Friday, 29 July 2011

From Eastern Parts II: Brothers in Arms, or Droplaugarsona saga

Two sons, Helgi and Grímr, were born to a couple (Þorvaldr and Droplaug) who lived at a place called Arneiðarstaðir (today Arnheiðarstaðir) on the western side of the long lake Lagarfljót, in the east of Iceland (the present-day capital of the east, Egilsstaðir, sits on east of the northern end of this lake, in which Iceland‘s equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster, the Lagarfljót serpent or Lagarfljótsormurinn, is said to reside...). Helgi, the elder, was ‚a large man, promising and strong, cheerful and self-assertive‘ who was not interested in thinking about farming, but the best of men as far as skill with weapons was concerned (mikill maðr vexti ok vænn ok sterkr, gleðimaðr ok hávaðasamr. Hann vildi ekki um búnað hugsa. Vígr var hann manna bezt, Droplaugarsona saga ch. 2, p. 140, ed. Jón Jóhannesson, Íslenzk fornrit XI, Reykjavík 1950). The younger son, Grímr, was also large and strong but silent and composed, and a good farmer (mikill maðr vexti ok afrendr at afli, hljóðlátr ok stilltr vel. Hann var búmaðr mikill, Droplaugarsona saga ch. 2, p. 142). These two men were thought to have the greatest potential of all the young men in the district.

The old farmhouse at Arnheiðarstaðir

The saga of these two brothers, the ‚sons of Droplaug‘ (who was their mother, and whose name they take rather than that of their father‘s, on account of their father dying early in their lives) takes place for the most part around the Lagarfljót lake – which, at 25kms running on a north-east/south-west axis, is one of the longest lakes in Iceland. At the ages of 13 and 12, respectively, Helgi and Grímr kill a man called Þorgrímr torðyfill (‚dung-beetle‘) who had been spreading slander about their mother. They travel to a farm called Eyvindarár on the other side of the Lagarfljót lake, where their aunt lives, rise up early in the morning, and when their aunt asks where they are off to, they answer „We shall hunt ptarmigan“ („Rjúpur skulum vér veiða“, Droplaugarsona saga ch. 3, p. 145). On their return to Eyvindarár a little later, when their aunt asks what they hunted, they answer „We hunted down a certain dung-beetle“ („Vit höfum veitt torðyfil einn“, Droplaugarsona saga ch. 3, p. 146). This killing does not go down well with a local man called Helgi Ásbjarnarson, since the dead Þorgrímr dung-beetle was one of his men. The greater part of the rest of the saga tells of the escalating feud between the brothers and Helgi Ásbjarnarson: tense local politics, disputes over missing sheep, conflict over the courting of a married woman and other episodes all contribute to the escalating tension and enmity between the two sides.

Lagarfljót from the western side
Both sides gather support and have spies out about the area to watch on each other‘s movements; eventually, Helgi has a dream in which it seems to him that the brothers travel exactly the route they are embarked upon in reality, down into Eyvindardalr (on the north-eastern side of Lagarfljót) to a place called Kálfshváll – where it happens that Helgi Ásbjarnarson is hiding nearby, waiting to ambush the brothers. Helgi dreams that the brothers are attacked by 18 or 20 wolves, one of which is bigger than the others, another of which leaps up at Helgi‘s chin and which point Helgi wakes up. The dream is interpreted as being a sign that a band of men (with Helgi Ásbjarnarson as their leader) are lying in wait for the brothers; Helgi Droplaugarson refuses to turn back, however.

Vopnalág in Eyvindardalur, where Helgi
Ásbjarnarson is said to have hidden
(the hill with the scooped-out centre)
The brothers come down into Eyvindardalr and head towards the ford by Kálfshváll; it is still winter and the river is frozen. 18 men run towards Helgi and Grímr who turn off the path and up towards the edge of a gully: a great battle takes place and Helgi demonstrates his agility and prowess with weapons. A man called Hjarrandi hews at Helgi‘s face and hits him on the mouth: „Aldri var ek fagrleitr, en lítit hefir þú um bætt“ (Droplaugarsona saga ch. 10, p. 164; „I was never good-looking, but you haven´t helped much“), quips Helgi. Helgi takes his beard in his mouth and bites on it; he looks over and sees that his brother has fallen, is hit by a spear, and dies himself. The brothers‘ aunt hears of the battle, and sends her son to the battle-field to recover Helgi‘s and Grímr‘s bodies. Helgi is buried at Eyvindarár in a mound but it turns out that Grímr is not actually dead, and he is nursed back to exact vengeance on Helgi Ásbjarnarson for the death of is brother.       

