Monday, 11 April 2011

Love in a cold climate...

The rune-stone at Borg
(a replica; the original is in the Þjóðminnjasafn) 
In the churchyard at Borg in Mýrar, the district in which Egils saga is set -- said to be the oldest consecrated churchyard in Iceland, established in 1002 CE -- there is a narrow pentagonal basalt stone from Mount Baula, measuring approximately 125 cms. Along its length, it is incised with runes. In 1753, the stone was examined by Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Pálsson who were travelling around Iceland gathering information about the country on behalf of the Danish crown (their account was published in 1772 under the title Vicelavemand Eggert Ólafsson's og Landphysici Bjarni Pálsson's Reise igjennom Island; an English translation published in 1805 can be found online here). Eggert and Bjarni noted that the stone was in bad repair -- broken into three pieces -- and the runes were difficult to make out but they nonetheless concluded that they read 'Here lies Kjartan Ólafsson' and the stone marked the final resting place of this hero from Laxdæla saga, who died around 1003 CE and whose body was taken to Borg and buried there, according to this saga.

Detail from the rune-stone at Borg
An examination of the stone in modern times has revealed that it actually dates from the later part of the 15th century and the runes in fact read 'her : huiler : halur : hranason' ('Hér hvílir Hallur Hranason'; 'Here rests Hallur Hranason'). Nevertheless, on seeing the stone for myself, I decided that travelling north from Mýrar to Dalir, where Laxdæla saga unfolds and Kjartan died, would make a nice progression. Moreover, one of the principal characters in Laxdæla saga, Þorgerðr Egilsdóttir is (as her second name suggests) the daughter of Egill Skalla-Grímsson of Egils saga fame (see posts of Sunday 20th March, Friday 25th March, Saturday 2nd April); Kjartan Óláfsson was Þorgerðr's and her husband Óláfr pái ('Peacock') Höskuldsson's son -- and thus Egill's grandson. 

Laxdæla saga has always been one of my favourite sagas. It is an immense, epic tale of tragic love; it is more 'romantic' in character and in its descriptive detail than many of the other sagas; and amongst the characters who feature in the saga, there are several remarkable and strong women. The portrayal of these women and the focus and presentation of the narrative has led some to argue that it must have been written by a woman... 

Looking east up the Laxá
So I drove north from Egils-saga-territory to Hvammsfjörður in order to read the saga of the people of Laxárdalur. W. G. Collingwood writes that 'The valley of the Laxá ['Salmon-River'] is well-known to English readers from William Morris's [1870] poem of "The Lovers of Gudrun", which epitomises Laxdæla saga, and tells the tale of the family that lived at the two great houses of Höskuldstead and Herdholt' (Pilgrimage, p. 122). The 'argument' at the beginning of Morris's poetic retelling of the central part of the saga narrative (which was published as part of his work The Earthly Paradise) reads as follows: 'This story shows how two friends loved a fair woman, and how he who loved her best had her to wife, though she loved him little or not at all; and how one of these two friends gave shame to and received death of the other, who in his turn came to his end by reason of that deed' (The poem can be found online as a digital book here).  

Morris's 'two friends' are Kjartan Óláfsson and Bolli Þorleiksson. Kjartan was born at Höskuldsstaðir, on the southern side of the Laxá river. The saga describes him at length and with a string of superlatives: as well as being strong and the most accomplished of all men at sports and fighting, Kjartan was allra manna fríðastr, þeira er fæzk hafa á Íslandi; hann var mikilleitr ok vel farinn í andliti, manna bezt eygðr ok ljóslitaðr; mikit hár hafði hann ok fagrt sem silki, ok fell með lokkum ... Kjartan var hverjum manni betr á sik kominn, svá at allir undruðusk, þeir er sá hann (Laxdæla saga, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson, Íslenzk fornrit 5 (Reykjavík, 1934), ch. 28, pp. 76-77; 'the most handsome of all men who have been born in Iceland; he had exceptional features and a well-formed face, the best-eyed of men and light in colour; he had a great quantity of hair which was as beautiful as silk, and fell in locks ... Kjartan was better-formed than any man, so that everyone who looked at him marvelled'). Kjartan was brought up with his foster-brother and cousin Bolli Þorleiksson, who was also handsome, strong, and accomplished: the saga states that Þeir unnusk mikit fóstbræðr (Laxdæla saga, ch. 28, p. 77; 'the foster-brothers loved each other greatly').

The hotpot at Laugar, changing-room (with underfloor
heating) in the sweet turf-roofed wooden hut...
At Laugar in Sælingsdalur, on the inner northern side of Hvammsfjörður (which Collingwood describes as 'resembl[ing] a top boot, laid down, with its heel to the East and its toe to the North', Pilgrimage, p. 115), Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir grew up, 'the most promising of woman who had grown up in Iceland, both in appearance and in intelligence ... of all women, the most wise and most articulate' (hon var kvenna vænst, er upp óxu á Íslandi, bæði at ásjánu ok vitsmunum ... Allra kvenna var hon kænst ok bezt orði farin, Laxdæla saga, ch. 32, p. 86). There were -- and are -- natural hot springs at Laugar (I sat in the recently rebuilt hotpot, alone, in the rain, looking around at the snow-dappled mountain-sides and thinking about Guðrún), and the saga tells how the wise and prescient Gestr Oddleifsson stops off there on a short visit. Guðrún has had four strange dreams in which she throws an ill-fitting headdress into a stream, loses a valued silver ring in a lake, falls and in doing so breaks a cherished gold ring on a stone, and finally, loses a heavy gold helmet studded with gemstones which falls from her head into Hvammsfjörður. Guðrún describes these dreams to Gestr, hoping for his interpretation: Guðrún will have four husbands, and her feeling for the worth of each object -- and reaction to its loss -- symbolises the outcome of each marriage. 

