I sat on a rock in Greenland, ten years old, almost eleven, thinking about the Ice People. I don’t remember the details – but this memory stick with me, perhaps I was further north than even I‘m used to – the Ice People always seemed to search for fields further north, longer into the cold.
Before I go further an introduction may be necessary, an introduction that wasn’t necessary in the Icelandic version. The Legend of the Ice People is a saga in 47 books, written by Margit Sandemo, a (then) 65-year-old Norwegian woman and read by my ten year old self. It may sound odd, but I wasn’t alone – these books were a phenomenon in 80s and 90s Iceland, the Harry Potters of the decade – even if most of my classmates didn’t delve into Margit Sandemo’s epics until the relatively old age of thirteen – and the boys who read it were certainly outnumbered by the girls – or maybe they just stayed more quiet about it. They’re huge in the whole of Scandinavia as well, as well as in Poland I hear – but the English just recently started translating them and seem to have finished only the first eight.
But anyway, back to that rock. Maybe I had just finished book number 40 back then, thinking to myself: what now? Because I had caught up, finished all the forty books already published – and had to wait a few months for number 41. And 42 and 43-47 after that.
That’s of course nothing extraordinary – Sandemo herself had finished the complete works of Shakespeare when she was eight. There was something magical about those book covers, that I had a look at any time they were near – and the text on the backside talked of some fascinating danger. It felt a bit too adult though, somehow – so it wasn’t until my older sister started reading – and talking about them – that I finally fell for them.
The books mostly take place in Norway and the neighbouring countries, including Iceland – and the most intriguing character is absent for most of the series. Thengil the Evil is without doubt one of the most epic bad guys of world literature – but he’s been in a trancelike stupor for centuries, hidden away, when our saga begins. But we hear enough about him, stories that fed some fascinating waking nightmares about that fascinating devil. A man who’s been alive for centuries (and the saga takes place over centuries, starting in the 1500s and ending in the 1900s), the son of a Mongolian sorceress and Japanese sorcerer. Tan-ghil. That faraway name, a man so evil he killed his father when two and his mother at twelve and drank from the oasis of evil to earn eternal life and take over the world. It made him all-powerful but terrifically ugly, a pitiful paltry man with a beak for a nose and claws for hands.
Original sin and sex in the Norwegian countryside
The main focus of the stories is his descendants, the Ice People. Being evil is their destiny, or rather – one person of each generation inherits the course, both the evilness and the magical superpowers. Oh, and the yellow eyes, of course. Those are books about the original sin – or perhaps rather the original sin of certain nations or families, that can’t escape the demons of the past.
But it’s just as much about free will – because the curse can be broken, you can find the good in yourself even if you’ve been born evil. That turns out to be the source of tension in most of the novels – will he/she turn away from evil – or not? As the name implies Thengil the good, the main protagonist of the very first book, was a pioneer when it came to turning, he even conquered his evil name. Those cursed yellow-eyed children usually grow up to become the heroes – or villains – of those sagas – and there was a healthy lesson there somewhere for my ten-year-old self, reading books when people are born evil and have to conquer it, rather then that evil is just something distant you must be careful not to fall for.
Margit certainly smuggled a thing or two into those young minds. Through ghosts, witches and assorted beasts she managed to say something interesting about religion, something an atheist leaning kid with a curiosity about the supernatural could relate to. In her world every god exists – but none of them are all-powerful. They are simply flawed and exist because we made them – if I remember the details correctly. That message was later made cheap in that terrible novel Life of Pi – but Sandemo could make it work.
She was also a terrifically visual author – those yellow eyes certainly made me a my cat happy, because even if cats are never evil free will is something that is perhaps more integral to them than any other animal.
Then I was reminded of those stories when I sat in an aeroplane reading Newsweek. “What was your first sexual revelation in the cinema?” This was a question they asked George Clooney, Charlize Theron, Viola Davis, Christopher Plummer, Michael Fassbender and Tilda Swinton. And just in case I was next in line, I figured I’d prepare the answer well. But of course, the Ice people were the first thing that came to mind. And I want to thank the staff at my municipal library not to make a fuss about that ten-year-old kid who kept borrowing books full of sex in the Norwegian countryside.
I just managed to read the books in time though – when I was thirteen my peers had caught on, or rather, just the girls, for a while it was only meant for girls (which makes no sense if you look at the plot) – but of course, in adulthood, most of the guys would eventually admit to reading it too.
Sandemo was not a perfect author. I don’t know what my adult self would feel about reading them again – but I do remember that her greatest strength tended to become her greatest flaw as the series neared its endgame. She got away with it in this series, but latter (related) series like Warlock and The Legend of the Realm of Light, soon descended into chaos.
The imagination simply took over – and she would lose sight of the story, too many characters and too much magic would mean her worlds lost their logic and touch with reality. And now Margit herself is beyond the laws of nature, laws she never took too seriously anyway – so it’s right to say goodbye and simply add: thanks for all the books. And all the magic.
Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson