Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Wild Westerners: Fóstbræðra saga and Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings

My Gísla saga pilgrimage concluded, I set off on the trail of the other sagas set around the West Fjords, namely Fóstbræðra saga, Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings, and Gull-Þóris (or Þorskfirðinga) saga. There is some geographical overlap between Fóstbræðra saga and Hávarðar saga: apart from this being convenient as far as my route-planning was concerned, charting this 'on the ground' added to my growing sense of how the sagas can usefully be read in ways other than as linear narratives which unfold page-by-page, from Chapter 1 to The End. Before embarking on this mobile research trip, more often than not I just did not make connections between sagas with regard to places that reoccur in more than one saga, though I always found the way that a certain event or scene sometimes crops up in multiple sagas of interest. It is a great luxury to have the opportunity to explore Iceland in such a leisurely fashion and travelling around Iceland could never be anything but an adventure, sagas or no sagas. However, there is no doubt that the map of the country I am building up in my head while I travel is a vital resource for my further study of the sagas, and  my awareness of exactly how various places in individual sagas are related to each other, and how individual places are important in multiple sagas, is constantly being strengthened.

Fóstbræðra saga is a little different from some other sagas in a number of ways. Rather than focusing on one protagonist, it deals with the lives of two protagonists simultaneously, Þorgeirr Hávarsson and Þormóðr Kolbrúnarskáld Bersason, following their joint and individual exploits. The narratorial voice throughout the saga is especially distinctive too--and from time to time, to a degree unusual in the sagas, this voice communicates judgements or comments on events, sometimes even observations about human anatomy. Þorgeirr is born at a place called Jökulskelda, on the eastern shore of Mjóvafjörður (this fjord cutting inland on a north/south axis on the southern side of Ísafjarðardjúp); Þormóðr is born at a place called Dyrðilmýri, along the Snæfjallaströnd shore on the northern side of the Ísafjarðardjúp. Þorgeirr is first described as being bráðgörr maðr ok mikill vexti ok sterkr ok kappsfullr; hann nam á unga aldri at hlífa sér með skildi ok vega með vápnum (Fóstbræðra saga, ed. Guðni Jónsson, Íslenzk fornrit VI, ch. 2, p. 123; 'A man developed at a young age, large and strong and very vigorous; at a young age he learned to protect himself with a shield and fight with weapons'); Þormóðr is þegar á unga aldri hvatr maðr ok hugprúðr, meðalmaðr vexti, svartr á hárslit ok hrokkinhærð (Fóstbræðra saga ch. 2, p. 124; 'At once, at a young age a bold man and stout-hearted, of medium height, with curly black hair'). Early in the saga, the two swear an oath of blood-brotherhood: 'They thought more indeed about honour in this world than about glory of joys of the other world. Thus they made a firm agreement that the one of them who lived longer should avenge the other' (Meir hugðu þeir jafnan at fremð þessa heims lífs en at dýrð annars heims fagnaðar. Því tóku þeir þat ráð með fastmælum, at sá þeira skyldi hefna annars, er lengr lifði, Fóstbræðra saga ch. 2, pp. 124-5).  

Dyrðilmýri (looking east
along Snæfjallaströnd)
Dyrðilmýri (in the sunlight, 
looking west along Snæfjallaströnd) 

Þorgeirr in particular is a trouble-making character and gets involved in many local conflicts: the powerful chieftain Vermundr inn mjóvi at Vatnsfjörður attempts to bring some peace to the area by ordering both Þorgeirr's and Þormóðr's families to move to Borgarfjörður and over to the Laugadalur valley (on the peninsula between Skötufjörður and Mjóvarfjörður), respectively. After various adventures (more often violent than not) around the West Fjords (particularly the Hornstrandir peninsula) and abroad, Þorgeirr is killed and Þormóðr takes on the task of vengeance--a course of action which takes him over to Greenland in pursuit of Þorgeirr's killer, a man called Þorgrímr trolli Einarsson.

I wanted more than anything to walk for a few days around Hornstrandir and especially to get to the vast cliffs at Horn to look for Þorgeirstó ('Þorgeirr's Tuft') which is where, according to one text of the saga (in the Flateyjarbók manuscript) Þorgeirr, while gathering the herb/plant angelica, has a brush with death when the ground under his feet crumbles away. He grabs the root of an angelica plant and hangs 60 fathoms above the rocks on the shore below; out of pride, he will not call on Þormóðr to save him though to fall would mean a certain death. When Þorgeirr does not rejoin Þormóðr, Þormóðr goes to look for him and shouts out whether Þorgeirr hasn´t yet gathered enough angelica: Þorgeirr svarar þá með óskelfri röddu ok óttalausu brjósti: "Ek ætla," segir hann, "at ek hafa þá nógar, at þessi er uppi, er ek held um." (Fóstbræðra saga ch 13, p. 190; 'Þorgeirr answers then with a steady voice, fearless in his breast: "I think", he says, "that I'll have enough when this one, which I´m holding onto, is uprooted"). Þormóðr finds Þorgeirr and pulls him to safety.


The edge of a snow precipice above Bolungarvík

I didn´t get out to the northern fringe of Hornstrandir--impossible endless winter weather conditions and my being on my own meant that this would not have been the most sensible of expeditions. But I did hitch an afternoon boatride from Bolungarvík over to a bay on the western tip of Hornstrandir called Aðalvík, with a few people who were heading off for short stints in their summer houses, so I had the chance to marvel at some of the sheer cliffs, teeming with screaming birds, and to look down along Jökulsfirðir along which some scenes in Fóstbræðra saga take place. Collingwood wrote that 'this inhospitable coast' is--or was, at his time--inhabited by 'the least known and most forlorn of Icelanders' (Pilgrimage, p. 113). It is the least accessible part of Iceland now, sometimes described as the last 'wilderness'; the last permanent settlements were abandoned around the mid-20th century and the whole area is now a nature reserve. I will return!

View north from Laugaból
I drove down the southern shore of Ísafjarðardjúp following the road in and out of each of the seven narrow fjords that branch off it, and then back along the northern shore of Djúpið ('The Deep') as far as Dyrðilmýri, Þormóðr's birthplace. The views across Ísafjarðardjúp were breathtaking: dark heavy layers of cloud hanging along the flat-topped and still snow-covered  mountains, mirroring their horizontal plane. A little further west of Dyrðilsmýri are the grassed-over foundations of Hávarðsstaðir--the second home of the eponymous Hávarðr of Hávarðs sagaHávarðs saga turns on vengeance too--but that of a father (Hávarðr) for his son Óláfr, who is killed by the overbearing and villainous chieftain Þorbjörn illi Þjóðreksson. Þorbjörn illi, at the time when Hávarðar saga takes place, lived at Laugabóli in Laugadalur--the farm to which Þormóðr Kolbrúnarskáld and his family move on the orders of Vermundr, as told in Fóstbræðra saga, and a nice example of the kind of geographical saga-stead overlap that I´m becoming more aware of as I travel, as explained above. I spent a night at Laugaból with the remarkable and heroic woman who has lived there for the past 80-odd years: her life-story is one of tragic family losses and personal fortitude that makes for a powerful modern-day saga, and which has been told by Reynir Traustason (see here).    

Outline of the Viking Age hall
and central hearth,
Vatnsfjörður, where Vermundr lived, was a stop en route--and here, I found much to examine. The church-and chieftain-site was an important place from the Settlement period until the Reformation in the mid-16th century, and it has been thoroughly dug by archaeologists over the past few years. Excellent signs have been set up with details about the buildings excavated so far, and various notable finds uncovered. One can walk amongst the outlines of the Viking Age farm complex (hall and outbuildings), and those from the second area of occupation which dates from the later Middle Ages; information about the site, which is still being investigated, can be found here

Grettisvarða at Vatnsfjörður,
(the modern church below to the right;
the excavated site is to the left)
Vermundr was married to an exceptionally strong woman (a kvenskörungur mikill) called Þorbjörg in digra ('the stout'), sister of Kjartan Óláfsson of Laxdæla saga; she had notable forebears on both sides, being the daughter of Óláfr pá (himself the son of the Irish princess Melkorka and Höskuldr Dala-Kolsson; see Laxdæla saga) and Þorgerðr Egilsdóttir (daughter of Egill Skalla-Grímsson; see Egils saga and Laxdæla saga). There is a neat example of saga-character and material overlap here, with regard to Vatnsfjörður, Fóstbræðra saga and Grettis saga (which I will write about in full in a future post), and also another place that features in Fóstbræðra saga, Reykjahólar where Þorgeirr spends periods of time with his kinsman Þorgils Arason (now Reykhólar, on the Reykjanes peninsula at the bottom south-east end of the West Fjords).

