Skagafjordur, AND A STEP BEYOND

by Haraldur Bessason


The present article attempts to show how, in one of his major poems, the first part of which recounts the geological history of his native district in Iceland, Stephan G. Stephansson draws on Norse or Icelandic mythology to give his theme a universal scope and reveal a parallel between the creative work of divine forces and the art of poetry. In a broad sense, the theme of the poem encompasses man's struggle with his environment, reflecting at the same time that, in combination, the resistance to" inimical forces and a forward move against obstacles generate a creative force or power. Toward the end of the poem, Stephansson becomes himself a part of its mythology by taking "a step beyond" a traditional mythological pattern. In terms of literary criticism, his move can be interpreted as one of personal commitment and as an attainment of a night level of sophistication.

Le présent article tente de montrer comment, dans un de ses poèmes d'importance majeure dont la première partie raconte l'histoire géologique de son district natal en Islande, Stephan G. Stephansson s'appuie sur la mythologie norvégienne ou islandaise pour donner à son thème une portée universelle et révéler un parallèle entre le travail créateur des forces divines et l'art de la poésie. Dans un sens large, le thème du poème comprend la lutte de l'homme avec son environnement, reflétant en même temps qu'en combinaison, une résistance aux forces hostiles et un mouvement en avant contre les obstacles, créent une force ou une puissance créatrice. Vers la fin du poème, Stephansson devient lui-même une partie de sa mythologie en faisant un AEpas au-delà0 de la conception mythologique traditionnelle. Exprimé en critique littéraire, son mouvement peut être inteiprété comme étant un engagement personnel et l'atteinte d'un haut niveau de raffinement.

In 1899, Stephan G. Stephansson wrote a poem about his native district in northern Iceland under the title "Skagafjördur," which is also the name of the district. The first part of this poem recounts the geological history of the area and has the form of a creation myth in which three divine beings play the central roles. The poet gives a clear description of boundary lines and other features of landscape such as mountain ridges and a coastline adorned with columnar basalt. The creative forces form a triad consisting of Frosti the Cold , the sea-god AEgir, who also goes by the name Hler, and the heavenly body Sun (Sol). The first two perform their work on land and on the sea and proceed in complete harmony. The Sun is the third creative force, whose name the poet has elevated from the category of common nouns to the level of proper nouns and to whom he has given the highest rank in the triadic hierarchy to oversee the work in progress. "This fjord and district are the pride of all creation," the Sun remarks when the three gods have completed their task, and then continues to shed his light on the ground "to make the grass grow."

The formative history of landscape and geological features in northern Iceland amply justifies the idea that among the divine forces responsible for that history there should be one called Frosti. Indeed, he is, in Stephan G. Stephansson's poem, reminiscent of the members of a legendary royal family in Norway described in a medieval Icelandic text under the title "How Norway Was Settled." The members of that particular family have obviously originated as personifications of a northern environment, bearing names commonly used to denote snow and other features of a cold climate. In both instances an attempt is made to introduce at least in part a new divine force and bring it into harmony with the immediate environmental conditions.

Frosti's name in Stephansson's poem "Skagafjördur," is not only entirely logical in its context but may also suggest a line of demarcation defining a Nordic territory in the poet's mind. This boundary-line one might then move outwards with the sea-god AEgir, whose traditional authority may have extended further afield than that of Frosti. Yet the Sun is the supreme power. In a sense he calls to mind the realm of the god Odinn, but he also has the voice of the God of the Christians who, at the beginning of time, was quite pleased with his newly created universe. Having thus stretched the mythological overlays to their utmost, one may state that, on the level of art, the poet has endowed his native district with universal features.

In the first part of the poem, one finds natural descriptions or nature images which are sustained throughout. The district of Skagafjördur, receives a certain number of place names and topographical names known from its history. Here the poet finds himself at home and is one with the environment. In "Skagafjördur," the gods Frosti and AEigir or Hler are presented as craftsmen, the latter of whom does his work "with skilled hand." These two conduct themselves very much like humans, calling to mind their better-known colleagues who in the 10th-century poem "Voluspa" (The Sibyl's Prophecy) use the work methods of mortal men as they perform their creative task. Indeed the two poems in question make it quite clear that the entire task of creation is designed to benefit humans.

The second part of the poem describes the coming of spring, which, in the mythical hierarchy adopted by the poet, is assigned a niche below that of the first part.8 The divine forces have vacated the scene. Instead, an idyllic environment with children and animals at play unfolds. One's attention is directed to natural images and personifications of natural phenomena, with neither of these types possessing the powers of supernatural forces or divinities. To be sure, the sun is seen fording the bay of Skagafjördur, but he is not the same sun as in the first or introductory part of the poem, not a heavenly body dignified by the poet with a capitalized proper noun, but only a personification of an environmental feature to which the poet assigns a common noun. Yet the parallel between the two is quite clear. In short, one may say that the sphere of action has made its descent from the divine plane to the realm of mortals where, in the words of the poet, "one half is flesh and blood."

The third part of the poem shows the continuing healing powers which first arrived with spring, while the fourth part focuses on the winter season. To paraphrase a line from the poet, "the forces of death make it necessary to take defensive measures." The vehemence of winter storms is personalized and viewed from a lower plane which may be said to parallel the divine Frosti. Even though the fury of winter is not elevated to the level of a divine force, it is powerful enough to bring about the loss of human lives. Thus the poem reveals a considerable tension between the balmy weather of spring and the unrelenting storms of winter, a conflict between life-sustaining and life-threatening forces which are noticeably absent in the first part of the poem, where Sun and Frosti are seen working in close cooperation. Yet the latter has, as is indeed implicit in his name, some chilly air about him in the first part of the poem when the poet gives him the nickname "the Cold" and points out that the chisels which he applies to the mountain ridges are made of ice. This suggests that, in accordance with the mythological hierarchy to which the poet has adapted his material, the highest plane is not only occupied by gods or benevolent divine forces but also by giants who in Old Norse mythology are the arch-enemies of the gods and the representatives of the forces of destruction.

In the fifth part of the poem, the circle of the four seasons is completed with the return of spring, at which point the poet wonders where "the sunny days of spring" get their courage "to liberate mountain side and pasture"" from the bondage of winter. In his opinion, the breezes of spring stem from the same source of power as the art of poetry. These breezes strike the chords of the musical instruments of the young gods of poetry, a designation Stephansson uses for the younger generation of Icelandic poets. (In the original he uses the plural form "Bragar," the singular form "Bragi" denoting a god of poetry in Icelandic or Old Norse mythology.)12 Not only is all this an affirmation of common origins, it also implies a divine position for poets and their art.

In the sixth and final part of the "Skagafjördur" poem, the poet addresses the district of his birth from where he claims to have derived inspiration and strength for his best poems. He then expresses the hope that, at the time of his own death, he will be able to enter one of its mountains in the same way as some of the ninth- and early tenth-century pre-Christian settlers of Iceland were supposed to have done according to medieval literary sources. Yet Stephansson does not, as his remote forebears seem to have done, content himself with the idea of eternal joy in a dwelling deep inside a mountain. Rather, he augments an ancient hope of a joyous and comfortable hereafter with the wish to be allowed, at some future time, to return from his mountain to the world of the living "younger, bigger and renewed (or shaped anew)." One has here an important instance in which Stephansson himself takes a step beyond the traditional sphere or confines of a well-known mythological pattern to emphasize his involvement with a certain concept or idea important to his contemporary world of actuality. Perhaps one should describe this redesigned pattern as the channel which the poet believed could most effectively convey the ideas which, in his own estimation, had an important and everlasting universal value.

At a quick glance, "creation and evolution" would appear to be an appropriate definition of the main theme of the poem. Yet this will only suffice as a tentative hypothesis. A further examination of thematic content broadens one's understanding of the poet's own views on this matter, which he expresses at a deeper level of meaning. Stephansson, while he does not altogether disregard the function of narrative continuity, first and foremost has a theme to illustrate. In the present context, therefore, any definition of a theme would have to depend on a plausible analysis of his imagery, or to put it differently, his thematic illustrations. It may be stated, incidentally, that the analytical method suggested here is likely to deepen the critic's understanding of a number of other major poems by Stephansson.

