He’s notoriously forceful with women. His hairdo has been mocked and parodied. As of this year, new information has led us to believe he might be involved with a secret organization to demolish western democracies. Even his former exploits might be more outrageous than we previously thought, secret rooms with secret women. He might have family-ties to Iceland.
I’m speaking, of course, about Count Dracula, one of the most enduring and imitated characters in fiction. The Count has found himself, after over one-hundred years, at the centre of a literary mystery: two almost opposing tales, two origins, possibly written, or guided by, the original author, Bram Stoker. The first text, published in english in 1897, and the other, published in Icelandic in 1901.
If the author, Bram Stoker, was not involved in the Icelandic translation of Dracula, this is a case of a translator run amok, a rogue author shoehorning in his own story without detection by the world at large for nearly a century. If Bram Stoker was involved, this is a literary mystery that will puzzle fans and academics for years to come. Why is their two versions of this text? And why, oh why, was the other version only in Icelandic until now?
The Icelandic “Dracula”
In the original english text of Dracula, The Count claims to be a member of bloodline tracing back to the Icelandic berzerkers:
We Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the
blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship.
Here, in the whirlpool of European races, the Ugric tribe bore down
from Iceland the fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them, which
their Berserkers displayed to such fell intent on the seaboards of
Europe, aye, and of Asia and Africa too, till the peoples thought that
the werewolves themselves had come.
One of Bram Stoker’s source materials for Dracula was a book titled, The Book Of Were-wolves (1865). That book was written by Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, an english priest fascinated with the Icelandic Sagas and who travelled to Iceland and taught himself Icelandic. Reverend Sabine believed that Icelandic sagas gave insight into the origin of all worldwide superstitions–for it was easy to study their evolution in such a homogenous society and geographically contained language. Between 1850 and 1900 it was in vogue for artists to travel to Iceland, a wave of Icelandophiles toured the country up until World War I–not unlike the current wave of tourists Iceland enjoys today, one hundred years later.
The Count’s ability to transform into others, including not only people but also animals, appears to be partially inspired by Egill’s Saga and the Icelandic superstition of eigi einhamir or “not of one skin.” In the sagas, a person could take the form of a beast, acquiring an animal’s abilities of flight or strength, and that man was only recognizable by his eyes, which remained the same. You see this echoed in The Count’s abilities in Dracula, with him changing into a bat, a wolf and even fog or mist.
The similarities to Icelandic folklore, even the parallels, are not the most interesting relationship between the story of Dracula and Iceland. The real mystery and intrigue lies within the differences between the story of Dracula in English and the story in the Icelandic translation, Makt Myrkranna or The Power of Darkness.
A Tale Of Two Castles
In Dracula, Jonathan Harker is greeted at the door of the Count’s castle by the Count himself. In Makt Myrkranna, Thomas Harker is greeted at the door of the castle by a deaf and mute housekeeper. Once inside, both Harkers begin to realize something isn’t right, but it is only in Makt Myrkranna that Harker continually shares the castle with others besides the Count. There is the dream-like sequence in Dracula where three vampire-women began to seduce Harker before the Count shoos them away, but the Icelandic text has Harker sustaining an increasingly intimate relationship with a beautiful blonde woman who lives in a tower in the top of the castle. There is a less puritanical skew to the story and Harker becomes increasingly obsessed with the beautiful blonde, while still loving his wife, and eventually has to be separated by the Count.
The Count is, in the Icelandic text, less of a monster and more of a power hungry aristocrat. He only behaves aggressively towards Harker when he’s not himself and there is no mention of the teeth marks. Exclusively in the Icelandic text, Harker finds a secret temple within the castle where half-ape minions perform blood sacrifices.
This literary discovery is an exciting adventure for lovers of Dracula and history. The annotated version of Makt Myrkranna comes with all the extra information you need to investigate the mystery yourself.
The First English Translation Of Makt Myrkranna
An Interview with Hans Corneel De Roos, the translator of Makt Myrkranna to english.
What got you interested in the differences between the English and Icelandic versions of the text?
In 2013, I was writing an article for the Journal of Dracula Studies, about Stoker’s claim that all events described in Dracula would be authentic. Although the story obviously deals with supernatural topics, Bram added a whole layer of geographical and historical details to make it seem factual. At the same time, he was concealing his most essential references, such as the lifetime identity of Count Dracula and the true location of his castle. I deciphered both in 2012 and now I intended to describe this “paradox of fact and fiction” in my new article. The preface to Makt Myrkranna is Bram’s most elaborate statement on the veracity of his story, so I looked for the Icelandic text of this foreword to crosscheck it against the translation published by Richard Dalby in 1986. But while doing so, I stumbled over the rest of the Icelandic edition as well and found it had been serialized in Valdimar Ásmundsson’s newspaper Fjallkonan, starting in January 1900. I examined some paragraphs and discovered that they depicted events that don’t occur in Dracula. In Iceland, Úlfhildur Dágsdottir and Ásgeir Jónsson had already noted that Makt Myrkranna was no ordinary translation, but outside of Iceland, both the serialization and the modified plot were completely unknown to literary scholars.
