Sunday, 29 May 2011

From Snæfellsnes to the West Fjords: Gísla saga Súrssonar

I promised a second post on Eyrbyggja saga and the Snæfellsnes peninsula -- but events have taken various turns the past couple of weeks and time is flying...and so I have made an executive decision to move straight on with a post on Gísla saga so as not to leave you all too far behind as I move on! More about Eyrbyggja (and there is so much to say) will be worked into the book...  

On the geography of Iceland and the location of the West Fjords (Vestfirðir), William Gershom Collingwood wrote, delightfully: „The map of Iceland has been sometimes drawn by school-boys as an eider-duck, quacking with wide opened beak; the head whereof is that great peninsual of the north west between Breidifjord and the Arctic Ocean, and its lower mandible Snæfells-nes. In our pilgrimage we have now got into the duck‘s mouth: next we propose to make the tour of the head before returning to the neck for further explorations over the ruffled quills of the back“ (A Pilgrimage to the Sagasteads of Iceland, p. 107).

This upper westernmost part of Iceland that stretches its many clawlike fingers out into the Atlantic is one of the most visually spectacular and dramatic parts of Iceland: I approached and entered the region from the water, via the ferry that runs across Breiðafjörður from Stykkishólmur to Brjánslækur on the southern coast of the Vestfirðir, a journey of a little over 2 hours or so. The roads that follow the shorelines of the many fjords that comprise this western peninsula and wind their way, hairpin-bending, up over the heaths and mountain passes between valleys (often with great deep drifts of snow still – though the dark night hours have been banished by now, spring is still slower to show itself here than it is further south) are for the greater part unsurfaced and it is challenging driving in places. Though Icelanders comment frequently on the fact that the Embulance is a left-hand-drive vehicle, i.e. with the steering wheel on the right, and call it ‚silly steering‘, this actually has proved a rather useful feature as I can keep an eye on the edge of the road to my right much more easily...and make sure that I don´t fall off it when negotiating tight bends or passing oncoming vehicles.

View along Dynjandisvogur into 
Árnarfjörður from Dynjandi
From Brjánslækur I headed straight up north over Dynjandisheiði, spending the night beside the great waterfall Dynjandi en route to Dýrafjörður, where the outlaw-hero Gísli Súrsson and his family established their homestead(s) after emigrating from Norway around 952 C.E.. Dynjandi – true to its name – thundered mightily like so many lanes of motorway traffic through the night; I walked up the waterfall (or waterfalls, since there is a series of them, each kicking up sparkling spray), the only soul there, at 11pm and looked west along into Arnarfjörður where low clouds in faint pinks and smudgey greys were building up and catching the light from the late evening sunset. After reaching Hrafnseyri on the northern shore of Arnarfjörður the next morning (the home of the 13th-century chieftain Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson, whose life is outlined in the contemporary saga Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar), I took the road north up over Hrafnseyrarheiði and down into Þingeyri, which sits on the southern shore of Dýrafjörður.

After refuelling I drove straight on west along the fjord, to Haukadalur, which was only 10 minutes or so further on. The weather was bright and the sky blue – and my arrival in Haukadalur was an intense moment to which I had long looked forward. I wrote my PhD thesis on Gísla saga – but until now, had never made it out to the Vestfirðir to explore the actual places where the saga unfolds. A couple of sentences in a book about the history and settlements in the Vestfirðir that I looked at while I was in Haukadalur made a strong impression on me: ‚Úr fornsögum er Haukadalur í Dýrafirði betur þekktur en flestir aðrir staðir í Vestfjörðum því allir þræðir í Gísla sögu Súrssonar mætast hér í einum punkti‘ (‚Haukadalur in Dýrafjörður is better known from old stories than most other places in the West Fjords because all the threads in Gísla saga meet here at one point‘, Kjartan Ólafsson, Vestfjarðarit I: Firðir og fólk 900-1900. Vestur -Ísafjarðarsýsla, 1999).

Looking south down Haukadalur
Gísla saga is not overly long – about 80-odd pages in the Penguin Classics translation; structurally and stylistically, the narrative is articulated with consummate artistry. It is one of the more widely-read sagas in Iceland on account of its being on the school-syllabus for several decades; a famous (famous at least in Iceland, and in the world of Old Norse/medieval Icelandic saga studies...) film of the saga was made too, by the director Águst Guðmundsson in the 1980s too – the only film of a whole saga of which I am aware. Gísla saga is sometimes described as a medieval murder mystery: at the heart of its plot are two violent murders. The Scandinavian crime novel phenomenon (Arnaldur Indriðason, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir to name but two world-popular Icelandic crime-writers) is not a new one...

Gísli and his family build a farmstead at Sæból in Haukadalur after arriving from Norway; Gísli‘s sister Þórdís is soon married to Þorgrímr ‚Freysgoði‘ Þorsteinsson (there‘s a connection here to Eyrbyggja saga, Þorgrímr appearing therein; Þórdís eventually ends up on the Snæfellsnes peninsula too—Snorri the chiefain in Eyrbyggja saga is Þórdís and Þorgrímr‘s son), Gísli to Auðr, and Þorkell to Ásgerðr. Þórdís and Þorgrímr take up residence in Sæból, and Gísli and Þorkell (together with their wives) build a second farmstead at Hóll and live together there. Gísli is hard-working and conscientious whilst Þorkell is less inclined to work, and one morning Þorkell lies down after breakfast and overhears a conversation between his wife Ásgerðr and Gísli‘s wife Auðr in which he learns that his wife has feelings for – and is possibly having, or had an affair with -- Auðr‘s brother, Vésteinn. Þorkell and Ásgerðr move out of Hóll over to Sæból where Þorgrímr and Þórdís live, and a rift grows between the brothers and the two households; a damage-limitation attempt by Gísli to bind the four men (Gísli, Þorkell, Vésteinn, Þorgrímr) together with a blood-brotherhood oath fails. Vésteinn returns from a trading voyage and arrives in Haukadalur to visit his sister and Gísli; that night, an unnaturally violent storm blows up and while Gísli and his men go out to rescue the hay, Vésteinn is murdered while he lies in his bed by an unidentified intruder who then escapes.

The spear is left in Vésteinn‘s corpse and Gísli pulls it out and recognizes it as the reforged fragments of a cursed family sword that Þorkell took with him when he parted with Gísli and moved to Sæból. Gísli is obliged by virtue of his marital ties to Vésteinn, and his blood-brotherhood bond, to avenge Vésteinn‘s death. The evidence suggests that the murderer must have come from Sæból: thence Gísli goes by cover of night some time later, wading down the stream that runs beside both farms so he does not leave tracks in the snow. On entering Sæból, and making his way silently into his sister and brother-in-law Þorgrímr‘s bed-closet, Gísli, in turn, impales Þorgrímr with the same spear Grásíða that he pulled out of Vésteinn‘s dead body. After Vésteinn‘s death, winter-ball games on the frozen pond at the mouth of the valley were held by the Haukadalur men; Vésteinn was buried in a mound at the western end of the pond. Þorgrímr is buried at the eastern end of the pond, and the ball-games are again held on the pond. After a clash with another player, Gísli pauses for a moment, looks up at Þorgrímr‘s mound, and recites a riddling verse in which he acknowledges his responsibility for Þorgrímr‘s death. Þórdís, who is now married to Þorgrímr‘s brother Börkr, overhears Gísli‘s verse, remembers it, unravels it, and reports its substance to Börkr – who now must kill Gísli in order to avenge Þorgrímr‘s death.

Seftjörn, looking west down Dýrafjörður

The pond, Seftjörn, is still there at the fjord-end of Haukadalur, with a natural bank separating it from the beach and sea just below. It has silted up considerably but green shoots of the rushes which the inhabitants of Sæból and Hóll gathered to strew on their hall floors were pushing out of their pale, winter sheaths; the rushes will grow to over my height, I was told. Great numbers of birds – gulls, oyster catchers, geese, ducks -- flew up into the air calling shrilly as I walked down to the pond. The two mounds aren‘t visible now though Vésteinn‘s was, partially at least, when the Icelandic archaeologist and antiquary Sigurður Vigfjússon examined the valley in the early 1880s. A house, enclosed by trees, stands on the site where Vésteinn‘s mound rose (now called Vésteinshólt); at the other end of the pond, where Þorgrímr‘s mound was, the concrete/stone foundations of buildings put up there in the late 19th/early 20th century can be seen. At one point, the population of the valley numbered over 100 and there were a couple of shops or trading centres, a small school, and the first ice house in the west of Iceland.

