If the recent reprinting of Alda Sigmunsdóttir’s Icelandic Folk Legends is anything to go by, Jarvis Cocker has started something. Much like the Pulp frontman’s recordings of Icelandic stories on his ‘Jarvspace’ page last year, this short collection of folk tales is a fascinating introduction to Icelandic myth for the uninitiated anglophone. Fascinating and confounding in equal measure.
The most common response to Jarvis’ readings was disbelief (that he should be reading Icelandic stories at all) and then confusion (at the lack of coherent ‘lesson’ or ‘moral’ in the stories he chose). As a non-Icelander, reading Icelandic Folk Legends for the first time – of trolls kidnapping humans, of pastors haunting their wives-to-be, of witches flying to Satanic gatherings, of sheep-rustling and flying bulls – is a sometimes mystifying experience and raises many questions, as much because of form as content. Beyond the unfamiliarity of humans living inside hills or witches flying on jawbones instead of broomsticks, rare are the happy endings, frequent are the shifts in focus, and it often feels as though vital story elements are missing, or unexplained. These are essentially accounts of strange happenings, in specific (usually real) places – fantastical anecdotes, rather than structured parables or fairytales. And the feel is very much of tales plucked straight from the oral folkloric tradition that have been passed on, embellished, revised and developed through many generations.
Icelandic Folk Legends is a vivid portrait of pre-20th century Iceland – as much in terms of living conditions and landscape as of imagination, values and belief. Part of its appeal is that the tales spring from the magical imagination that Iceland’s varied and unforgiving landscape inspires. Beyond that, however, the questions they raise offer a fascinating window onto the values espoused by close-knit, rural communities as they struggle with the natural and supernatural forces that threaten their everyday lives. Each tale speaks to deep psychological issues – whether it be the lust for power (in Þorgeir’s Bull), loss and humiliation (The Vanished Bride), betrayal (Hagridden), the trickeries of the Devil (Satan Takes a Wife), fear of ghosts (The Deacon of Myrká Church), or the benevolence of the supernatural (The Outlaw on Kiduvallafjall Mountain) – but at the heart of each of these adventures lie the human choices that dictate outcomes.
Among the many functions of myth/legend/folk tale is the impulse to educate: Whether this be factual, ethical or both. Of course, the desire to entertain is paramount too but if we are to assume that legend finds its principal audience in children, then story is often the sugar-coating that surrounds the trickier moral imperative. Stories teach us (children and adults alike) about choice. From Aesop through La Fontaine to Zen koans and the Brothers Grimm, we find fantastical tales that suggest modes of behaviour in response to particular situations/circumstances. We are called upon, as children and later as adults, to puzzle out their ethical scope, their meaning, and in so doing to make these stories our own. The stories collected here offer information – how places came to be formed or named – as well as a rich trove of human experience in the face of often astonishing adversity. There is much to be enchanted by here and there is much to be learned. Perhaps Jarvis’s fans should look a little closer.