic Icelanders had in fact chronicled such events. One of these being lawyerly Njal, notorious for his thoughtful contemplation. The author points out, however, that during her perusal of Njal's Saga, she came to see a distinct (and in my opinion, humorous) dichotomy in the content. "Njal's careful legal deliberation, though, was an odd contrast to much of the saga's grisly violence, as though Black's Law Dictionary had been spliced into Grand Theft Auto. Njal notes the importance of the rule of law--'With laws shall our land be built up but with lawlessness laid waste'--and not many pages later, his eldest son catches sight of his enemies on an ice sheet beside the river and, in a celebrated passage, decides to make the most of the opportunity:

'Skarp-Hedin made a leap and cleared the channel between the ice-banks, steadied himself, and at once went into a slide: the ice was glassy-smooth, and he skimmed along as fast as a bird. Thrain was then about to put on his helmet. Skarp-Hedin came swooping down on him and swung at him with his axe. The axe crashed down on his head and split it down to the jaw bone, spilling the back-teeth on to the ice.'"

Solnit, Rebecca. News from Nowhere: Iceland's Polite Dystopia.
Harper's Magazine, October 2008: Vol. 317 no. 1901, pgs. 47-53.

So I'm not trying to say that splitting open the head of your enemy with a battle axe is funny, but...the fact that its part of Iceland's great literary tradition sure is. Just read that passage aloud to yourself in your best Icelandic saga voice, and imagine reading it aloud to children of many ages sitting around the hearth. Possibly even choosing your favorite brother with whom to act it out for these children, dressed in intricately knit sweaters and thick wool socks. In the 12th or 13th century. Maybe then you can extrapolate to join me in raucous laughter.

And in case you're wondering about that crushed velvet skeleton I mentioned a week or so back? There it is. Flesh and blood.


matthias said...

So that is what happned to the big velvet fabric lying around for all the time...

kristofer said...

I like the new graphic style of the page! The dresses are very nice too, as far as I can tell. Not really an expert here ;)

Hugs, Kris

Caitlin said...

A high compliment coming from a Swede! Thank you.

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