40. Kolbeinn's Isle (Kolbeinsey)

Greyscale photo of Kolbeinsey, small version.
[larger image/full caption]


Kolbeinn's Isle


They left their sad young sister
and sailed for many a mile:
brothers going birding
and bound for Kolbeinn's Isle.

Eiderdown is so deep there
that Djankinn sprawls on his side
frenzied and flabbergasted,
fanning his paws out wide.

Cold and eerie, that island
out in the northern sea!
The bones of both the brothers
lie bleaching there in the scree.

recording available

Bræðurnir sigldu báðir
burtu frá ungri mey,
langt burt frá systur sinni,
að sækja í Kolbeinsey.

Þar er svo dúnað í dúni
að djankinn liggur þar
bara bráðhendis hissa
og breiðir út lappirnar.

Ömurlegt allt mér þykir
útnorður langt í sjá;
beinin hvítna þar beggja
bræðranna klettinum á.

Form:Three stanzas, each containing four three-stress lines with the rhyme scheme AbCb and the alliteration pattern 22.
Manuscript:KG 31 a II, which contains two copies: an untitled version (facsimile KJH277; image) and a version with the title "Kolbeinsey" (facsimile KJH289-90; image).
First published:1847 (A235-6; image).
Sound recording:Silja Aðalsteinsdóttir reads "Kolbeinsey." recording vailable [0:32]

Commentary:        At first glance this seems to be a simple (if somewhat grim) poem about two brothers who sail out to collect eiderdown on an offshore island and meet with some sort of fatal accident. But like so many of Jónas's late poems, it grows wider and deeper the longer one contemplates it and studies its background.

Kolbeinn's Isle (Kolbeinsey) is Iceland's northernmost outpost, a tiny, desolate chunk of basalt rock jutting up from the continental shelf some 107 kilometers due north of Siglunes. Totally without vegetation and very hazardous to land on, Kolbeinsey is constantly being whittled away by marine erosion — the combined action of surf, frost, and drift-ice — and is now very much smaller than it was when first measured in 1616. In fact it has nearly disappeared. On early maps it is called Seagull Rock (the name occurring in forms as various as Mevenklint, Mevenklip, and Meeuw Steen).1

Eggert Ólafsson wrote (ca. 1760):

Kolbeinsey, which is called Mevenklint on nautical maps, lies twelve Icelandic sea-miles north of Grímsey. In earlier times men went there from the mainland to hunt birds and seals, both of which are found in great abundance and are extremely tame. The island is said to be craggy and barren. (2FEÓ6)

Ólafur Olavius, writing two decades later (1777-9), amplifies this description in an important detail:

In earlier times men sometimes rowed there in eight-oared boats to collect eiderdown and hunt birds and seals, which were said to be so tame that you could catch them with your hands. (2ÓOF34)

Jónas was familiar with both of these accounts.

Jónas was interested in Kolbeinsey because of his work on "islands and offshore rocks" for the "Description of Iceland."2 He cannot have known many details about it, however, since in his day it was seldom visited by sailors or fishermen.

Jónas says in his poem that Kolbeinsey is "buried in eiderdown" (dúnað í dúni). He is likely to have been familiar with rumors to this effect,3 and even to have read a document claiming that men had found "a vast amount of eiderdown" on Kolbeinsey (Ff29). Furthermore he had almost certainly studied the chapter in Jón the Learned's Brief Treatise which describes huge quantities of eiderdown being found on islands closely associated with Kolbeinsey (see below). Thus Jónas probably intended the second stanza of the poem as a description — exaggerated but fundamentally realistic — of what conditions on Kolbeinsey might be like.

The poem contains a web of historical and semihistorical allusions, many of which emphasize the mystery and danger associated with this remote skerry.

Kolbeinsey is first mentioned in The Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), where we are told: "It is a day's sail north from Kolbeinsey to the uninhabited parts of Greenland" (1Ífr35). The island was named for a certain Kolbeinn Sigmundarson, the original settler of Kolbeinsdalur in Skagafjörður, who is described in the 14th-century Saga of the Men of Svarfaðardalur (Svarfdæla saga) as having become so incensed about political reversals in Iceland that he "jumped aboard ship and sailed out to sea. His ship was wrecked on the rock that lies northwest of Grímsey. Kolbeinn perished there and the island was named after him and called Kolbeinsey" (9Ífr170). This sparse account leaves us free to imagine either that Kolbeinn and his crew were drowned in the wreck, or died later on the island from starvation and exposure — its archetypal castaways.

