Old Tales Cast Long Shadows
John Burnside is primarily a poet but his novel was the main focus during this event and Jon Kalman Stefansson is an Icelandic writer whose work has been translated into English. They were placed in an event together as they both work with the theme of myths and fables.
David Hahn, the chair, started by asking about the origins of their books. It was a question that had Stefansson sighing and explaining that he had been asked many times and could never quite find the right answer. His work on his latest book had begun after hearing a radio program about a rich Icelandic woman who lived during a time when women were essentially the property of their husband. Her wealth and power was viewed as a threat and so she was brought down. The story made him sad and it became part of the book. It seems a rather straightforward answer until Stefansson pauses and adds “kind of”, he’s clearly not yet happy with his explanation.
Burnside’s novel has come from a fascination with a story of a mogul who had a large empire and had the biggest library in the world at that time. He wondered how close the soul was to intellect and whether language was learnt or a part of the soul. Determined to find out he arranged for a group of children to be raised solely by guardians who were unable to speak, going to visit only once the children were three years old. Burnside became entranced by cases where children had been raised without language and this led to a novel filled with themes of claustrophobia and children deprived of language who create their own in song.
Discussion moved on to writing style and motivations and Stefansson spoke of an Icelandic genre where fiction and poetry are blended in a specific style. The idea is to take something from the real word and do something unpredictable with it in order to find a new world to build on. Every time he starts a new novel he wonders if he will find out if God exists or if there is life after death. He feels mythological tradition is particularly strong in Iceland and the pagan basis of many myths more obvious. The line between myth and reality is blurred and he grew up surrounded by stories of ghosts and life underground. This is unsurprising given the intensely active nature of Iceland’s environment, a theme that often appears in his work.
Burnside has a similar fascination with the pagan elements of mythology and feels the world would be better off if we reclaimed the respect for the earth and our bodies that occurs in pagan beliefs. He likes to try and take something transcendent and make it more realist, to give the strange figures of mythology an inner life and make them seem more human. He feels it is important to tell stories that remind us to respect the world around us. Then he jokingly wonders if the land for a golf course would not have been handed over to Donald Trump if we’d retained more of a respect for the sanctity of the natural world.
Stefansson also believes in the power stories can have as a form of protection. He says that many of the folk stories in Iceland are warnings. You find stories that warn against building in a certain place because someone tried in the past and found the ground unstable or that their home was in the patch of an avalanche. Mythology has a power and a resonance that sticks around to warn future generations. Stories are not just a fantasy; they are a tool that can be used to change the world.