Transit ads in the Faroe Islands feature a short, shaggy beast on a sunlit mountain road with the accompanying slogan 'It's sheep and easy by bus.' But as a shuttle dropped me off in the middle of a March blizzard to make the 10-minute slog through knee-deep snow to my hostel, a different slogan came to mind: Viking territory. No wimps allowed.
If you know where the Faroes are, grab your broadsword and hit the alehouse, because most people don't. These 18 small, rocky islands in the North Atlantic, midway between Scotland and Iceland, are home to 48,000 people and twice as many woolly ruminants. Technically Danish subjects, Faroese have Viking ancestry, their own Old Norse-variant language, and a strong independence movement. I first discovered the islands through web videos by Tyr, a mail-clad foursome who crank out ancient Faroese ballads, heavy-metal style. (While I was forcing Beowulf on my preuniversity students, I had e-mailed Tyr's singer and lead guitarist, Heri Joensen, to see if he would answer class questions on the modern relevance of ancient stories. His reply: 'We are honoured to be used for educational material.') One video depicted mighty stone ruins and jagged, green-topped, sky-slicing cliffs dropping into churning surf. I had to go.
With a population of 18,000, T?rshavn is the Faroes' largest town and claims to be Europe's smallest capital. It feels both contemporary and out of time, with nightclubs and a shopping mall (complete with Burger King), but also traditional low black-tarred houses with sod roofs--all tucked under the wide, wild Nordic sky.
I meet Heri at the overheated Cafe Natur. Heri, who is in his early 30s, looks surprisingly boyish in a black turtleneck sweater, his long hair tied back. He asks how the trip has been. When I lament the previous night's three drunkards singing 'the white man marches on,' Heri looks out the window, shakes his head, and says, completely seriously, 'They should be arrested.' The band named itself for Tyr, the Norse god of both war and justice. But while there's a fine tradition of Scandinavian metalheads burning down churches and even rumors of a guitarist eating a band member's brain--Tyr is not part of it. In person Heri is hardly as grave as his sword-wielding persona, and Tyr's music, in fact, is not angry metal. Rather, Heri is a polite 'Viking metal' warrior, his English lyrics quite formal, and Tyr's songs, mostly rooted in Norse mythology, point to the social importance of history. Their song 'Hail to the Hammer' asks: 'What will keep us warm in the winter? Tales of those who died, sword in hand in times gone by.'
Heri takes very seriously the place of heroic stories in the community, and his own role as transmitter. For although Tyr has been accused of 'ruining' the national ballad, 'Ormurin Langi' (the long serpent), Heri claims young people are now more familiar with Tyr's modernized version--popular culture is what kept the Faroese language alive for centuries. For more than 400 years, Danish was the official written language of the Faroe Islands, and Faroese was preserved mainly through songs and folktales.
But why Viking metal? Why myth in our modern age? 'Is it because it's your heritage?' I ask. Heri, who has been drinking only water, admits to liking the exaggeration, humor, and 'macho' elements of Norse myths and sagas; a character in the ballad 'Regin Smidur' 'tears up large oak trunks, he maims some to hell.'
Heri also believes that people are uncomfortable and uncertain whom to trust and that popular interest in myth and legend--like The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series--reflects society's desire for clear moral codes, where good and evil are distinct, where bad guys are easily identified and usually defeated. The ideal. Hope.
Back home, I sent Heri a bilingual English/Anglo-Saxon copy of Beowulf. He replied: 'I am now pondering over the likeness between the conjugation and vocabularies of Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and German.' A hobby etymologist, Heri is the thinking person's metalhead and reflects Shakespeare's idea that 'life is bound with all the strength and armour of the mind.' Tyr's music offers listeners mental girding through mythology's heroic values, as in the positive song 'Alive': 'Now sharpen your old axes, shine your armour and your sword of sight and sound. My warriors, let's go down together, time will tell us whether we will do or die.'
And Heri's personal slogan? 'Unite humanity. Unite metal.' Viking territory: no wimps indeed.
Reprinted from the Walrus (March 2007). Subscriptions: Canadian $39.75/yr. (10 issues) from Box 915, Station Main, Markham, ON L3P 9Z9, Canada