The beginning of the Hauksbók text of Fóstbræðra saga tells the story of how Þorbjörg digra saved the outlaw Grettir Ásmundarson from execution by local farmers in the Vatnsfjörður area. On the hill-side above Vatnsfjörður stands a large cairn which is known as Grettisvarða ('Grettir's cairn')--and the stepped or terraced hill-side itself is known as Grettishjalli (a 'hjalli' is a shelf or ledge on a mountainside): local tradition attributes the building of the cairn to the outlaw Grettir Ásmundarson though in all probability it is younger and was built as part of a wider defensive network. The story about Grettir's capture is found in Grettis saga too, in which saga there is also an episode which tells how Grettir and the two blood-brothers Þorgeirr and Þormóðr spend a winter with Þorgils at Reykhólar...and the tension between Þorgeirr and Grettir. On one occasion, the three are row out to an island to collect an oxen for their host. The going is difficult on the way back with all three rowing (Grettir in the stern, Þorgeirr amidships, and Þormóðr in the bow) and there some sharp wordplay between Þorgeirr and Grettir: 'Frýr nú skutrinn skriðar', says Þorgeirr to Grettir--'Now the stern is hanging'. 'Ekki skal skutrinn eptir verða ef allvel er róið frammi', answers Grettir--'The stern will not be left behind if the rowing amidships is good'... How I could have done with these three--or even one of them--to convey me around the tip of Hornstrandir and around to Horn...

The tongue of Drangajökull, as seen at the end of the Kaldalón fjord

Monday, 6 June 2011

Gísla saga 2: The Outlaw Years

In the last post, I mentioned some of the events described in Gísla saga Súrssonar that lead up to the point in the saga when Gísli Súrsson becomes an outlaw... Forced to leave his farmstead in Haukadalur, the saga relates how he survived on the run for 13 years before finally being hunted down and killed by his enemies. Gísli‘s outlaw years are the subject of the second half of the saga, which is an intriguing mix of almost slapstick-style or fabliaux comedy on the one hand, as Gísli gives his pursuers the slip through pulling off various cunning tricks, and on the other, heightened and doom-driven prose as Gísli‘s final hour approaches. The prose is punctuated by verses uttered by Gísli, often about the frequently blood-drenched nightmares that disturb his sleep. Poignantly, Gísli comes to be afraid of the dark (as is another famous outlaw, Grettir, after he is cursed by the revenant Glámr...a post on Grettis saga will appear at some point over the summer months!).


Gísli relies on friends and family to support him as an outlaw and he spends periods of time in different places hiding out. Help is not always forthcoming, however: the consequence of a spell that the sorceror Þorgrímr nef conjures, on the orders of Börkr—who must capture Gísli in order to avenge the death of his brother, Þorgrímr, at Gísli‘s hands. One place where Gísli spends summers in hiding is in a fjord south of Dýrafjörður (where Haukadalur is) called Geirþjófsfjörður, which branches off the bigger Arnarfjörður. Geirþjófsfjörður can only be accessed by walking down from the heath above it, or from the water by boat. Its remoteness made my expeditions down into it to explore the places named in the saga even more of an adventure into the unknown.
Gísla saga tells of how Gísli‘s wife, Auðr, had a farmstead in Geirþjófsfjörður—and grassed-over mounds known as Auðartóftir (‚Auðr‘s ruins‘) where this farm stood are marked and easy to find, on the level plain at the end of the fjord. I had a packed lunch (together with a local Gísli expert, who came with me for the first trip down into the valley, and my filming Cambridge Ideas companion) with my back up against one side of Auðartóftir, the sun (welcome, after days of snow and sleet and minimal visibility) shining down on us. There is a modern farmhouse not far from Auðartóftir—but the last inhabitants left some time in the 1950s/60s, and the fjord and valley have been deserted since then. It must have been a remarkable thing to have lived and farmed down by this fjord, with places associated with Gísli‘s last years and death visible on all sides, both those that are named in the saga, and other places that incorporate his name in some way and testify to a tradition of engagement with the saga beyond the printed page. It‘s a beautiful valley—and its gentle contours, as well as the rivers and waterfalls that fall from the heaths above and run down noisily through huge gullies into the fjord, took me by surprise. I had imagined a much starker, darker, grimmer, silent backdrop for Gísli‘s last fugitive months.  

