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Gunnlöth's Tale

Gunnlöth's Tale
Svava Jakobsdóttir
Norvik Press
English translations

The novel Gunnlaðarsaga, translated to English by Oliver Watts.

Publisher: Norvik Press.

About the book:

This spirited and at times sinister novel ensnares the reader in a tangled encounter between modern-day Scandinavia and the ancient world of myth. In the 1980s, a hardworking Icelandic businesswoman and her teenage daughter Dís, who has been arrested for apparently committing a strange and senseless robbery, are unwittingly drawn into a ritual-bound world of goddesses, sacrificial priests, golden thrones, clashing crags and kings-in-waiting. It is said that Gunnlöth was seduced by Odin so he could win the ‘mead‘ of poetry from her, but is that really true, and why was Dís summoned to their world?


The boundaries dissolve and the parallels between Gunnlöth’s circle and the strange company into which Dís’s mother is drawn as she fights to clear Dís’s name grow ever closer. The earth-cherishing goddess seems set on a collision course with strategic thinker Odin who has discovered that iron can be extracted from the marshes where she resides, and environmental disaster also looms in the modern context, brought into sharp focus by a shocking world event.


At the same time the novel is a moving, under-the-skin portrait of a mother in crisis, cast into a maelstrom of conflicting emotions by seeing her daughter under arrest and in prison. Dís’s father has refused to get involved, claiming he is too busy. Her mother is left to tussle with lawyers and fight to clear Dís’s name. She goes to Copenhagen in order to be near the prison where Dís is on remand. The couple’s business ambitions for a government contract will be in shreds if the prosecution accuses Dís of involvement with a terrorist group, but on the other hand, how can any mother willingly pursue the option of agreeing that her own daughter is mentally ill? Particularly when she has followed Dís into the depths of legend in her quest for the truth?

From the book:

I felt for Gunnlöth so much. Her hand was speaking out of such an exposed loneliness that I had no other choice. Gunnlöth was asking me for something that she couldn´t say out loud. She was begging me to understand something or to do something which she couldn´t put into words. And this was so important … like an appeal which ha dlaid claim to her spirit, and when I listened I heard anguish as if she had endured inexpressible suffering. Or had it still in store. Gunnlöth´s suffering gave me strength.

It got a bit brighter as I held my hand out ot Gunnlöth. Not much. But enough that I saw to my astonishment that there was a dark-clad creature hidden behind Gunnlöth. This world seemed full of shadows. But this one stood still, so deadly still that at first sight she seemed carved out of stone. A statue of a woman. She wore a wide black robe which hid her completely and a hood which was pulled forwards over her brow. And although she stood so still and not a fold of clothes stirred, her posture betrayed no stillness, no peace. It was as if the air around her was throbbing. She was small and stooped and stretched her chin forwards to follow what we were doing. She was so full of fervour that she seemed about to burst out of the stone. To try and come to life. Make the stone speak. She didn´t open her mouth, but the face, which was more ancient than any face I´ve ever seen before, was scored by deep wrinkles which looked like letters. The lines criss-crossed. As if the sculptor had carved words there which you should have been able to read, if he hadn´t continually written new words on top of the old ones. As if everything he knew – or she knew … as if a place needed to be found for the whole world´s knowledge in this single face.

I couldn´t take my eyes of her. And I wondered whether Gunnlöth was aware of her. Or was she going to ignore her like she did the furtive shadowy creature in the hat?

But Gunnlöth was aware of her. She looked at her and there was such a strange expression on Gunnlöth´s face where love and tenderness and inquisitiveness played, and even uncertainty tinged with fear. Then she nodded, unnoticeably almost. As if she could read something in the face.

And the eyes of this stone-struck hood-woman came to life. They were like a vixen´s as they shot from one to the other of us. Then she stared at me so fizedly that the hood trembled. No doubt about it. She was sending me some message so strong that it was as if I´d become paralysed, and embers were smouldering in her eyes which would turn into tongues of flame in a second if I didn´t do as she wanted. It was from her that the will flowed. Locked in stone but alive. I shuddered at the terrible power of this will should it burst out of the stone. And she was so clever with spells that I felt she was sending me this will, making me will something. I
was supposed to will something. And Gunnlöth held my hand tight and started to pull on it. They wanted to show me something.

After that I had no choice. Even if I´d tried to turn back, this stone-struck hood-woman would have bent my will in this one direction … onwards, without me being able to do a thing about it.

I awaited what was to come like a person condemned to death.

Where was I being taken?

(pp. 42-44)

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