Grímr hides out in various local places and then strikes, killing Helgi Ásbjarnarson in his bed on his farm at Eiðar. This scene is an interesting one – and many of the details concerning how Grímr sneaks into the farmhouse at Eiðar (how he ties together the tails of the cattle in the cowshed in order to inhibit people‘s pursuit of him later, for example, and is clad lightly in a shirt and linen underclothes without shoes) have very close parallels in the description in Gísla saga Súrssonar of how Gísli kills Þorgrímr at night in his bed. There is certainly some close textual relationship between the two sagas here – but scholars have debated which of the two sagas borrows from the other and recasts the scene. After killing Helgi, Grímr flees north to a farm at Krossavík in Vopnafjörður where his kinsman Geitir Lýtingsson lives. He hides out there for a while, then escapes to Norway, and then dies from a wound he picks up while fighting a viking called Gauss...

Grímsbás (under the rock overhang)
I was shown, and told about, various places around Lagarfljót where Grímr is said to have hidden, and which contain the element ‚Grímr‘ in them. Grímstorfa ('Grímr's turf') can be seen when driving out along the road from Egilsstaðir/Fellabær, on a mountain called Hafursfell, where a number of trees grow out from the rock high up. This place is not named in the saga, but it´s mentioned in a folk tale – though this folk tale also records an alternative tradition that the place-name is associated with a different Grímr. I climbed down to another Grímr-place, Grímsbás ('Grímr's stall') – a low overhang of rock forming a cave by a waterfall, with what seems to be a man-made wall running along the outer mouth of the cave. The slopes by the waterfall were studded with birch trees, and grasses and wild flowers grew high and abundantly.  

Outlaws and heroes on the run seem to capture the imaginations of past generations of Icelanders almost more than anything else, if the number of place-names around the country associated with these characters‘ hideouts are anything to go by...From Lagarfljót I travelled north up to Vopnafjörður with the dual aim of visiting Krossavík and finding Grímr‘s hideouts there (there‘s a gully known as Grímsgjá, in which Grímr is said to have hidden, a large stone halfway up the mountain behind the farm called Tjaldsteinn (‚Tent-stone‘) which Grímr is said to have used to construct a woollen tent with, and a slope on the same mountain called Grímsbyggðir (‚Grímr‘s settled area‘), and taking on the saga that is set in Vopnafjörður, Vápnfirðinga saga, in which Krossavík features too. But these Grímr-place-names notwithstanding, Droplaugarsona saga doesn´t seem to be a saga that has a central place in many local people‘s consciousness today. There is an information sign beside the road that leads out of Egilsstaðir and towards Fagridalur, close by where the battle of Eyvindardalur was fought but little else around the area. The saga was closer to the hearts and in the imaginations of people who lived in the area one or two generations ago though: south of the farm at Arneiðarstaðir where the brothers were born and grew up is a farm called Droplaugarstaðir...which was built in 1942, and on which, at one time, lived two cousins who were both called Droplaug...   
Upper panel of the famous medieval carved door panels
at Valþjófsstaðir church, in Droplaugarsona saga territory
(the originals are in the National Museum)

And another link with the saga-age past has been put forward by a local historian (Helgi Hallgrímsson, whose parents built Droplaugarstaðir). In the summer of 1980 the biggest silver hoard ever found in Iceland was uncovered on a farm called Miðhús, on the outskirts of Egilsstaðir, not far from Eyvindarár. It had been a hot summer and the family had been building a new house: a muddy patch by the house had dried up cracked open and on her way out to call the family in for food, Edda, who lives there still, stumbled on something stuck in the ground. When her family came in, their hands were filled with bracelets and twists of silver. Was this the silver that Arneiðr  – from whom the farm Arneiðarstaðir takes its name, a woman of noble Shetland descent who was captured and enslaved, then bought and married by one of the first eastern settlers and the first person to be named in Droplaugarsona saga, Ketill þrymr – found buried in Norway, as Droplaugarsona saga and Fljótsdæla saga recount?...

For further reading on Grímr-place-names, and on Arneiðr and the silver hoard, see
·    Helgi Hallgrímsson, 'Grímshellir og Grímsbás', Múlaþing 15 (1987), 117-31
·    Helgi Hallgrímsson, ‚Arneiður og Droplaug: Frásögn af tveimur fornkonum á Austurlandi‘, in Greinar af sama meiði, helgaðar Indriða Gíslasyni sjötugum (Reykjavík, 1998), pp. 359-74
·    Þór Magnússon, ‚Silfursjóður frá Miðhúsum í Egilsstaðahreppi‘, Árbók hins íslenska fornleifafélags (1980/1981), 5-20 (available online here, with photos of the hoard

Thursday, 21 July 2011

From Eastern Parts I: Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða

The most famous saga set in the east of Iceland is Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða. The saga is relatively short and its plot is simple; with regard to interpretation, however, it is a highly ambiguous saga in many ways and more has been written about it—and what its ‚message‘ may be—than about many other sagas put together. It is a narrative about power, certainly, and what it takes to hold on to power, but it is by no means a black-and-white picture...

Aðalból today, looking south down Hrafnkelsdalur
The eponymous Hrafnkell establishes a farm at a place called Aðalból, in Hrafnkelsdalur (to the west of the long narrow lake Lagarfljót, at whose head is the modernday capital of the east, Egilsstaðir). He is a devotee of the god Freyr, becomes a powerful and overbearing chieftain (and acquires the by-name ‚Freysgoði‘, or Freyr‘s priest‘), and owns a horse which he names Freyfaxi. Hrafnkell vows he will kill anyone who rides this horse. Einarr, the son of a poor neighbour, is employed as Hrafnkell‘s shepherd: Hrafnkell tells him he may ride any one of his horses except Freyfaxi—doing so will result in death. ‘Forewarned is forearmed‘, comments Hrafnkell („Eigi veldr sá, er varar annan“, Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða ch. 3, ed. Jón Jóhannesson, Íslenzk fornrit 11, Reykjavík 1950, p. 102).

Faxagil, south of Aðalból
One day, however, Einarr cannot find the sheep. He decides to make use of a horse to search for them, but all of the horses run off with the exception of Freyfaxi. Einarr mounts Freyfaxi and goes off to look for the sheep, which he eventually finds back at the place where he started his search. Freyfaxi runs home to Aðalból, sweating and foaming at the mouth; Hrafnkell sees the horse has been ridden, and kills Einarr to avenge this. Einarr‘s cousin Sámr takes on the legal case against Hrafnkell—Hrafnkell laughs at this—but after gaining the support of powerful brothers from the West Fjords, Sámr wins the case at the Alþingi (the national assembly) despite being very much the underdog. After returning to the east, Sámr subjects Hrafnkell and his men to gruesome torture at Aðalból (tying them together and hanging them up by means of threading a rope through their hamstrings, until the blood runs out of their eyes), and Sámr then gives Hrafnkell the choice of death or keeping his life but moving out of the district. Hrafnkell chooses to move away, and Sámr takes up residence himself at Aðalból. Hrafnkell moves east and establishes a new farm which is called Hrafnkelsstaðir. Freyfaxi is driven over a cliff and drowned in a pool; Hrafnkell‘s temple to Freyr is destroyed.
Looking north up Hrafnkelsdalur
Hrafnkell prospers on his new farm and builds up his power again; he abandons his devotion to the god Freyr. Some years later, Sámr‘s brother Eyvindr returns to Iceland after a stint abroad. Hrafnkell learns that Eyvindr is travelling to visit Sámr at Aðalból; pursues him, and kills him in order to exact vengeance on Sámr. Sámr finds his dead brother, raises a burial mound over him. Hrafnkell goes home to Hrafnkelsstaðir, calmly has a meal, and then sets off to Aðalból where he gives Sámr the same choice of options that Sámr offered to him before: to die, or to live (with shame) and move out of Aðalból. Sámr chooses the latter and moves back to his farm at Leiksskálar. Hrafnkell dies of sickness and is buried in a mound at Aðalból; his sons take over his chieftancy and become powerful men themselves. ‚And there concludes what there is to say about Hrafnkell‘ (Ok lýkr þar frá Hrafnkeli at segja, Hrafnkels saga ch. 10, p. 133).    

The saga has long been a test-case in the debate over whether the sagas are essentially 13th-century fiction, or have their origins in oral traditions about historical events that were passed down from one generation to the next and finally inscribed on parchment several hundred years after the times these events are said to have taken place. Much scholarly ink has also been spilt over the extent to which the presentation of local topography in Hrafnkels saga ‚fits‘ or can be reconciled with what is to be found in the local area in modern times.

Hrossageilar, above Aðalból, where Sámr and
his men left their horses before going down
to Aðalból to torture Hrafnkell??
There are a number of occasions in the saga where place-names are explained as having come into existence after certain events: the saga notes, for example, how places around where Sámr‘s brother Eyvindr was killed by Hrafnkell are known variously as Eyvindartorfa (‚Eyvindr‘s turf‘),Eyvindarfjöll (‚Eyvindr‘s mountain‘) and Eyvindardalr‘ (‚Eyvindr‘s valley‘) (Er þar ok kölluð Eyvindartorfa ok Eyvindarfjöll ok Eyvindardalr, Hrafnkels saga ch. 8, p. 130; ‘That place is now called Eyvindartorfa and Eyvindarfjöll and Eyvindardalr‘). The spot where Sámr and his men concealed their horses above the farm Aðalból before driving Hrafnkell away ‚has since been called Hrossageilar (‚Narrow glen/lane of horses‘)‘ (heita þar síðan Hrossageilar, Hrafnkels saga ch. 5, p. 119). And the spot from where the horse Freyfaxi was driven to his death ‚has since been called Freyfaxahamarr (‚Freyfaxi‘s cliff‘)‘ (Heitir þar síðan Freyfaxahamarr, Hrafnkels saga ch. 6, p. 124).  