One of Gísli´s hideouts

The saga describes how Gísli had various small hideouts around the valley—two of these are marked, and a third, unmarked but clearly visible, was pointed out to me. I stood IN one of Gísli‘s hideouts and listened to birds calling, and water gurgling. According to the saga, Gísli only spent time in Geirþjófsfjörður over the summer—when the leaves on the birch and rowan trees—though these trees do not grow to a great height—would provide greater cover. But it struck me that this must have been a precarious security since a spy—such as Njósnar-Helgi in the saga, who is sent into Geirþjófsfjörður by Börkr‘s sidekick Eyjólfr inn grái to ascertain Gísli‘s whereabouts—looking down on the valley, might quickly notice the shaking of greenery in one spot or another... And after pushing through some of these tangled thickets for a short spell, I appreciated that being chased through such woods (as Gísli is, at certain points in the saga) would not have been a simple matter either.  
The saga‘s account of Gísli‘s last hours and his final battle is a powerful piece of narrative. His end is nigh and utterly inevitable, but the narrative tension is nonetheless built up and up right until the climax of his last fight, which itself is dramatically staged and presented. It is the last night of summer and Gísli is with his wife Auðr and their foster-daughter at the farm but he cannot sleep, so the three of them walk from the farm to one of the hide-outs, to the south of the farm and beneath some cliffs. The weather is close and there is a heavy dew: as they walk, their cloaks leave trails behind them, and Gísli lets shavings from a runestick that he is carving fall unheeded too. When they get to the hideout, Gísli tries to sleep but dreams of two loon-birds fighting each other, covered in gore. The voices of approaching men are heard—it is Eyjólfr with a band of 15 men and they have followed the trails from the farm to the hideout. Gísli, Auðr and the girl run up onto the cliffs—these now bear the name Kleifar, and are marked with a sign—and Eyjólfr and his men attack from below.
Auðr has armed herself with a wooden club and beats Eyjólfr, driving him back down; she is captured and Gísli utters the memorable words ‚I have known for a long time that I married well, though I did not know just how well married I was. But you helped me less than you might have done or intended to, although your attack was good, because they would both have gone the same way now‘—i.e., had Gísli attacked Eyjólfr, he would have killed him as he has others (‚Þat vissa ek fyrir löngu, at ek var vel kvæntr, en þó vissa ek eigi, at ek væra svá vel kvæntr sem ek em. En minna lið veittir þú mér nú en þú mundir vilja eða þú ætlaðir, þó at tilræðit væri gott, því at eina leið mundu þeir nú hafa farit báðir‘, Gísla saga ch. 34, p. 112). The attackers press on and up and Gísli kills two more men—four are now dead. When least expected, Gísli runs off and up onto a rocky outcrop close by, called Einhamarr, and defends himself from there.
Einhamarr, view north from the top
Men climb up and ‚er atsóknin þá bæði hörð ok áköf, ok fá þeir nú komit á hann sárum nökkurum með spjótalögum, en hann versk með mikilli hreysti ok drengskap. Ok fá þeir svá þungt af honum af grjóti ok stórum höggum, svá at engi var ósárr, sá er at honum sótti, því at Gísli var eigi missfengr í höggum‘ (Gísla saga ch. 35, p. 114; ‚the attack was both hard and furious, and they manage to wound him somewhat with spear-thrusts, but he defended himself with great courage and valour. And they receive such a heavy onslaught of rocks and blows from him that none was unwounded of those he attacked, because Gísli was not inaccurate with his blows‘). Gísli is speared in the stomach and his guts spill out; he gathers them up in his shirt and ties them in with his belt. Then he calls for a pause, states that they will get the end they want, and then speaks his last verse—in which he claims his courage comes from his father. After this, Gísli leaps from the rock and drives his sword into the head of one of the attackers, cleaving him down to the middle, and dying himself.   
I sat on top of Einhamar and read all of this—in the sunshine, looking down onto the plain where Auðartóftir are, and over to Kleifar. I found it hard in some ways to reconcile the details of the scene—violent shouts, clashing of weapons, blood and guts—with the peace of that rock as I sat, read, thought on it...I wondered if I was falling into the trap of reading the sagas—and imagining episodes within them—as though they are history rather than narratives that occupy the hazy space between history and fiction.
Certainly, it seemed to me that for local people, Gísla saga was more history than fiction—and Gísli might have died only decades ago rather than many centuries, in some cases. I think it would have been impossible to find a local person who did not know something of Gísli—that he lived in Haukadalur, at the very least—and many in the area know Gísli‘s story not necessarily through reading the saga, but because of his presence in the landscape, and the way that the events in the saga play out in local places, and the way that people have always passed on stories about Gísli in these landscapes. And this is not a passive tradition in present times either—in different ways, local people still actively engage with the saga and see it as their local heritage. There have been concerted efforts to present the saga to those unfamiliar with it and new to the area in the form of very well-made information boards raised at key places mentioned in the saga, for example. But most absorbingly, I experienced the spontaneous composing of verses about Gísli and places in the saga at first hand—in a perfectly natural context, not an artificial one. And I had to compose a verse about Gísli myself, in return...and thus found myself engaging with Gísli and Gísla saga creatively in the way that Icelanders have for many hundreds of years—and in some places, still do.     

A joke in/by nature...or perhaps created by Gísli?