Margit Sandemo is Scandinavia’s most popular author. Her flagship multi-volume fantasy-historical saga The Legend of the Ice People, now about to be published in English for the first time, has made her something of a living legend among writers because it alone has sold 25 million copies in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.
On her mother’s side Margit is a descendant of numerous noble European families. Her mother was a Swedish countess, Elsa Reuterskiold of the aristocratic Finnish-Swedish Oxenstierna family, which figures fictionally in some of her early books in The Legend of the Ice People. Margit numbers among her ancestry Scottish and European monarchs, dukes and duchesses as well as the odd robber baron – not to mention more distant emperors of the ancient world in a pedigree, which she has traced, back more than two thousand years.
The countess, who chose to be a teacher, met Margit’s crofter father, Anders Underdal, during a visit to the Norwegian countryside in the early 1920s. They married although the countess lost her title in the process, and raised five children -- two daughters and three sons -- on a small farm they bought in the Fagernes region. Margit, born in 1924, was the second eldest.
Anders Underdal eventually made a reputation as a poet; he was the illegitimate son of the Norwegian Nobel Prize-winner, Bjornsterne Bjornson and a 17-year-old croft girl, Guri Andersdotter
Anders encouraged Margit to read the entire works of Shakespeare by the time she was eight years old. Shakespeare’s writings, particularly King Lear, inspired her deeply (‘I was fascinated by all the dead bodies’) – along with the works of Dostoevsky, J.R.R. Tolkien -- and Agatha Christie.
The Countess Elsa and Anders Underdal were divorced in l930 at her initiative, reportedly because by that time she felt her husband’s ‘back to nature’ way of life was unsuitable for a noblewoman like herself. She took her five children with her to Sweden and for some time they lived a life of ‘comparative vagrancy in corners of various manor houses belonging to relatives.’ This Margit remembers as ‘somewhat humiliating.’ She adds: ‘My mother and father met in the Norwegian mountains. She simply fell for him! So I lived both in the grandest mansions and a crofter’s cottage. In the cottage my hair and pillow was often frozen to the wall’s logs when I woke. So I learned the life of the highest born and the poorest. Very good for my writing.’
Margit enjoyed what she describes as ‘54 years of blissful marriage’ to Asbjorn Sandemo, an engineer by profession, who for many years acted as her business agent. He died in l999 and there are two sons and a daughter from the marriage as well as seven grandchildren and one great grandchild. Margit is dedicating the first English edition of The Legend of the Ice People to her late husband adding simply: ‘He made my life a fairy tale.’ Now in her eighties, Margit’s other great passion is white water rafting.