By Einar Olafur Sveinsson
(Viking Society for Northern Research, 2003)
English translation of Einar Olafur Sveinsson’s book, originally published in Icelandic in 1940
Introduction: An Icelandic old wives’ tale tells of a princess, Mjadveig Manadttir, who fled from her stepmother and found herself a refuge far from all human habitation some say at the tip of a peninsula out in the sea, some say in a hut in a forest which was so protected by magic that she was invisible to her persecutors. Her sanctuary is described in this little verse
There cuckoos sing
and herbs spring
and there the ram sheds his fleece.
Mjadveig’s name is not to be found in any church register, nor does any historical source tell us where she lived for this is a fairy-tale. Her father’s name (Mani, ‘Moon’) adds a mythical overtone, and her own name is peculiar to her and suggestive; a personal-name scholar has speculated that she was originally some kind of fertility goddess. She is seen there, walking in golden shoes in this Icelandic fairy paradise, the spring sun shines on the dew on the green plants that grow in this place of peace, cuckoos with human intelligence sit in the birches and rowans, and the ram sheds its fleece four times a year and changes colour each season. There is all that she could want, and she is well content, in spite of her solitude. Each day is more beautiful than the last, but behind it all is an impenetrable curtain which she has no wish to have drawn back. And her refuge is surrounded by menace, for it is not far to the world of men. Behind the peninsula are cliffs and narrow paths, and it is a good thing that no one can find the way without the aid of the fine ball of thread which her mother had given her. Inland from the cliffs are dark forests. She had got lost there, and would have fared worse if her mother had not come to her in a dream and given her what she needed. Beyond the forest she sees in her mind the troll- like figure of her stepmother, the ogress, who had put on a queen’s shape, tricked the king into marrying her, and laid these heavy trials on her. This stepmother must not get angry, for then her human shape got too tight, and she was transformed into a most horrible hag. In time she would eat up all the king’s people and kill him too.
The story is not without complexity, but each component is simple and unified, each personality is consistent (only King Mani’s is split), and this is revealed by events; impulse leads directly to action. The ideas of the story are found in the plot itself, not in description or stylistic adornments. Incidental details are included only if they are necessary to the story; it is this reduction to essentials that lends the story its strength. And without any long description each of the basic elements is clearly impressed on the mind’s eye.
This internal consistency is the strength of the story; it is whole cloth from beginning to end. But there are many other things to note as well. The story is timeless and unlocalised, so that for the listener it takes place at all times and places as well as here and now. It is wrought out of the depths of human life, but lifted above the everyday level by its exaggerations and supernatural subject-matter—it is as if the ideas break reality’s unnatural bounds. It has some of the characteristics of a myth which is set in the morning of time but still fresh and valid every day. Truly, the story is a myth created by ordinary people, by women and children, and on it the light of hall or castle has never shone—it is a folk-story. But, like other folk-stories, it possesses something of the primeval power, the fecundity and imaginative wealth of myth; such stories were invented at a time when Greek mythology was exhausted and Christian ‘mythology’ had become remote, north of the Alps at least, and they were given a warm welcome by ordinary people, and poets and artists found in them a new and inexhaustible mine of materials for their creativity