It seems that the poem "Skagafjördur," is addressed mainly to a poet. The repeated question, "Poet, did you ever visit Skagafjördur?" is, in a free rendering, the poem's refrain. As has already been said or implied, in his poem Stephansson places the poetic art on the level of the divine and uses, accordingly, the designation "gods of poetry"16 (Bragar) for young Icelandic poets. Their power and strength, he says, they derive from earth itself. "The growth of the soil and a maturing nation" 17 will bring them a steadily improving material to work with, and the evolution of the physical environment and the progress of the art of poetry go hand in hand so as to make the two indivisible, even though the latter gets its strength from the former. This kind of conceptual union is quite clear not only in the poem under observation but in a large number of Stephansson's other poems. What remains to be emphasized is that he often uses the kind of mythological patterns described earlier not only to achieve the union of poem and environment but to give the text greater force and universal application.

Having considered these points, one may return to the definition of the main theme of the poem which, earlier in this paper, was tentatively associated with creation and evolution, two closely related concepts which now require further analysis. What is being created and how does this evolution manifest itself? In an attempt to answer this question, it is necessary to return to the first part of the poem, in which three separate gods have occupied themselves with the task of creating or rather reshaping the physical environment of "Skagafjördur." This divine triad inevitably reminds one, as noted earlier, of the supreme god Odinn and his two brothers who, in the Old Icelandic mythological poem, "The Sibyl's Prophecy," appear to have taken on the responsibility of re-arranging parts of the universe. 18 In primeval times, they lift the earth out of the ocean, which means that, from the beginning, they have had material to work with and are therefore spared the awesome difficulty of having to work in a vacuum with nothing in their hands. Should someone find this comparison of parallel mythological concepts unnecessary and unconvincing, their explicatory function may be brought into a sharper focus through a careful reading of Stephansson's own text coupled with a reference to the well-known theory of three basic elements which some scholars believe to have ancient roots in an almost universal poetic tradition.

In Stephansson's poem "Skagafjördur," the divine king Frosti "forms rows of basalt columns along the coastline," if one is permitted to use an Icelandicized phrase. What is important is that, in the present context, the Icelandic word for 'columns' is 'studlar', which also means 'props' or 'pillars' of a building or structure, and is also used figuratively to denote the alliteration of poetry, the structural element which, according to the thirteenth century Icelandic writer and scholar Snorri Sturluson, "dominates the recitation of a poem." Having discovered this deeper but nevertheless obvious association between 'columns,' 'props,' 'pillars,' and 'alliteration,' one realizes that not only is the divine Frosti a skilled craftsman who knows how to wield his tools of ice and give shape to coastline and mountain, but a poet who will alliterate with precision. Frosti, as was mentioned earlier, performs his task in close co-operation with the sea-god AEgir, whose movements are a bit more delicate as he engages in a finely regulated, lightly flowing ballet on the beaches of Skagafjördur. One also notices, of course, that his dancing is in complete harmony with Frosti's alliterative beat and the Sun's sonorous voice. All this may then be a reflection of the previously mentioned three basic elements of poetry which scholars claim to have found both in remote antiquity and at the deepest level of the human psyche. In Danish it has become customary to use the denotations "dancing, music, and poetry" for these three elements, in which case "poetry" refers to the text of the poem. In English, as is well known, "orchestral rhythm" has been deemed sufficient as a combinatorial designation of the phenomena at hand.

The names of the divine powers, Frosti, AEgir, and Sun (Sol), are metonyms, i.e., proper nouns or personal names derived from natural phenomena. If each of the three were assigned a number of names, metaphors would be a more appropriate usage. To give an example, Odinn, the chief of the Norse pantheon, went by almost 200 different names. Accordingly, a large portion of that versatile god's being must belong to the category of metaphors.

Attempts have been made to chart the development from the metaphorical level to the phase of metonyms. Yet the distinction between the two catogories is rather blurred. In Stephansson's poem, for example, the sea-god goes by two different names and is, as a result, slightly metaphorical. As was noted at the beginning of this paper, Stephansson himself makes it quite clear that he has assigned the sun two different levels in his mythological hierarchy. On the plane of metonyms, this heavenly body functions as a divinity, whereas, on the metaphorical level, it is merely the personification of an environmental feature. In this poem, albeit on a lower level of its mythical structure, the three gods, Frosti, AEgir, and Sun, are reflected in a variety of metaphors or personifications which complement the divine forces themselves and contribute to the vitality of a living environment. All these surroundings, despite their diachronic expanses, gradually unfold as a simultaneous whole in constant motion.

