Category Archives: Scandinavianism

Ice ice baby


Apparently the notion that the Inuit have hundreds of words for different types of snow originated with Benjamin Lee Whorf and has been refuted. There are, however, plenty of names for different types of ice, as I learned back when I read the 1992 novel Smilla’s Sense of Snow, in which the heroine is a Greenland Inuit woman living in Copenhagen: 

There are reasons for moving in and reasons for staying here. With time, the water has become important to me. The White Palace is located right on Copenhagen Harbor. This winter I have been able to watch the ice forming.

In November the frost set in. I have respect for the Danish winter. The cold — not what is measured on a thermometer, but what you can actually feel — depends more on the strength of the wind and the relative humidity than on the actual temperature. I have been colder in Denmark than I ever was in Thule in Greenland. When the first clammy rain showers of November slap me in the face with a wet towel, I meet them with fur-lined capucines, black alpaca leggings, a long Scottish skirt, a sweater, and a cape of black Gore-Tex.

Then the temperature starts to drop. At a certain point the surface of the sea reaches 29 degrees F, and the first ice crystals form, a temporary membrane that the wind and waves break up into frazil ice. This is kneaded together into a soapy mash called grease ice and gradually forms free-floating plates, pancake ice, which, on a cold day at noon, on a Sunday, freezes into one solid sheet.

And it gets colder, and I’m happy because I know that now the frost has gained momentum; now the ice will stay, now the crystals have formed bridges and enclosed the salt water in pockets that have a structure like the veins of a tree through which the liquid slowly seeps; not many who look over toward Holmen think about this, but it’s one reason for believing that ice and life are related in many ways.

I read Peter Hoeg’s book when the English translation came out in 1993 and it’s stayed with me: mainly because of oddly musical passages like this, and also because it marked one of the few times I’ve actually developed a crush on a fictional heroine — if Smilla Jaspersen ever stepped clear of the pages, I’d want her phone number.

 Since that’s not going to happen any time soon, I’ve settled for looking at these wonderful images of different types of ice, such as “blue ice” pictured above, shown at this educational site. As it turns out, Hoeg’s descriptions are plenty apt.

I found Smilla’s Sense of Snow to be a frustrating read:  The book is vivid and engrossing right up until the final third, when the story takes an ill-advised turn toward science fiction and the energy starts leaking from the narrative. I might give it another try, but first I’ll want to read some of the other Hoeg novels that were translated into English following Smilla’s success.

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Some wit with a knowledge of skaldic verse should recast this excellent Vanity Fair article about Iceland’s financial meltdown into a more suitable form. Until then, however, you owe it to yourself to pour some mead, hang up your sword and kick back with Michael Lewis. One of my favorite passages:

Alcoa, the biggest aluminum company in the country, encountered two problems peculiar to Iceland when, in 2004, it set about erecting its giant smelting plant. The first was the so-called “hidden people”—or, to put it more plainly, elves—in whom some large number of Icelanders, steeped long and thoroughly in their rich folkloric culture, sincerely believe. Before Alcoa could build its smelter it had to defer to a government expert to scour the enclosed plant site and certify that no elves were on or under it. It was a delicate corporate situation, an Alcoa spokesman told me, because they had to pay hard cash to declare the site elf-free but, as he put it, “we couldn’t as a company be in a position of acknowledging the existence of hidden people.”

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Elleore dreamin’

Now that summer is pretty much over with, you might want to get a jump on your travel planning for next year. Those of you with fond memories of Leonard Wibberley’s novels about the Duchy of Grand Fenwick might want to book a visit to Denmark and the island realm of Elleore, which began as a satirical flip-off to the Nazi occupiers and persists as a realm where the spirit of Monty Python is filtered through the Danish sensibility.

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Action hero

Jeff Sypeck reminds us of a terrific action scene from Njal’s Saga. Don’t anyone tell Robert Zemeckis — it’s sure to end up in his next computer-frosted movie. Meanwhile, it’s time to re-read Njal’s Saga.

The Gimli groove

As much as I like Scandinavian music, I hadn’t heard of ethno group Hedningarna, until PZ Myers highlighted it in a recent post. The occasion was a welcome English translation of the group’s lyrics for “Drafur and Gildur,” a song from the fourth album:

Suddenly roaring and screeching
Trolls come running from the woods
Drafur muses to himself
“Time for some axercise!”

