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Family Storytelling and Icelandic Folklore; a Perfect Partnership

Updated: Dec 1, 2021

Guest Blog By Karen Gummo

Have you considered how your own family stories might be connected to ancient folklore? We hear very often, “Truth is stranger than fiction”. When I take a closer look I often find there are many parallels between the two kinds of tales. When we shape our family anecdotes through storytelling we elevate family events to weave a tapestry.

I like to remember that every folktale began with a real event. Over time, details of the story told about the event have been honed to reveal deep wisdom and to highlight the magic in the ordinary. As I have continued my journey to uncover the wealth of family stories that are part of my heritage, I have discovered that family tales and folklore go hand in hand. I have been active for more than 30 years performing as a professional storyteller giving storytelling workshops and carrying out residencies in schools, museums, and lately through seniors’ organizations. I am part of storytelling communities such as Storytelling Alberta and Storytellers/Conteurs du Canada.

In 2004 when I was preparing to present an Icelandic folktale at the Storytellers of Canada Conference in Regina, Saskatchewan, I wanted to connect to the people in that territory. Did I have family there? I only knew about my mother Helen Swainson-Mogensen’s sister Winn Thompson and her family in Saskatoon. Those were some of my cherished cousins! But they had only arrived there in 1971. What about earlier family ties? There might be other family there I thought.

It was the day I received a phone call from Don Gislason, (author of The Icelanders of Kinmount) when I discovered that my mother had second cousins who lived in Mozart, Saskatchewan. Oh, what a gripping story Don had gathered to describe what was my great grandmother Steinunn Jasonardottir’s experience as a seven-year-old travelling from Saudarkrokur to Montreal with her family in 1874. (In truth, there were only brief references to her father Jason Thordarsson’s attempt to find a doctor to look at Steinunn’s mother and to soothe her illness and weaknesses. There is also the ship’s manifest included at the back which speaks volumes.) But I had been dreaming of the impressions that would arise in a seven-year-old as I read the descriptions in the diaries of Jon Rognvaldsson and the writings of others in that wonderful Kinmount Book.

When I mentioned my work as a storyteller, Don told me of my mother Helen’s second cousin Evans Thordarson who he declared was one of the best Icelandic storytellers that he had known. He told me that my lang amma Steinunn’s brother Johannes had settled with his family in Mozart, Saskatchewan and that Evans was a grandson who embraced the family history. He was about the same age as my mother Helen’s youngest brother Jack Swainson.

I called Evans as soon as I could. (It’s a lucky thing that I did that because when I got hold of him, he was just out of the hospital and he died an early death only days or weeks after our conversation.)

As it happens, a few weeks before I had interviewed my friend Thordis Asgiersson / Gutnick, a wonderful woman who was part of the Leif Eiriksson Club in Calgary to ask her about her life growing up in Mozart, Saskatchewan. She gave me some lovely anecdotes. I did not consider whether Evans and Thordis might know of each other.

Their two lives had intersected, though I don’t think Thordis was aware. Evans was much younger and was a keen observer of the community.

Here is the tale that Evans gave to me:

In the village of Mozart not far from the big town of Yorkton, Saskatchewan there lived many kinds of people. There were Ukrainians, Swedes, Poles, Icelanders, and those born within the sound of the Bow Bell.

Evans Thordarsson, a humble farm boy and grandchild of new Icelandic Immigrants liked nothing better than to make his way to the train station. He had no money to go anywhere but loved to listen for the hush of the brakes, the squeal of the wheels. As a long-awaited train snaked its way toward the station, Evans would conceal himself behind a door or against a wall, aiming to blend into the background. He watched the passengers as they erupted from the train. They gave guarded, joyful, or sometimes tearful greetings and sometimes a good long romantic embrace! There were people in great dusty coats, topped with stylish hats. Carrying their leather bags and suitcases, they bustled here and there.

Inside the station was the post office (for mail was delivered by train). Here the most important community messages were exchanged. The postmaster in Mozart was Oskar Jonsson, a fine Icelander. He had a finger on the pulse of the community. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, there was a great fear of communism in the western world. The superintendent of the RCMP at Yorkton saw a need to keep track of the communists in those parts. Who better to notice them than Oskar Jonsson?

Both the Icelanders and the Ukrainians were seen to be suspect. Oskar did his best to assure the RCMP that there was nothing to worry about. But there were uneasy feelings about one man in particular - it was Mr. Asgeirsson, the father of our beloved Thordis. He was a relative newcomer to Canada though he had gone overseas to serve in the Great War. When he returned and thereafter, Mr. Asgeirsson made no bones about his socialist leanings.

Young Evans Thordarsson often listened to the gossip exchanged at the Mozart train station. He heard that young RCMP officers had been dispatched to the home of Mr. Asgeirsson to see what the man was reading. People said the officers didn’t mind the assignment because Mr. Asgeirsson had two beautiful daughters. When they arrived, they found that all his reading material was written in Icelandic! How could they decipher it? Still, it was a happy day when the officers had the chance to get a closer glimpse of Thordis (known as Disa) and her lovely sister.

Now I wish I could ask Mr. Asgeirsson a few questions: “What did you have on your bookshelves? What kind of treasured Icelandic tales would you have introduced to your daughters to give them the courage to make their way in the great wide world?

I like to think it might have been the tale sometimes called “Half a Kingdom” or The Tale of Prince Hlini and Clever Signy!

And now I will share this beloved Icelandic folktale through the drawings that I have made to remember it.

If you wish to read the whole story, you can look at the IR blog post from July. The Saga of Prince Hlini: An Icelandic Fairy Tale

When I wish to hold onto a story and imprint it in my brain, I create the images that rise up for me from the text and record them in my storytelling journal. It helps with recalling if I remember the images rather than try to hold onto the written text. I have not completed all the drawings. Perhaps you can tell me what is missing? You can contact me: Karen Gummo

I will be giving a storytelling workshop on November 13th from 10-11:30 MST. More information is here: The Dance of Truth: Family Storytelling.

Then in December, I will be giving a storytelling webinar for Icelandic Roots! Stay tuned for the details.


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