Icelandic Sagas In London

Icelandic Sagas In London

I think it’s fairly common knowledge that I’m a massive nerd. Well, I’m actually quite a small nerd, measuring barely over five foot three, but my nerdiness is without limits and far transcends the physical boundaries of my petite height. So, I’m a massive nerd.

And in true keeping with the nerdiness of my existence I went yesterday to an event at the British Museum called Viking Sagas (somewhat confusingly, since it was originally advertised as being called Icelandic Sagas) run by the organisation Poet In The City. As you’re probably aware if you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, my intention is to study Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at university from October, so when we saw this advertised, it was kind of a no-brainer and I knew I had to go.

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I’d been planning to go with a friend who is considering applying for ASNaC next year, but at the last minute she found out she had to work that evening and couldn’t make it, so Mother Person came with me instead.

The event itself took place in the BP Lecture Theatre at the museum, leading to some ‘BP Vikings’ protesting outside. They weren’t very clear about the cause of their anger, but apparently they’re not happy that the British Museum is in cahoots with BP. Or something. I don’t know; they were yelling a lot, and it was hard to hear.

It was a far larger audience than I was expecting for something quite so esoteric. I was certainly at the younger end of the gathered people — I saw a few others who might have been late teens or early twenties, but on the whole it was mostly an older audience. Then again, I suppose people still in education aren’t wildly enthusiastic about spending their Friday nights attending lectures when that’s what they do the rest of the week.

It was both a poetry reading and a lecture. There were three short talks, broken up by readings from sagas by an actor. His name, if I remember rightly, was Tom, but I can’t recall his surname and he’s not listed on any of the websites or on the leaflet we picked up when we were there, so I’ll have to refer to him as Tom from here on unless Poet In The City reply to my tweet asking his name.

We also had the added joy of hearing some of the poems in the original Icelandic: one read by Emily Letherbridge, which Tom then read in an English translation, and one by Gerdur Kristny, which I’ll discuss a little later in the post.

The first talk was by Emily Letherbridge, who discussed the history of Icelandic sagas and how they have survived over time. She showed some pictures of manuscripts, but also talked about the oral tradition, and how it preserved stories. She works at the University of Iceland, and she talked about taking students to look at some of the places where sagas are set, the way they’re preserved in the country’s landscape.

The second talk was by Gareth Williams. He’s responsible for the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition at the British Museum, and he talked a bit about the Vikings in general, and cultural perceptions of them. He showed some carvings of Viking warriors and briefly discussed a particular image of Odin wearing women’s clothing in the context of seiðr, something I discussed in my Extended Project recently.

(It was gratifying to hear him effectively summarise what I’d explored in one section of my essay, because I could nudge Mother Person and say, “I wrote about that! I told you it was true!”)

His overview of the Vikings was interesting, because he discussed some of the items in the exhibition — which I went to see with my sister a few weeks ago — and explained them more than a tiny little card at the bottom of a museum case could do. Mother Person hadn’t been to the exhibition, but she found it easy to understand; I had, and I found it furthered my knowledge of what I’d seen there.

Then the final talk was by Gerdur Kristny, who talked in detail about one of the poems performed by Tom and the context of her knowledge of it, as well as discussing her own feminist reinterpretation of the poem in her poetry book Bloðhófnir (Bloodhoof, in English). As you can probably imagine, Mother Person nudged me there, because anything involving the word ‘feminist’ means everybody looks at me. Huzzah. I am successfully typecast.

Actually, it was interesting for me in the context of my study of Carol Ann Duffy for English Literature. Although the collection we’re looking at is Rapture, her collection The World’s Wife has a similar concept to Kristny’s poems: it takes fairytales and myths and tells them from the women’s point of view. Instead of changing the gender of characters or rewriting the story, it just looks at them from the other side, and fills in the gaps that are left when it’s told from the usual perspective.

I intend to get myself a copy of Bloodhoof as soon as I’ve got some cash, but Kristny also read the opening section — first in Icelandic, and then in English. The Icelandic language is beautiful, if totally incomprehensible to me; of all the poetry I heard that evening, I could only guess at the meaning of a handful of words, and one of them was ‘Jotunheim’.

One of the most fascinating things I learned during the evening was the tradition of people condemned to death writing poems in praise of the kings, and if they were good enough they’d be spared. It’s something I’m very tempted to include in my own writing, especially since I have a headcanon that one of my characters spent the Middle Ages writing poetry in Wales.

I was shocked to realise I’ve never been to a poetry reading before, which is somewhat appalling for someone who calls herself a poet. I’ve watched poetry in performance on YouTube — though that’s often written purely for performance at a slam poetry event — but it’s really not the same. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on Poet In The City: it was a fascinating and informative experience, and I’m very glad I went.

Have you ever been to a poetry event or a lecture like this? Alternatively, do you speak any Icelandic? (Can you teach me?)

4 thoughts on “Icelandic Sagas In London

  1. I learnt some Old Icelandic while I was at University. Because I have most of the sagas in English too, I haven’t really kept it up so I don’t think I could teach you.

    1. Ah, tragic. I was half-joking (I have a massive book of the sagas also in English), but one day I’ll try and give it a go, because it’s a pretty cool language. :)

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