Many of the places named in Hrafnkels saga—individual farmsteads, shepherd‘s cots, natural features such as rivers and gullies—can be found on a map, though as always, it is possible to debate whether the identification of these places today corresponds with where they were (or were thought to be) at the time when the saga was written, and again, at the time when the events that the saga describes took place. The farm at Aðalból itself is one example of this—was the Aðalból of the saga located where the modern Aðalból is today, or was it originally somewhere further south in the valley? Some of those who have written about topography and Hrafnkels saga have questioned the ‘fit‘ between the saga‘s description of the natural features around Aðalból, and the lie of the land in which the present Aðalból is set. Others are certain that the saga Aðalból was located where the modern Aðalból is, though the valley has not been continuously inhabited from the saga-age to present times, due to volcanic ash falling at different times (after the volcano Hekla erupted in 1185, for example, the valley seems to have been deserted until the late middle ages when it was resettled).

Basalt formations with moss
The present Aðalból was dug by Sigurður Vigfússon in the late 19th century and identified a mound there which may or may not be Hrafnkell‘s is said to be his, at any rate (and Sigurður wrote that the human bones found in it must be Hrafnkell's). Other sites in the valley have been excavated too: archaeologists have identified a total of 20 dwelling places from early times, 16 of which were apparently abandoned after the 1185 Hekla eruption. Some places named in the saga cannot be (or have not been) identified at all—though local people and scholars of the saga have walked hill and dale to find them. One site that was long sought out was the location of the shepherd‘s cot Reykjasel, mentioned in Hrafnkels saga in conjunction with the shepherd Einarr‘s fated searching for Hrafnkell‘s missing sheep. A local man who had been pondering the location Reykjasel for many years finally stumbled upon it, literally, while rounding up sheep in an autumn fog, shortly before construction (or destruction, depending on one´s perspective) work begain on the infamous Kárahnjúkur dam and reservoir in 2005. The site was excavated hurriedly in 2005 before the land was flooded and turned into the Hálslón lagoon that feeds the Kárahnjúkur hydro-electric power-plant. Other examples are Eyvindartorfa (where Eyvindr was buried, see above) and Freyfaxahamarr (where the horse Freyfaxi met his death, see above).

The saga continues to draw people to the remote Hrafnkelsdalur valley, however—on the present farm there is accommodation, a petrol pump, and a bar which goes by the name of ‘Sámsbar‘...and in which I am writing up this post. When I asked the owners why the bar is named after Sámr and not Hrafnkell, they replied that they found him to be a more sympathetic character...and so he is in many, though not in all, ways (here I think of his hamstringing of Hrafnkell). But the victory of the underdog turns out to be short-lived—perhaps it would have been more enduring had Sámr killed Hrafnkell as he was urged to do by others...but this is an uncomfortable equation/conclusion. „Svona er lífið“ (‚Such is life‘), an Icelander might say...  
From the southern foot of Hrafnkelsdalur

For those who want to read more about Hrafnkels saga and place-names, one place to start is with an article by O. D. Macrae-Gibson, ‘The Topography of Hrafnkels saga‘, published in the Saga-Book of the Viking Society 19 (1974-77), 239-63, and accessible online at Further references to previous scholarship can be found therein.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Njáls saga II: The burning at Bergþórshváll

A week or so ago, the bridge over Mýrdalssandur in the south was swept away by a flash glacial flood. While repairs are underway, all traffic heading east of Vík must therefore either follow the ring-road north and around in a clockwise direction, or else must take on the Nyrðra-Fjallabak back route which, via Landmannalaugar, skirts through the highlands north of Mýrdalsjökull, and rejoins the main road at the eastern end of Mýrdalssandur. The Embulance is a Land Rover, after all, so I thought I´d take on this challenge... It was challenging -- I lost count of the number of rivers I had to ford (4-wheel drive very much engaged, diff lock on...cue alarming clouds of steam rising out of the bonnet and from the underside of the vehicle). But we made it. And the drive was spectacular, though I was concentrating so hard for the most part that I didn´t have the energy to take many photos en route. We shall see now what the east has to offer: sagas to hand for this next stint are three, namely Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða, Droplaugarsona saga, and Vápnfirðinga saga 
I´m on my way east here...but the weather is dreary and dim and damp and I´ve stopped at a campsite at a place called Stafafell in Lón, near the eastern tip of the vast Vatnajökull glacier...While I wait for brighter weather to come along, I thought I´d put up a short Njáls saga Part II post as promised in my last one, this time focusing on the dramatic high-point of the saga -- the burning of Njáll's farm at Bergþórshváll, which is said to have taken place exactly 1000 years ago. 

