The Viking Heart|
Initial chapter of the novel by Laura Goodman Salverson
Laura Goodman Salverson
wrote the novel The Viking Heart in 1923. The book was very popular and was the first Canadian novel to illustrate the life of immigrants as told from their own point of view. Laura was also among the first non-Anglo-Saxon authors to gain popularity in Canada. Western Icelanders, however, received the story less warmly and censured Laura for, among other things, having moved the eruption of Askja to the seaside. But the work is a creative novel; in the beginning, the story revolves around the difficulties faced by the settlers, but it soon evolves into a typical love story. The book expresses clearly, however, the need and desire of the immigrants to prove themselves and gain basic civil rights in their new country.
In the initial chapter, the account of conditions in Iceland is cloaked with the romantic glow of one who only knows the country through the eyes of his forebears. This first chapter gives the reader a glimpse of the image - both of Iceland and of the events culminating in emigration to the New World - that gradually developed in the minds of the Western Icelanders, the Askja eruption having become both legend and a part of the cultural history of the settlers. (The chapter is reprinted with the kind permission of George Lawrence Salverson.)
At the edge of the world the sun had dipped his glowing face in a jade sea and the summer twilight
had descended - the wonderful twilight of a land of the midnight sun! Hill and dale and valley
were wrapped in trailing shadows, light airy shadows like the veils of a thousand elves. They
hung like clouds in the deep ravines; they floated ghostlike through the basalt country. They
glided over rivers and slid down the hills and everywhere they heralded the evening hour.
A tiny green plateau dreamed in the arm of a crystal fiord; high above it, proud and grim,
towered the mountain, a hoary giant beneath whose shade the Fates might spin their tangled
web. And down from the mountain's breast tumbled a little brook, clean as young love and
bright as morning dew; it laughed and sang on its way to the waiting sea.
Here, amid all this beauty, was the homestead of Einar Halsson. The neat little buildings with
their white gables and smooth sod roofs, looked like so many sleepy children huddled together
beneath the evening shadows. There were : the main house where the family gathered for
recreation, for meals, and to sleep; and the cook house, the store house, a drying house,
and a sort of work shop. Each little house had its own white gable but was joined like a
Siamese twin to its next neighbor. The doors all faced one way and opened out upon an
emerald green field, the precious hayfield that meant so much to the farmer.
Off in the distance were several barns, built partly of timber and partly sod.
Back of the farmhouse, on the slope of the mountain, small flocks of sheep were grazing;
and knee deep in the shallows of the fiord drowsed several ponies. On their way to the farm
the sleek, fat cows stopped to drink at the brook, and the bell on the white leader tinkled
In the "badstofa" (living room) Einar and his family were gathered. The occasion was a happy
one for he had just returned from the little fishing hamlet where their trading was done and
to which he went each winter to join the fishing fleets. Like most fishermen he was somewhat
improvident. Why worry when health was his and so much wealth in the waters? he reasoned.
Moreover, his farm was a prosperous one - a tiny farm, to be sure, which had been his wife's
patrimony, but which was admirably cared for by her and their only son.
He had bought some rock sugar and some dried figs for little Helga and she was dancing about
with a bag in each hand. Gudrun, his wife, and Borga, the elder daughter, were comparing their
gifts, a grey silk shawl and a little black silk apron.
"Papa, you shouldn't spend so much on us all the time. Why I declare Borga has more aprons
already than any other girl in the district. It's ashamed sometimes I feel when I meet the
'prest.' I'm sure he thinks she's growing up ungodly."
Einar laughed loudly. "So it's me can't buy my pretty daughter an apron, is it, and her with the
eyes of the lads all following her" - this as he tweaked her heavy brown braids which were looped
up like chains and pinned to either side of her head, but even then hung half way down her back.
Carl, the only son, a tall, well-built youth, waited a little impatiently till this silly
excitement should pass. HE wanted to talk sense to his father.
At dusk the family always gathered together for an hour's rest and recreation as their fathers
before them had done for generations, after which they would go back to the
fields or to whatever task was in hand. The summers were short and the long winter dim
and dreary. Every possible moment of the precious summer light had to be made use of.
