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We would visit the old river valley again,
Seam of silver below black mountains,
our dream of a time
when people lived simply,
at peace with the landscape,
walking and working there.
In the dark of winter, in the festival of light,
Even the old women wore crowns
Flaming like flowers. .
At night, at dusk when the light fails and the fire is low.
we long to travel there.
Yuletide stripped of our disappointment, our city sophistication.
And yet… if the stories are true,
There lives also Gryla, rarely seen.
Screaming down from her cave
above the icy mists.
Flying high out of the smoke and fire,
Flying high over the lava fields,
Comes Gryla, in the shape of an eagle,
From her eyrie in the mountains
She strikes down to the little towns in the river valley
Consumed with a hunger she knows not, assuaged by nothing except…
Scolded, the children stand by the fire,
round eyed at the tale,
Slap still stinging on their bare legs.
Gryla, Gryla, Gryla
Oh then comes Gryla
Gorging on their innocent delicacy.
Wikipedia tells us that Grýla was not directly linked to Christmas until the 17th century and that her name may mean “threat” or “threatening”. In the folktales, Gryla can detect children who are misbehaving year-round and at Christmas time, she comes down from the mountains to search nearby towns and devour naughty children for whom she has an insatiable appetite. The legends comment that there is never a shortage of food for Gryla.
My route to Gryla, whom I did not know before, was a thought-journey to the North – via Radio 3 Northern Lights themed programmes which also took me to Tanya Tagaq’s extraordinary voice and the soundtrack to Nanook of the North, which brilliantly evoked the strangeness and vastness of the inuit landscape.
But also to another soundtrack – composed by Valgeir Sigurdsson – called Draumalandith. Written post the Icelandic financial collapse, it is a critical and creative response to a sense that everything was going wrong in modern society. In the sleeve notes to the CD, Andri Snaer Magnason writes:
“The book Dreamland was written during a time in Icelandic society when dissidents gained power in the fields of privatisation, energy and foreign affairs. The revolution was a quiet one, a ‘peaceful’ one, and many considered it to be sensible and furthermore, inevitable. …. When the world at large seemed to be moving towards new technology, new methods of communication and generally a more environmentally friendly mentality, the Icelandic government decided to invite companies and corporations of questionable reputation to come to Iceland, to take advantage of – and eventually destroy – manyh of the country’s most valuable resources.”
“Flying over the Fljotsdalur waterfalls that are no longer there, a solitary viola is our guide, and we can sense the threat…. We fly over the sand pyramids on Vatnajokull, in the direction of an area that is to be destroyed because of a short-term gold rush. The shrill brass tones resonate and contrast with the heavy, impenetrable silence. “
The first track – which I like so much – is called Grylukvaedi. I found a website that gave the Icelandic lyrics and used Google to translate them – with some very obvious failures to give acceptable English translations. The poem I am in the process of making is not a translation, therefore, but takes off from a very faulty translation, further very faultily interpreted by me, also, I am sure, before taking me off into my own thoughts. Partly about the wholesale destructiveness of humanity, it is also particularly about its manifestation not just in our wars and corporate ravishing of the land and its peoples, but also in what we are doing to perpetuate that when we frighten children with tales of being eaten by ogres if they don’t behave. A story that became attached to Yule, that precursor of Christmas. Our own modern version is that ‘Santa’ won’t bring any presents to naughty children (and many European Yule stories are anything but stories of generosity and love). And yet we maintain a perhaps idealised – fantasy-nostalgia of a simpler, more ‘natural’ past where people were happier – a Christmastime of family jollity and togetherness. But life was and is harsh for many if not most, and people were harsh in how they faced it, and taught, beforce, their children that harshness.
So to my mind, there was always Gryla, in even the most paradisal of imagined worlds. We conjure those ideal worlds – our Edens from which we know we have banished ourselves – as flowers of light in our darkness, desperately fragile, falteringly hopeful. Ever to be treasured and sheltered from the icy blasts.
And perhaps I am saying that Gryla is always part of us and part of what we are and what we fear – the ravening, destructive part of ourselves that pitilessly (but rationalised as necessary) brings childish innocence to an end. And in the music I heard our sorrow for our own part in destroying it, and our sorrow for its part in our own loss. Hardest of all to think about is the satisfaction we feel – Gryla’s lust in her cruelty; something that we do not easily allow ourselves to know – hence the ‘it’s for your own good’ excuses we make. Fracking is good for our economy, for example.
And, on another plane, Gryla is imagined as a woman – the dark fears of woman as an elemental force of destruction – the perversity of eating her own children, consuming the future and its resources – that stalks the deepest imaginations of humans all over the world. Life giver and life destroyer.