Bergþórsvhvoll today; Þríhyrningur to the right

After the narrative about Gunnarr of Hlíðarendi and his death (related in the last post), the saga focuses on Njáll’s sons. Njáll’s eldest son, Skarpheðinn, is amongst the most vividly-drawn male characters in the sagas: he is described as mikill maðr vexti ok styrkr, vígr vel, syndr sem selr, manna fóthvatastr, skjótráðr ok øruggr, gagnorðr ok skjótorðr, en þó löngum vel stilltr. Hann var jarpr á hár ok sveipr í hárinu, eygðr vel, fölleitr ok skarpleitr, liðr á nefi ok lá hátt tanngarðrinn, munnljótr nökkut ok þó manna hermannligastr (Brennu-Njáls saga ch. 25, p. 70, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson, Íslenzk fornrit XII, Reykjavík 1954; ‘a large man and strong, well skilled in arms, who could swim like a seal, the most swift-footed of men, rash in resolving disputes and fearless, straight-speaking and quick-speaking, but composed most of the time. He had curly chestnut hair, good eyes, was pale-coloured and with sharp features, hook-nosed and his teeth stuck out prominently, he was rather ugly in the mouth but nevertheless the most warlike of men’). One of the most sharply-depicted battles in Njáls saga describes how Skarpheðinn kills a man called Þráinn Sigfússon – by gliding across the ice-covered Markarfljót river with breathtaking speed (fór hann svá hart sem fogl flygi, Brennu-Njáls saga ch. 92, p. 233; ‘he travelled as fast as a bird flying’) and sinking his axe into Þráinn’s head. As part of the subsequent settlement, Njáll fosters Þráinn’s son Höskuldr and arranges Höskuldr’s marriage to a woman called Hildigunnr, and a new chieftancy is created and bestowed on Höskuldr who gains the nickname ‘Hvítanessgoði’ (‘chieftain of Hvítanes’).

Skarpheðinn kills Þráinn on Markarfljót
Höskuldr is later killed by Skarpheðinn (accompanied by the other Njálssynir and Kári Sölmundarson) when one of the few truly evil characters in the sagas, Mörðr Valgarðsson, sows seeds of discontent between Njáll’s sons and Höskuldr. Höskuldr’s widow, Hildigunnr, keeps Höskuldr’s blood-encrusted cloak and thrusts it at her uncle Flosi when he comes to visit. It was Flosi who gave Höskuldr the cloak in the first place and Hildigunnr’s act lays responsibility for avenging Höskuldr’s death on Flosi, who is not optimistic about this task: ‘Þú ert it mesta forað ok vildir, at vér tækim þat upp, er öllum oss gegnir verst, ok eru köld kvenna ráð’ (Brennu-Njáls saga ch. 116, pp. 291-2; ‘You the greatest monster and want us to take that course which will be worst for all, and the counsels of women are cold’). Attempts at legal reconciliation at the Alþingi (the national assembly) fail; Flosi gathers support, and a band of 100 men travel to Bergþórshváll to carry out the act of vengeance.

Various supernatural portents anticipate the momentous act of the burning of Bergþórshváll and poignantly, Njáll´s wife tells the family to choose what they want to eat for their last supper. Njáll tells everyone to go inside the farm in order to defend themselves when the attackers arrive, but they have no chance against fire; typically, Skarpheðinn would rather be outside, having no wish to suffocate like a fox in a lair’ (‘Em ek ófúss þess at láta svæla mik inni sem melrakka í greni’, Brennu-Njáls saga ch. 128, p. 326). Though Njáll and others are offered truce and the chance to leave the blazing house, they remain inside. Njáll, his wife Bergþóra, and a young boy they are fostering retire to bed, pulling an ox-skin over them and crossing themselves in God’s name. Kári Sölmundarson (who is married to one of Njáll's daughters) manages to break through burning rafters and escapes: he extinguishes the flames that have taken hold of him in a nearby ditch (which the saga notes is subsequently called Káragróf (‘Kári’s pit’) – one of the few instances in Njáls saga of events being used to explain place-names) and disappears under the cover of smoke. It is Kári who later pursues Flosi in order to avenge the burning and deaths of those who were inside: this comprises the final part of the saga. Skarpheðinn is trapped between the roof and the gable-end and cannot move; from outside, as the flames fire up and die down, a verse is heard from inside. Gunnarr of Hlíðarendi’s son Grani asks: ‘Hvárt mun Skarpheðinn hafa kveðit vísu þessa lífs eða dauðr?’ (Brennu-Njáls saga ch. 130, p. 337; ‘Has Skarpheðinn composed this verse alive or dead?’). Everyone in the house dies and the burners leave the site, and ride to the mountain Þríhyrningr to watch movements around the district for 3 days. Flosi comments on the deed: ‘Now we have brought about a great loss of lives. We may also know now, those who have brought it about, what ill-luck we have’ (‘Nú höfum vér fingit mikinn mannskaða. Megu vér nú ok vita, er þetta hefir at borit, hvert heillaleysi vér höfum’, Brennu-Njáls saga ch. 130, p. 338).