In Jón the Learned's chapter "Concerning Islands and Islets around Iceland, Both Close Inshore and at the Edge of the Deep Ocean," Jónas will have found Kolbeinsey mentioned in the company of other islands — totally fabulous — like the Cross Islands (Krosseyjar), where eiderdown lies so deep on the beaches that the floodtide floats it out to sea (where it can be collected in vast quantities as it drifts on the water's surface), and Gunnbjörn's Islands (Gunnbjarnareyjar), better known from other sources as Gunnbjörn's Skerries (Gunnbjarnarsker). The latter are relevant, since it was on the eve of a voyage in search of Gunnbjörn's Skerries (according to The Book of Settlements) that a certain Styrbjörn composed a poem that left its mark on "Kolbeinn's Isle." Styrbjörn's poem was the result of a dream in which he foresaw disaster for himself and his companion Hrólfur Þorbjarnarson:

I see our death,
death for us both,
everything eerie
out in the north —
cold and every
kind of horror. (1Ífr195)

One suspects that the collocation, in Jón the Learned's chapter, of Kolbeinsey and Gunnbjörn's Islands served as an important point of departure for Jónas's poem.4

The actual "historical kernel" of the poem, however, is an incident that occurred in 1616,5 the celebrated expedition to Kolbeinsey of three brothers, Bjarni, Einar, and Jón Tómasson. This incident is described circumstantially in the "Kolbeinsey Verses" ("Kolbeinseyjarvísur")6 of Rev. Jón Einarsson (d. 1674). Jón says he wrote the poem at the request of Einar Tómasson, one of the brothers (who was then an old man living on Hegranes in Skagafjörður), and that it is based on Einar's written recollections.

The brothers were from Hvanndalir, east of Siglunes, and were well known for feckless and daring accomplishments at sea and on land. They were asked by the geographer Guðbrandur Þorláksson7 to find Kolbeinsey and were promised substantial rewards for doing so. They set out alone in a large boat. On their second attempt to reach the island, after a difficult and exhausting voyage lasting two days, they finally saw "something white" in the sea ahead of them. This proved to be the highest point of Kolbeinsey, "completely white with innumerable fulmars — as if you were looking at a huge patch of cotton grass." Landing on this "cold island," the brothers swept up "a vast number of birds with their bare hands." Unfortunately they had been careless tying up their boat, and now it slipped its moorings and drifted out to sea, driven by a stiff breeze. The brothers stood on shore, frightened and weeping. Bjarni, the oldest (and leader of the expedition), dove in twice to try to recover the boat but failed both times and barely made it back to shore alive. The boat drifted farther and farther away, taking all their provisions and extra clothing with it.

All they had left was death, the ocean,
and aching hearts that brimmed with fear.

Certain that they were going to die of starvation and exposure, the brothers fell to their knees, raised their eyes to heaven, and prayed for help. And lo! presently the wind fell, veered about, and started blowing the boat back toward them. They managed to get hold of it and — after tying it up a little more carefully — set about exploring the island (it was 400 fathoms long, 60 fathoms wide, and 60 fathoms high) and collecting birds and birds' eggs (murres, auks, and fulmars are mentioned as making their home there). They remained on Kolbeinsey for five days, loaded their boat with nearly a thousand birds, and had an easy voyage back to Siglunes.8

In "Kolbeinn's Isle" Jónas has reduced the number of brothers from three to two, has provided them with a sister (who does not appear in any account of the Hvanndalir brothers), and has given the story a tragic ending.9

There are no conclusive verbal echoes of Jón Einarsson's "Kolbeinsey Verses" in Jónas's "Kolbeinn's Isle," hence no absolute certainty that he knew them. But if he did know them — and this seems on the whole rather more likely than not — he has very consciously deviated from them in point of ideology. For Rev. Jón's poem is permeated throughout by Christianity, its oft-repeated central message being that the lives of Einar Tómasson and his brothers had been saved through heaven's direct intervention in response to their prayers:

A miracle occurred which very
quickly cheered him where he lay
with both his brothers on that skerry,
bleak and cold and far away:
succor from God was was necessary
to save their lives that fateful day.

In Jónas's "Kolbeinn's Isle" there are no miracles and its two brothers do not survive.

Because of its remoteness and unfamiliarity, Kolbeinsey was easily imagined as the stage for strange and uncanny happenings. There was something eerie about the place. Rumors circulated that human bones had been found there (39Eim295), and even the feat of the Hvanndalir brothers seems to have passed into folklore. At least Jochum M. Eggertsson reports that

many tales grew up around it, and these travelled the length and breadth of Iceland, taking various forms and eventually becoming mingled with elements of superstition. For instance it was claimed that the Hvanndalir brothers had died on Kolbeinsey. An old rhyme, which an elderly woman in the Western Fjords is said to have learned in her youth from her grandfather, points in this direction: "Far out at sea, the cold stone of Kolbeinsey sings: 'The bones of the brothers lie quietly bleaching on my cliffs.'"10 (39Eim298-9)

Finally there is the fox. He is called djankinn in Jónas's text,11 and this is not among the commoner Icelandic names for the arctic fox.12 Possibly Jónas used it here to meet the demands of alliteration. But it is equally possible that he wanted to add an additional dimension of meaning (and terror) to the poem, since djankinn is a common nickname for the Devil. The association between the fox (a sly and predatory animal; see for example 2Íþs24) and the Devil (the entrapper and destroyer of men's souls) is natural enough, and thoroughly traditional (for another "fiend in fox's body" see 3Íþs566). Jónas may be recalling, too, the Icelandic folktale about a man who was savagely killed, while hunting birds and birds' eggs on the cliffs at Látrabjarg, by a fox that had been ensorcelled by a hostile magician and sent to destroy him (1Íþs534-5). And he was certainly not unfamiliar with the widespread type of Icelandic folktale about bird-hunters marooned on islands and offshore rocks, and their dealings with the supernatural beings who live there (see, for example, 3Íþs148-9). Perhaps the second line of the second stanza should be translated: "that Devilfox sprawls on his side."13