Now, one elderly but completely independent woman lives in the valley; I also met a farmer who keeps his horses and sheep there (lambs were tripping around outside in the field beside his barns); the remaining few houses are used as summer-houses. A grassed-over track runs down to the ruins of the 19th-century settlement by the pond – it must have been on this slope that Þórdís sat and overheard Gísli‘s fateful verse; the mouth of the river (Haukadalsós) where the family put in with their boat and belongings on first arriving in Iceland, and where subsequent voyages were concluded, is just to the east. And the other side of the Haukadalsós is Saltnes, the small promontory between Haukadalur and the neighbouring Meðaldalur where the sorceror Þorgrímr nef and his witch-sister were stoned to death.

Gíslaaugu ('Gísli's Eyes')
What struck me most forcibly was the size and dimensions of the valley, and how densely settled it must have been with all of the farmsteads named in Gísla saga standing (6 in total, according to the saga: Sæból and Hóll, and four more at points either side of the central river, up the valley), compared with other ‚saga‘-valleys I´ve explored elsewhere in Iceland. The valley is not a large one: it's approximately 5 kms long, and 500-800 metres wide at its broadest points; at its southern end, the highest mountain in the Vestfirðir, Kaldbak (998m), rises starkly. It would have taken a matter of minutes to walk from Sæból to Hóll or vice versa: the strained relations between the two households take on an immediacy that I had not appreciated when reading and thinking about the saga up until this point--and the valley is so bare, with very little cover for any kind of private activity.

The faint foundations of the three buildings that comprised Sæból (a hall, cow-barn, and hof) are just traceable in the middle of a hay field south of Seftjörn; the farmer‘s son says that his tractor bounces over them when he ploughs/mows the field. The site of Hóll was on a low hill south-west of Sæból, which is now known as Gíslahóll. In fact, there are two hills: the southernmost and slightly higher one has the clearly visible foundations of a couple of modern (19th/20th century) cow-sheds on its crown; the lower, northern one is where Gísli‘s farm Hóll would have stood. It is a good spot with visibility up, down, and across the valley. Back down Gíslahóll, in the field below to the north of it, are a couple of pools where water wells up: the stream that this water fed ran north to the pond past Sæból and was the stream that Gísli waded along the night of his murder of Þorgrímr. The pools have the slightly sinister name of Gíslaaugu (‚Gísli‘s eyes‘) now; the stream no longer runs its natural course, having been diverted into a ditch, but a slightly sunken channel betrays where it lay.

I followed the stream--or the traces of its original course--as far as I could, thinking about Gísli watching over the valley through the two Gíslaaugu pools, over 1000 years later.  Gísli is outlawed after his riddling verse admitting his murder of Þorgrímr is unravelled by Þórdís -- and the second half of the saga describes his 13 years on the run while pursued by Þorgrímr's brother Börkr, whose responsibility it is to avenge Þorgrímr's death. The past few days have been spent visiting some of the places Gísli hid out as an outlaw (while filming for the 'Cambridge Ideas' series--very exciting--the documentary will be beautiful and will be released in August!) in the next post, I´ll be following Gísli's outlaw tracks. 

Looking north over Seftjörn at Mýrafell

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Eyrbyggja saga I: Berserkers and bathhouses on the Snæfellsnes peninsula

„This, even more than Thingvellir, is the saga-pilgrim‘s classic ground“ wrote William Gershom Collingwood of the Þórsnes peninsula (at the northern end of which now is the town of Stykkishólmur), located on the inner northern shore of the Snæfellsnes ‚arm‘. „Its associations are richer even than those of Lythend [where Gunnar of Njáls saga lived]: its history is fuller and more varied than any other Icelandic neighbourhood“ (Pilgrimage, p. 82). The Snæfellsjökull glacier at the western end of Snæfellsnes is perhaps most famous for being the entry-point of the German Professor Otto Lidenbrock‘s, Axel‘s (the Professor‘s nephew), and Hans‘s (the guide) journey to the centre of the earth as related by Jules Vernes in his 1864 novel of that name. The stories told in Eyrbyggja saga (‚The saga of the Ere-Dwellers‘), however, set 1000 years before Jules Vernes‘s fiction, are just as absorbing and at times as outlandish as Vernes‘s flights of fancy—if not more so, and with their kernel in historical characters and events. There is everything in this saga—politics, heroics alongside dastardly behaviour on the battle-field, love, the walking dead... it is a saga whose plot and substance I have found difficult to hold as a whole in my head in the past, and some pieces of academic criticism on the saga have judged its structure to be wanting in cohesiveness at times. But reading the saga in its landscape somehow clarified it for me—both its component narrative parts, and the saga as a whole narrative: the stranger episodes seemed even stranger, the romance more romantic and more painful, the often dark or dry humour sharper.  

Dritsker, Hofsstaðir
The vividly-named Þórólfr Mostrarskegg (‚Mostr-beard‘, Mostr being an island in Norway) was the first settler here: the beginning of Eyrbyggja saga describes how he left Norway, sailed to Iceland, cast his seat-posts (with a likeness of the god Þórr carved onto them) overboard and established a homestead and a temple to Þórr at Hofsstaðir, on the inner northern shore of Hofstaðavogur, into which the seat-posts were washed ashore—Þórólfr gave Breiðafjörður (‚Broad fjord‘) its name sailing in to it from the west and claiming it for himself. Þórólfr worshipped Þórr steadfastly and, in addition to naming the nes or peninsula in honour of Þórr and building a temple to him at Hofsstaðir, the place where the seat-post likeness of Þórr had landed became the local assembly site. This place was so holy that no-one was permitted to desecrate it by shedding blood or by defecating there—this latter necessary activity was to be carried out on a close-lying skerry which took the apt name of Dritsker (‚Dirt-skerry‘).

Þórssteinn, Þingvellir
After a fight broke out between the Þórsnes-men and others over this rule at one spring assembly, and the sacrosanct land was defiled by bloodshed, the þing-site was moved to a north-eastern location on the peninsula—Þingvellir (‚Assembly-plains‘). Eyrbyggja saga describes this second assembly-site where, at the time of the saga‘s writing down, Þar sér enn dómhring þann, er menn váru dæmðir í til blóts; í þeim hring stendr Þórs steinn, er þeir menn váru brotnir um, er til blóta váru hafðir, ok sér enn blóðslitinn á steininum (Eyrbyggja saga, ch. 10, p. 18; ‚There one sees still the judgement ring, where men were doomed to sacrifice; in that ring stands Þórr‘s stone, where those men were broken who were to be sacrificed, and one sees still the blood-stain on the stone‘). There is a working farm at Þingvellir today: when I visited, the farmers were waiting for the imminent beginning of lambing and driving shit from the sheep-shed over the field where the judgement-ring was set those many centuries ago—and in the middle of which, Þórr‘s stone still stands. Collingwood noted the stains on the stone: „ upon it here and there a brown stain which may have been what the saga-man saw: not of blood but of iron in the stone“ (Pilgrimage, p. 95). More striking when I inspected the stone was a bright yellow lichen clinging and spreading tenaciously over the surface. It is almost certain that human sacrifice never took place in pre-Christian Iceland (as Collingwood himself noted)—and this must be understood as an antiquarian elaboration on the part of the saga-writer.     

Helgafell, looking east

Þórólfr believed the hill on the Þórsnes peninsula that rises abruptly from the lower-lying land, and that from some angles resembles the hump of a beached whale, was especially holy: he named the hill Helgafell (‚Holy-hill‘) ok trúði, at hann myndi þangat fara, þá er hann dæi, ok allir á nesinu hans frændr (Eyrbyggja saga, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson and Matthías Þórðarson, Islenzk fornrit IV, Reykjavík 1935, ch. 4, p. 9; ‚and he believed that he would go there when he died, and all his kinsmen on the peninsula‘). Slightly later in the saga, Þórólfr‘s son, Þorsteinn þorskabítr (‚cod-biter‘), goes out fishing; that night, a shepherd sees the hill-side opened up. A great fire is burning inside and he hears noises of great revelry and drinking and the welcoming of Þorsteinn (together with his companions), who is invited to sit on the highseat opposite his father. The next morning, men come back to the farm and announce the news that Þorsteinn had drowned while out fishing. Later in the saga, after a number of other local men are drowned while out at sea, they (or their reanimated corpses) return to their farmstead and sit, dripping seawater onto the floor, around the fire in the hall every night until they are subjected to a legal ceremony which bans them from occupying the house...   