When the remains of the burnt farm are examined, Njáll (and Bergþóra and the boy) are found to be unburnt underneath the ox-skin, though one finger on the boy which had stuck out from beneath the skin is charred: a miracle. Skarpheðinn is found burnt from the feet up to his knees, but not above: ‘he had bitten through his lip. His eyes were open and not swollen. He had driven his axe so hard into the gable that it had sunk in up to the middle of the blade, and had not softened’ (Hann hafði bitit á kampi sínum. Augu hans váru opin ok óþrútin. Hann hafði rekit øxina í gaflaðit svá fast, at gengit hafði allt upp á miðjan fetann, ok var ekki dignuð’, Brennu-Njáls saga ch. 132, p. 343). When Bergþórshváll was dug by archaologists in 1883, 1855, 1927-28, 1931, and finally 1950-52, various artefacts came to light. On one occasion, a kind of white powder was found...and was explained as the remains of the skyr (a kind of yoghurt made of whey that was a staple part of Icelandic diet since early times) that Bergþóra had called to be poured over the flames...      

Approach to Bergþórshvoll
(modern house is to left, out of the frame)
Collingwood described Bergþórshváll as standing ‘on its twin hillocks among marshes, the broad Affall winding between it and the sands of this harbourless and surf-beaten shore, with the Westman Islands rising sharply from the sea-line, twelve miles away, and Eyjafell standing nobly over the flats to eastward‘ (A Pilgrimage to the Sagasteads of Iceland, p. 24). He has little else to say about the place other than it being the site of the tragic burning; William Morris, on the other hand, writes of exploring the area and gives free rein to his imagination. ‘The longest of the three mounds, which lay west from the house, rightly or wrongly, gave one strongly the impression of having been the site of Njal´s house: it was about 200 feet long and sloped steeply away into the flatter slope of the field: from its top one looked south across the grey flats with a thin greyer line of sea and the Westman Isles rising out of it‘ (Journals of Travel in Iceland 1871-1873, p. 43. Morris is shown ‚the traditional places about the stead‘—‚Flosi‘s Hollow‘ and ‚Kári‘s Garth‘—and he notes ‘how much the present Icelanders realise the old stories‘ (Journals, p. 45).

I found Bergþórshváll to be a strange place and I found it hard to match the violent scene of the burning with the location as it is today: a modern house now stands on one of the hills and there was noone around to ask where Káragróf, for example, is thought to be. An information board describes the burning as told in Njáls saga and notes the archaeological investigations conducted there, but the place felt empty. My sense that the time has passed for Njáls saga as a narrative that lives in the landscape (something I mentioned in the last post) seemed to be confirmed by a number of people I met and talked to, for various reasons. Of course there are people in the area who know the saga back-to-front, but as a piece of written literature rather than as living local stories. The poignancy of this time passing was driven home when I ventured into the old age home: one or two old people there told me how in previous times, *everyone* talked about Njáls saga, in all kinds of contexts, and addressing all kinds of Njála-related issues. I left Njáls saga country feeling a little sad.




Thursday, 7 July 2011

Petrol stations and priests...

...A short piece on petrol stations and priests -- and their place in my project -- broadcast earlier this morning on the BBC R4 programme 'From our own Correspondent'... (at 00:10:58 into the programme). 

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The South: Country of Burnt Njáll

Njáls saga. Where to begin with the saga that is reckoned to be the jewel in the saga crown? In addition to its peerless reputation, at over 450 pages in the Íslenzk fornrit edition (Brennu-Njáls saga, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson, Reykjavík 1954), it is by far the longest of the Íslendingasögur: the logistics of mapping this saga onto and around the landscapes of the south of Iceland (where the greater part of its action unfolds) filled me with no small sense of trepidation.

A circular email was sent round some months ago advertising a 4-day ‚Njáls saga on horseback‘ tour organised by a company called Riding Iceland, and led by Dr Jón Karl Helgason, a professor of Icelandic literature at the University of Iceland. I signed up for the tour...and thus took on the challenge of Njála

The tour proved to be a physically exhilarating and immensely thought-provoking experience. I supplemented the Njáls saga days with an inital 3 days helping to drive the herd of horses south from a farm between Geysir and Gullfoss to Vellir (the farm on which Njáls saga begins), where the tour commenced, and back north again for another 3 days after the tour had formally come to an end. Amongst other river encounters, this involved half an hour of riding through the mighty glacial river Þjórsá at a ford called Nautavað -- a crossing point for over 1000 years on account of the riverbed there comprising lava rather than sand which is constantly displaced by the currents. Grey waters churn around the herd of loose horses who instinctively strike off downstream with the current and must not be followed; I contemplate the extraordinary dizzying sensation and feeling of not moving forward at all when looking down at the swirling waters enveloping me and my horse, this suspicion being simultaneously contradicted by my horse‘s steady muscular exertions and the gradual nearing of the opposite bank.   

