Monday, 10 October 2011

Vatnsdæla saga: Place-Names and Petit Point

Vatnsdalur, looking north up the valley

"As we advance along the rich meadows of the dale, Jörundarfell rises grandly over a magnificent facade of contorted beds of rock, like a bit of the Savoy Alps in general aspect, though not identical in geology. Among the incidents of the valley there is a pretty waterfall ... hanging from the cliffs, -- losing itself half way down in spray, and finding itself again in a stream collected out of the thin fringe of falling rain, in which the iris shines distinct in the afternoon against the black background of the gill" (Pilgrimage, p. 160). As I drove south down Vatnsdalur the other day, the rich meadows Collingwood noted in his description of the valley were barely visible for thick low rainclouds; the waterfall was less of a -fall than a -lift or an upward-kicking of spray because of the winds; and when the clouds eventually lifted, snow could be seen to have dusted itself over the upper reaches of the steep mountain Jörundarfell, and had lined the countless vertical cracks and gullies running down to the lower reaches, producing a sharp inlay effect.

Hof in Vatnsdalur, Ingimundr's farmstead
Collingwood thought Vatnsdalur to be one of the most beautiful valleys in Iceland. The saga which tells of the valley's first settlers and their descendants, Vatnsdæla saga, is a rich one too, with a romping mythical-heroic opening section set in Norway that includes giant-killing and princess-marrying; a reluctant emigration to Iceland by the son of the giant-slayer and the princess; local feuds a-plenty over several generations once Vatnsdalur and the surrounding area has been settled; magic of various kinds; prophetic dreams; a clowder of cats (really!); and endless anecdotes explaining how one place or another acquired its picking-grounds for those interested in saga-onomastics.

In the entrance hall of the local school is a vast mural painted by the Catalan artist Baltasar Samper (famous for his frescoes in the church on the island of Flatey) in the 1980s which presents the saga narrative chronologically in visual form. I was told that all children know of the saga and know the principal episodes in it because of this mural; presently, the saga is being 'retold' in textile-form by a group of local people who began work on the 'Vatnsdæla tapestry' this year. The tapestry's design takes its inspiration from the Bayeaux Tapestry; work will continue for a good 10 or 15 years...until the tapestry reaches its projected length of 45 metres...

In an inversion of the more usual topos at the beginning of the Íslendingasögur where 'independent Norwegian emigrates to Norway after refusing to bow to the tyranny of King Haraldr hárfagri ('Fair-Hair)', Ingimundr -- who is a close friend and ally of King Haraldr -- is reluctant to emigrate to Iceland, calling it an eyðisker ('wasteland skerry'; Vatnsdæla saga, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson, Íslenzk fornrit 8 (Reykjavík 1939), ch. 10, p. 27). But a Finnish seeress prophecies that Ingimundr's fate lies on this hostile rock, and says that her prediction will come true -- as a proof, some silver that is in Ingimundr's purse will disappear and he will find it in the place in Iceland where he is ordained to build a farm. A little later, three more supernatural Finns perform an out-of-body exploration of Iceland on Ingimundr's behalf, and survey the area where Ingimundr's fate will lead him, describing the local features of the landscape.

Memorial stone to Þórdís at Þórdísarholt
Ingimundr sails from Norway with his wife and children; they come into Borgarfjörður in the North-west, and set off to explore the land to the north, naming valleys and natural features as they go. In one fjord, two rams run down a mountain towards them: that fjord they call 'Hrútafjörðr' ('Rams' Fjord'); they come across a large piece of driftwood on a small peninsula in Hrútafjörður and call that place 'Borðeyri' ('Plank-spit'); on a valley that is widely-grown with willow-trees they bestow the name 'Víðidalur' ('Willow Valley'). Eventually, the landscape unfolding before them resembles that which the Finns described for Ingimundr; they reach the mouth of Vatnsdalur ('Water Valley'), and Ingimudr's wife calls a temporary halt to the travelling while she gives birth to a daughter. The baby girl is given the name Þórdís, and the birth-site is given the name Þórdísarholt ('Þordís's coppice').  

Memorial stone to Ingimundr at Hof
The party continue on down the valley and stop on a grassy slope; here, Ingimundr decides to build his new home. Digging into the hill while building a large temple, Ingimundr finds the silver that had disappeared from his purse back in Norway...The farmstead is called Hof ('farm' or 'temple'). There is more naming around the local area: a female polar-bear and her two cubs who have washed up on Iceland on an iceberg give rise to the name 'Húnavatn' ('Young bear lake'); some sheep who disappear in the autumn and are then found the next spring are remembered in the place-name 'Sauðadalr' ('Sheep Valley'); a boar called Beigaðr gives his name to a hill on which he dies, 'Beigaðarhóll' ('Beigaðr's Hill').

The valley is settled widely over time, and the saga narrative proceeds. Ingimundr is killed in a fight by the river in the middle of the valley by a trouble-making outlaw to whom Ingimundr has offered protection; Ingimundr's sons avenge him and the saga then takes up their stories, and then the storie of their sons. Vatnsdæla saga is truly a multi-generational saga, though local knowledge seemed mostly to focus on Ingimundr, the first settler of the valley. In one vivid episode, one of Ingimundr's sons, Jökull, chases another local trouble-maker called Þórólfr down the valley, catching him up on a moor above the river; when Þórólfr sees that he will not escape, the saga states that ‘he sat down in the bog and cried; that place has been called Grátsmýrr (‘Weeping bog’) since’ (þá settisk hann niðr í mýrinni ok grét. Þar heitir síðan Grátsmýrr, Vatnsdæla saga ch. 30, p. 83). Jökull gains great renown for ridding the area of this dubious character.

