The story of The Sealwoman’s Gift is one I’d been turning over in my mind for some time, ever since discovering a short, agonised memoir translated into English as The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson. (See www.reisubok.net for excerpts.)
Although the dense religious language is a little impenetrable for modern readers, I was riveted by Ólafur’s account of his and his family’s abduction from Iceland to Algiers and how he was sent to get a ransom for his family from the king of Denmark.
As a half-Icelander I’ve known for ages about the raid by Algerian corsairs in 1627, when four hundred of my compatriots were carried into slavery in north Africa. It remains one of the most traumatic events in Iceland’s history. But there has never been much known about what happened to the women and children. So I wondered … what might it have been like for a woman, steeped in the sagas and folk stories of her northern homeland, to be lifted violently out of her isolated culture and find herself experiencing not just the separations and agonies of captivity, but the reassessments that come in any age when intelligent eyes are opened to other lives, other cultures and other kinds of loving?
I also wanted to explore the role of stories and storytelling in helping us all, generation after generation, to get through what is hard in life. I have long been entranced not just by the medieval Icelandic sagas but by the folk stories rooted in the mysterious, unruly landscape and recounted by my ancestors throughout the dark winters – stories about trolls, seal-folk, water-horses, giantesses and especially the hidden people, folk just like us but invisible to the eye, who are said to live in the rocks and hillocks.
In a book that deals with faith and the big questions about life and death that loomed particularly large in post-Reformation northern Europe, it felt important, too, to evoke Hamlet’s sense of there being more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in any of our philosophies. Hence Ásta’s elfman and the sealwoman herself, old Oddrún Pálsdóttir, who was not so daft after all. (Sally Magnusson)