The itinerary took us from one Njáls saga site to another – but not by adhering to the chronological progression of chapters and events in the written saga. In this, I was struck even more by the way that the events that make up any one saga can be ‚read‘ very differently through the physical exploration and familiarisation of the landscapes in which they are set, as opposed to an armchair or desk-based linear reading of that saga from the first chapter through to the last. Specific places in a local area bear three-dimensional witness to the narrative that has written itself into and around the topographical features of the landscape, become embodied in grassy slopes, rocky screes, open plains, riverbanks. As one moves around a district, this leads one to a sense of any one saga as a much more flexible entity – a narrative whose component parts can be processed mentally in any order, as individual places one encounters present their stories and associations – and I am beginning to think that this is a different and very powerful theoretical framework within which to understand the sagas, or at least a means of gaining insights into understanding how local Icelanders might have received or processed the saga set in their district from the medieval period onwards. 

In terms of its structure, Njáls saga can be said to be formed of three main narratives: firstly, that of Gunnarr of Hlíðarendi (one of the most perfect of saga heroes) and his eventual feud-related death at the hands of enemies; then that of Gunnarr‘s close friend, the wise Njáll of Bergþórshváll, and his and others‘s deaths when their farm is burned by a band of men lead by Flosi Þórðarson; and finally, that of Kári Sölmundarson and his pursuit of vengeance for the burning of Bergþórshváll, both in Iceland and abroad.

Þríhyrningur from the north at Reynifell

The landscape of Njáls saga is dominated by the single mountains and mountain-ranges that come in and out of one´s line of sight in varying panoramic configurations as one rides around the area: the volcanic Hekla, snow-streaked, not mentioned in Njáls saga but a powerful presence; Þríhyrningur (‚Three-Corners‘) which is a pivot around which much Njáls saga action revolves; the strange isolated Stóra-Dímon which rises jagged from the flats of the Landeyjar region, beside the wide shifting sands and streams of the Markarfljót river; then to the east the ranges of Tindfjallajökull and the infamous Eyjafjallajökull. These features have remained a constant in the landscape of this part of the south, though much else has changed significantly over the millennium between the events of Njáls saga and the present day. The course of the Markarfljót river has shifted continuously over time; volcanic eruptions over past centuries have left their lava-sprawling marks across the region; deforestation, erosion, and modern drainage have altered the prospect of great stretches of land; endless violet-blue lupins introduced to halt erosion in recent decades now carpet hillsides, plains, lava-fields.   

Markarfljót from the top of Stóra-Dímon,
looking east into Fljótshlíð/Eyjafjallajökull  

On the green slopes at Hlíðarendi, from where one looks south down across the Landeyjar plains and over to the Vestmannaeyjar – when cloud or volcanic ash caught in the winds isn't shrouding the distance -- Gunnarr lived with his wife Hallgerðr. Hallgerðr is exceptionally and troublingly beautiful and note is made several times throughout the saga of her long blonde hair. On gazing on her as a young girl, Hallgerðr‘s uncle Hrútr Herjólfsson (who plays a part in Laxdæla saga) wonders how ‚thieves‘ eyes‘ have come into the family: a detail which later becomes significant. Hallgerðr is a hard woman who had been married twice before Gunnarr, and had lost both husbands to the axe of her dastardly foster-father Þjóstólfr. The first husband was killed with Hallgerðr‘s approval, the second was a great loss to her. Chapters after Hallgerðr has married Gunnarr narrate the growing tensions and conflict between Hallgerðr and Njáll‘s wife, Bergþóra: insults and the initiation on both sides of a series of eye-for-eye killings do not destroy the deep friendship between Gunnarr and Njáll, however. Famine prompts Hallgerðr to send a slave to steal cheese and butter from a neighbouring farm; when Gunnarr finds out, he slaps Hallgerðr for this greatest and most shameful of crimes.