Breiðabólstaður today
Vatnsdæla saga is thought to have been written by someone in the Benedictine monastery at Þingeyrar (founded in 1133) which sits on a raised open stretch of land in the mouth of Húnaflói, north of Vatnsdalur, and which is visible from miles around. Þingeyrar was the first monastery in Iceland; an event of great significance and with great literary ramifications had taken place in the area some 15 years beforehand, however. Over the winter of 1117/18, under the supervision of a powerful chieftain called Hafliði Másson who lived on a farm called Breiðabólstaður, the laws of the Commonwealth of Iceland were written down in the Icelandic vernacular, for the first time. A memorial stone at Breiðabólstaður marks this vital step in the ‘process of textualisation’ in Iceland, i.e., the shift from an oral culture (prior to 1117/18, the laws were recited by heart by the elected lög(sögu)maðr (‘law (reciting) man’), every summer at the National Assembly (the Alþingi), one-third at a time over 3 summers) to a literary/manuscript culture. Aspects of the oral culture never disappeared entirely though – and even fully modernised 21st-century Vatnsdalur, something of that spirit still seems to live on. On Saturday afternoon, between 1 and 5pm, people met in the building in the local town Blönduós where the Vatnsdæla tapestry is being produced, and sewed away at the story of the people of Vatnsdalur as they listened to someone reading aloud from the saga and ‘re-oralising’ the very events their needles were weaving in and out of.   

Þingeyrar church

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Insult Verses and Death-By-Scissors: Bjarnar saga Hítdælakappa

Hítárdalur, looking north into the valley
In my last post, I wrote about the tragic love between Gunnlaugr ormstunga ('serpent-tongue') and the beautiful Helga in fagra ('the fair'), and about how after Gunnlaugr dies fighting his treacherous rival-in-love, Hrafn, Helga is remarried and eventually dies herself, gazing at a cloak Gunnlaugr once gave to her. The farmstead on which Helga died, Ytri-Hraundalur, is in the Mýrar district in north-west Iceland, close to a long valley called Hítárdalur -- the location of much of the action of another saga about a poet and tragic lover, Bjarnar saga Hítdælakappa.

Bjarnar saga states that Björn was raised with his uncle at Borg: Björn's maternal grandmother was a sister of Egill Skalla-Grímsson, and Skalla-Grímr was Björn's great-grandfather (see my earlier post of 25th March  on Egils saga and Borg). This makes Björn -- I realise for the first time myself now -- a cousin of Helga the fair, who was the daughter of Egill's son Þorsteinn...the Icelandic obsession with genealogy is starting to rub off on me... Beyond the genealogical overlap and the geographical proximity of Bjarnar saga and Gunnlaugs saga, the protagonists of these two sagas -- Björn and Gunnlaugr -- are both poets and the sagas share a common plot (a plot that is found in two further sagas about poetic protagonists, Kormáks saga and Hallfreðar saga, both of which will be covered soon): the tragic love-triangle. And now for some story-telling on a rainy Sunday afternoon...

Björn is a promising young man: snimma mikill vexti ok rammr at afli, karlmannligr ok sæmiligr at sjá (Bjarnar saga, ed. Sigurður Nordal and Guðni Jónsson, Íslenzk fornrit 3 (Reykjavík 1938), ch. 1, p. 112; 'very large in stature at a young age and physically powerful, manly and becoming in appearance'). He falls in love with the beautiful and noble-charactered  Oddný eykyndill ('Island-candle') whom he visits on the island of Hjörsey where she lives -- and many people in the district reckon it will be a good match if Björn marries Oddný, with him being the finest of men and well bred. So Björn is engaged to Oddný -- but he longs to go abroad to make his name and fortune -- and thus the betrothal is fixed for a period of 3 years but if Björn doesn't return after that time, Oddný will be married to someone else, and Björn must send a message back to Iceland if he will not make it back. 

Hítarnes, Þórðr's (and later Oddný's) home
(with view over to the Snæfellsnes peninsula)
All goes well and Björn is treated generously at Eiríkr jarl's court in Norway, where another poet from the north-west of Iceland is also visiting. Although previously in Iceland, Björn had been on the receiving end of a certain amount of mockery and abuse from this man, Þórðr Kolbeinsson, Björn and Þórðr are on good terms over the winter, and one evening as they drink together (Björn was more affected by the alcohol than Þórðr, the saga notes), the conversation turns to Oddný and the question as to when Björn intends to head home. Not immediately, says Björn -- which Þórðr says sounds unwise when he has such a treasure as Oddný waiting for him back in Iceland. Þórðr suggests he takes a token and a message back for Oddný from Björn -- the gold armband that the jarl has given Björn might do -- and Björn, after hesitating, agrees. In the morning, Björn rather regrets saying so much to Þórðr and thinks he may have trusted him overly...

And these misgivings prove -- after a few sentences and a voyage by sea -- to be all too well founded. Þórðr delivers Björn's message (that he still intends to return to marry Oddný) and gives her the ring -- but treacherously, he adds a false post-script to Björn's message and claims that Björn has made over the betrothal to him should he die or not return to Iceland. Meanwhile, Björn is sent to Russia where he wins a great duel but is badly wounded; by the time he gets back to Norway at the end of the next summer, three years have passed and he all the boats sailing to Iceland have left...Þórðr marries Oddný; Björn hears the news and won´t go back to Iceland now, preferring rather to go to England where he kills a dragon. Björn runs into Þórðr back in Norway on one occasion and vows to fight him next time they meet; only his respect for King Óláfr (who has come to power now) prevents him from challenging Þórðr to a duel immediately. Eventually, Björn does return home (as, 1000 years later, do most Icelanders abroad, unless they are útrásarvíkingar on the run). And the feud between Björn and Þórðr -- the subject of the rest of the saga -- begins in earnest.