Some years later, Guðrún is back at Laugar with two marriages behind her, and Kjartan is a regular visitor there; Þat var allra manna mál, at með þeim Kjartani ok Guðrúnu þætti vera mest jafnræði þeira manna, er þá óxu upp (Laxdæla saga, ch. 39, p. 112; 'It was everyone's opinion that it Kjartan and Guðrún seemed to be the most equal match of those who had then grown up'). But Kjartan determines to go abroad to Norway, buys a ship, and makes his travel plans. Guðrún longs to accompany him but is refused... At the Norwegian court, Kjartan is held to be the most exceptional man ever to have come from Iceland...with Bolli a close second; they convert to Christianity, and eventually, Bolli goes back to Iceland though Kjartan remains in Norway and doesn't take up Bolli's offer to send any specific message back to Guðrún. Bolli marries Guðrún, and when Kjartan does return to Iceland, he marries a woman called Hrefna. Kjartan eschews Bolli's efforts to rekindle their closeness; jealousy and bitterness and petty-minded acts of theft and insult on both sides develop into open feud -- and Guðrún urges Bolli to avenge their household for the insults Kjartan has directed at them.

The scene is set for an ambush when Kjartan is riding through Svínadalur: Guðrún's brothers attack but Bolli stands by; Kjartan sets his back against a large rock and defends himself against the onslaught. "Bolli frændi, hví fórtu heiman, ef þú vildir kyrr standa hjá?" (Laxdæla saga, ch. 49, p. 153; "Cousin Bolli, why did you leave home if you wanted to stand still to the side?") calls Kjartan to Bolli, and Guðrún's brothers urge Bolli on to take action -- they will be deeply shamed if Kjartan escapes now. So Bolli draws his sword and turns on Kjartan. When Kjartan sees this, he throws down his weapons saying that though Bolli is about to commit a terrible kin-slaughter, he would rather receive his deathblow from Bolli ("Víst ætlar þú nú, frændi, níðingsverk at gera, en miklu þykki mér betra at þiggja banaorð af þér, frændi, en veita þér þat", Laxdæla saga, ch. 49, p. 154; "Certainly you intend now to commit a shameful deed, cousin, but it seems much better to me to receive death from you, cousin, than to grant the same to you"). Bolli deals Kjartan his deathblow without answering, gathers up the fatally-wounded Kjartan in his arms, and Kjartan dies on Bolli's lap.

Kjartanssteinn in Svínadalur
A short distance to the east of the road that runs north/south through Svínadalur, a little south of a gully ('gil') called Drífandagil, is a large stone. The stone stands on a small hill the other side of the stream that runs along the road; it is known as Kjartanssteinn ('Kjartan's stone'; photo to left, the dark silhouette against the snow in the upper right quartile of the picture). The stone is marked on maps of the area though I could not find out when it first acquired the name 'Kjartanssteinn'. Local people who I talked to all commented that the puzzle with regard to this stone is that its location south of Drífandagil does not fit perfectly with the details in Laxdæla saga concerning the ambush and killing of Kjartan. According to the saga, the ambushing party rides to Svínadalur and takes up position beside a gully called Hafragil. Kjartan rides south down the valley towards Hafragil -- and the attack takes place here, by a large stone.

But today, there is no large stone besides Hafragil, which is some 5kms south of the stone known as Kjartanssteinn. Is the saga 'right' in locating the fight by Hafragil -- where perhaps there once was a large stone which subsequently rolled away? Is the stone known as Kjartanssteinn today the 'right' stone, and did the attack 'actually' take place a little to the north of where the saga tells us it happened? Did the 13th-century saga author know of a stone in the area which in local tradition was connected in some way to Kjartan and his death, and which prompted him (or her...) to include the detail that Kjartan set his back against a large stone while he defended himself? Is the identification of the large stone south of Drífandagil as Kjartanssteinn a nice example of the natural human desire to locate a momentous event described in a powerful narrative physically in the landscape? "This is where the great hero Kjartan Óláfsson died! Right here, on this very spot..." The tragedy and pathos of the scene is focused and becomes concrete, the veracity of the narrative is confirmed by the landscape. 

Who knows. Behind these questions are lines of debate that have been pursued by saga-critics throughout the history of saga scholarship; I do not hope or intend to answer questions revolving around the extent to which the sagas are 'true' or not, on the basis of their fit in the physical landscape. But what a deep thrill to sit in the hotpot at Laugar thinking of Guðrún and her dreams, and to walk up to Kjartanssteinn with the desperate image of Kjartan's death at the hands of his foster-brother and best friend in my mind -- the resonance of remarkable characters and events from a long-past era coming together with the present.       


  1. I feel cheated - where is the goss about you and the other Icelandic pilgrims? Surely you've hit it off with the reconstructionist crowd while you've been over there?

  2. Em, This sounds wonderful (mostly the thought of you sitting in a hotpot). I hope that the weather is becoming more clement. Missing you very much, but extremely proud of all your adventures and discoveries. Interested in the absent stone. Abi Xxxx