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