Berserkjagata, with Bjarnarhöfn at the foot of the
mountain behind
Helgafell becomes the seat of Þórólfr‘s great-grandson Snorri—a wily and powerful chieftain who figures prominently throughout the saga and is famous for dispensing clever, if ‚cold‘, advice—until in later age he swaps homes with Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir from Laxdæla saga (a photo of Guðrún‘s headstone at Helgafell is in the previous post of 10th May). At one point, Snorri helps a local man called Styrr who has got into a tight spot with a couple of imported Swedish berserkers. These men are proving difficult to keep under control and one of them expresses his wish to marry Styrr‘s daughter Ásdís. On Snorri‘s advice, Styrr sets the berserkers an impossible task in order to win Ásdís‘s hand—to clear, in three days, a path through the lava field between his farmstead at undir Hrauni (‚below the lava‘) and Bjarnarhöfn (on the peninsula to the west of that of Þórsnes; originally the homestead of Björn Ketilsson inn austræna (‚the easterner‘) who is a brother of Auðr/Unnr in djúpúðga of Laxdæla saga). This the berserkers manage to do—but meanwhile, Styrr builds a bathhouse, into which he then lures and locks the berserkers, and when they try to break out after the bathhouse becomes unbearably hot, Styrr deals one of them his deathblow, and the other is driven back into the bathhouse and dies there. Their bodies are taken out into the lava and in a sunken valley therein where nothing can be seen but the sky above, they are buried under a pile of rocks...and Ásdís subsequently becomes Snorri‘s wife. The path (‚Berserkjagata‘) is there today and can be followed from start to finish—as is the dys beside the path which marks the berserkers‘ final resting place; a local woman told me that the story must be true because noone but berserkers could have been strong enough to clear the path through the lava.

Berserkjadys (the rectangular stone structure)
The colours in the landscape made a deep impression on me as I explored the Snæfellsnes peninsula (there will be a second post on the saga shortly...). The gleaming white of the glacier with its crooked horns, the dusty greys of the thick moss that grows over the lava—itself sometimes dark and black, sometimes magenta or russet or mauve—the bright vivid luminous green of wet moss. I drove from the northern shore of the peninsula south up over the Fróðárheiði and then west along the southern shore and around the glacier almost reeling at times from the visual impact of the landscape on me. The Embulance, I‘m pleased to report, was not affected physically in the same way...and so the journey continues...           

Snæfellsnes and Embulance

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Ljósvetninga saga: Mighty fists and political wheeling and dealing in Eyjafjörður

While I was up north on bovine business over the Easter period, free time between milking sessions were spent pondering and perambulating Ljósvetninga saga, 'The saga of the people of Ljósavatn'. The title of the saga would lead one to expect the action to be located around Ljósavatn which is east of Eyjafjörður, in Þingeyjarsveit, but in fact the central character, the chieftain Guðmundr ríki ('the powerful'), lived at Möðruvellir, which is some 25 kms south of Akureyri, in the Eyjafjörður valley on the eastern side of the Eyjafjarðará river. Ljósvetninga saga has a very different flavour to the sagas I've written about more recently (Egils saga, Laxdæla saga, Harðar saga) and those which are to come in the next few weeks (Eyrbyggja saga, Gísla saga, Fóstbræðra saga...) being much more political in its focus -- and Guðmundr is not a saga 'hero' in the mould of Egill, Kjartan, or Hörðr. In fact, he is not painted in a positive light at all -- the saga narrates his social/political/legal wheeling and dealing with other local or northern chieftains, farmers, and slaves and while he often achieves the ends he wants from conflicts, he does not necessarily come out of these episodes with his honour and local standing enhanced.  

Möðruvellir, with dog
Reading Ljósvetninga saga 'in the landscape' proved to be an experience akin to that of Flóamanna saga (see post from February) in some ways. Other than brief notes detailing where characters live and the occasional outline of a journey from one place to another, there is very little in the saga that links the action to the physical landscape, or sets it tangibly in it. As far as I could establish by talking to a number of local people, the majority of those who live in Eyjafjarðarsveit are not particularly familiar with the saga or with the details of Guðmundr ríki's life and career; nor are the farmsteads/sites in the saga marked with information boards or monuments in the way that those in Mýrar and Dalir are.     

