Tag Archives: epic narrative

“Gunnloethe’s Tale” by Svava Jakobsdottir

This Icelandic novel was written in 1987 and translated into English in 2011. I’m glad I read the Translators Afterword FIRST. (Come to think of it, I would always advise reading the translator’s notes before starting a book, if you know the work was written in another tongue.)

Translation aside, this is already a twice told tale, being a classic (authorless) myth that was “codified” in writing in a thirteenth century treatise. Svava Jakobsdottir brings the story to modern Iceland, for a third expression of the ancient story line.

A young Icelandic woman steals an old and very beautiful chalice from a Danish museum. Nothing about the crime makes sense. How did she lay hands on it? What motivated her? The explanation she offers is so bizarre that an insanity plea is considered. Her mother, traveling to Denmark, loses her “ultra modern professional woman” identity and falls in to the company of strangers. Mother and daughter begin to relive events from the Icelandic saga of Gunnloethe, with its themes of gifting and betrayal.

There are two voices in the story, the modern voice of the mother and a older “mythic” narration on behalf of the daughter. I liked the modern voice, which was vigorous and straightforward. The “mythic” voice seemed stilted.

The author used an interesting plot device to “date stamp” her book. The mother, in Copenhagen, suddenly finds herself in an unruly crowd. Later she learns about the explosion at Chernobyl (in Ukraine, Soviet Union) that released radioactivity across Scandinavia. Protests and disorder ensued. The plot of the book NOT really being impacted, I believe the author included this unmistakable historic event so that future readers will know, without question, that the book was written after 1986. The Chernobyl disaster was a modern glance into the open gates of Hell, the underworld that figures so prominently in Scandinavian mythology.

Sagas are a great source of literary inspiration. This one is well worth your time. Serious/academic readers should seek scholarly interpretation – I’m not well qualified to comment on this book.

PS: Later comment! Prowling on the page after the title page of Gunnloethe’s Tale, I found the following statement: “The translator’s moral right to be identified as the translator of the work has been asserted.” I’ve never seen this before. But I accept it, and have added the name of Oliver Watts to the tags on this post, hoping to increase the chance he will be found by those who might seek him. I can’t FIND Oliver Watts. There’s only one such person in Wikipedia (the first place I looked) and plainly it’s the wrong man. I occasionally contact authors and others, especially when I feel their work suffers from lack of well deserved exposure. I’ve got two more leads – Norvik Press and The Icelandic Literature Fund.

And, by the way, I couldn’t figure out how to get an unlaut (the double dot) over the “o” in Gunnloethe, so I settled for jamming in the extra “e”. Sorry if this complicates anyone’s search process.