At first, this feud is conducted verbally and the two men exchange insult verses in which they communicate accusations of cowardice and deviant sexual behaviour or origins, with escalating seriousness. On one occasion, a local man and his farmhand discuss the relative insulting value of the verses Björn and Þórðr have composed about each other while busy with the outdoor task of charcoal-burning. Björn had composed a poem called 'Grámagaflím' ('Grey-belly Satire') in which he describes how Þórðr's mother had eaten a slimy rotten fish she found by the side of a lake and thereby conceived Þórðr. The farmhand has never heard anything to rival this poem in the gravity of its insult but his master thinks the poem that Þórðr composed about Björn and which is known as 'Kolluvísur' ('Cow Verses') is worse. He won't recite it at first despite the farmhand's urging since if Björn hears anyone perform it aloud he will kill them without having to pay compensation, since the transmission of such insult 'níð' verses in medieval Iceland was prohibited by law. Eventually he gives in -- only for Björn to leap out from behind a tree and strike him a deadly blow...tantalisingly, we, as the readers of the saga, never get to judge the which of the two poems is the more scurrilous for ourselves.
The red track to Hítarvatn (looking south)
Eventually – after a series of physical confrontations, various characters’ deaths, and some bad dreams which trouble Björn and anticpate his approaching death – Þórðr and a band of men travel to the end of Hítárdalur where Björn’s farm, Hólmr, is situtated beside the lake (Hítárvatn). I spent a night here, following a winding up-and-down, and sometimes bright red, track past the last farm in the valley and through lava-fields and bare sandy stretches. It’s sheep round-up time in the saga (as it was when I was in the area) and Þórðr’s men divide up into three groups of six, not knowing which route Björn will be taking, but covering each path. Björn decides to go out to trim the manes on some horses: he won’t let his bad dreams dictate his actions and he ignores his wife’s pleading to stay at home. Björn and a boy cross the river where it runs out of the lake and walk the path towards where the horses are, at Hvítingshjalli (so-named after one of Björn’s horses, Hvítingr; ‘-hjalli’ is a shelf or ledge along a mountain-side – I looked over towards this place from where I parked the ambulance overnight). The boy sees six men come towards them; “I’m going to hunt that bear (björn) that we all want to catch”, cries one of the men.

Björn won’t run and he sends the boy away after the horses; there is a bloody fight and Björn defends himself strongly killing some of his opponents. Other attackers arrive, including Þórðr (and a boy, who is nominally Þórðr’s and Oddný’s son, but actually fathered by Björn), and Björn continues to fight using the shears he brought out with him to cut the horses’ manes. I wonder whether Björn was the prototype for Edward Scissorhands... All marvel at Björn’s valiant defence but eventually Þórðr causes Björn to fall and he then chops off Björn’s head. It was sobering to think of such merciless violence being conducted in this now-deserted place; thoughts about Björn’s death, coupled with the slightly oppressive silence of the place, made the night I spent there a rather cold and dark one.

Þórðr, having decapitated Björn, ties the head to his saddle and rides back to Björn’s farm where he announces news of Björn’s death to his wife, and then to Vellir, about half-way down the valley, where Björn’s parents live. In a scene which has a close parallel with Grettis saga (and Grettir’s enemy throwing Grettir’s head at his mother’s feet, see post of September 11th), Þórðr casts Björn’s head before his mother. “I recognise the head,” says Björn’s mother, “And you may recognise it too because you were often terrified by the same head before, when it was attached to its body” (“Kenni ek höfuðit ... ok kenn mættir þú, því at fyrir inu sama höfði gekktu optliga hræddr, meðan þat fylgði bolnum”, Bjarnar saga ch. 33, p. 205). When Oddný hears of Þórðr's killing of Björn she grieves and dies herself shortly afterwards...

Hítárvatn; Hvítingshjalli on the left-hand shore

Driving back down Hítárdalur the next morning, I stopped to walk along the river in search of some stones that form a chain across the river known variously as 'Grettisstikklur' or 'Grettisstillur' (‘Grettir’s stepping- or leaping-stones’). In chapter 19 of Bjarnar saga, and chapter 61 of Grettis saga, mention is made of how Grettir, on the run as an outlaw, spends time hiding out in a lair ('Grettisbæli') on the mountain Fagraskógarfjall, on the western side of Hítárdalur, not far from Vellir, where Björn lived when he was not further up the valley at Hólmr. Björn and Grettir try each other’s strength and are said to be equally strong; on one occasion, they entertain themselves by hauling these stones into the river ‘which have never been moved since, neither by the power of flooding water, nor ice-floes, nor glacial flooding’ (er aldri síðan hefir ór rekit, hvárki með vatnavöxtum né ísalögum eða jöklagangi, Grettis saga, Íslenzk fornrit 7, ed. Guðni Jónsson, p. 188). A note in the edition of Grettis saga comments that these huge stones could never have been arranged thus by humans and must be a natural phenomenon – but then again, for better or worse, they don’t make men like Grettir or Björn nowadays...


Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Saga-Steads Documentary!

I am pleased to announce that Patrick Chadwick's documentary about my project, "Memories of Old Awake", was released by the University of Cambridge yesterday as part of their 'Cambridge Ideas' series. It was filmed in May in the West Fjords, and focuses on Gísla saga Súrssonar.

A short press release accompanies a link to the film on the University website here

Or you can go straight to Vimeo to watch it here


Autumn colours and mosses on Hallmundarhraun

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Romeo and Juliet of The North: Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu

View towards Grímsstaðamúli (and Ytri Hraundalur), Borgarfjörður

'Þat var helzt gaman Helgu, at hon rekði skikkjuna Gunnlaugsnaut ok horfði þar á löngum. Ok eitt sinn kom þar sótt mikil á bæ þeirra Þorkels ok Helgu, ok krömðusk margir lengi. Helga tók þá ok þyngð ok lá þó eigi. Ok einn laugaraptan sat Helga í eldaskála ok hneigði höfuð í kné Þorkatli, bónda sínum, ok lét senda eptir skikkjunni Gunnlaugsnaut. Ok er skikkjan kom til hennar, þá settisk hon upp ok rakði skikkjuna fyrir sér ok horfði á um stund. Ok síðan hná hon aptr í fang bónda sínum ok var þá örend' ('Helga's greatest joy was to spread out the cloak 'Gunnlaugr's gift' and gaze on it for a long time. At one time, a great sickness came to Þorkell's and Helga's farm, and many succumbed to this wasting disease for a long time. Helga became ill but couldn't stay in bed. One evening Helga sat in the hall and her head sunk onto her husband Þorkell's lap, and she had the cloak 'Gunnlaugr's gift' sent for. And when the cloak was brought to her, she sat up and spread out the cloak in front of her and gazed on it for a while. And then she sunk back again into her husband's arms and breathed her last'; Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu, ed. Sigurður Nordal and Guðni Jónsson, in Íslenzk fornrit 3 (Reykjavík, 1938), ch. 13, pp. 106-107).  

Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu ('The Saga of Gunnlaugr Serpent-tongue')-- is one of the most romantic and tragic of the Íslendingasögur. It was one of the most popular and well-known sagas in Britain in the 19th century on account of its subject-matter, comparatively short and simple plot, and small cast of characters; William Morris's 1875 translation of the saga into English made it widely available to the British and American public. The story is, in essence, one of doomed love: Gunnlaugr ormstunga Illugason falls in love with Helga in fagra ('the beautiful') Þorsteinsdóttir and she is promised to Gunnlaugr for three years while he travels abroad to acquire honour and wealth. Another Icelander, Hrafn Önundarson, also loves Helga and asks her father for her hand. When Gunnlaugr doesn't return, Helga is -- unwillingly -- betrothed to Hrafn; Gunnlaugr finally arrives back in Iceland on the night of Helga's and Hrafn's wedding, too late. Gunnlaugr and Hrafn fight a public duel at the National Assembly (the Alþingi) the following summer; the result is disputed and duelling is subsequently banned in Iceland.

Helga dies in Þorkell's lap; from a Danish
translation of the saga (1900)
So Gunnlaugr and Hrafn agree to meet in Norway to fight again. The two men rendezvous at the agreed place: "Þat er nú vel, er vit höfum fundizk" ("It's good that we have met now"; Gunnlaugs saga ch. 12, p. 101) Gunnlaugr states. The two men fight; Gunnlaugr chops off Hrafn's leg but Hrafn uses a tree-stump to prop himself up. Hrafn asks Gunnlaugr to fetch him some water and promises not to betray Gunnlaugr by attacking him if he uses his helmet as a vessel; Gunnlaugr removes his helmet and fills it with water for Hrafn. Hrafn reaches out with his left hand to take the helmet, and strikes Gunnlaugr a terrible blow on his head with his right hand. "You have betrayed me evilly now, and ignobly, when I trusted you" says Gunnlaugr ("Illa sveiktu mik nú, ok ódrengiliga fór þér, þar sem ég trúða þér", Gunnlaugs saga ch. 12, p. 102); "That's true," answered Hrafn, "but this forced me to it, that I will not grant you the embrace of Helga the fair" ("Satt er þat ... en þat gekk mér til þess, at ek ann þér eigi faðmlagsins Helgu innar fögru", Gunnlaugs saga ch. 12, p. 102). The fight continues and Hrafn dies; Gunnlaugr dies three days later from wounds he sustained. Back in Iceland, the fathers of both men are visited in their dreams by their blood-drenched sons; later, confirmation of the outcome of the fight is brought to Iceland. Helga is married to a man called Þorkell Hallkelsson and bears many children by him but she never stops loving Gunnlaugr. She holds on to him and his memory by gazing at the cloak Gunnlaugr gave to her -- a cloak that Gunnlaugr received when at the court of King Aðalráðr (Æthelred) of England as a reward for a praise-poem composed in Aðalráðr's honour.  

Gilsbakki today
"The story of the tragic fate of the lovers is a northern counterpart to Romeo and Juliet", wrote William Gershom Collingwood in his 1899 book A Pilgrimage to the Saga-Steads of Iceland (at p. 48). Collingwood -- and William Morris, ahead of Collingwood in the 1870s -- visited Gilsbakki in Hvítársíða/Borgarfjörður where Gunnlaugr was born: "The present church and parsonage lie among rich meadows on a height overlooking the valley with its lava field and thick copsewoods, and beyond, a fine panorama of glacier-clothed mountains. On both sides of the site deep gills entrench it -- whence the name, and perhaps in ancient times added some strength and security to the position. They are at any rate richly picturesque -- a fit setting for the love story whose memories haunt the place", wrote Collingwood (A Pilgrimage, p. 48). It seems that the farm buildings at Gilsbakki have always been more-or-less on the same site (the site was dug by archaeologists from Brown University in the USA a couple of years ago; photos of the excavation can be seen here); the spot where according to the saga Gunnlaugr, aged 12 and longing to travel abroad, laid out goods he took from his father's storehouse only to be denied them and permission to travel by his father, must have been somewhere up behind the present farm-house. 

The 'gil' or gully at Gilsbakki, looking south
Today, the turf-roofed-farmhouse that Collingwood and Morris would have found, and that Collingwood painted (a b/w image of Collingwood's picture can be found here, bottom left), has been replaced by modern stone buildThe ings; the fine views across the lava-and birch-carpeted valley below the farm (and the sides of the gil or gully on which account the farm is named Gilsbakki, 'bank of the gully') have not changed much, though the glacier Langsjökull is said to have diminished, and the glacier on the mountain Ok has all but disappeared. Mild September sun was lighting up the valley when I visited Gilsbakki and the colours now are stunning: rich oranges and deep reds contrasting with the greyish-green mosses that enfold the flattish outcrops of lava. Inside the farmhouse, a copy of Collingwood's painting of the old farm hangs on the wall, and a copy of the small watercolour portrait Collingwood produced of the then farmer's three-year-old daughter is in a photo-frame on a bookshelf. When the Icelandic photographer Einar Falur Ingólfsson visited Gilsbakki to photograph the place as part of his project following in Collingwood's footsteps, he photographed the current farmer's then six-year-old daughter as well as the farm from the same spot chosen by Collingwood to paint his picture: this continuity regarding the significance of the place as a 'saga-stead' or site, from the 'Saga-Age' when the events in the saga are said to have happened (the late 10th and early 11th centuries) to the 19th century, and over into the 21st century, delighted me.