The turf-roofed church at Saurbær today
(Möðruvallafjall behind, the other side of the valley)
There are some highly entertaining scenes in the saga nonetheless. The description of how a certain Þorbjörn Rindill (a somewhat dubious character whom Guðmundr hires to carry out a vengeance mission on his behalf) meets his death is visual in an almost comic-book-like fashion: after eating a quick bowl of rather runny skyr (a kind of yoghurt that was a staple food)...var þar kominn Eilífr ok maðr með honum, -- þar varð fátt af kveðjum --, ok setti þegar kesjuna á Rindil miðjan, en skyrit sprændi ór honum ok upp á Eilíf (Ljósvetninga saga, ed. Björn Sigfússon, Íslenzk fornrit 10 (Reykjavík, 1940), p. 55; 'Eilífr had arrived and there was a man with him -- there weren't many greetings -- and at once he stabbed Rindill in his middle with the spear, and the skyr spurted out of him and onto Eilífr'). Guðmundr is told the news and, furious, he rides to nearby Saurbær where Eilífr and his companion have sought shelter from the old and blind Hlenni inn skakki ('the wry'). 'Are they here, those men of dire deeds, with you Hlenni? Eilífr and his companion?' 'They are here', he says, 'and it doesn´t seem a tragedy to me that Rindill is dead' ('Eru þeir hér, ódáðamennirnir, hjá þér, Hlenni, Eilífr ok förunautr hans?' 'Hér eru þeir,' segir hann, 'ok þykki mér engi harmsaga, þótt Rindill sé dauðr', Ljósvetninga saga, p. 55).

In a later scene, Guðmundr is staying at one of his follower's farmsteads: he takes the highseat, the most prestigious place; another chieftain called Ófeigr Járngerðarson is in the place inside of Guðmundr. When the table is laid for a meal, Ófeigr puts his fist on the table and a perfectly-paced passage of dialogue follows:
     'Hversu mikill þykki þér hnefi sjá, Guðmundr?'
     Hann mælti: 'Víst mikill.' 
     Ófeigr mælti: 'Þat muntu ætla, at afl muni í vera?'
     Guðmundr mælti: 'Ek ætla þat víst.'
     Ófeigr segir: 'Mikit muntu ætla, at högg verði af?'
     Guðmundr segir: 'Stórum mikit.'
     Ófeigr segir: 'Þat muntu ætla, at saka muni?'
     Guðmundr mælti: 'Beinbrot eða bani.'
     Ófeigr svarar: 'Hversu myndi þér sá dauðdagi þykkja?'
     Guðmundr mælti: 'Stórillr, ok eigi mynda ek vilja þann fá.'
     Ófeigr mælti: 'Sittu þá eigi í rúmi mínu.'
     Guðmundr segir: 'Þat skal ok vera,' -- ok settisk öðrum megin
(Ljósvetninga saga, pp. 58-59; 'How big does this fist seem to you, Guðmundr?' He said: 'Certainly large.' Ófeigr said: 'Do you think there is power in it?' Guðmundr said: 'I think that certainly.' Ófeigr says: 'Do you think the blow that might come from it would be strong?' Guðmundr says: 'Very strong.' Ófeigr says: 'What do you think the damage would be?' Guðmundr said: 'Bone-breaking or death.' Ófeigr answers: 'How would a death like that seem to you?' Guðmundr said: 'Very bad, and I would not like to experience it.' Ófeigr said: 'Don´t sit in my seat then.' Guðmundr says: 'It shall be so,' -- and seats himself the on the other side.')