Usually they settled themselves unceremoniously upon their respective beds which, white
and billowy, lined the walls, or upon the "koforts" (trunks) and benches about the big long
room. Here they drank their coffee, gossiped of the day's affairs, told stories or read
some book. To be sure the reading really began in earnest only when the long winter nights
set in, but the custom of making merry was never quite abandoned. To-day, however, was an
especial occasion so they all sat around the big table which boasted its finest cloth and
the best copper coffee urn.
"Did you hear more talk of the western world?" Carl finally broke in.
"M-m, I should say so, very little else. A ship just landed as I got to town bringing a man
from a place they call Keewatin or some such name. You should have seen the excitement!
It seems there is so much work in this new country that there isn't half enough people to do
it. And the wages! Mamma, it's rich in a year, some expect to get. But, of course, that's
foolish. Well - it's all very good for those who have no home, but as for us we're happy here,
"Yes, God be praised, what more could we get, or need, for that matter in this other land,"
Gudrun answered. "That's it! That's the matter with Iceland," Carl blurted out, "everyone
satisfied if his stomach is full. We might as well be sheep for all the ambitions we have!"
"Why, Carl, isn't it a shame, you to talk so to your father and him so kind to buy you books
and a new saddle."
His father laughed. "Talk, talk - its not always good to go where the eagle screams, my son.
But, you shall hear for yourself what this man says when we go to town again. It's always well
to use an ear while we have it. They say it's a fine country with a single hayland some times
as big as all of Iceland and no lava flats whatever."
"Papa, Brinki told me that if a ship comes this way for settlers in the spring he is going.
The seasons are long out there, he has heard, with the sun shining the year around. And the
things they raise! Corn and garden truck! And fruits of all kinds just grow wild. Think of
it, papa, and us here in this burned-out country with only patches of green here and there
and field after field of lava and basalt." Carl's eyes were alight with the dreams of distant
places. The old restlessness of the ancient Norsemen - a longing for the new and the strange - a
desire which has never wholly left their descendants, was awake in his young veins. His mother
shook her head and looked at Einar. But he, with the light-heartedness of the fisherman, to
whom life on land is a time to play - for the sea is a hard mistress and no one knows how
imperative her demands may become - only laughed. "But mamma, Borga, where's the coffee,"
he shouted, and as they hurried out to the cookhouse he called little Helga.
"And how many verses did you learn while papa was away?"
"Oh, not so many, papa. You see, poor Villa got sick - her head came right off and mamma put
it on again but she needed a lot of care."
"Oho! I see, so you didn't learn anything, is that it?"
"Yes, I did, papa, I said not so much - I know the evening poem:
The gold of the sunset illumines the deep,
Oh, thus should each evening prepare me for sleep.
A soft cooling breeze with the freshness of dew,
- The ocean a mirror of heavenly blue.
The mountain peaks towering stately around
Are giants on guard where the sky meets the ground.
This sunset foretells that the day shall be bright
That follows the steps of this wonderful night.
She repeated it slowly, with ridiculous dignity and solemnity. Her father and brother both
roared with laughter.
"Now, papa," Gudrun rebuked him, as she came in with the coffee and a great dish of pancakes,
"it's not right to make fun of the child when she tries to learn something." Einar reached out
his arms to the crestfallen Helga. "Come, my little love - papa will buy you an apron like Borga's.
It's not at the child I laughed, Gudrun. It's at her so smart to say a verse like that which she
"But I do, I do, papa - it's only a looking glass out of water and a giant in the mountain. I
always knew that, papa, because I see things in the fiord all upside down and even to-day I
heard the giant growl in the mountain."
They laughed at this and Einar kissed her, saying : "It's not every man who has a little girl
so smart." And then, "But we must be about the cutting. There should be a nice lot of hay by now.
Run, little love, and get papa his book."
Helga ran to a little shelf in the corner and took down her father's Bible. They all settled back
in their seats very grave, very quiet. Borga and Gudrun picked up their knitting but Carl
stared out through the window before him over the soft, green field with eyes that saw not,
for they were turned inward searching - seeking.
