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Northern Lights, Northern Words

Alan Davey

Controller, BBC Radio 3

Radio 3 Controller Alan Davey looks ahead to three weeks of in-depth programming in the Northern Lights season, and explains how the Icelandic sagas have come to dominate so much of Northern thinking and culture.

This weekend Radio 3 begins its celebrations of the culture of Northern countries, places which spend the winter months in darkness (compensated by long summer nights).  This is triggered by the anniversary of the birth of Sibelius, Finland's best known composer, and a composer who is played a lot on Radio 3 and by the BBC Performing Groups. 

But instead of just concentrating on Sibelius, we decided to look at artistic responses to 'the North' in many different ways, and to examine what 'the North' means in human imagination.  As a triangulation point to this line of thought we are broadcasting on Sunday at 11.30pm a 'contrapuntal documentary' made by pianist Glenn Gould for CBC in 1967, called 'The Idea of North'. 


Glenn Gould

My own fascination with the extreme North began when at university and I discovered the great Sagas of Iceland.  Iceland is a nation with a great literary heritage which literally is based in the soil. From around the 10th century are the great Poetic Eddas: mythological poems that tell of the Gods - Oðin, Loki and so on - the mythology of which was brought together by a priest in 12th century Iceland called Snorri Sturlusson. Then there are the Scaldic poems - complex and compact works that use mythological images to convey emotion and thought - the medieval poet Egil Skallagrimsson uses this style in his great poem Sonnatorrek on the death of his son.

But the Sagas are different.  Laconic in style, they tell of people who lived in real places, and who quarrelled and feuded and killed one another for reasons that might be personal, legal or to do with relationships - always rooted in real places in Iceland you can visit today. The greatest of these sagas is Njals Saga - the story of a good man who tries to maintain his moral centre in a world where others kill and feud, which ends with he and his wife being burned alive in their farmhouse. But read the text and there is no emotion, only understatement, with the story told clearly and unflinchingly. My favourite is Laxdæla Saga, a story which revolves around strong women and fighting men - the two main characters, Kjartan, every inch the blonde warrior who is killed due to some complicated machinations around the magnificent Guðrun, who, when as a matriarch looking back on her life comments to her son 'Þeim var ek verst, er ek unna mest' - 'I was worst to the one I loved the most'. That's it in terms of summing up the emotions - a whole world of pain and life of regret is summarised in that one sentence. 

A page from the Icelandic sagas

As a student I ended up editing a saga called Gautreks Saga, a later work that combines the supposed history in Sweden of a community who are so poor that the eldest commit suicide every time a guest arrives - reflecting ancient traditions of hospitality, with a story of a man who gets on by being generous and giving gifts.

And these brilliant stories are told in one of the most beautiful languages in the word, Icelandic.  The old language is still recognisably the language people speak in Iceland today.  It is a Scandinavian language with an earthy, animated burr to it.  If you want to hear it, listen to Icelandic musician Ásgeir's album Ðyrð í Dauðaþögn (literally 'Glory in the silence of death').  An English language version was made with the words translated by John Grant called in the Silence.  You can hear the beauty of the language, and in the words, written by his 70-year-old father, you sense a link back to the great Icelandic Viking literary tradition, as in the song Hlòða Nótt (with a hard to translate first line of the last chorus)

Sum var gott en annað fylgi með
Reisir sverð og skjöld

(Some was good and wrapped with the other [ie bad]
Raise your sword and shield).

This is one aspect of the culture of the North.  In 'Northern Lights' we'll be exploring the culture of many Northern countries, from Inuit singer Tanya Tagaq's music for the 1922 documentary Nanook of the North next Friday, to Sibelius's great Finnish epic, Kullervo - hope you'll join us on Radio 3 to explore Northern Culture of all kinds, through December.  


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