All posts by Þorlákur Axel Jónsson

Jules Pretty, Sea Sagas of the North: Travels & Tales at Warming Waters (Stroud: Hawthorne Press, 2022)

I welcome this book, a keen Icelandic reader of the coastal culture and communities more or less connected here in the North Atlantic and the North Sea east to Öresund since the Viking Age. Besides the general public, students in teacher education, humanities, and social sciences could get inspired by the tales and the method. I can easily relate to the content of the book. We need to tell stories of the sea, old and new.

The book contains a dedication, contents, preface, maps, pictures, glossary, timeline, on spelling and pronunciation, on time, distances, weights and measures, comments on the text and stories, on the illustrations, acknowledgments, directions on a walk with the author, on the author, advertisements, and invitations to promotions by the author. The way the book reaches out to the reader is pleasing.

The author takes us on a journey through time that spans from the oldest epic poems to the present, built on a variety of sources. The most important texts are Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic medieval literature, of those the Norse Mythology on heathen gods the most important. The tales are of the interconnectedness of people in Iceland, eastern England, Shetland Islands, Norway, Faroe Islands, Denmark, and the now drowned Doggerland.   The author wants stories to make us think in a different way than we now do. The moral and political message of this book is that we can make decisions that save us from the scenario of destruction of nature and human societies that otherwise might wait. Past mistakes can be fateful, being in military command in medieval times, or negligence regarding the safety of fishermen in modern times. By dividing the great gifts of the earth more equally amongst us, and by respecting nature as we did in the times of Ægir and Rán, when nature and human society were one, we might turn the tide. We do have a choice, the Neolithic people we learn about who lived on and fled Doggerland did not.  The author works with the fact that after the innovation of technology that made it possible for the Norse to attack undefended monasteries on the coast of England, crossings were created that have been there ever since. I find that the author’s location of the invaders in Lofoten shows a high level of optimism about the technical possibilities of the 8th century for sailing a thousand nautical miles, and the long way upstream. The Limafjord in contemporary Denmark must be the most likely place they came from. How much or how little should the method of narrative tale let scientific implications interfere with a good story?

The peoples of the North were as much or as little connected with the rest of the world as all other nations were with their rest. Perhaps more, as sea voyages were safer travelling on roads until the New Age. The technology to travel the sea was expensive, but there are many mentions of Icelandic rulers on their way to and from Norway spending the winter in Shetland. English, German, Dutch, Basque, French, Norwegian, Belgian, and of course, Faroese sailors utilized the fishing banks around Iceland for over 500 years.

For some reason, an ancestor of mine, living on the now remote Langanes in the North-East, always had French jenever on offer, or so the story goes. Communication between foreign fishermen and, the local population may have decreased with the mechanization of fishing. The anger in one of the cod wars when Tjallinn (aka the Charlie), which was the Icelandic term for British trawlermen, rained broken locks, chain links and rotten vegetables on the crew on deck of a boat from my fishing village is memorable. They should have met them outside the ballroom!

The first Icelandic trawler was bought from Great Britain. Many words of English origin are still used on the deck of an Icelandic trawler, for example the fishing gear itself troll (trawl), and the excellent word spanni (crocodile spanner), which gracefully obeys all the inflections and grammatical rules of the Icelandic language (singular: spannispannaspannaspanna, plural: spannarspannaspönnumspanna). I do not find the word in the online version of a modern Icelandic dictionary, and on the online translation website the word is explained as a wrench, which the tool is not. Coastal culture does not necessarily have much space in the culture of a nation even though it, for long based its prosperity in large part, on the sea. But, when we sing/scream the national anthem (written in Edinburgh, 1873) at the start of national soccer matches, King Gilgamesh´s search for the eternal flower is there: “Eternity’s flow’r, with its homage of tears”.

The great poet Snorri Sturluson would not have minded being mixed with his namesake Snorri goði Þorgrímsson, “the wisest of those who were not prescient”, as in a tale based on the Saga of Burnt Njál. For those of us who are used to distinguish, between the contemporary stories of the 13th century and the dramatic works written about life in the first centuries of Iceland’s settlement, this is unfortunate. Still, it does not change the value of the narrative.