With his hand stroking little Helga's golden head as she curled up at his feet, the father read
in a slow solemn voice from the Psalms ending with the verses:
"The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.
"He will not always chide ; Neither will he keep his anger forever.
"He hath not dealt with us after our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
"For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward them that fear him."
"God give us grace to understand the reading of Thy word and to abide by it. Amen," he finished.
Helga jumped up and kissed him. "Now I'm going to come out with you, too. It would do my Villa
good to sit in a soft little haycock." T'hey left the cheerful room and went outside into a
fairyland of northern beauty. Gudrun caught her breath. It was dear to her, this land of her
fathers. And the everlasting miracle of the summer nights was always new to her.
"Einar, what could we be thinking of to leave all this?" She swept her hand toward the fiord
that ran to meet the sea. Where would we find more loveliness or more contentment?"
He patted her shoulder, she was very dear to him, this serious wife with her pretty thoughts
and willing hands. Then he followed Carl into the fields.
The sun had just lifted his smiling face from out the jade sea. The rays of his smile which,
fan-shaped, had preceded him, were spreading like threads of gold over a roseleaf and lavender
field. On the sea a golden pathway burned - a pathway that the gods might tread from earth to
heaven. And all the land was sheathed in soft, warm light. The birds twittered sleepily; -
the myriad birds of the northern night - then under the spell of this strange beauty, they
sang their praises to the god of little birds. Thrush and nightingale and skylark - the
minstrels of the night and the minstrels of the morning lilting together in fairy music to
And the evening and the morning were as one. And the evening and the morning went singing through
the land - for this was their hour. But the day was not yet! ...
Little Helga had just finished saying her evening prayers and was burrowing sleepily into her soft
white bed, when a faint tremor like a sigh of weariness ran through the earth. She sat up and
listened, more curious than frightened, for such things are not unusual in a volcanic country.
"Mamma," she called, "don't you hear the giant growling?"
Her mother was tired and had almost fallen asleep. "Hush, child, go to sleep. Your giant is
likely snoring." The little girl considered this with the usual gravity of children and so
fell asleep trying to picture this giant, whose very breath had power to shake the earth
she walked upon.
And while they slept the sleep of the physically weary, that strange rolling grumble kept on.
Against the pale amber of the sky above the mountain's cold, white head, plumes of greenish
gray waved in the breeze, and out from the mountain's deep, wide mouth, clouds of murky smoke
were slowly coiling.
Another tremor shook the earth, rocking it drunkenly, and a roar like the thunder of a thousand
cannons escaped from the mountain. The black clouds rolled out faster, tinged now with darts of
angry red, and a peculiar sulphurous odor mingled with the fragrance of the summer night.
The Halssons awoke simultaneously. Einar and Carl leaped from their beds and ran outside.
Against a quickly darkening sky, tongues of flame, fiery red, and forked like lightning,
leaped and lengthened into pillars of sheer fire. For a moment they were stunned. The mountain
whose lofty summit they had so often gazed enraptured, whose brow so long had worn a snowy crown,
where moonbeams lingered and the sunlight flashed, had without warning turned loose upon them
the smouldering fires of its pent-up rage.
Another and another thunderous clap galvanized them into action. They rushed back into the room
and flung themselves into their clothes. Gudrun and Borga were already dressing little Helga in
feverish haste. The awful rumbling never ceased and the nauseating fumes of sulphur became more
and more pronounced.
They all talked at once. Einar thought it best to take their valuables and go by rowboat down
the fiord a way till they could better judge of the seriousness of the eruption. Gudrun wondered
audibly what could be done about the cows and Carl thought of the sheep - many of them were his
own, the wages of his patient toil upon the farm.
"Don't get excited, don't get excited," Einar implored the women as they ran hither and thither
gathering up odd bits of apparel and articles dear to them. Little Helga ran about crying
shrilly, "Where's my Villa, where's my Villa," until the distracted mother restored that
much mended wooden doll to her arms.
"Don't get excited, don't get excited," Einar cried again, running about in circles himself.
"It may not amount to much - only noise and smoke. As for the cows and ponies they are likely
well off along the fiord by now."
