Folklore, Superstition, and the Confluence of Ways Both Old and New
Norway is rich with folklore and mythology, and Norwegian author Lars Mytting captures the essence of this deeply in The Bell in the Lake. The first in a planned trilogy of novels, this story unfolds in the isolated village of Butangen in southern Norway. An air of superstition surrounds the story from the first pages when we become briefly acquainted with the local legends, the conjoined Hekne sisters who were born generations before the story’s main events.
Halfrid and Gunhild were famous for their weaving skill, in particular a tapestry called Skråpnånatta, depicting a day of judgment like Ragnarök. It was said that the sisters—who shared everything they saw and experienced—shared a glimpse into the kingdom of the dead when the first one died, leaving the second to finish the prophetic scene.
The bells, forged in their memory, became objects of lore that the people of Butangen carried for generations, even as the outside world and modernism entered the village. The bells were said to ring of their own accord—a portent of something to come. As told by one of the villagers,
“When the bells were cast, it weren’t just silver that Eirik Hekne threw in. He threw in a lock of each girl’s hair and a piece of her nail. Thus the bells got the talent of seeing into the future, just as the girls had done when they looked into the hereafter. But nobody knows how far into the future the sisters saw nor how far the bells will see. Some say till the end of time, all the way to Skråpånatta. But happen we donae fully understand the truth of Skråpånatta. If they could find the weave, we might know more. With each age we understand summat new, but with each age we lose understanding for the times yore” (125).
Join The Heart & Huset’s Scandi Book Club as we read The Bell in the Lake this spring!
The bridge between past and future
The core story takes place generations after the Hekne sisters’ deaths, centered on a descendent of the sisters, Astrid. Having refused the suiters who have since come her way, Astrid yearns to experience the world beyond Butangen, whose inhabitants live and die without seeing much if any of the world outside. She becomes the bridge between the past and the future, the tight confines of the village to the world outside, and the societal expectations and the agency and purpose she finds within herself.
Around 1880, the world comes knocking twice. Once in the form of Kai Schweigaard, the new pastor, and next in the form of Gerhard Schönauer, the German architecture student and artist tasked with drawing the village’s stave church and planning its demolition and reconstruction in Dresden. Astrid gets to know both of these men, curious whether they might provide her with a way out of Butangen.
The villagers bemoan the new pastor’s new ways, preferring their own customs and beliefs. Even so, the church—which is a center of village life—has seen alterations over time, with ornately carved portions removed and supposedly used as firewood without much thought or concern. As for the architect, they tolerate him mostly, leaving him to his work, until word gets out that the legendary sister bells will be leaving Butangen with him when he returns to Dresden.
Stave church as link to Norway’s history
One of the things I love so much about this book is its strong sense of Norwegian identity. The town of Butangen bears the marks of centuries, and it’s clear it holds the ghosts from the medieval days when the Norse myths were still the common belief and mingled with the Christianity that was still new to Norway. One of the ways that the author accomplishes this sense of place is through the descriptions of the church.
Stave churches have a rich history going back centuries in Norway, with an estimated one thousand being built between the 11th and 14th centuries (today there are 28 remaining; six of them are UNESCO World Heritage sites). Stave churches represent a time when the existing paganism and newly-introduced Christianity mingled, a reflection of the old and new ways which is very much a theme of the book. The distinct architectural style, constructed of staves that vertically upheld the building, was adorned with ornate carvings depicting scenes from both Norse mythology and Christianity. As such, describing the stave church was a way to show the folklore and mythology that were vital to the village and also to Norwegian history, giving the story a strong rootedness with layers of meaning, symbolism, and depth.
Time and place through folklore
Another tool that Mytting uses to establish a sense of place and time and to cement the story’s rootedness in the village is through folklore. There is much of this in the customs that he describes, from the way the midwife tells an expectant mother how to tell the sex of her unborn child to the sister bells at the center of the story.
The bells serve as a controlling image throughout the novel, to use a term taught by poet Dorianne Laux at my January 2023 MFA residency. Laux described a controlling image as something concrete that haunts a piece of writing, in the way that a familiar would assist a witch—an object that forwards the ideas in a piece of writing and allows a vortex to give it something steady amidst the chaos.
The author took inspiration for the sisters and the bells from stories told by Ivar Kleiven, who collected folk stories from Norway. He establishes the significance of the bells from the beginning:
The Sister Bells had neither a sad nor fearful ring. At the core of each chime was a vibrancy, a promise of a better spring, a resonance coloured by beautiful, sustained vibrations. Their sound penetrated deeply, creating mirages in the mind and touching the most hardened of men. With a skilful bell-ringer the Sister Bells could turn doubters into churchgoers, and the explanation for their powerful tone was that they were malmfulle – that silver had been added to the bronze when the church bells were cast. The more silver, the more beautiful and resonant the chime (6).
The bells are believed to ring out a warning if disaster was about to take place and serve as such harbingers throughout the book. When Astrid learns that the bells are to be taken to Dresden along with the church, she cannot accept this and weaves her own fate with theirs in a quest to keep them in Butangen. Early on, before we even meet Astrid, the author summarizes the story that is to come, making it already a legend:
The bells hung safely in the tower until 1880, when they and the village were the subject of sudden changes and unbending wills. One of the bells would even finish up under water and be hauled up again, and the only person who would have any power over their fate was a young girl of Hekne lineage. Her sacrifice was no less than that made by the Hekne parents centuries ago, but hers had to be made in secret, and for some time only one man would remember her for it. Those who might have wanted to remember would have found it hard to understand her actions without knowing the story of the stave church and the village she called home (8).
Indeed, in a mystical experience, Astrid experiences a vision that emboldens her to become the bells’ protector.
The dust shone in the shafts of light, making glittering pillars in the air. She got the feeling that there was someone else in the belfry, someone who wanted something of her. The shadows dissolved in the stronger light, and some of the letters on the bells were now legible. A lump rose in her throat, and she started to shake, as she saw what was written there: “IN LOVING MEMORIE OF HALFRID AND HER MOTHER ASTRID.” Then she heard a faint humming from the bells, like the buzzing of giant bumblebees, rich and manifold. She held her breath until it had stopped, crouched down, ran her little finger across the bronze and brought her tongue to its tip. A sharp, salty taste. Astrid moved carefully over to the other bell. “IN LOVING MEMORIE OF GUNHILD AND HER MOTHER ASTRID.” She began to hear stray sounds from another time, echoes that had lain in a daze, a rumble that went deeper and deeper into her, until it found the last remaining straw of rationality and took the form of a voice that twisted the inscription on the bells, and a woman’s voice said in an ancient tongue: “Thou art their mother.” Astrid felt herself change. It was murky and cold, a strange smell tore at her nostrils, and somebody was talking about her (152).
Where old and new converge
Though surrounded and undoubtedly influenced by both the traditions of the villagers and the pastor’s desire to rid them of their superstition, Astrid chooses to listen to her heart and her reason as she considers her own path. She takes not only her own life in her hands but also acts according to her own convictions in regards to her babies, her lovers, her dreams of a future outside of the village, and saving the sister bells. As such, Astrid becomes the embodiment of the confluence of old and new, forever changing the village of Butangen.
Mytting, Lars. The Bell in the Lake. Translated by Deborah Dawkin. London: MacLehose Press, Quercus, 2020.
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