There are no place-names on the Gilsbakki land that commemorate Gunnlaugr; the one place-name there that is associated with Gunnlaugr and his story rather commemorates his brother Hermundr, who according to tradition -- not the saga -- was buried in the so-called Hermundarhóll ('Hermundr's hill'). Directly to the west of Gilsbakki, however, in Hraundalur in Borgarfjörður, there is a striking hill called Helguhóll ('Helga's hill'). This place is not named in Gunnlaugs saga -- but it is not far from the farm to which Helga moved (Hraun(s)dalr, now Ytri-Hraundalur, a summer-house rather than a working farm) after marrying Þorkell, and on which she died. Local tradition there, at some point in time, for some reason, connected Helga with this hill...a short article by Bjarni V. Guðjónsson about the hill that I was pointed towards suggests that perhaps it was a place where Helga found refuge, where she sat on summer evenings looking out over the plains below and over to Borg (where she was born -- being the daughter of Egill Skalla-Grímsson's son Þorsteinn; see posts of 20th March25th March, 2nd April on Egill, Egils saga, and Borg), where she might have found some peace from the trials of love she suffered in her life...

A slightly lighter-relief rendering of the saga (Gunnlaugr's and Hrafn's final duel) can be found've got to love these saga re-enactments on YouTube... 

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Grettir´s Head...and his Family´s Strandir Origins

Rune at work photographing Eiríksjökull

My pursuit of the outlaw Grettir Ásmundarson and his trails across and around Iceland has been continuing over the past week. I remember first reading Grettis saga as a BA student at Cambridge -- parts of his saga and a good number of the many verses in it were then set-texts for the Old Norse-Icelandic language and literature paper -- and I remember enjoying the saga especially then. It's an endlessly rich and entertaining read: Grettir is a magnetic figure, a giant amongst saga-protagonists, not just for his troll-wrestling and swimming feats and prodigious verse-composition and the frequent recourse he makes to pithy proverbs, but for his weaknesses too (his fear of the dark despite his superlative physical strength is poignant) and for the way that he is, simply, unlucky, in the way that events seem to conspire against him.
In the last post (September 11th) I wrote about Drangey and how Grettir met his death there in the 19th year of his outlawry. There are probably more place-names around Iceland -- rocks, caves, other landscape features -- with his name in them than any other character in the sagas. Many of these commemorate moments or episodes during his long period as an outlaw: places where he is said to have hidden out, where he tested or showed off his strength by heaving huge boulders around... One place I wanted to explore was Arnarvatn, north of Eiríksjökull and in the north-western part of the Highlands: Grettis saga states that 'Grettir went up onto Arnarvatnsheiði and built a hut there, the remains of which can still be seen, and lived there because he wanted do something other than rob, and got himself a net and a boat and caught fish to feed himself. He thought it very dreary on the mountains because he was so afraid of the dark' ('Grettir fór upp á Arnarvatnsheiði ok gerði sér þar skála, sem enn sér merki, ok bjósk þar um, því at hann vildi nú hvatvetna annat en ræna, fekk sér net ok bát ok veiddi fiska til matar sér. Honum þótti daufligt mjök á fjallinu, því at hann var mjök myrkfælinn', Grettis saga ed. Guðni Jónsson (Reykjavík 1936), ch. 54, p. 178). In the notes of the edition of the saga I've been using, I read that the outlines of this hut beside the lake can still be seen -- over 700 years or so after the saga was written down -- and the place-names Grettistangi (a long spit that protrudes into the lake) and Grettishöfði (cliffs which loom over the lake) testify to the tradition that Grettir dwelt there for a time. 

Grettisskáli, with Grettistangi behind
I met up with Norwegian photographer Rune Molnes who's been travelling around Iceland taking photos -- and we headed off together south down Miðfjörður (past Grettir's home, Bjarg, about which more anon) and up onto Arnarvatnsheiði. There were stunning views of Eiríksjökull along the way, and a beautiful herd of horses grazing by a river. We got to the lake, followed the track around and -- as dusk drew on -- combed the stretch of land beside the lake where the outlines of 'Grettisskáli', Grettir's hut, was said to be. I ran from one hummock to another and to the end of Grettistangi and back, the evening-sunshine blinding me and my hopes being raised again and again as I thought I'd found the spot, only to be dashed on closer examination... finally though, we stumbled on the outlines of something that was clearly man-made. Elated, I tried to take pictures in the failing light -- credit is due to Rune here for stepping in as a human tripod when I needed to be taller than my natural 5'4". Was this 'Grettisskáli'? I wanted to believe it was -- and maybe it really was -- though as always, the question of the relationship between places such as these and their identification with mentions in the sagas reared its knotty head. Equally, the grassed-over foundations of what then turned out to be 2 huts could have been shelters built by later hunters... Whatever the 'truth', I still find the extent that, all over Iceland, there are such traditions associating saga-characters with specific places in the landscape and borne out by place-names, riveting. 

Grettisþúfa at Bjarg

Grettistak at Bjarg...the big rock, that is...
Grettir's head -- which his enemy Þorbjörn Öngull hewed off his corpse to parade in front of people as proof of his deed -- is said to be buried at Bjarg, Grettir's home, under a stone that is known as Grettisþúfa ('Grettir's tussock'). I knocked on the door at Bjarg, met the present farmer and his brother, talked about Grettis saga with them and was shown the striking memorial to Grettir's mother, Ásdís, raised on Bjarg land in 1974 and incorporating four cast-iron plaques by the artist Halldór Pétursson which depict scenes from the saga featuring Ásdís. Grettir's mother was a strong woman: the saga describes how Grettir's relationship with his father was always strained but how Ásdís was always supportive of Grettir, giving him a family heirloom, the sword Ættartangi (which comes into another saga set in the area, Vatnsdæla saga -- to be covered in a blogpost soon), when he was first outlawed and had to leave home. I walked up onto the heath above the farm at Bjarg to seek out an enormous 'Grettistak' boulder which Grettir is said to have must be about twice my height; one of the two farmer-brothers at Bjarg told me how they used to climb up onto it for fun as kids. Some of these 'Grettistök' are more likely than others...Grettir would have had to have been a giant to have lifted this one. I took up the offer of a bit of physical exercise by helping the Bjarg farmers round up their sheep...and laughed at the collection of stones at the foot of the outdoor staircase up to the front door which they joked are their exercise stones.

