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Svava Jakobsdóttir: Gunnladar saga (Gunnlöth’s Tale)

The narrator of this novel is an unnamed Icelandic woman. She and her husband have set up a successful engineering consulting business. He is the engineer while she provides the business and administrative skills. They have one daughter, Dis. Dis started causing problems for them when she became a teenager. This was the usual teenage behaviour, such as staying out late and even, occasionally, all night, not trying hard at school, though she was bright and so on. As far as they were aware, she did not do drugs. However, at the start of the novel, she has got into serious trouble. She had gone off to Copenhagen, with her boyfriend, Oli, against her parents’ wishes. Apparently, while there, she smashed a glass case in the Danish National Art Museum in Copenhagen and stole a valuable gold urn, associated with the Bog People. Her parents worry that she might have been on drugs, had some sort of mental breakdown, or even been associated with a terrorist group. Her mother has flown to Copenhagen – her husband refused to join her, as he claimed he was too busy at work – to deal with the matter. Dis has given a story to the Danish police which they find fantastical, and gives the same story to her mother, over a period of several visits, as visiting time is limited. Indeed, her account of the story lasts most of the book. In speaking with the lawyer, the mother finds that he has the same concerns as she does and wonders whether it might have been some sort of political statement or wonders if she had had any poltergeist experiences. Her mother denies this, saying Dis was never political and, anyway Icelanders do not do political statements and she knows nothing about poltergeists.

However, when she speaks to Dis, she gets a very different story. Dis had visited the museum, which is something that surprises her mother, as neither Dis nor her parents were inclined to visit museums. She had seen the Bog People exhibit and had felt very concerned about the preserved body of a young woman, feeling a sort of horror that her body was exposed in this way. There was a mirror associated with the exhibition and, on looking into it, Dis is surprised not to see her own face but the face of another woman. Suddenly, she realises that she, Dis, is in a tunnel, following this young woman into a cavern. The young woman tells her that she is Gunnlöth. The Danish police and lawyer ask her mother who Gunnlöth is and her mother can barely remember but has a vague idea. In the Icelandic sagas, Gunnlöth is the daughter of the giant Suttung, who possess the mead of poetry (anyone who drinks it immediately receives the gift of poetry). Odin seduces her and, as a result, she lets him drink the mead. This is her only appearance in the Icelandic sagas. Dis not only follows Gunnlöth, she gradually becomes Gunnlöth, following her into a cavern and then out onto a hill and to the woman’s house.

This story only comes out gradually. Meanwhile, the mother is in some distress. Her story is told as though she is recounting what happens to her husband but she is doing so in her own mind. She twice visits a tavern, which seems to have more women customers. On the second time, she breaks down and starts crying. The owner, Anna, is very comforting and, on hearing her tale, offers to let her stay in her own flat, which she does. Dis has had a psychiatric examination and the mother talks to the psychiatrist. Meanwhile, we are learning more about Gunnlöth. Jakobsdóttir essentially give us a feminist reading of the story, transforming Gunnlöth from the daughter of a giant to a priestess, and giving her a role in the regal succession. There are two versions of the story and we learn about the second one later. Gradually, the mother comes to see how this story, at first seemingly irrelevant, is very much pertinent to what her daughter did (and did not) do in the museum. Despite this, no-one believes either her or Dis. Then, just as we think we know where we are going the Chernobyl disaster strikes and everything changes.

Jakobsdóttir tells a very original story, with both a feminist and environmental sensibility and revisiting and reinterpreting her country’s sagas. The fantasy element may well put some people off and, indeed, I found it a bit drawn out, but it barely detracts from what is an interesting account of the relationship between the sexes (both as regards the mother and her husband and Dis and Oli) as well as environmental concerns. The story is very well told, with quite a surprising outcome and it is most gratifying that we have two of her works in English.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by Forlagiđ
First published in English 2011 by the Norvik Press
Translated by Oliver Watts