It is a pleasure to have a story told. Child slavery in England in the early 20th century is a surprising exposure. One will think of the glory days as a deckhand in high summer on a shrimp fishing boat far north of Iceland. Three on board; the captain, my father who was a schoolmaster in the winter and a sailor in the summer like any other half-and-half East Anglian, and a proud 16-year-old. There was no trawling at night and the teenager took the night shift but got to sleep until noon on the morning-towing instead. We worked maybe two hours at a time when the troll was taken, otherwise not much to do. You were not allowed to fall asleep during the night shift on the wheelhouse. The orange midnight sun coloring the sky, the sea, and the other shrimp boats. Buzzing on the radio, those on the other boats chatting. The transmitter reached foreign radio stations which helped to stay awake; Radio Luxembourg presents Status Quo playing Rockin’ all over the world!

U. Blossing, G. Imsen & L. Moos (eds.), The Nordic Education Model: ´A School for All´ Encounters Neo-Liberal Policy (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014)

This is a timely book on the clash between the Nordic welfare practice and the neo-liberal state experiment changing nations from welfare states to competitive states and their individuals from citizens to being part of a workforce, as Rasmussen and Moors put it. The book is an important contribution to the discussions of the changes being implemented in the countries which aimed at realising the ideals of democracy, social justice and prosperity by equality in education.

Continue reading U. Blossing, G. Imsen & L. Moos (eds.), The Nordic Education Model: ´A School for All´ Encounters Neo-Liberal Policy (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014)

Per Eliasson, KG Hammarlund, Erik Lund & Carsten Tage Nielson (eds.), Historie didatik i Norden: del 1, historiemetvetanda – historiebruk (Malmö & Halmstad: Malmö högskola and Högskolan i Halmstad, 2012)

The challenge is tackled in two volumes; “historiemetvetanda – historiebruk” [history usage] rewieved here;  and “historisk kunskap” [historical knowledge], in a separate volume, not covered here.

The authors constitute a group who have a background in history teaching and research in history teaching. They cover all three levels of schooling, from compulsory school through upper-secondary and university level.

Continue reading Per Eliasson, KG Hammarlund, Erik Lund & Carsten Tage Nielson (eds.), Historie didatik i Norden: del 1, historiemetvetanda – historiebruk (Malmö & Halmstad: Malmö högskola and Högskolan i Halmstad, 2012)

Páll Björnsson, Jón forseti allur? Táknmyndir þjóðhetju frá andláti til samtíðar (Reykjavík: Sögufélag, 2011)

When taking into consideration the warm reception the book has received, as well as the prestigious awards, one ponders upon whether the nation is relieved by the loss of its leading political patron? Or whether this acceptance unveils tolerance towards anyone who tries to tarnish the president’s image. Páll Björnsson deconstructs the very icon that was consciously constructed of Jón Sigurðsson for a political purpose.

The story begins in a society of inequality. The funeral procession in Reykjavík in the spring of 1880 when President Jón Sigurðsson (hereafter “President Jón”) and his wife Ingibjörg Einarsdóttir (1804 -1879) were reburied, was deliberately divided by class and gender. In the very farewell of the nation to President Jón, the occasion token was used for reproducing the existing social inequalities. Women were assigned a lower status in the celebrations to commemorate President Jón. Also, there was lack of consideration towards President Jón’s widow during the preparations for President Jón’s funeral in Copenhagen in December 1879, which was organised in such a way as to promote political consolidation. Páll Björnsson writes the book from a gender point of view, thus making it an uncomfortable reminder of the national patron’s lack of stand when it came to the one of the most controversial issues in political debate of the age.


Páll Björnsson analyses how the political icon of President Jón was cultivated by the new media (newspapers) by appealing to emotions, whereby sorrow was converted into national mourning, remembrance into national commemoration, and funerals into national festivities. This analysis is welcomed by the reader who interprets the political presence of President Jón in modern politics after his death as a key-factor in a nation-building process. where the inhabitants of a country have been transformed into a political nation that is able to have a state of its own. Páll Björnsson does not specifically mention this, but President Jón himself lead actual Icelandic politics, which for decades prevented the parliament of Iceland (Alþingi) from acquiring a treasury under its own power for the sake of implementing a nation-building policy.