How was the translation process of translating back to English? Did you work with a team? Did you need to research contextual or colloquial uses of Icelandic around 1900?
I am not sure if there ever was an English original text; I rather suspect that Valdimar worked from a draft or from notes supplied by Stoker and filled in many details or even plot turns himself. For me, the translation was a real challenge, as I did not know Icelandic and the text produced by Google translator was hardly understandable. I managed to find 25 Icelandic volunteers, so I split the text in 25 small parts and had each participant work through a fragment of my first translation draft. After they had returned their comments to me, I edited the whole text once more―and then there was another round. Still, there were dozens of open questions left, especially where Valdimar had used expressions not in use anymore today. During the process, I learned Icelandic and could solve most of these issues by cross-checking with other Icelandic texts from the 19th century. It was quite a puzzle and without help, I never would have managed. But the final decisions remained with me, to make sure that the result was consistent.
Why do you think, if Bram was involved in the changes, that there are such dramatic differences in the text―especially the first part?
I think that some modifications must come from Stoker himself while other changes were made by Valdimar. After I published a first report on the text differences in February 2014, some Dracula scholars proposed that Stoker might have used the Icelandic publication as a vehicle to launch a more radical version of Dracula that had been rejected by the British publishing industry: more political and with more erotic candidness. But personally, I doubt that Stoker was responsible for the nude scenes in Powers of Darkness, for example. We know that he strongly opposed sexually flavoured descriptions in fiction; in 1908, he even wrote in favour of censorship. Intriguing is that Stoker in the preface mentions Dr. Seward as a reliable witness and a good friend, in the present tense. But in the novel, Seward turns mad and dies soon after. From this, I conclude that Bram Stoker was not familiar with all details of the Icelandic version.
The idea of the Count’s main goal being to overthrow European democracies rather than personal sustenance seems like a substantial change in theme. Do you think that was affected by the change in market or was there something in the English market at the time that would have made Bram Stoker wary to produce such a narrative? (Or conversely, something in the Icelandic market that made governmental conspiracy stories seem sellable?)
In Makt Myrkranna, the Austrian ambassador in London is portrayed as the Count’s criminal accomplice, while the French ambassador’s wife is enjoying amorous affairs in aristocratic circles. Such a story might have been frowned upon in London, especially as Stoker and his employer, the actor Henry Irving, in their Lyceum Theatre hosted the elite of the British Empire. In Iceland, such a plot certainly would have met less resistance. But again, we do not know for sure who was responsible for it. Fact is that Valdimar was interested in Anarchism and in his newspaper sharply protested against the way the suspects of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago had been treated. Although in Makt Myrkranna, the Count hopes to establish an elitist tyranny, he also sympathizes with Anarchist actions. So maybe these ideas originate from Valdimar, not from Bram Stoker.
Valdimar’s wife Bríet was one of the first women’s rights activist in Iceland, concerned about the same issues (voting and pay) as Bram’s mother Charlotte in Ireland. Does the fact that physical revulsion towards intimacy is removed from the Icelandic text suggest that this change is Valdimar’s work more than Bram’s (considering similar themes of revulsion occurring in later work by Stoker)?
Yes, that is very well possible. As you mention, around 1900 the feminist movement fought for better education and pay, and for women’s voting rights. A feminist critique of male-dominated sexuality was only developed in the 1970’s and later. In Victorian England, art and literature produced by men still portrayed sexually active women as dangerous temptresses—exactly this image we find in Stoker’s description of the three vampire women and of Lucy. Valdimar, on the other hand, had a less cramped attitude. In an article on the USA, he made an ironic remark about prudish American laws prohibiting a man to do his laundry and dry his underwear in a place where an unsuspecting woman might see it. He also noted that American bigotry hampered mothers from breastfeeding their babies in public. Valdimar supported Bríet in her feminist activities but did not demonize sexuality in the way Bram Stoker did.
How strong do you think the literary connection between Dracula and Icelandic folklore is?
