The Big Idea: Sarah Tolmie
You may know of the short, stocky horses of Iceland. But Sarah Tolmie discovered something interesting about the horses of Iceland, and decided that therein would lie a tale, entitled, of course, All the Horses of Iceland.
Attending the Iceland Writers Conference in 2018, I had the opportunity to ride an Icelandic horse across a lava field. I’ve been a horse person since I was a child. So it was unforgettable. Then nearly two years later, a chance remark in a documentary about Icelandic horses caught my attention: they are genetically related to the horses of the Central Asian steppes. Now there’s a great story, I said to myself. And what would be the best way to tell it?
As a saga. This is where I have to tell you that I am a medievalist by trade (though not an Old Norse specialist) so the word saga means something specific to me. It doesn’t mean sweeping, epic, cinematic, a story of violent multigenerational struggle like you see with Vikings on TV. It means terse, pragmatic, darkly humorous, close-focus, frankly parochial record-keeping about an isolated society. It means persnickety legalism and an obsessive concern with the bottom line. And when it comes to supernatural matters — ghosts, trolls, the practice of magic (seithr) — it means a hardheaded combination of skepticism and practicality.
This is the world in which Eyvind, the ordinary trader and reluctant magician of my story, belongs. He’s an unspectacular guy dead set on making money out in the wider world — and his is unusually wide, as it takes him all the way across Kievan Rus, through Khazaria, to Mongolia — and bringing his wealth, in the form of tough little horses, back to Iceland to set up a farm. It’s just that so many things get mixed up with this simple goal along the way: the unavailing attempts of people to convert him to Christianity; the wars of Novgorod (Helmgard) and Judaic Khazaria; the unexpected appeal of a ghost, Bortë, the deceased wife of his host, a Mongolian qan, who needs his help; the machinations of the white magician Hoe’lün, who informs him, to his own disgust, that he himself is a magician; the growing claims of the slave boy Jat, a gift from the qan, whom he adopts as his son under the name Geirr.
The chief enigma that Eyvind has to deal with, however, is a white mare. It may be that part of the soul of the woman Bortë, her wind horse, becomes trapped in the body of this mare as a result of a Norse ceremony that Eyvind performs in an attempt to stop her haunting of the qan’s camp. However that may be, he becomes responsible for her and brings her back to Iceland. Or rather, she leads him back to Iceland, exhibiting along the way a variety of powers, as when she turns herself, and all of Eyvind’s other horses, invisible to save them from a recruiting army.
Back in Iceland — in the sagas of Icelanders, things become fundamentally meaningful only when they are back in Iceland — Eyvind sells the other horses and becomes a wealthy farmer. He keeps the mare, his magical ally. Having no natural sons, he adopts Geirr, who grows up a talented horseman and poet (there can’t be a saga without a poet). The unflappable Eyvind deals with ghosts who squat in his bath house; Geirr fathers two bastard sons. Taking in the mother of Geirr’s second son, the freed Hebridean slave Thorgunna, the five of them form an improvised family. It is Thorgunna, a seer, who makes the prophecy about the white mare that gives the book its title.
Big ideas. Are there any in this book? I would say rather that it constitutes a defence of small ideas. The saga literature is not about big ideas. It is about putting one foot in front of the other in a world of violence and wonder, and about husbanding all resources — food, honour, imagination — with the greatest possible efficiency. The other idea that formed the germ of this book is also a small-scale one. It doesn’t come from Norse literature but from the Secret History of the Mongols (a fascinating document): it is the fact that, generally, in that book, horses do not have names.
As a person preoccupied with naming and the withholding of names, this was instantly riveting to me. It bespeaks a completely different way of relating to the horse from the one I am familiar with from western Europe. Indeed, the working title of the book for much of its writing was The Horse With No Name — until editors pointed out to me that we wanted to avoid confusion with the song of that title and its whole western twang, which is not the world that we’re in here. No.
No is the first word spoken by Bjartur, the bloodyminded farmer protagonist of Halldor Laxness’s book Independent People, an Icelandic classic. Eyvind also begins his adventure by saying no, rejecting his captain Ingwe’s opportunistic ploy to increase his trade by converting his crew to Christianity. The dour Eyvind is a no kind of guy; he doesn’t rush into things. But as an independent trader, a man who wants to get ahead through dealing with people very unlike himself, he is also remarkably tolerant. A man who speaks only Icelandic when he leaves home, he manages to negotiate mutually profitable exchanges with locals and strangers; men, women, and children; pagans, Christians, Muslims and Jews; and even between the living and the dead.
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