However that may be, Jónas certainly presents us in this poem with a memorably chilling picture: Djankinn sprawled in the eiderdown on Kolbeinsey, lying in wait for the two adventuring brothers.14


1 There is a detailed description of Kolbeinsey, with photographs, in 39Eim293-308.

2 In a letter to Brynjólfur Pétursson (22 November 1843) Jónas speculates that Kolbeinsey may have been formed by a submarine volcanic eruption in 1372 and asks whether Brynjólfur remembers having seen it mentioned in any source prior to that date (2E179-80). The passage shows that Kolbeinsey was on Jónas's mind in November 1843 and this may not be without relevance for the date of composition of "Kolbeinn's Isle."

3 In his account of Grímsey compiled in 1846-9, i.e., only a few years after Jónas composed this poem, Rev. Jón (Jónsson) Norðmann writes of Kolbeinsey: "Men believe that eiderducks are abundant there and that the Dutch avail themselves of this resource." He acknowledges, however, that it is a long time since any Icelander has visited the place. See Síra Jón Norðmann, Grímseyjarlýsing, Menn og minjar III, Finnur Sigmundsson bjó til prentunar (Reykjavík: H.f. Leiftur, 1946), p. 34.

4 Jónas may also have been familiar with old traditions from Grímsey that "there were seven islands northeast of Langanes, the largest of which was called Kolbeinsey. . . . There is now a great mystery about these islands, since men cannot find them, although it is said that the crew of a Dutch vessel once approached one of them and observed the smoke of nine farms. They were intending to sail closer and examine the island more carefully when a figure appeared on the tip of a headland, waving something in their direction, and immediately they were enveloped in pitch-black fog and lost sight of the island and never found it again" (4Íþs119).

5 The date 1580, sometimes given for this incident, is based on the fact that some general, summary remarks about the career and achievements of Bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson — including a brief account of the Hvanndalir brothers — were misleadingly included under that date in Jón Espolín's Annals (V, 35).

6 "Eitt kvæði um reisu þriggja bræðra til Kolbeinseyjar 1616, gert af síra Jóni Einarssyni í Staðarárskógi [now Stærri-Árskógi] Anno 1665, 18. Febr." This once-popular poem, seventy-five stanzas long and surviving in numerous manuscript copies, was printed in Blanda: Fróðleikur gamall og nýr, I (Reykjavík: Félagsprentsmiðjan, 1918-20), 148-62.

7 Guðbrandur was Bishop of Hólar from 1571 to 1627. He is the father of scientific geography in Iceland: he drew the first reasonably accurate map of the country (published in 1590 in Ortelius's atlas) and made the first determination of its geographical position.

8 According to Jón Espolín's Annals (V, 142), Bjarni drowned in Skagafjörður the following year (1617) while engaged in another daring exploit.

9 These features may have been suggested by another tragic story, familiar to everyone in Iceland in Jónas's day: the story of two brothers from Reynistaður in Skagafjörður (the older once again named Bjarni) who — in 1780 — met a terrible and mysterious end near Hveravellir in central Iceland while driving a herd of sheep across the highlands. These brothers had a sister named Björg, to whom Bjarni appeared in dreams after his disappearance (which was widely attributed to outlaws or supernatural forces and led to the century-long abandonment of the once-popular route across Kjölur). (See 1Íþs222 and — for a full account — 1Hh135-48.)

10 If Jónas knew this poem, then clearly it is one of his sources of inspiration. But it is rather more likely that the author of the poem knew "Kolbeinn's Isle."

11 The word is capitalized in the earlier (but not the later) of the two manuscripts.

12 As listed, for example, in the following verse:

Refr og hóltaþórr, melrakki, dratthali, bítr,
blóðdrekkr, tortrygg, lágfæta, skolli, tóa. (IVG169)

See also Villt íslensk spendýr, Páll Hersteinsson [og] Guttormur Sigbjarnarson ritstjórar (Reykjavík: Hið íslenska náttúrufræðifélag / Landvernd, 1993), p. 16.

13 The ancient association of the Devil with the far north may also be on Jónas's mind (see Isaiah 14:13).

14 It may or may not be relevant that among the Icelanders in Copenhagen, Jónas's friend Gísli Hjálmarson went by the nickname "Djankinn." See 2E216, where both he and his nickname appear in a context of devils and deviltry (see also 4E388). Since Gísli was well-known for his piety, it may have struck Jónas as amusing to bring him onstage in "Kolbeinn's Isle" as "Devilfox" (he appears under his own name in "Splendor," another of the poems in this cycle). The allusion would have entertained other members of the Fjölnir circle without undercutting the seriousness of "Kolbeinn's Isle" as a whole.

Copyright © 1996-8 Dick Ringler. All rights reserved.

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