In Dracula, we find references to the berserker warriors known from Nordic sagas and the Count reports that his Szekler race had inherited its fighting spirit from the Icelanders. Strangely enough, in Makt Myrkranna these references do not occur. Instead, the Icelandic text mentions the saga of the Elven Queen, compares strong men to trolls, reports on grave mound fires known from Norse myths, etc. Some of these references are so subtle that only someone familiar with the Icelandic sagas is able to detect them. As Valdimar was Iceland’s most foremost expert on such medieval texts, I suspect that he was the one who inserted such elements.
The Publisher Of Makt Myrkranna Says, “It’s no ordinary translation.”
An interview with Ásgeir Jónsson, the publisher of the Icelandic text.
Why do you think it took so long for english language scholars of Dracula to realize Makt Myrkranna and Dracula were so different?
I do not think that the English speaking world has ever given much attention to the contemporary literary scene in Iceland – especially not to some archaic translations. Thus, it comes not as a surprise that Makt Myrkranna was unbeknownst to the English speaking world for such a long time.
Also, Makt myrkranna was published in the newspaper Fjallkonan as a serial and was then printed as a complete story in very limited number in 1901. It did receive much attention at the time. In fact, it was considered as literary rubbish and full of vulgarity – just as many other foreign romans that were serialized in late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Indeed, we have a special word in Icelandic for serialized romans from this period as “neðanmálssögur” or stories-below-the-news – which is synonymous with low literal quality. The intelligentsia would of course think that public should read the Sagas or some serious novels – not neðanmálssögur. Furthermore, Valdimar himself died shortly after the publication of Makt Myrkranna and soon become largely forgotten.
I myself am a book collector and found Makt myrkranna by chance in an antique bookshop. (It is a very rare item) The book was in tatters. I became quite amazed when I read it. I have read Dracula in the original language and quickly saw that this was in fact not a translation but rather a different version of Dracula. I began to ask around and found that the book just seemed to be forgotten. I really liked the story and had it re-published in 2013 – and thus it came to the attention of Hans Dee Rool. We have been in an extensive correspondence since that time.
Are there influences in Makt Myrkranna that are especially Valdimar’s?
It is difficult to say. Valdimar was a self-taught man – he did not have much of formal schooling. He was one the many country boys in Iceland that grew up reading the Icelandic Sagas, and in fact copying their style. He was recognized for his writing skills. Halldor Laxness our Nobel laureate called him the best pen of his generation. Makt myrkranna as a translation is very well written – this is Icelandic as its best. (That was also the main reason for why I thought it should be re-published.)
Valdimar was one the first socialists in Iceland – and in fact his son (Héðinn) became the leader of the social democrats later on. In the book, Dracula discusses politics at length – which might be an influence from Valdimar.
How do you think Valdimar was in contact with Bram Stoker?
I do not really know. It is not implausible. England and Iceland forged very close trade links in the late nineteenth century when Iceland became a major supplier of both fish and meat. For quite many Icelandic nationalists, trade with England was an alternative to dealing with the hated Danes and a strategy to be less economically reliant on Denmark. I for example know that HG Wells was in close connection with some Icelanders.
Valdimar visited England on a number of occasions and was involved in various types of business activities with Englishmen. He also traded in antique books – and was the first source for foreigners wanting to buy rare Icelandic books. Through that, he became
became acquainted with quite many foreign intellectuals/wealthy individuals. One of that links might have led to Bram Stoker.
Has this sort of translation curiosity happened in Icelandic before that you know of?
It was quite common for Icelandic translators to take liberties in the past. Indeed, quite many Icelandic writers – like Halldór Laxness – would translate foreign novels by rewriting the text to suit icelandic literary traditions. It was also common to abridge the novels in translation and take various shortcuts. I however am not aware any other translation where so many fundamental changes have been made from the original than Makt myrkranna – where new characters and new scenes have been added. Makt myrkranna is a very different story than Dracula.
How influenced by Icelandic folklore do you believe Bram Stoker might have been?
Well, it is debatable. However noticed one thing. In his novel Dracula, he mentions Vikings and Berserks – an ancient Nordic warrior cult whose adherents believed they could assume the powers of animals like wolfs and bears and in fact assume the physical shape of these animals. This is exactly how Bram Stokers describes vampires.
Why do you think the text was changed so significantly?
That is the million dollar question.
Valdimar was not a poet nor did he every try to compose his own text. In fact, he was quite earthbound when writing in his paper – Fjallkonan. It is very difficult to envision him be the original author of Makt myrkranna. He was certainly not making his translating job easier by making up his own story instead of just translating the original. I think that Makt myrkranna was a direct translation – maybe abridged – of a text which was probably composed by Bram Stoker himself.
The audiobook version will be released next year.