The first troll is hoping
To bash Drafur’s legs to pulp
This ambition is thwarted
When his head takes leave of his neck

More and more trolls appear
Drafur wishes they would just go away
Trolls have tiny brains
But there are too many of them

Suddenly the trolls’ luck turns
And hope springs in Drafur’s heart
Through a scarlet mist
He spies Gildur kicking troll ass

You can read the rest here. You know you want to.

Even the evil

Three subjects close to my heart — Iceland, chess and bookstores — come together in this article about the Reykjavik bookstore where chess expert Bobby Fischer spent much of his time during his last years:

Bókin, or The Book, is essentially a 1950s version of New York’s Strand Bookstore. Besides the books stacked head-high, under card tables, and on plywood shelves, the first thing you notice about Bókin is its smell, decayed and airless. Walking inside the 35-year-old establishment is like entering a Parisian flea market without the noise: overwhelming, a paralysis of the senses. But it was here, between narrow aisles lined with thousands of fraying biographies and history books, sitting in an ordinary chair whose varnish had worn thin, where Bobby Fischer could be alone in his thoughts. It was here where he could contemplate his place in history by [poring] through books on outlaws and rebels from Russia, Britain, Libya, and the Soviet Union with whom he could relate. And it was here, beneath the quiet hum of the fluorescent lights above, where Bobby Fischer could, for at least a few hours a day, seem to live a normal life.

“Bobby said he liked this kind of bookshop because it reminded him of his younger New York years. The mess everywhere, the stacks of books, the smell,” says owner Bragi Kristjónsson. “He was often sitting here so long, reading from these shelves, that he fell asleep.”

My first thought on reading this was a jolt of sympathy for the innocent Icelanders who, looking for a book, must have rounded a shelf and come face to face with this glaring troll. My next thought was that Fischer had found his own version of Drangey, the towering island off northern Iceland where the outlaw Grettir Asmundarson, hounded by the many enemies acquired during a lifetime of conflict, found shelter during the last years of his life.

Drangey is a huge table of volcanic rock rising sheer from the ocean. It’s not a place to visit unless you are in good physical condition: many of the slopes are so steep that even experienced hikers need to use the chain railings set into the ground, and the summit of the island can only be reached by using a chain ladder. It is spectacularly beautiful, but also demanding and unforgiving. The cliffs are pocked with bird nests that draw hunters and egg-pickers — a pretty dangerous way to get yourself some omlette fixings.

The place is reputed to be inhabited by trolls and other unsavory creatures that used to amuse themselves by cutting the ropes of hunters and letting them tumble down the cliffs. Finally, a bishop ventured out to the island and began methodically blessing the rocky terrain with holy water. He had covered most of the island when an unseen creature, which had been trying vainly to stop the bishop, called out: “Stop your blessing. Even the evil need a place to live.”

Grettir was not necessarily evil, just immensely strong and violently opposed to any sort of compromise. He craved human company, but was pretty much impossible to live with, so that he ended up on a lonely spur of rock, battling with wraiths and monsters as his enemies closed in. Bobby Fischer had an evil mouth on him but unlike that earlier outlaw he was essentially harmless. He, too, ended up alone, grappling with monsters of a more personal nature, given shelter by the country where he was still remembered with affection because of the crowning moment of his life — the 1972 chess match with Boris Spassky.

Even the pathetic need a place to live.

The translator

Bernard Scudder died in October. Why this sad fact should be more widely known — and why Scudder’s work should be better appreciated — is explained by Jeff Sypeck and Sarah Weinman.

Sippin’ to the sagas

Not only does Egil Skallagrimsson have his own saga, he’s got his own orange soda, his own sparkling water and his own malt extract that can be blended with Egil-brand apple-flavored water, to get you ready for some Yuletide mayhem. That’s better than Beowulf can manage. Yo, B-Wulf, you got your own pineapple soda? I didn’t think so. Punk.

Turn over a new Leif

How unjust to have a holiday for some Gianni-come-lately sailor while this much earlier arrival to the New World is unsung and little remembered. Jeff Sypeck offers some suggestions on how to hold your own observance.