Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

U of M strengthens historic bond

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The subject of Icelandic language, literature and culture is taught in more than 100 universities worldwide. Of all the programs and centres of study and research, however, only one department of Icelandic language and literature exists outside of Iceland. Thanks to a group of Icelandic 19th-century immigrants and their descendants, the department's home is Winnipeg and fostered by the University of Manitoba. Encouraged by the continuous support of the Icelandic community across North America, and the old country's equally generous mindset, the department's task is to pursue and promote in North America a cultural heritage that crosses centuries, oceans and continents.

For those hunting after the origins of Icelandic culture, medieval Iceland becomes an unavoidable destination. In fact, it was Europe's smallest and most isolated nation that -- in the 12th and 13th centuries -- pursued and preserved the cultural heritage of Scandinavia at large. The results can be measured in the most significant sources available on Norse mythology -- namely, the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda -- along with several other important texts, including The Book of Settlements. The sagas of kings, saints, and bishops, which constitute no small collection in themselves, have not failed to impress. The same holds true of the so-called contemporary sagas, these reality-bites of Iceland's 13th century epic power struggle. On top of all of this, a group of anonymous writers reinforced this already solid foundation in committing to vellum Europe's first novels, the Sagas of Icelanders. Widely considered a unique literary genre within the context of world literature, the fictional sagas tell of the lives of the settlers and their descendants during the Age of Settlement (ca. 870-930) straight into the rise and fall of The Icelandic Commonwealth (ca. 930-1262).

People do wonder how the smallest and most isolated nation in Europe became the storehouse and creative centre of northern culture. Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), the politician, lawspeaker, mythographer, historian and poet, may, in part, be held responsible. Considered one of the most important interpreters of medieval European culture and society, his Edda is a brimming source on the art of poetry that had been dying out in the newly Christianized Europe. Simultaneously, when approaching the Norse Olympus, Snorri's Prose Edda provides us with an earthbound sense of a mythic legacy." His key source, the poem Vluspá (The Seeresse's Prophecy), is the most sacred text originating from Northern paganism. Preserved in the 13th-century Codex Regius manuscript, (also known as the Poetic Edda), the poem reveals -- with its shattering description of the beginning and the end of the world -- the enigmatic remains of a pre-Christian world view.

By the sheer force of a poetic-mythic legacy, it seems, a certain cultural passage into the world had been created. In turn, the bridge leading from Iceland can be perceived as it crosses centuries, oceans and continents. This is not intended to suggest that the story of the Icelandic cultural heritage is a story of an unbroken victory march. What is sometimes referred to as "Iceland's golden age" did come to an end. Furthermore, during Iceland's long and, at times, bleak history, the country's inhabitants have experienced several major episodes of not only natural, but also man-made disasters.

And how does the Icelandic cultural heritage cross over into the global region? Given the widespread zeitgeist, it should not have come as a surprise to witness the players of the brazen, globalized game of easy profit try to capitalize on Iceland's real treasures; its culture. But what if a self-gratifying utilization of a cultural heritage tends to unveil a startling ignorance of what culture is made of? This much is certain: The glorification of the fearless medieval Icelandic hero, which was meant to add spice to the not so wholesome recipe of Icelandic businessmen and their associates, turns out to be a slippery subject. The Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness was no stranger to the profundity of the subject in question, he who received the Nobel Prize Award in literature in 1955 for revitalizing an epic literary tradition. In his satirical novel Gerpla, which draws on two medieval Icelandic sagas and was written not long after the Second World War, two Icelandic heroes enter the world's stage. And what is it that unfolds? The more fearless the heroes become on the ever demanding battlefield, the greater their blindness towards the limits of their cause.

As is the case with the renowned vnarterta (the Vienna-cake), which the Icelandic immigrants ferried over the Atlantic Ocean in the late 19th century, the Icelandic cultural heritage is an immensely rich and multi-layered challenge. All the more reason to embrace the visionary spirit of the same group of immigrants and their descendants, resulting in the establishment of the only Icelandic department that exists outside of Iceland. In response to the immense challenge, the department offers courses in medieval and modern Icelandic language and literature, Icelandic-Canadian literature, the poetics of immigration, the translation of cultures, the history of Icelandic music, and folktales. During the last few years, the department has also offered the Icelandic Field School, a summer course held in Iceland, and a course titled Film Enchante, which is taught by Guy Maddin, the University of Manitoba's Distinguished Filmmaker in Residence. Such is the scope of a certain cultural passage in the world that crosses centuries, oceans and continents.

Birna Bjarnadóttir is the head and chair of Icelandic studies at the University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 J11

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