From Iceland — Magic Lore

Magic Lore

Published June 8, 2009

Magic Lore

Legends and Lanscape [Ed. Terry Gunnell, 2009]
A full moon glimmers across snow-laden fields.  Somewhere in the distance a wolf howls.  Noiselessly, through a strange mist, a shadow emerges.  The last thing you see is the flash of two swollen, white canines.  Sound familiar?  Stories of vampires, like all legends, tell us something innate about ourselves: where we have been and where we might go from here.
Terry Gunnell, lecturer in Folkloristics at the University of Iceland, introduces this broad selection of twelve scholarly articles, based on the plenary papers of the 5th Celtic-Nordic-Baltic Folklore Symposium that took place in Reykjavik in 2005.  Appropriately, Gunnell sets the stage with a quote from the Grimm brothers:   
The fairy tale is more poetic, the legend more historical…The legend…adheres always to that which we are conscious of and know well, such as a locale or a name that has been secured through history.
Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, old friends first immortalised by the Brothers Grimm, are fairy tales; to children, young and old, they conjure up images from the past: the knight on the white steed, the grumpy old dragon, witches mumbling over a bubbling cauldron.  Legends, on the other hand, are cultural footholds, provide theories for the sometime inexplicable actions of our ancestors, and instil social and moral values.
This fifth symposium, following the last in Dublin in 1996, reads like a who’s who of Folkloristic scholars.  The papers, penned by some of the foremost authorities from Ireland, Great Britain, Scandinavia, Estonia and the United States, furnish deep insight into the research methodology, history and the possible intention behind folk legends.  The authors cover cross-cultural narration; performance, its social function and the local celebration thereof; the psyche and development of legend within close-knit communities; the influence of genre, form, interpretation and philology on and within the metier; and how, above all, folk stories forge bridges between divergent cultures, in effect, shaping identity (landscape) within evolving societies. 
Jacqueline Simpson’s essay, A Ghostly View of England’s Past, strolls us along the cobbled alleys of the ghost walks of Scotland and England, and illustrates how over generations, a legend may become distorted to suit present needs.  Legends of the Impaled Dead in Sweden by Bengt af Klintberg, shows that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was stabbed through the heart countless generations—as early as the Mesopotamians, in fact—later than other, less fortunate Swedish, Icelandic and German undead.  Bo Almqvist demonstrates the unique position that Iceland maintains in keeping folklore traditions alive.  His paper, Midwife to the Faeries in Icelandic Tradition, based on over one hundred referenced examples compiled from throughout the country and listed as an appendix, is staggering, and only the tip of the proverbial midwife iceberg.  From the earliest settlers through the 70s numerous Icelandic midwives attested that they had been initiated by faeries.  Apparently, the legend still retains a certain hold on rural Iceland. As late as the 1990s, Almqvist was hearing new variations retold from Icelanders, including the artist Johanna Bogadottir.
Legends and Landscape is a celebration of the collective minds of those dedicated folklorists attending the Symposium and demonstrates a breadth of knowledge that is quietly burgeoning.  The development of the new Sagnarunnar database initiated by Terry Gunnell at the University of Iceland (the inception of which coincided with the symposium) already maintains over 10,000 Icelandic folk legends and is a clear testament to this fact.
Although this book may not be for the faint-hearted, it is ideally suited to the scholar, student or aficionado of folklore.  Be prepared to wrangle with a little academic prose and you will be well rewarded; in fact, you may even take up the cause yourself.
To this very day folk legends inspire, educate and, at times confuse.  A case in point: In 2007, a Serbian national, Miroslav Milosevic, thrust a stake through the heart of former dictator Slobodan Milosevic who was just lying quietly in his grave, just to be sure that the bloody dictator would not make a vampire’s comeback. 
Some legends, it seems, never die—that is, unless you have a silver bullet.

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