Beyond the challenges of imagining the action of Ljósvetninga saga in the landscape, certain aspects related to its transmission and its modern reception are of interest to me. Firstly, the saga survives in two versions which differ significantly in their length, phrasing, overall organisation or structure, and presentation of events with regard to specific detail. Scholars have debated which version is older/younger, closer to the 'original' etc, but have not reached a consensus. The fact that two such differing versions -- whose textual relationship is not clear -- exist, however, illustrates very well how the concept of an 'original' text is something of an anachronism as far as the medieval Icelandic Íslendingasögur ('sagas of Icelanders') are concerned. The sagas were authored anonymously, and their written composition was a process that involved moulding a great deal of material that must have been passed down orally from generation to generation into a carefully crafted literary whole. When scribes made new copies of individual sagas, they were free to alter the text they were copying from in the manuscript in front of them -- and did so, to varying degrees, in order to improve the style or 'correct' specific details. By examining the variant texts of any one saga, a picture can be built up of how that narrative or story was understood and interpreted by all those who were involved in transmitting it via hand-copied manuscripts, from the medieval period right up until the 19th and even early 20th century. In this way, the sagas are living literature, continuously being adapted and rewritten over time.   

Secondly, Ljósvetninga saga is a nice example of how modern taste or aesthetics have changed over the past 150 years or so of saga scholarship -- and what people have thought makes a 'good' saga. Two 19th-century scholars wrote of Ljósvetninga saga that "owing to the absence of remaniement this work is not disfigured by the monstrous and exaggerated taste for blood, which has quite cumbered some sagas, that may once have been good stories, with aimless ill-told murders ... all [the characters] are finely and firmly limned with a quiet delight and an absence of exaggeration that is admirable indeed. Of all the Sagas, this is the nearest to Njála in style. It is incomparably the best Saga of the North" (Guðbrandur Vigfússon and F. York Powell, Origines Islandicæ vol. II (Oxford, 1905), pp. 349-50). Njála, or Njáls saga, is often described as the 'jewel in the saga crown' -- so this is high praise for Ljósvetninga saga indeed. But since the time of these scholars' verdict, very little has been published on Ljósvetninga saga, and what has been tends to be concerned either with its textual transmission (i.e. the versions and the relationship of surviving manuscript texts to each other), or has used the saga as a source for throwing light on social, political, and legal structures and dynamics in Settlement/Commonwealth times -- at least as far as portrayed by those in the 13th century, when the saga was thought to be written.  
Finally, the more I read the sagas in close succession in situ here in Iceland, and follow up the connections between them physically moving from one place to another and from one region to another, the more I think that the sagas are best understood not as individual, discrete narratives, but as a network of interlinking and overlapping narratives. Characters and individual places in one saga often appear in other sagas; sometimes, specific events described in one saga are reported in one or more other sagas too. It´s interesting to see how the presentation of the same characters and events differs in these cases, according to the objectives of each saga‘s author, or their personal perspective. Ljósvetninga saga is a good example: Guðmundr ríki appears in over 10 other sagas—sometimes in a more positive light than he is portrayed in Ljósvetninga saga. But as William Ian Miller and Thedore Andersson (in the introduction to their 1989 translation of the saga, Law and Literature in Medieval Iceland: Ljósvetninga saga and Valla-Ljóts saga) and Gísli Sigurðsson (in his 2007 article ‘The Immanent Saga of Guðmundr ríki‘, in a volume called Learning and Understanding in the Old Norse World: A Festschrift for Margaret Clunies Ross, ed. Judy Quinn, Kate Heslop, and Tarrin Wills) point out, above and beyond the positive/negative attitudes towards Guðmundr in these sagas, there is a great deal of consistency in his portrayal—and moreover, as Gísli Sigurðsson puts it, ‘many of them [i.e. these sagas] seem to assume a level of prior knowledge of his character on the part of their audiences‘, and also ‚a prior knowledge of his external circumstances‘. Gísli writes also that ‚The tradition in fact offers a many-voiced and varied picture of characters, in all probability because it is based on memories of real people that were the subject of stories for several generations before it occurred to anyone to use them as material for written works of narrative‘.
Guðrún's grave at Helgafell
The past few days I´ve been touring around the Snæfellsnes peninsula on the trail of Eyrbyggja saga sites (post to follow shortly): next stop is the West Fjords (I‘m on my way there right now, on the ferry Baldur which runs between Stykkishólmur, Flatey, and Brjánslækur) and Gísla saga...There‘s a strong link between these two sagas that gives my progression from one to the other here a nice coherence. Gísli Súrsson‘s sister Þórdís–whose first husband was murdered by Gísli—later tried to avenge Gísli‘s death (masterminded in turn by her second husband Börkr, brother of the first husband), at Helgafell which is a central location in Eyrbyggja saga, being the home of Snorri goði (Þórdís‘s son from her first husband) by the time of that saga. Looking back to Laxdæla saga (which I read, travelled, and wrote about in April), Helgafell is the place where Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir ended up (having engineered a 'houseswap‘ with Snorri towards the end of her life) and died...her grave is marked today with a stone (see photo above). Amazing to think, looking at this modern memorial, that Guðrún died and was buried over 1000 years ago...

