Friday, 18 February 2011

Embulance trials and tribulations parts 2, 3, 4...and medieval Icelandic manuscripts

The Embulance on the track to Sólheimajökull in south Iceland (photo by Axel Steuwer)'s been a little while since my last post, but for those who may have been worrying, I haven't been wandering lost through lava-fields or stolen away by the huldufólk (the 'hidden people')... The Embulance continues to test my patience and purse by throwing up all kinds of mechanical issues: the drive down south was not exactly an easy ride what with a whimsical alternator and battery/electrical issues, the fan-belt coming off and some serious engine overheating, no power-steering thanks to the power-steering pump seizing up so the belt couldn't turn, and further clutch-related problems...On the plus side, I'm constantly learning from these trials and tribulations and they also present me with the opportunity to meet all kinds of extremely kind people. I have been quite overwhelmed by the lengths to which people have gone to help me out when I've been broken down. Thank you to all who have helped me so far! There's 10 minutes or so of live interview chat with Liz Rhodes on her BBC Cambridgeshire programme from Wednesday (at about 1hr 19mins) if you'd like to hear a little more...

Right now though I'm in Reykjavík where I´m finishing up a couple of pieces of academic work that need a real desk, inside!! Yesterday morning saw me at the door of the Þjóðmenningarhús on Hverfisgata at 9am in order to look at a very important manuscript: the Konungsbók or Codex Regius of Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, classmark GKS 2367 4to. Most of the medieval Icelandic manuscripts are kept at the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar (The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies) which is attached to the University of Iceland. But GKS 2367 4to is on display at the Þjóðmenningarhús as part of a permanent exhibition about the Eddas and Sagas and medieval Icelandic manuscript culture -- essential viewing for anyone visiting Reykjavík! It was a great privilege to be allowed access to the manuscript, and it was taken out of the musuem cabinet in  which it's housed so I could examine it and check various things for the edition of a poem (Jómsvíkingadrápa) I'm editing for the Skaldic Editing Project. I had two hours to scrutinise the manuscript's surprisingly small -- and often worn and dark -- leaves before it was replaced behind the glass on its pedestal, and the doors to the exhibition were opened to the public.  

The manuscript is thought to have been written between 1300 and 1350 and is famous first and foremost for containing Snorra Edda -- a prose retelling of Old Norse pre-Christian myths and legends, and a repository of skaldic verse and metres put together by Snorri Sturluson (d. 1241), an Icelandic politician, scholar and poet. On the last few leaves of the manuscript, however, the texts of a couple of poems were copied out in full (or nearly in full) by the anonymous scribe: firstly Jómsvíkingadrápa, composed by the Orcadian Bishop Bjarni Kolbeinsson (d. 1222), followed by the anonymous Málsháttakvæði which dates to around the same time as Jómsvíkingadrápa and may also have been composed in the Orkneys. For those interested in reading more about Norse myth and literary production in medieval Orkney, a conference paper on the subject by Professor Judith Jesch (University of Nottingham) can be found here

The 45 stanzas of Jómsvíkingadrápa focus largely on the late-10th-century naval battle of Hjörungavágr, south of Ålesund, Møre and Romsdal in Norway. On the one, attacking, side was the famous Jómsvíking warband led by the bold chieftains Sigvalldi jarl Strút-Haraldsson, Búi digri Vésetason and Vagn Ákason: the Jómsvíkings established and maintained a warrior-brotherhood stronghold, Jómsborg, where present-day Wolin is now (i.e. on the Baltic coast of Poland) in the latter decades of the 10th century and first half of the 11th century. On the other side was the father-and-son-duo Hákon and Eiríkr, Norwegian jarls of Lade. There are numerous descriptions of the various feats of daring executed by these characters during the battle, and accompanying graphic detail of bodily dismemberment...but the poem is particularly interesting and unusual stylistically for the way that at certain points, the poet weaves his personal experiences of unrequited love alongside the standard viking swash and buckle and battle-gore, as in the verse below: 

Jómsvíkingdrápa verse 31

Ein drepr fyr mér allri                 
-- ylgr gekk á ná bolginn --
-- þar stóð ulfr í tu --
ítrmanns kona teiti.
Góð ætt of kemr grimmu
-- gein vargr of sal mergjar --
grðr þvarr gylðis jóða --
gœðings at mér stríði.
Prose word order: Ein kona ítrmanns drepr allri teiti fyr mér; ylgr gekk á bolginn ná; ulfr stóð þar í tu. Góð ætt gœðings kemr stríði at mér; vargr gein of {sal mergjar}; grðr jóða gylðis þvarr.
Translation: A certain nobleman’s wife kills all joy for me; a she-wolf stepped on the swollen corpse; a wolf stood there eating. The good descendant of a nobleman brings torment upon me; a wolf gaped over {the hall of marrow} [BONE]; the greed {of the offspring of the wolf} [WOLVES] diminished.

Lights, camera, action (photo by Axel Steuwer)
Love is in the air...and may feature in upcoming posts -- strictly with respect to the sagas, of course -- since I plan to drive north out of Reykjavík on Monday (fingers crossed for Embulance co-operation) and will head for Borgarfjarðarsýsla and Mýrasýsla where a number of poets and outlaw sagas are set (Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu, Bjarnar saga Hítdœlakappa, Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar). Business will bring me back to town at the end of February so I'll only have a week or so on the road but it should be a productive and fun one so please do come back soon for a progress report!


  1. Thank you for keeping us updated,very exited about news from your Icelandic adventure;) And love the pictures! Maybe you should come to Hjørundavåg and this area for your next adventure?!

  2. i too have my fingers crossed for your Embulance cooperation

  3. From the last noted radio interview it sounds like tires and etc. are in good order at last. A fascinating adventure all around for us stay-at-homes as for yourself.


  4. Hello all -- just to say thanks for your comments, it makes a huge difference receiving feedback and hearing that people are still interested and following!
    @Janne -- oh, that sounds very tempting! Mapping the Norwegian homesteads of the first generation of Icelandic settlers would make a fantastic Part II to the project... hope you´re all three well, much love xxx