It was Grettir's great-grandfather Önundr who settled first in Iceland, after emigrating from Norway following a battle against King Haraldr hárfagri in which he lost his leg and gained the nickname 'tréfót' ('peg-leg'). Önundr didn't establish the farm at Bjarg, but landed in the east on the Langanes spit, sailed west into Húnaflóa, and finally claimed land on the eastern stretch of the West Fjords known as Strandir after staying with Auðr/Unnr in djúpúðga of Laxdæla saga fame (see post of 24th April). Önundr built a farm at Kaldbak, lookng south over a small bay called Kaldbaksvík -- north of Bjarnarfjörður. Kaldbak is the name of a mountain on the southern lip of Kaldbaksvík; Grettis saga describes how Önundr looked over at this mountain, which was covered in snow, and spoke a verse lamenting how he has left behind his family, and exchanged his Norwegian land and inheritance for this cold landscape. Early chapters in the saga describe events that took place along the Strandir coast: a dispute over the rights to a beached whale that is found on a skerry called Rifssker (just off the Reykjanes peninsula north of Kaldbak), and how the bay called Trékyllisvík got its name after some merchants were wrecked and lost their ship, a broad-bottomed boat called Trékyllir. 

Looking into Kaldbaksdalur over Kaldbaksvatn

Tréfótshaugur, in shadow left of river
When he died, Önundr was buried in a mound at the end of Kaldbaksdalur -- the mound is named Tréfótshaugur ('Peg-Leg's Mound') in Grettis saga and he has one of the funniest epitaphs in the sagas: 'he was the most bold and agile one-legged-man in Iceland' ('hann hefir fræknastr verit ok fimastr einfættr maðr á Íslandi', Grettis saga ch. 11, pp. 25-26). I drove up the Strandir coast to find Peg-Leg's grave... Autumn is very much in evidence here -- the leaves on scrub and bushes on the hillsides are turning all bright fiery shades of orange, red, pink, yellow, and sheep were being rounded up here too this weekend. Hiking in to the end of the Kaldbaksdalur valley took longer than it might have done...on account of the vast quantities of beautiful blueberries that kept presenting themselves to me (I was surprised by this, as it's been cold the past week and most berries have perished in the overnight frosts). Eventually I reached the end, and ate my sandwich in the sunshine looking over at the mound -- in fact, there seemed to be two. One was enormous, a great pointed pile of rock and rubble; the second smaller (though still not inconsiderable) and more believably man-made...again, I wondered whether the story about Önundr's burial here might have been attached to the place at some point after his 'real' or historical death and burial...

It wasn't only Grettis saga that was directing my footsteps along Strandir though -- several places along the coast come into a number of other sagas and I have been enjoying the challenge of working out the overlap between them in terms of their geography, genealogy, and the events they relate. A character called Finnbogi inn rammi ('the strong') -- another saga character renowned for his strength -- ended his life at a place called Finnbogastaðir in the Trékyllisvík bay, whence he moved after being driven from the Víðidalur valley in Húnavatnssýsla by the sons of Ingimundr inn gamli ('the old'). Finnbogi's story is told in Finnboga saga; that of Ingimundr's sons in Vatnsdæla saga; both sagas describe the feud. Much of the action in Vatnsdæla saga takes place in Vatnsdalur -- where events in two further sagas, Kormáks saga and Hallfreðar saga, also take place...but these sagas are for future posts; for the present I will sign off and enjoy the luxury of a one-off night in the cosy hotel at Djúpavík...a belated birthday present to myself, for I am now 32 and my aging bones could not resist the temptation of a night reading and writing *inside* a real house on my way back south down Strandir...

Looking over to Finnbogastaðir in Trékyllisvík

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Sheep Past and Present, and Grettis saga

Sheep may safely breakfast companions this morning

Rounded-Up Sheep
Last weekend, I helped round up the sheep in one part of Eyjafjarðarsveit (in the north of Iceland) -- something I've done each autumn for the past four years. Farmers send their sheep up into the mountains early in the summer to graze, and they're rounded up and driven down in fill freezers for the winter and be turned into all kinds of sausage/pate/smoked- pickled- or minced-meat goodies... The sheep-roundup is a co-operative local operation and in this and in other ways, I don't imagine the basic methods have changed for hundreds of years, though communication on the hillsides and moors is made easier now thanks to walkie-talkies, and some ride quad-bikes or motocross bikes rather than horses or walk. Those rounding up the sheep will string out over a designated area and move forward together in a line, shouting and whistling to drive the sheep down and into a herd; this herd is then driven into a sheep-fold and the individual sheep are then sorted by the farmers according to the identification tag in their ear. It's a big local community event and many people turn up to watch or get involved in the sheep-sorting part of the process, if they weren't out there rounding up the sheep to begin with. 

Sheep being sorted in Vatnsdalur
The sound of hundreds of sheep bleating away together, and the sight of them hopping along in a woolly mass, makes for a hugely entertaining spectacle: they are funny creatures. My delight at sheepish behaviour is nothing new however: the famous saga outlaw Grettir Ásmundarson seems also, at times, to have had a soft spot for sheep though more often he rustles them from local farmers for his supper. There is a rather pitiful description of a dusky-coloured wether in the remote Highland valley Þórisdalur, whose lamb Grettir takes and eats in his 8th or 9th year as an outlaw: after 'Mókolla' loses her lamb, she goes up to Grettir's hut every night and bleats, so that Grettir cannot sleep; Grettir regrets killing the lamb on account of this disturbance ('En er Mókolla missti dilks síns, fór hon upp á skála Grettis hverja nótt ok jarmaði, svá at hann mátti enga nótt sofa; þess iðraðisk hann mest, er hann hafði dilkinn skorit, fyrir ónáðum hennar', Grettis saga, ed. Guðni Jónsson, Íslenzk fornrit 7 (Reykjavík 1936), ch. 61, p. 200).  

