Thursday, 24 February 2011

Hvalfjörður and Harðar saga ok Hólmverja

"This is one of the most picturesque of sites, and has one of the most romantic of sagas attached to it", opens William Gershom Collingwood's description of Hvalfjörður in his 1899 book A Pilgrimage to the Saga-Steads of Iceland -- whose title, and overall concept, are the principal inspiration for this project.

Hvalfjörður lies north of Reykjavík and Mosfellslbær and is the longest fjord in the south-west of Iceland, cutting 30kms deep into the land along a north-east/south-west axis and curling to the east at its head. Before the Hvalfjarðargöng tunnel was opened in 1998 and the main ringroad re-routed underneath the fjord, all traffic heading north or west to and from Reykjavík had to follow the fjord all the way around -- a drive of an hour or two. The volume of traffic on the road now -- which at times is cut into the steep edges of the mountain-sides rising straight out of the fjord -- must be a tiny fraction of what it was, and the fjord as a whole now has a quiet but powerful feel.  

View down Hvalfjörður from the eastern end of the fjord

There's a lot of local history here. Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674), poet and priest (Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík is named after him, and every year his Passíusálmar are broadcast on the national radio each day over the course of Lent) served as minister at the church at Saurbær for the last 24 years of his life. In the WWII, a British/American naval base and oil refuelling station was established here with over 20, 000 soldiers -- a staggering number, given that the current population of Hvalfjarðarsveit now is around 600 and can't have been that much bigger in previous generations. Part of the naval camp can still be seen, not far from where the whaling staion is, on the northern shore of the fjord, towards the eastern end.

I've been here since Monday -- on the trail of Harðar saga ok Hólmverja. For the main part, Harðar saga tells the story of Hörðr Grímkelsson, who was born around 950 CE. Hörðr's first steps, aged 3, brought his mother Signý's wrath upon him when he stumbled into her lap causing her precious necklace to break. "Ill varð þín ganga in fyrsta, ok munu hér margar illar eptir fara, ok mun þó verst in síðasta" (Harðar saga, ed. Þórhallur Vilmundarsson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson, Íslenzk fornrit 13 (Reykjavík, 1991), ch. 7, p. 17; "Evil were your first steps, and much ill will follow, with the worst, however, to come last"), she exlaims in anger. Aged 15, Hörðr travelled to Norway and Sweden where he broke into a burial mound, fought the zombie-viking-mound-dweller Sóti and acquired Sóti's precious sword and ring -- thereby incurring Sóti's curse ("Skaltu þat víst vita ... at sjá hringr skal þér at bana verða ok öllum þeim, er eiga, utan kona eigi", Harðar saga ch. 15, p. 43; "You will know this for certain ... that that ring will be your death, and the death of all those who own it, unless a woman owns it").

Litli-Botn, at the eastern end of Hvalfjörður 
After marrying Helga, the daughter of jarl Haraldr of Gautland, Hörðr returns to Iceland 15 years later. He farms for a couple of years, and then is outlawed after events force him to the killing of a man named Auðr, and the burning of Auðr's farm. Hörðr -- together with his foster-brother and close friend Geirr, whose farm Neðri-Botn (now Litli-Botn, photo right) is at the head of Hvalfjörður, and a number of others -- moves onto the small island of Geirshólmi which lies in the bay formed by the spit Þyrilsnes (photo below right). The band survive by raiding farmers in the area and stealing their livestock.
Eventually, local resistance (including Hörðr's uncle and brothers-in-law) comes to a head and the Hólm-dwellers are tricked into coming to the mainland, where they are slaughtered. Hörðr's wife, Helga, and two sons remain on the island, and Helga swims ashore at night with the children and makes for the farm where Hörðr's sister Þorbjörg, and her husband Indriði, live. The last part of the saga tells of further killings instigated by Þorbjörg in order to avenge her brother -- firstly, that of Hörðr's killer, Þorsteinn Gullhnappr of Þyrill, whose head Þorbjörg demands her husband bring to her.

Geirshólmi, from Þyrill; Þyrilsnes, on which Hörðr
fought his last fight and died, stretches out into the
fjord from the left-hand side

The saga is very much written into the topography of the area and a great number of place-names bear witness to the events related in it, bringing the text of the saga together with the physical contours of this part of Iceland in a very real way. I'll write more on this, and more about specific place-names and their relationship to Harðar saga in the next post, to follow shortly. The saga is used extensively by local tour-guide Arnheiður Hjörleifsdóttir ( in her presentation of the area to visitors; it is very much in the consciousness of those who live here too.
I spent a fantastic two hours yesterday talking to a couple in their late 70s/early 80s who have lived on a 'Harðar-saga farm' (Ferstikla) on the northern shore of the fjord for many decades. Vífill was full of information about local places connected with the saga, had all kinds of opinons about the veracity and artistry of saga and its events and characters, and offered numerous nuggets of local history. Dúfa had had to read the Íslendingasögur as a girl at school and found them then to be utterly boring...nothing in them but people killing each other, which is interesting to boys maybe, but not to girls. Interestingly though, in further conversation on this point with Dúfa, it transpired that the way some episodes from Harðar saga -- Helga's swim from the island with her two boys in particular, for example -- fit into the local landscape, however, is stories rather than printed text, these episodes are human, and alive, and have great appeal.        
Time to move on now, despite the rain and grey clouds which shroud the fjord as I write (happily, I'm writing inside, washed and warm, thanks to Gaui litli at Félagsheimilið Hlaðir, I'm going to drive north from Hvalfjörður over into Svínadalur and then into Skorradalur in search of further Harðar saga locations...more will follow.
One last media alert though for those who wish to hear about the adventures via the radio/TV: I'll be talking to Bergsson and Blöndal live on RÚV 2 just after 9am on Saturday morning...and can be seen in conversation with Egill Helgason on his TV programme Kiljan next Wednesday evening. The Embulance, too, features in person (in vehicle?), in the studio... 


  1. Have seriously thought of getting a copy of the G.W. Collingwood book through my public library. There are copies out there. I'm using Google maps to get a picture of where the steads are geographically.
    The pictures are really good, as usual. The land has a moody, ominous quality, almost like the written description of Mordor in "Lord of the Rings."

  2. @ Ventristwo -- thanks for all of your comments on the blog so far; great to hear you´re thinking of looking up Collingwood's book. More material from the book will be worked into the blog posts over time; am also playing with Google Maps myself and hoping to put some kind of map app up on the blog soon so people have a better sense of exactly where I am.

  3. Looking forward to your entries.

    "Glöggt er gests augað."

  4. @Ventristwo: You can read Collingwood's Pilgrimage online at Google Book Search under the respective title.

    Emily: Wow! This is positively brilliant. Sagas, the actual locations, great photos, and what Icelanders still know of them today all while following in Collingwood's footsteps. Can't wait for the book to come out.

  5. @Quentin and Pocket Guy -- thanks both! Working on a Flóamanna saga post be published here soon.