Monday, 2 May 2011

Saga Tourism in the 21st Century

Krumskelda in Mýrar
In lieu of a pending report on a couple of the northern sagas -- Ljósvetninga saga and Valla-Ljóts saga -- that I was working on over easter in between milking cows in Eyjafjarðarsveit, I thought a few remarks on 'saga tourism' in 21st-century Iceland might be of interest to those following this blog. This is something I've become increasingly aware of since beginning my project to read all of the sagas in situ around Iceland over the course of this year -- and I've been interested to see how local organisations have and are working hard at presenting 'their' saga to visitors to the area by marking sites or places connected to these sagas with information boards or monuments of various kinds. Around Mýrar, for example, a number of cairns have been set up at important places in Egils saga (e.g. the photo above -- the cairn at Krumskelda, where Skalla-Grímr is said to have buried his silver...watched over by some hardy horses when I was there in March). 

Parchment being prepared
at Gásir's Miðaldadagar
(photo from their gallery
Last Friday, at a one-day annual conference hosted in Reykjavík by the 'Icelandic Saga Trails Association' ('Samtök um sögutengda ferðaþjónustu'), I had the chance to meet a number of people involved in the saga tourism business (and gave a presentation outlining my project). The Saga Trails Association comprises about 30 saga-related local museums and heritage sites around the country which engage with and present medieval Icelandic history and culture to tourists. A map showing the location of each of the members of the Association can be found here as part of the STA website. At some of these sites, medieval-themed re-enactment festivals are held in the summer -- and visitors can observe and participate in recreations of aspects of medieval life. 

Iceland has typically been a destination for those attracted by the prospect of fire-and-ice-related adventure, but saga tourism is a growing business -- and the potential in Iceland to build on locally-based cultural projects and initiatives already established is Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir (from the 'Promote Iceland'  marketing division Íslandsstofa), emphasised in her opening presentation. 'Because the sagas remain a part of how Icelanders view rural landscapes, and indeed how Icelanders view themselves as a nation, saga-related travel is a way of meeting the local culture through environment' writes Kári Gíslason in a post on literary tourism in Iceland on his blog (the full post, from 27th August 1020 is here). Kári lectures in creative writing and literary studies at Queensland University of Technology in Australia and publishes on the Icelandic sagas; his book The Promise of Iceland comes out in August this year...and will no doubt address the subject of saga tourism in Iceland amongst other lines of enquiry and reflection. 

Detail from the Krumskelda cairn
(see photo top right)
But it is crucial that the development of saga-related tourism in Iceland must be done in a sensitive, informed, and responsible way however. Coming from the other academic 'side', I enjoy the different perspectives that re-enactment, for example, can bring to the study of history and culture but draw the line at attending 'Genuine Viking Feasts' and enforced communal horn-drinking feel and break out in a cold sweat thinking about the extreme manifestation of saga tourism -- Iceland being turned into one huge medieval theme park...not that this seems to be on the cards, thank goodness. One of the strengths of the Saga Trail Association, it seems to me, is the autonomous and local nature of the individual participating members: I have enjoyed seeing the different approaches and emphases at the museums/sites I have visited so far and look forward in the coming months to seeing what the sites I haven't yet made it to have to offer.

The Promise of Spring in Iceland has seemed something of a vain hope for much of the past couple of weeks. Though buds are visible on trees and the occasional daffodilly and crocus are valiantly unfurling their bright petals -- the 'first day of summer' (an official public holiday) was about 10 days ago -- several inches of snow fell in Reykjavík on Saturday night and into the early hours of Sunday morning -- by which time it was the First of May. Hmm. I'm off to the West Fjords on Thursday for some Gísla saga action and a spot of filming which promises to be great fun...the Ljósvetninga saga report will come soon, and then an update from the Wild West... gleðilegt sumar to all reading meanwhile!