Old Jail: New Inmates

The Reykjavík Penalty House currently Iceland’s oldest still operative jail/prison is being shut down for good since it opened in 1874. The Penalty House is not the oldest correctional facility in Iceland, that would be the Stjórnarráð built in 1790 (a direct translation would be Government-Council) which is now the office of the Prime Minister. The Penalty House will be shut down this summer and the inmates moved to a modern facility on the outskirts of the city. The new facilities are built with the Scandinavian rehabilitation mindset and is comparable to facilities in Norway and Sweden. 

The inmates of the Penalty House will no doubt be happy with their new arrangements since the old building has been neglected over the past few decades. Inmates complained about small cells and cold temperatures. Not to mention the noise coming from the busy downtown area, especially the night life during the weekends for which the inmates were supplied with hearing protectors.

The building itself is protected by law and will remain a government property. The local city council is optimistic about the buildings future as a cultural center. The prison yard for example would be excellent for art installations and projects. This would be a welcome change to Reykjavík’s deteriorating art-scene, hopefully these new artistic inmates will work to restore the scene. For now however the building will be undergoing extensive repair work after the last inmate is transferred.  

A Duel From Egil’s Saga

I’ve been reading Egil’s Saga again, one of my favorite Sagas. I reached one of my favorite parts when Egill duels Atli at an assembly over a land dispute. Here is an excerpt from the duel:

After that they prepared themselves for the duel. Egill came forward wearing a helmet on his head and carrying a shield in front of him, with a spear in his hand and his sword Dragvandil tied to his right hand. It was the custom among duelers to have their swords at hand to have them ready when they wanted them, instead of needing to draw them during the fight. Atli was equipped in the same way as Egill. He was strong and courageous, an experienced dueler, and skilled in the magic arts. Then a huge old bull was brought out, known as the sacrificial bull, for the victor to slaughter. Sometimes there was one bull, and sometimes each of the duelers brought his own. When they were ready for the duel, they ran at each other and began by throwing their spears. Neither stuck in the shields; the spears both fell to the ground. Then they both grabbed their swords, closed in and exchanged blows. Atli did not yield. They struck hard and fast, and their shields soon began to split. When Atli’s shield was split right through, he tossed it away, took his sword in both hands and hacked away with all his might. Egill struck him a blow on the shoulder, but his sword did not bite. He dealt a second and third blow, finding places to strike because Atli had no protection. Egill wielded his sword with all his might, but it would not bite wherever he struck him. Egill saw that this was pointless, because his own shield was splitting through by then. He threw down his sword and shield, ran for Atli and grabbed him with his hands. By his greater strength, Egill pushed Atli over backwards, then sprawled over him and bit through his throat.

Atli died on the spot. Egil rushed to his feet and ran over to the sacrificial bull, took it by the nostrils with one hand and by the horns with the other, and swung it over on to its back, breaking its neck. Then Egil went over to his companions. He spoke this verse:

Dragvandill did not bite
the shield when I brandished it.
Atli the Short kept blunting
its edge with his magic.
I used my strength against
that sword-wielding braggart,
my teeth removed that peril.
Thus I vanquished the beast.

Egill then acquired all the lands he had fought over and had claimed as his wife Asgerd’s inheritance from her father. Nothing else of note is said to have happened at the assembly.

Too bad Iceland no longer has trial by combat. I’m fairly certain it would have made the legal proceedings over the bankers more interesting.

Book Review: Guns of the South

The Guns of the South is an alternate history book by Harry Turtledove, arguably the master of alternate historical fiction. In Guns of the South the unthinkable happens and the Confederacy wins the civil war with slave owners retaining their “right” of owning slaves. Southern victory was achieved by the means of 21st century time travelers (South-African neo-Nazis to be exact) who introduce the AK-47 assault rifle to the Confederate forces allowing them to outgun their opponents and swiftly claim victory. 

Naturally the book covers a delicate subject and any discussion about a possible Confederate victory in the civil war is incomplete without wondering what the status of the slaves would be. Guns of the South tackles this subject in a realistic manner. General Lee is elected Confederate President in 1867, he had witnessed the ferocity with which black soldiers fought with in the Union army and so had many other Southerners which made him and others find new found respect to their “inferiors” and fear a possible slave revolt. Not to mention the fact that he had access to a history book from the 20th century, which covered the events of our timeline in which the South lost and showed how slavery was considered something only a criminal state would employ in the modern age. Subsequently President Lee passes a bill which would have slowly given blacks full civil rights, this law is comparable to the abolition of slavery in the Empire of Brazil which slowly progressed until its eventual abolition in 1888. 

The book itself is an enjoyable read and Turtledove gives one a fascinating input on the progress of events through the eyes of General Lee (later President Lee) and Nate Caudell a sergeant in the Confederate army. These two characters present the reader with two different viewpoints, the more historically interesting events surrounding Lee and what Confederate victory meant for ordinary people through the eyes of Nate Caudell. Sadly the book does not have any major black characters, although this does not mean that blacks are excluded from the story but are merely in the background. I found this rather disappointing and I’m sure the book would have benefited with a point of view of a black slave. The two protagonists Lee and Caudell are abolitionists and are always on friendly terms with the black characters they come across, be they slaves or not. This is not true of some of the more dislikeable and outright racist characters such as General Forrest (future KKK founder) and many of the time travelling Nazis whose savage treatment of black slaves is considered grotesque even by slavery supporting Southerners.

 The love interest of Nate Caudell, Mollie Bean, is an interesting character. She is a former prostitute turned soldier in the Confederate forces who had to conceal her identity to fight alongside the men. A handful of examples of secret female soldiers in the civil war are well documented on both sides of the conflict, so she does not seem entirely out of place for the time period.  

Guns of the South is definitely one of the more interesting books I have read on the American Civil War and possibly the best alternate history novel I have read in some time, maybe on par with Robert Harris’ best seller Fatherland. I easily recommend the book to any fan of history or the civil war who has probably wondered, what if the South had won?

Takeda Shingen

I’ve been reading up on medieval Japanese history and I ran across this quote by Takeda Shingen who was a powerful warlord in the 16th century. I found it to be both beautiful and inspiring. This quote became closely associated with Shingen and the Takeda clan as a whole.

Fast like the wind,

Silent like a forest,

Intrusive like the fire,

Immobile like a mountain.

A short note on “The Alexiad”

One of the books that I am currently reading is the “Alexiad” written in the middle of the 12th century by the Byzantine princess Anna Komnene. It is a historical book that covers the events leading up to and during the first crusade. The book mostly covers the story of Anna’s father Emperor Alexios I, who saved the Byzantine Empire from certain destruction by the hand of Europeans and Turks. The book is an interesting read not only because it is written about one of the most important events in medieval history but also due to the fact that Anna chose to include her own perspective and feelings on the events that unfold, which is very unusual for a history book.

The passages in which she voices her own opinions on historical events are enlightening, especially the passages on the life of people (or at least the aristocrats in the palace) in the medieval period. She for example, is unabashed in her descriptions of the ‘barbarians’ which could either be Christian Europeans or Muslim Turks. Moreover, she describes the life in Constantinople’s great palace and her relationship with her parents, Emperor Alexios and Empress Irene. A favorite passage of mine was Anna’s recount of a conversation she had with her mother on why she chose to read dogmatic Christian books over books on philosophy. Reading actual conversations such as those, in which the people speaking have been dead for almost a thousand years is an interesting read. I recommend the Alexiad to any student or fan of history (especially the crusader period). The book certainly has a more ‘human’ view, so to say, of history than any other medieval history book I have read.