Drangey and Kerling, looking north
Grettir spent the final three years of his life on the island of Drangey in Skagafjörður; when he arrived on the island (with his younger brother Illugi, and a thief/servant called Glaumr), Grettis saga states there were around 80 sheep grazing there, belonging to local farmers. After a couple of years, Grettir and the others have eaten their way through all of these, but they allow one ram to live -- as a source of (presumably badly-needed) entertainment. This ram was 'hösmögóttr at lit ok hyrndr mjök. At honum hendu þeir mikit gaman, því at hann var svá spakr, at hann stóð fyrir úti ok rann eptir þeim, þar sem þeir gengu. Hann gekk heim til skála á kveldin og gneri hornum sínum við hurðina' (Grettis saga ch. 73, p. 237; 'grey-bellied in colour and with big horns. They had much fun with him, for he was so tame that he stood outside and ran after them wherever they walked. He went home to the hut in the evening and rubbed his horns against the door').

Grettir survived longer as an outlaw than any one else in Iceland and there are countless places around the country where he is said to have hid out in a cave or built a shelter, or demonstrated his strength by lifting a large rock (known as a 'Grettistak' or 'Grettishaf'). According to the saga, Grettir installed himself on Drangey after his sojourn in Bárðardalur, where he fought two trolls/giants (see my previous post of 30th August). Grettir's younger brother Illugi is determined to accompany him; their mother Ásdís, on saying her farewells, knows she will never see her sons again, and that they will be overcome by treachery. Drangey is a perfect defensive stronghold: 'hon var grasi vaxin, en sjábrött, svá at hvergi mátti upp á komask, nema þar sem stigarnir váru við látnir, ok ef upp var dreginn inn efri stiginn, þá var þat einskis manns færleikr, at komask á eyna' (Grettis saga ch. 69, p. 225; 'It was grown over with grass, but with steep cliffs down to the sea, so that noone could come up onto it except where the ladders were, and if the upper ladder was pulled in, then noone had the strength to get onto the island'). The island rises up sheer in the middle of Skagafjörður, with the rock-stack Kerling to its south.

Grettir, Illugi and Glaumr built a hut on a grassy patch at the south-eastern end of the island: this part of the island is now known as Kofabrekka ('Hut-slope'). Other place-names on the island commemorate Grettir's time there: the only water source on the island is called 'Grettisbrunnur' ('Grettir's well'), a certain cliff-face is called 'Grettissteinar' ('Grettir's stones'), and another cliff-face, Hæringshlaup ('Hæringr's leap'), is said to be where a Norwegian assassin named Hæringr, who had amazingly managed to scale the cliffs, ran back and fell off the cliff down to the rocks below after Illugi approached to fight him. Grettir had an ally who lived on the farm at Reykir on the Reykjaströnd shore (the western side of Skagafjörður) and rowed him out to the island secretly: on one occasion, when the servant Glaumr carelessly lets the fire go out, Grettir swims to the mainland to get fire...and warms up after his swim in the natural hotspring at Reykir.

Reykir from the sea
Sign at the hotpot at Reykir

Today, this hotpot is known as Grettislaug ('Grettir's Bath'), and a boat departs from Reykir to the island in the summer. I stayed at Reykir last night in the Embulance: there were northern lights, after a pink and grey sunset in which I lost myself while soaking in Grettislaug, and I woke this morning to a pearly sunrise over Skagafjörður and the sound of breakers crashing on the shingle a few metres from where I'd parked the van. And most exciting of all, I joined a short tour out to the island this morning...something which I have been waiting and hoping for for days. William Gershom Collingwood describes how he 'steamed into the fjord, rolling in the swell of the open sea after rough weather, [as] the sunset died away in purple and rosy light on the hills, and gave place to a cold twilight, with a moon that silvered the snowy summits. Drangey stood grim and grey upon the water, seeming unapproachable, with bare sides and bare top, the most inhospitable of abodes' (A Pilgrimage to the Saga-Steads of Iceland, 1897, p. 169). It's an island that has exerted a great hold on the saga-saturated imagination for centuries. 

We didn't go up onto the island -- which I will have to do next summer now -- but it was remarkable to sail around it and examine it up close. Although it looks like a solid mass from the mainland, in fact its contours and cliffs are not at all regular and, particularly on the western side, there are a number of small headlands or peninsulas that jut out into the water and form a couple of bays (one of which is known as Uppgönguvík, literally 'Climbing-Up-Bay', where one ascends the island via ladders and a small track). The colours struck me too -- warm honey-yellows, thick white crusts of birdshit, a black seam that runs on a rough horizontal through some of the cliff-faces, the green of the grassy slopes on the island's crown. The water-source, Grettisbrunnur, is visible from the sea, being on a small grassy ledge, accessed by a ladder and with a sheer drop to the sea below; one can see too the slope where Grettir's hut is said to have been...tantalising. 

The southern end of Drangey;
Kofabrekka is the higher grassy slope
Grettir died on Drangey -- but only after a witch cast a spell on a log which washed up on the island, and off which Grettir's axe glanced into his leg when chopping it up for firewood. The wound Grettir sustained caused his leg to swell up monstrously and turn black; this rather incapacitated him when his enemies finally managed to get up to the top of the island. 'Hösmagi [the grey-bellied sheep] is knocking at the door, brother', said Illugi; 'and is knocking rather hard and without mercy', said Grettir; and at that moment the door burst open' ('Þá mælti Illugi: "Knýr Hösmagi hurð, bróðir," segir hann. "Ok knýr heldr fast," sagði Grettir, "ok óþyrmiliga;" ok í því brast sundr hurðin', Grettis saga ch. 82, p. 259). Grettir is overpowered despite his brother's valiant attempt to defend him; 'there was no defence from him, because he was already near dead from the leg-wound; the thigh was suppurated all the way up to his guts; they dealt him many wounds, but little or no blood came from him  ('Varð þat engi vörn af honum, því at hann var áðr kominn at bana af fótarsárinu; var lærit allt grafit upp at smáþörmum; veittu þeir honum þá mörg sár, svá at lítt eða ekki blæddi', Grettis saga ch. 82, p. 261). Grettir's principal enemy Þorbjörn Öngull cuts off Grettir's hand to plunder his famous short-sword Kársnaut (acquired after fighting a trollish zombie in his burial mound in Norway), and then cuts off his head with the same sword. Þorbjörn later presents Grettir's mother with Grettir's head at the family farm at Bjarg (I head there tomorrow), and is eventually killed himself by the same sword by another of Grettir's brothers in Constantinople.

The closing words of the saga present the verdict on Grettir's life as formulated by Sturla lögmaðr ('lawspeaker') Þórðarson, who lived in the 13th century and was a poet and writer as well as a key political figure of his time. Grettir was the greatest of all outlaws, for three reasons, Sturla proclaimed: first, he was the wisest of all outlaws, because he survived longer than any other outlaw and was never overcome while he was healthy; second, he was the strongest man in Iceland of his time and better at dealing with the walking dead and other monsters than other men; finally, because he was avenged in Constantinople, as no other Icelander has been, and this by his brother Þorsteinn drómundr who was an exceptionally blessed/lucky man. Bedtime now for me -- with my hair stiff with sea-salt, a bright moon shining over the Embulance, and my head full of thoughts of Grettir; the story of his encounter with another revenant-troll, Glámr, will be told in the next instalment.     

Drangey and Kerling

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

A Highland Horseback Excursus (and a Mention of Grettis saga)

Horses in a makeshift corral somewhere in the Icelandic Highlands

Time to break the silence that has reigned over this blog the past couple of weeks by posting a short update about my recent activities... I'm currently in town (Reykjavík, that is) and getting over the shock of being catapulted into urban life after an exhilarating 7 days on horseback, touring with Sigurður Björnsson's Riding Iceland outfit (Siggi also organised the highly-recommended Njáls saga horseback tour I participated in in June, see post of 6th July 2011). 

The trip was over the central Icelandic  Highlands, mostly following the centuries-old Sprengisandur route from the north-east to the south: a distance of around 300 kms. It's impossible to travel across the interior for most of the year -- and even in the summer the conditions can be difficult. The weather can be unpredictable and the logistics with regard to feeding the horses required for such a trip have to be worked out carefully...bags of hay planted in strategic places in advance, since there is almost nothing for the horses to graze on otherwise for long stretches.

Grettir Ásmundarson
(as depicted in a 17th-century
Icelandic manuscript)
We set off from Bárðardalur: a long, shallow valley in the north which is mentioned in the saga about the outlaw-hero Grettir Ásmundarson (Grettis saga), being the location of one of Grettir's several troll/monster combats. Grettir hears of the destruction being wreaked on farms in Bárðardalur and travels there to relieve the locals of their trollish troubles. One particular farm, at Sandhaugar, has suffered attacks by a mysterious troll-woman on two consecutive Christmases, with first the farmer and then a farmhand disappearing. Grettir arrives at Sandhaugar on Christmas Eve, carries the widowed wife and daughter from the farm together on his arm over the swollen river so they can attend the Christmas service in church, and waits back at Sandhaugar for the monster's annual. A huge wrestling match inside the house ensues; the fight spills out of the splintered house and continues all night, with Grettir finally managing to chop off the troll-woman's right arm on the edge of a great chasm. She plunges into the chasm and disappears behind a waterfall. After Christmas, Grettir decides to return to the place of the troll-woman's disappearance in order to see what is behind the waterfall and to prove the veracity of his account of the fight, which has been doubted by the local priest: the priest accompanies Grettir and agrees to watch the top of the rope Grettir uses to let himself down with.

Grettir dives through the waterfall and finds a great cave which is lit by a log fire and contains an enormous recumbent giant. Grettir seizes a pike and attacks the giant, spearing him in the stomach so that his guts spill out of the cave and into the river beyond the waterfall. The priest assumes the worst, abandons his position, and after finishing off the giant, Grettir is forced to haul himself back up the rope...taking with him the bones of two men he finds in a bag. He deposits the bones in the church, together with a stick on which he has carved two runic verses describing what had happened. Grettir is hidden by the people of Bárðardalur that winter, and heads out to the island of Drangey in Skagafjörður in the spring -- where he eventually loses his life...more on this to come in a future post.   

Trusty packhorse
And so back to the horsetrip...We stayed in isolated mountain huts and sheep-round-up shelters, sometimes travelling with minimal kit loaded onto a couple of packhorses, at other times with a well-provisioned car meeting us at pre-arranged locations. We were 8 riding, with a herd of nearly 50 horses: this many because it's necessary to change horses regularly (every two hours or 20 kms or so) on account of the terrain being so challenging. I will never cease to be amazed at the stamina,  strength, and willingness of the Icelandic horses -- and their physical beauty. There can be few sights more captivating than riding at the back of the herd (the horses follow those mounted up front, running loose, and are driven on and rounded up when necessary by the riders at the back): the long string of them, all imaginable shades of rich colours with thick tails and manes flowing free, trotting ahead into the far distance. Or, when the mist rolled in one afternoon, the sight of them disappearing into the enfolding greyness, so that from my position at the back, after a short time, it wasn´t possible to see more than 2 or 3 horses ahead.

Horses grazing at Eyvindarkofi
It was mesmerising as well to experience the Highland landscapes in this way and at this pace: to watch far-off mountains come into closer focus, appear and disappear as we rode over plains and up and down hills. Through monochrome valleys that were punctuated by shockingly vivid stripes of neon green moss fringing streams or rivers; over vast stretches of flat compacted rock inlaid with the tiniest growths of stubborn hardy-leafed plant; the central glacier Hofsjökull to our right in the west, and the great glacier Vatnajökull to our left in the east; the sudden appearance of lush meadows strewn with wild flowers where the ruins of a remote shelter built by the 18th-century outlaw Fjalla-Eyvindur can be seen;  the rainbow-tinted Kerlingarfjöll mountain range appearing to the south-west of Hofsjökull, with the peaks of the mountains Loðmundur and Snækollur highlighted by evening sun. And the round ringing clop of horses' hooves as striking dry rock after crossing a river or stream.

Tomorrow, back up north for a reunion with the Embulance (abandoned in Eyjafjörður while four wheels were exchanged for four legs); a bit of autumnal sheep-rounding up next weekend, and then back on the saga-steads trail...summer break now officially over here, so more sagas and saga-related reports here shortly.  
Two greys on a plain