I first read Gunnlöth’s Tale (originally published as Gunnladarsaga in 1987) by Svava Jakobsdóttir (1930-2004) in junior college and remember being absolutely fascinated by it.
So when I heard the news that the book had appeared in English, I was excited to have the opportunity to read it again and see whether my fascination would remain.
In short, the answer is: absolutely.
First of all, Jakobsdóttir has mastered the art of writing in the Icelandic language which makes the narrative flow like poetry and change in style according to whose narrative it is and in what context it is set (although the abundance of exclamation marks bothered me). I cannot vouch for the translation. I imagine it must be a difficult one.
I especially liked the chapter where the main storyteller, a middle-aged upper-class Icelandic woman who is stranded in Copenhagen because her rebellious daughter was arrested there, is escorted by a character called “The Fish”, a regular at a sleazy pub, to the city’s underworld.
The description really makes you feel as if you’re being carried away with an ocean current, sinking to the ocean floor and gliding through underwater streets like a fish.
The story begins with the aforementioned woman writing a letter to her husband about her experience in Copenhagen and her feeble attempts to have their daughter freed without creating too much of a fuss, as it could potentially upset an important business deal for their company.
The letter format continues throughout the story but is regularly broken up by the daughter’s mythical account of the events leading up to her arrest. At first reality and myth is clearly separated but merge as the story progresses, as do some of the characters.
The daughter’s name is Dís, which is a common women’s name in Iceland, especially as a suffix, and means “nymph”.
Out of love she chases a troublemaker to Copenhagen and ends up getting caught holding an invaluable national treasure, a golden chalice, at the Danish National Museum; the glass case that contained it shattered to pieces.
Dís maintains her innocence, stating that she neither broke the glass case nor tried to steal the chalice but rather reclaim it.
She recites this crazy story seemingly inspired by Norse mythology about the chalice belonging to a priestess called Gunnlöth who Ódinn betrayed.
At first her mother tries to have Dís ruled mentally ill, also to avoid a prison sentence and speculation that she might belong to a group of political activists.
But as she digs deeper into the story through studying Norse mythology and her daughter’s account and her world begins to fall apart she starts to doubt her decision.
I love mythology, particularly Norse mythology, and to me Gunnlöth’s tale is the most fascinating part of the story.
Its fantasy elements draw parallels to personal favorites of mine, novels such as The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, She Who Remembers by Linda Lay Shuler and Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Childrenbooks.
In actual Norse mythology, Gunnlöth is not a gracious priestess serving an almighty goddess but a giantess who guards the mead of poetry inside a boulder called Hnitbjörg. She grants Ódinn, the highest of gods, three sips of the mead in exchange for sex.
Jakobsdóttir turns the story upside down, upsets the roles of men and women, changes gods into mortals and makes the evil good—a world where myth becomes reality.
While the mother’s story becomes slightly tiring at times and her emotions and actions perhaps a bit exaggerated at the beginning, Jakobsdóttir makes it up with a gripping fable and profound characters; especially Urdur, Gunnlöth’s mentor (one of the norns in Norse mythology), and Anna, the owner of the sleazy pub.
This story has many layers and I guess I have to read it one more time to discover them all. It’s about devotion, deception, compassion, breaking barriers, unlikely friendships and even includes the Chernobyl disaster.
Perhaps this story is mostly about feminism, though. As a politician, Jakobsdóttir fought actively for women’s rights.
Yet it is an aspect of the story which slips through the backdoor; you may not even notice it. While not to be taken too seriously, in changing perspectives, the story can teach you to look at things in a new light.
But Jakobsdóttir doesn’t try too hard, which is what I applaud the most, the book is primarily an entertaining read. It’s a prime example of belle-lettre, deep without being boring or pretentious.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir