Vilborg Davíðsdóttir is one of my absolute favorite Icelandic authors. She writes historical novels, which I love, and so vividly that I instantly travel away from the present and into the past, in this case, to the cold coasts of Iceland in the early 15th century.
On the Cold Coasts (original title: Galdur, or “Sorcery”, 2000)—in the translation of another of my favorite writers, Alda Sigmundsdóttir—finally appeared in English earlier this year, in a Kindle edition thanks to Amazon Crossing.
In 1420, teenager Ragna (Ragnfríður in the original version) gives birth to a son out of wedlock, the result of an encounter with a shipwrecked Englishman. This brings an end to her upper class family’s plans to marry her off to Þorkell, a young man of equal estate.
Subject to condemnation from the church and community as a single mother, Ragna is no longer considered marriage material.
She is frustrated at her position in society when the new bishop in North Iceland, the half-English John Williamsson Craxton, offers to hire her as housekeeper at the bishopric Hólar and to educate her son. To her delight, her family agrees.
At Hólar Ragna’s and Þorkell’s paths cross again. After their engagement was broken off, he pursued theological studies and became a priest, serving as assistant to the new bishop.
Þorkell puts their reencounter down to destiny. Not all of his ambitions are particularly Christian and Ragna find that he has cast a spell on her.
Vilborg is known for carrying out extensive research before writing her historical novels, which are often based on real events and characters.
On the Cold Coasts reads like an authentic description of 15th century Iceland, a repressed Danish colony at the edge of the world. Trading in fish was undermined when the English and other nations sent their own vessels to fish off the country’s shores.
However, many a fisherman lost his life to the unpredictable weather. The storm would smash ships against rocks, tear them apart, scattering the timber, crew and cargo across beaches.
If possible, the survivors were nursed—sometimes resulting in love children—and the remains of the ship and cargo looted.
On the Cold Coasts is a love story in the backdrop of the culture clash and struggle with the English, the constraints of religion and etiquette and blind ambition, garnished with historical details and descriptions of the North Icelandic landscape.
The Icelandic settlement in Greenland is a side subject of the story, a subject on which Vilborg elaborates in her independent sequel Hrafninn (2005; “The Raven”), speculating what became of the settlement.
I thoroughly recommend On the Cold Coasts to all those interested in Icelandic history. To everyone else, the book may also prove a good read. Like Ragna, I found myself spellbound from the beginning to the end, longing to read more of her fate.
I’m hoping that On the Cold Coasts will prove popular enough for Vilborg’s other novels to be translated to English. It is available on Amazon.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir