Friday, November 14, 2008


Ever since I woke from my drug-induced hibernation, I've been working frantically, feverishly, furiously and some other emPHatic, Freaking "F" words on my Family tree. That's about 2--3?--weeks now--I keep track of time only randomly. The best I can say this morning is that it's Autumn.

Those who've done heritage research already know it's dangerously compelling. For those who haven't, let me tell you to clear massive amounts of time for this addictive activity if making the attempt. Like most things, I'm trying to do it on the cheap. I started with a free 14-day trial at I think I'm now into the $30 for the first month. I don't have "tree-maker" software other than nimble fingers at the keyboard transmitting to my word processing program.

I look around at my desk(s)--arranged in a functional L-fashion--and realize the research has taken over my studio. There are piles of print outs, scribbled notes with lists of siblings, dates of birth, a county map of Missouri, my calculator to figure ages quickly, my old (and pathetic) family tree book laid out. Among these is a stack of books, Sagas of the Icelanders, Njal's Saga, The Poetic Edda, and I realize I'm the descendant, the inheritor of the spirit of the folk in those books. I know now, most intimately, that I'm not just begat from the northern regions where they lived, but I care about the same thing they cared about, that is, family.

At the beginning of every Norse saga, there's always a genealogy, and usually more throughout the book as the author uses these family trees to define the characters. The sagas, unique as a literary form, shun dramatic exposition. They are about action, physical description, poetry and terse judgements like "All of his sons were accomplished men," and "...he defended himself so valiantly that he did not give way under their attack at all." But...the people of that time, familiar with heroes of these sagas could picture the character of a person if given their family tree.

To the modern reader, these genealogies seem dry. However, I'm familiar with worse from reading medieval literature, and as I became more knowledgable with saga figures, I began to appreciate these litanies of ancestral lines. In fact, I now eagerly search them for familiar names, piecing together the people in this saga with those from another.

From Bolli Bollason's Tale (trans. Keneva Kunz), here's an example of this style of introducing the relationships (characters) in a story.

"At the same time as Bolli Bollason lived at Tunga, as was spoken of earlier, a man called Arnor Crone's-nose, the son of Bjarni Thordarson of Hofdi, lived on the farm Miklabaer in Skagafjord.

Another man, named Thord, lived with his wife Gudrun at Marbaeli. They were fine, upstanding farmers with wealth in plenty. Their son Olaf was still a boy at the time and a most promising young man. Gudrun, Thord's wife, was a near relative of Bolli Bollason, as her mother was his aunt. Gudrun's son Olaf was named after Olaf Peacock of Hjardarholt.

At Hof in Hjaltadal lived Thord and Thorvald Hjaltason, two prominent leaders.

A man called Thorolf Stuck-up lived at Thufur. He had an unfriendly nature and was often uncontrollable when angry. He owned a very aggressive grey bull. Thord of Marbaeli had sailed on merchant voyages with Arnor. Thorolf Stuck-up was married to a kinswoman of Arnor's and was one of the thingmen of the Hjaltasons. He was on hostile terms with his neighbours and was used to making trouble, of which the people of Marbaeli bore the brunt...."

Notice the phrase "as was spoken of earlier." There is no earlier in this saga; those are the first four paragraphs. The author is, therefore, referring to another story when "Bolli Bollason lived at Tunga," thus reminding his listeners/readers of the events and people in a previous tale.

Now, what I was saying...I realize, though over a millenium separates me by birth, I AM these people. Not only do I care to know these ancient lineages in order to understand the story, I'm just as fascinated by my modern family relationships. And I'm not the only one, but one of a kindred, and my "folk" have not, in over that millenium and more, not much changed their style of sharing the information. Compare this letter written by a relative of mine (a family treasure, by the way) to the saga example above.

"Then next came Wesley and all I know about him (don't remember ever seeing him) is that my dad said he and Grandpa D. (Henry) never got along too well; they both had "Ditzenberger tempers" and often had regular fist fights, so when he got old enough he left home and eventually settled in Oklahoma and there he married a part-Indian girl by the name of Captolia and they had one daughter named Myrtle, who used to visit Grandpa and Grandma Ditzenberger every few years--she was a pretty blonde with real curly hair, so she must have taken after Uncle John, my grandfather, and Uncle Bert as far as her curly hair was concerned but she was wild as an Indian and Grandma couldn't handle her and I think she sent her home to her mother one time after a short stay. As I recall what Dad said, Uncle Wesley had died and her mother, Captolia, didn't have much control over her...."

That was written by a woman with the surname of Stonebreaker more than twenty years ago. Lineage, action, physical description, these were her stock in trade, same as the saga writers. The pretty blonde, daughter of a part-Indian girl and the son of a German immigrant named Ditzenberger, the girl no one could handle, was my grandmother (Granner), who died in 1992. From her I inherited my height and my cheekbones. Maybe I inherited other things as well, but I'll leave the character traits to the judgement of others.

No comments: