Stephanie Benger, Jennie Frost (hidden), Karen Gummo, and Laura O’Connor (left to right) going over section one, “Grettir is banished”
A national storytelling event is held each year in Canada, sponsored by The Storytellers of Canada/Conteurs du Canada.
This year, the hosts will be TALES, the Alberta League Encouraging Storytelling. The event will occur on May 5, 2012, and will include tellers from across the country – from Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Vancouver Island, as well as those from Alberta. Most are professional storytellers, but some are just starting out with telling stories, branching out from other daily work. The day will run from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and will take place at the Fensala Hall in Markerville, Alberta. The most exciting thing about this year’s event is that it will be a day-long telling of the Icelandic saga – Grettir’s Saga
In the past, TALES has focused on hosting workshops for storytellers, but this year they decided to take a big step away and hold an Epic weekend, where one long story is shared by every story. They decided to delve into one particular culture. Why a saga? Karen Gummo, member of TALES and co-organizer for the event said, “I am Icelandic and am the ring-leader for this project, so I chose to take us deeply into Icelandic Saga.”
The choice of saga was more difficult than Karen had thought. Many were too long to tell during one day, and there were so many good stories that it was hard to pick. So, Karen consulted her former Icelandic teacher, Guðrún Jörundsdóttir. Guðrún suggested Grettir’s Saga because of the magic contained in it, and because she felt that many Icelanders relate strongly to Grettir as a symbol of their national character. He was a man who was both resilient and strong and survives for many years as an unprotected outlaw against all odds, until he meets his demise at the hands of an evil-doer. Karen especially liked the portion of the story where his death is avenged in far-away Constantinople. Like most sagas, Karen said that “the saga is spiced with verses of poetry that add mystery and beauty to it.”
The version of the saga which will be told is that translated by the late Bernard Scudder, who said of Grettir’s Saga: “We see in the character of Grettir a hero, an outlaw, the peasant society’s defence against outside threats, a picaresque rogue, a villain, an implied womanizer and a victim of fate whose only flaw is his fear of the dark.” Grettir’s Saga is based on the life of Grettir Ásmundarsson, who was from Bjarg in Miðfjörður. Travelling around the area in this day and age, the visitor will find many place names dedicated to Grettir, as well as a plaque designed by Icelandic artist Halldór Pétursson.
When storytellers are dispersed across large geo-graphic areas, practicing can be difficult. Some tellers are practicing on their own, going over and over their portion of the tale until they feel it is their own. Some are practicing in pairs, and some are even using modern technology, Skype, to bring an ancient saga to life. A group practice was held in the fall at the Fensala Hall. It will be the only full group practice until the weekend of the event, when there will be a chance to practice before the day.
Once the saga was chosen, Karen worked through it, dividing it up into portions that seemed appropriate for each teller. Some will tell in pairs, and others alone. In all, 17 storytellers will participate in the event. Although the saga will be told primarily in English, Auður Magnusdóttir may toss in some portions of Icelandic during the day. Auður is a storyteller from Iceland, who is visiting Canada for three years while her husband finishes his PhD at the University of Calgary. Karen says that Auður has been a true help with the pronunciation of people’s name and place names. Again, new technology helps ancient saga. Auður will be making a YouTube video of the pronunciations for all the tellers to easily access.
The event will be peppered with breaks during which there will be singing in Icelandic, and Icelandic dancing as well as two Icelandic meals, provided by the local Icelandic community. There will be pönnukökur, vínarterta, and flat bread. A lamb will be slaughtered in honour of the event, in true Viking style.
I asked Karen whether she actually liked Grettir’s Saga. Although the character himself was slow to be likeable, Karen came to admire him and to understand him. She found herself comparing modern-day society to Grettir’s struggles in life. The other thing Karen loves is “the parallels with other tales that she knows.” She loves the smaller stories within the bigger one, and most amazingly, she found similarities with a Yorkshire folktale that she heard from a British storyteller at a conference in Newfoundland. She wonders. Is it “more clues that the Vikings brought their stories with them when they travelled?”
Of course, I had to ask Karen what her favourite leisure reading books were. She has just finished reading Independent People by Halldór Laxness. She loves his poetic writing and the view he gives of life in Iceland during the time of the occupation by the Danes. She loves to read collections of folktales from all over the world for the wisdom she feels she gains from them. Historical fiction is also a favourite – The Trade by Fred Stenson, River Thieves by Michael Crummey, a Newfoundland author, The Tricking of Freya by Christina Sunley, The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone, and The Thrall’s Tale by Judith Lindbergh.
Karen’s mother, Helen Swainson’s family, is com-pletely Icelandic. The spelling of the name was changed in the 1930s. Her langafi Ofeigur Sigurdsson came from Svinavatn near Mosfell, and her langamma Astriður Tómasdóttir came from Kárastaðir near Laugarvatn, not far away from her future husband. On her mother’s other side, her langafi Svein Sveinsson’s mother Steinunn Jasonardóttir arrived on the S.S. Patrick in 1874, at the age of seven from the Sauðárkrókur area west of Akureyri. She went first to Kinmount, then New Iceland, and then North Dakota where she met her husband Jóhann Sveinsson. Jóhann had come from Egilsstaðir, Iceland, and most of his siblings settled in the Arnes area. Jóhann and and Steinunn already had had seven children when they left Mountain, North Dakota in 1900 and moved to the Burnt Lake district near Markerville.
The storytelling day is still evolving. Karen and her co-organizer Mary Hays welcome suggestions from storytellers who have been involved in epic storytelling before. Karen views the whole event as a journey – a journey from choice to reality in the old Fensala Hall in Markerville.