The imagery in Stephansson's "Skagafjördur" is of course the work of gods and poets, the two indistinguishable groups of creators. His views on the origins of poetry harmonize with those repeatedly expressed in the Old Icelandic mythological literature according to which the supreme god Odinn was the one who bestowed the gift of poetry on mortals by granting them the privilege of having one drink of his Poetic Mead. This drink was not an ordinary one. Not only did it grant its recipient the skill to compose poetry, in an indirect sense, it also made him immortal.

Towards the end of his poem Stephansson makes a qualitative statement about the power of his own poetry whereby he joins the rank of the poets. Within the context of his "Skagafjördur," he therefore appears to have elevated himself to the category of a divine being, which might prompt someone to ask whether his declaration does not imply a considerable lack of modesty. In an attempt to answer this question, it is necessary to refer to Stephansson's own and previously described amendment to the traditional mythological pattern which, towards the close of his poem, reveals itself in his hope to be able to return to life on earth "younger, bigger and shaped anew" from the mountain he wishes to enter at the time of his death. This return from the mountain is not only the poet's own amendment but also "his step beyond" the confines of the world of actuality into the realm of myth in which he himself then becomes, potentially at least, an active participant. Then, to complete the answer to the previously implied question about Stephansson's modesty or lack thereof, one may simply state that anyone who, at the time of his own death, manages to enter one of the mountains in the district of Skagafjördur and, subsequently, make his return from there must be qualified to join hands with the divine forces.

Earlier in this paper, "creation and evolution" was suggested as a tentative designation of the theme of the "Skagafjördur" poem. Perhaps one can, at this stage, suggest that an essential part of its theme bears upon the nature of poetry, its function and relative position in human society.

In the "Skagafjördur" poem the road leads from the mundane to the sublime and is travelled under the guidance of divinities who are poets as well, and of poets who have been assigned to the rank of divinities. All of them have taken on the task of bringing shape or order to their immediate environment- of creating cosmos from chaos. Within their unshaped subject matter or material reside components which, without an appropriate counterbalance, are potentially destructive. Therefore, it is the prime obligation and function of both gods and poets not only to maintain this balance but to harness life-threatening energies for constructive purposes or, to give an example, to keep Frosti's nose to the grindstone. After all, he belongs to the same family as the personified "fury of winter storms" and is, in all probability, a relative of the "hoarfrost giants" of Old Norse mythology. Yet, in the Skagafjördur poem, his role is decisively a constructive one.

By implication, the text of the poem justifies the assumption that, in combination, both resistance to inimical forces and a forward move against obstacles generate a creative force or power. The divine Sun, who uses his healing power to make the grass grow on the ground, also provides what one might call "a life-sustaining power." Nevertheless, this latter source of energy, although it apparently aligns itself with cosmos, indirectly draws on the former which has resistance and the conquest of obstacles as its foundation. These, then, are the conceptual basic elements of the creative powers which give shape to poetry and the physical environment in Stephansson's poem. All this, of course, reinforces the impression that the environment is poetry and, conversely, that poetry is the environment. At the same time, it is a reiteration of the previously defined divine status of poets.

When Stephansson, in his "Skagafjördur" poem, becomes himself a part of its mythology, he takes, as was said earlier, a "step beyond" a traditional mythological pattern. In terms of literary criticism, his move can be interpreted simultaneously as one of personal commitment and as an attainment of a high level of sophistication.

A student of Stephan G. Stephansson's poetry will immediately realize that mythological literature was to him a constant source of inspiration. His "Skagafjördur" has been selected here to demonstrate that, in his early career as a major Icelandic poet, Stephansson was granted the privilege of having a drink of Odinn's Poetic Mead which, as is commonly known, bestowed on anyone thus privileged not only the gift of poetry but a share in life eternal as well. Although Stephan G. Stephansson shared the fate of other Icelandic immigrants to this continent by failing to escape mortality, one may nevertheless conclude that, within the context of Icelandic or even North American-Icelandic history and literature, he achieved his own immortality in the end.


I wish to acknowledge useful suggestions and help from Dr. Robert J. Glendinning and Dr. Kristjän Kristjänsson.

Canadian Ethnic Studies.

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