As if in rage at this disparaging of its evil intent, the volcano rent the air with a
volley of thunderous explosions too terrible for words. Helga screamed and Gudrun
caught the little flying figure close against her breast to reassure her.
"Quick, quick," Einar commanded, now fully aroused, "run to the boats! No words, no words!
Carl and I will follow with the bundles." They obeyed him and rushed out. Already the smoke
was so dense that it hung in heavy clouds over the countryside ; it seemed more like night
than the break of day. Gudrun turned as she ran across the field. "Carl, Carl," she called,
"open the pens and let the calves out."
They had just reached the boats, two strongly made rowboats which they had used for many a
season and had just pushed them into the water of the fiord when the men came running with
their awkward loads.
There was a little lull in the ominous thundering and then they all heard quite clearly the
sharp, quick, imperative barks of their shepherd dog upon the smoky slope.
Carl gave an exclamation and broke into a run back across the field.
"For God's sake," his mother called, "where are you going?"
"Do you think me more heartless than a dog? Don't you hear him trying to get the silly sheep
down off the slopes?"
"Oh, Carl, oh, Carl!" But he went on into the smoke. "Papa, why didn't you stop him?"
Einar shrugged helplessly, "Can an eagle be stopped from flying? There is as yet no real danger."
Just then a pillar of liquid fire shot high into the sky, a fearful and an imposing sight - up,
up, with a swiftness unbridled and a force unrestrainable, it rocketted on its way and fell
again in a million stars to the earth below.
"Now may God have mercy!" Gudrun cried.
A clap from the volcano answered this and the thing they most dreaded came at last. A grinding,
grating sound which gathered in volume, a horrible breaking and cracking, and then - an avalanche
of rock hurtling down the mountain side.
Another pillar of flame, leaping skyward like a rejoicing devil, lit up the whole dreadful
scene for one awful moment. There upon that doomed slope Gudrun saw the tall figure of her
son - before him little fleeing forms of white and a dark creature that raced about wildly.
With a wild cry she leaped out of the boat and started across the field. Einar caught her
"No, no, mamma, you will be killed!"
She fought him fiercely - a Viking mother ready for the funeral flames of her beloved - it was
but a momentary madness. When it passed that other horror had ended also, and somewhere
in the heap of earth and rock which they saw piled in jagged hillocks almost to the very
doors of the once secure little home, Carl, their only son and the hope of their old age
lay dead, together with his sheep and his faithful dog - a Viking turned shepherd and buried
in the same mound with his flock.
"Oh, what have I done that this should come upon me," Gudrun sobbed as Einar led her back to
the boats where the terrified girls crouched.
"My son, my son, so good, so dutiful! Have mercy; O Lord!"
The flames and smoke were by now pouring out in a steady stream from the volcano, and over
the top that only the day before had been gleaming in snow, thick streams of hot lava rolled
on their destructive way. And ashes and cinders fell in ever-increasing volume over the land,
kindling fires that were spreading rapidly, or fell into the fiord with angry hissing sounds.
Einar, seeing that Gudrun was so stunned by Carl's tragic death that she seemed scarcely
to realize the ever increasing danger to the rest of them, knew that it was useless to expect
help from her. They would all have to go in one boat now. He ordered Borga to get in with
Helga and their mother. Then, throwing all the bundles into the empty boat, he made it fast
to their own by the anchoring rope.
"You will have to row, Borga," he said, fitting the oars for her. "Quick, child! Rouse
yourself! Wet your shawl and Helga's and wrap it well about you." Then having taken two
homespun spreads from the bundles, he wrapped them about Gudrun and himself, first wetting
As they were pulling out from the shore, they caught the sound of furious riding and a company
of some twenty men and women together with several children, came dashing along the road that
wound around the mountain base and over Einar's land. Without stopping they yelled at him to
hurry. The other side of the mountain was already in flames, the wind, though slight, being
turned that way.
"The fire will spread," they called, "and the wind may rise and turn. It's a long way by water."
Then they vanished into the smoke on their sure-footed little ponies.
Einar pulled at the oars as only those who are bred to the water can. Behind him was a
belching furnace, ruined hopes, and death. Ahead lay the open sea and life. What more - he