Iceland Part I

[This is written in english to make it more accessible both to some icelanders and to international visitors. Just a warning to swedish readers – the word saga here has absolutely nothing to do with what it means in swedish]

Written words, oral storytelling or poetry?
I have just learned that the World Storytelling Day and the World Poetry Day happens closely or on the very same day. So why not use both art forms in the same performance? There are many traditions around the globe where you do exactly that. I think it works very well with the saga of Egil Skallagrimsson. And the Gisle Sursson saga mentioned in the video also comes with a lot of poetry.

What do places mean?
It sure helps to have an experience of the world where your story takes place. When I saw the mountains in the West Fjords this summer I thought; what a terrible fate to be outlawed here, trying to survive on your own in the wilderness. Later I learned that it happened to Gisle! In Ljungby, Henrik Hallgren and Georgiana Keable inspired me to «tell more nature». Of course you can’t visit all the places where your stories happens, just to add first-hand experiences to your telling. Both Fairy Forests and Outer Space can be tricky to reach. And I only caught a glimpse of Gisle’s Dyrifjord through a bus window, so I do hope Bjørn Bensby will continue his work with making a collection of photos from the area.

Sagas today?
What do the sagas mean for a contemporary audience outside Iceland? Nothing except for historians? I think they are a rewarding challenge for a storyteller in the sense that they demand the kind of interpretation which is perhaps more common in theatre than among storytellers. Hamlet is built upon the story of Amledo which the danish monk Saxo Grammaticus happened to record centuries before Shakespeare. The themes of betrayal, clever deception and revenge are similar, but IMHO the later english version has some quite nice additions 😉

Why would anyone adapt a saga for oral storytelling? Perhaps because you found an interesting theme or interpretation. But why not theatre, painting or Bollywood? What qualities does an oral performance have which would make that the «best» art form? To me it is the word music and the «presence» – the possibilities of feeling, thinking and talking together.

Please share your thoughts, experiences and questions in a comment (feel free to use the language you want)!


8 responses to “Iceland Part I

  1. Göran Hemberg

    Tbink I know what you are talking about, Ulf. It’s a challenge every storyteller should face at least once. Trying to be true to what the old Saga has to say about life to a moderna audience with a very different outlook. Telling it there, where it actually happened, helps a lot.

  2. You faced simiar challenges at least thrice, didn’t you?

  3. Göran Hemberg

    Yes. And the challenge is always the same – no matter if it’s a Nordic saga, an early gospel or about Odysseus’ home-coming. How tune in to the listeners, remaining faithful to the story? I want to walk the narrow path between too heavy and too flippant. And when I stumble, it’s always to the heavy side.

  4. Bjørn Bensby

    I have had and still have similar problems with names in icelandic sagas, as your interviewed young guide have had. Too many names and especially Thor’s and Thorconnected names.
    There are something similar to familytellings in a small place, a village, where everybody have known each other through generations. In such places in Denmark there was put extra effort in telling exactly in what relation every person named is in relation to others. Who is the father, who is the aunt, who is the cousin and in which relation, in which farm and so on. Too much reference. For a foreign listener, it very soon kills the interest of the story, because too much energi is used to keep order in all these informations. Important though for the family, the village and the relations in the rual district, but not for other people. The old families, I think, keep all the roots of lives, started generations ago, alive. Vivid roots, well known roots are essential and fundaments for humans to make and find a position in life. It has a little of the same importance here in saga litterature, I think, as names and years of kings, queens, presidents, wars, disasters – and in newest times celebrities, actors, musicians and so on to day are are used as the common landmarks of life and time in these days.
    These many landmarks are obstacles in my immediate perception of the basic dramaturgi, the how, what, where, when and why of doings and my first interpretation of reasons, the why’s in the story told. But if the told story leaves some intereting questions, I feel I have to find answers for in a deeper level, I often need more of landmarks to use to understand and to suggest deeper meanings from the story. Thats the reason why the saga-scriptures intrigues me.

    • Hmm, seems we are well on our way to identify important obstacles here. The horrors of too many strange names can cause symptoms of «cognitive overload», like listeners falling asleep during the performance … One solutionI have tried is to just kill the names and identify characters by their relations to others, like «the giants brother». The swedish author Per Olof Sundman who by the way worked with the saga literature, said that an oral story can’t have more than five characters. Somehow I suspect a saga with less than five characters would be counted as a complete failure in the historical icelandic context …

  5. Thanks Göran, you helped me finally realize what I wanted to say!

    That the sagas, like many similar stories, are not easy to tell. Haukur has some very valid points! But if you are willing to spend time with them you might develop a long-lasting relationship of love and learning 😉 By exploring the cultural and historical context, searching for themes and connections with listeners and the world today and experiencing places and nature. Directly, or by film and photos or by flying with that bio-cultural airline located in your brain – your imagination. But overdo it and you break the back of the story with the burden of heavy ambitions. The story of Scylla and Charybdis comes to mind …

    I recently failed miserably telling Egils saga to pupils. The classical greek stories should have warned me against hybris, but I clearly overestimated my improvisational skills. I should have done more homework in adapting it for a younger audience. Especially as I seduced myself with the intriguing possibility of connecting the saga with the story of Snorre Sturlasson. So I am very motivated at the moment to make the story a bit more «easy listening» 😉

  6. Tilbaketråkk: Iceland III – Saga-Stead Journeys | Cafe Ratatosk

  7. I am thrilled to find your comments here Ulf and Bjorn and Goran. We are preparing to share the telling of Grettir’s Saga next May in a small Icelandic Canadian community called Markerville in Alberta, Canada. It will take us all day to tell the tale (from 9:30 am – until likely 9:30 pm). We plan to intersperse parts of the story with feasting and dancing. There are some scenes of tenderness, scenes of brutality and of magic. I hope we can sustain the audience’s attention through this long day! It will be a challenge.

    Grettir is a character who is a brute and yet I am beginning to love him. I hope the audience will love him too. We have much preparation to undertake. There will be 17 storytellers who will share the tale. We plan to post some of the geneologies as trees around the room so people can a get a glimpse of relationships…I have told of Grettir’s battles with the ghost of Glam at Hallowe’en, I will tell of Onund Tree- leg during World Storytelling Days. The man who owes his ability to walk to the generousity of a tree must be well connected to the forest.

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