The publication of the book has not resulted in the loss of the overnight loss of the icon of Presidet Jón as regards the legitimisation of political authority in modern society. On Iceland’s national day of 2010, the Icelandic Minister of Education referred to his ideas on educational matters in a speech held at President Jón’s birthplace in Hrafnseyri. Páll Björnsson questions, in a footnote, whether President Jón was a prime mover in educating the nation as hitherto believed. His school-policy did not gain ground in his lifetime. Quite the opposite, the focus on independence politics made it impossible for Icelanders to establish a comprehensive school-system as other nations did in that period.


Páll Björnsson‘s book is not about President Jón himself, his life and actions. The book is about diverse exploitation of him as an icon, from souvenir production to image creation of big companies. The book is about Icelanders and how an image has been utilised for political purposes. In the beginning, this was done to preserve a society divided by class, gender, age groups and regions, characterised by the authorities’ fear of common people’s political organisation. The endeavor was to create a single opinion in a disparate society. Páll Björnsson infers how powerful a political weapon the image of President Jón was for those who wanted him in their camp. All stakeholders wanted to have a share in him as their icon of choice.


Páll Björnsson also concludes how difficult it has been for state authorities to honour their duty to pay respect to the “the legacy of President Jón” (pp. 183-211). We read about the problematic realisation of the objectification of the icon in such a way that it can be more than just that. For one, the difficulties in finding an objective for the rebuilding of President Jón’s birthplace at Hrafnseyri in a remote and depopulated area, or in justifying what kind of function it would have. However, the couple’s sepulcher in Reykjavík found its function, while the real success story is the statue standing opposite Alþingi. Páll Björnsson’s book is a contribution to the analysis of the original legend of the birth of a Republic. President Jón himself spent most of his life in Copenhagen, the capital of the Danish North-Western-Atlantic empire. The icon-creators realised the importance of an untainted image of the unequivocally Icelandic Jón Sigurðsson. This can be interpreted as the solution of the paradox for nationalistic thinking of a national -hero who chose to live amidst the claimed oppressors.


The author uses in an original way the fact that the ship carrying the bodies of the couple for the funeral in Iceland had the name of the mythological Phoenix, the bird that in our culture symbolises renewal. President Jón was renewed. Here the reader calls for further analysis of the Jesus-like symbolism that can be found in the writings on President Jón in the first decades after his demise. There are many examples therein of religious symbols being replaced with political ones during a time of secularisation in Western societies. It is clear that the book rests on a theoretical analysis and that the discourse in Iceland on the ideological roots of the Republic calls for theoretical writings on this issue. Here, however, we merely have a description.


Páll Björnsson quizzes the nation on President Jón as a good teacher would do. This is done by using questionnaire (N 1363, response rate 70%). The answers are analysed by gender, age, region and schooling. The result is that image is superior to knowledge. Only a minority knows well the life and work of President Jón and why he was given the title “President”. Highly educated males in the prime of life know President Jón best, other groups less so. However, the majority regard President Jón as an important unifying symbol for the nation, consider it right to honour his memory and are proud of him.


The acceptance that characterises the response to the book Páll Björnsson has written is justifiable. Páll Björnsson enters a new field in the research on President Jón’s legacy. The book is an elaborate treatise. You can appreciate this elaboration even just by looking at the carefully chosen pictures. Some are in colour. Viewed as a whole, the pictures tell us as critical a story as the written text itself. Interestingly, President Jón is revealed as two different characters in two different paintings, as a bronze statue in fabrication, alongside gentlemen, protesters, extremists, women, students, commoners and in a teargas haze. The narrative is lively. The footnotes are quite many and often replicating the text of the sources, thus deepening the premises for the descriptions in the text. The book offers lists of people’s names, pictures and sources. No misspellings or grammatical errors could be found.


This review discussed whether the warm reception of a critical book on a national-hero at his bicentenary represents tolerance towards a new sentiment on President Jón or a liberation from his enduring authority. The book on President Jón written by Páll Björnsson offers the nation a chance to reunite with an ex-national -hero and finds it difficult to understand why he is still so politically massive in spite of his physical absence.