Hlíðarendi today, looking north from the road
Collingwood writes of the way in which at Hlíðarendi, „scenery and romance are modern traveller can fail to note that the one place of all the world where a man, in those distant and rude days, chose deliberately to die, rather than go out into exile from it, was so magnificently situated“ (Pilgrimage, p. 30). Gunnarr is exiled by law for a period of 3 years as the consequence of a feud; he prepares to leave the country and rides south from Hlíðarendi with his brother Kolskeggr. Chapter 75 of the saga describes how the brothers ride towards the Markarfljót river: þá drap hestr Gunnars fæti, ok stökk hann ór söðlinum. Honum varð litit upp til hlíðarinnar ok bæjarins at Hlíðarenda ok mælti: „Fögr er hlíðin, svá at mér hefir hon aldri jafnfögr sýnzk, bleikir akrar ok slegin tún, ok mun ek ríða heim aptr ok fara hvergi“ (Brennu-Njáls saga, p. 182; 'Then Gunnarr‘s horse stumbled, and he fell from the saddle. He looked up to the slope and the farm at Hlíðarendi and said: „Fair is the slope, such that I think I have never seen it so beautiful, pale fields and mown homefield, and I will ride back home and not travel on“'). A place – or a stretch of land -- called Gunnarshólmi is the spot from where local people believed Gunnarr looked back at his homestead: Gunnarr‘s remark is one of the most poignant and famous phrases in saga literature. 

Gunnarr, by Snorri Arinbjarnarson
Shortly afterwards, Gunnarr is attacked in his farm by his enemies after they learn he is alone apart from Hallgerðr‘s and his mother‘s company. Gunnarr puts up a superlatively heroic defence and the passage describing the fight incorporates some classically sardonic saga humour. Þorgrímr Austmaðr gekk upp á skálann; Gunnarr sér, at rauðan kyrtil berr við glugginum, ok leggr út með atgeirinum á hann miðjan. Austmanninum varð lauss skjöldrinn, ok spruttu honum fætrnir, ok hrataði hann ofan af þekjunni, gengr síðan at þeim Gizuri, þar er þeir sátu á vellinum; Gizurr leit við honum ok mælti: „Hvárt er Gunnarr heima?“ Þorgrímr svarar: „Vitið þér þat, en hitt vissa ek, at atgeirr hans var heima.“ Síðan fell hann niðr dauðr (Brennu-Njáls saga, p. 187; 'Þorgrímr Austmaðr (The Norwegian) went up onto the hall; Gunnarr sees that a red kirtle appears at the window, and thrusts through it at (Þorgrímr‘s) middle with his long-spear. The Norwegian dropped his shield, and lost his footing, and tumbled down off the roof; he goes over to where Gizurr and the others were sitting on the field. Gizurr looked at him and said: „Is Gunnarr at home?“ Þorgrímr answers: „You may find that out for yourselves, but I know that his spear was at home.“ Afterwards he fell down dead').  

Gunnarr holds off his enemies until his bow-string breaks. He asks Hallgerðr to give him two locks of her famous hair which she and his mother can twist into a replacement bow-string. ‚„Does anything depend on it?“ she says. „My life depends on it,“ says Gunnarr, „because while I make use of my bow they will never be able to attack me.“ „Then I shall,“ she says, „remind you of the slap, and I don´t care whether you defend yourself for a long or a short time.“ „Each has their own mark of distinction,“ says Gunnarr, „and I won‘t ask you any longer for this“‘ („Liggr þér nokkut við?“ segir hon. „Líf mitt liggr við,“ segir hann, „því at þeir munu mik aldri fá sóttan, meðan ek kem boganum við.“ „Þá skal ek nú,“ segir hon, „munu þér kinnhestinn, ok hirði ek aldri, hvárt þú verr þik lengr eða skemr.“ „Hefir hverr til síns ágætis nökkut,“ segir Gunnarr, „ok skal þik þessa eigi lenga biðja“, Brennu-Njáls saga, p. 189). 

Collingwood describes how, in 1897 when he visited, he was shown ruins said to be those of Gunnarr‘s hall beside the then-modern farmhouse, though Collingwood expresses doubts over the attribution on the basis the „slope is so steep that it is hardly likely they [the ruins] can mark the site of the principal residence“ (Pilgrimage, p. 30). There is no farm at Hlíðarendi today, though a church stands on the land. There was no-one around to ask about the location of Gunnarr‘s howe or mound, sketched by Collingwood (and which the saga relates opened up on a couple of occasions when the shepherd and serving-maid were passing by, revealing Gunnarr singing and reciting verses happily), nor the smaller mound said in past times to mark the grave of Gunnarr‘s faithful Irish hound Sámr. The manager of the local Njáls saga‘ museum in Hvolsvöllur said that he had met the last farmer of Hlíðarendi in the late 1970s and been shown these spots and others connected with the saga; this farmer is no longer living, and it seems that local knowledge about Hlíðarendi (and other places around the district associated with the saga) has diminished to the point where in many cases, such extra-saga place-names and locations are not much more than shadowy remembrances or the subject of speculation.    

It seemed remarkable to me that this should be the case given the acclaimed place of Njáls saga in the canonical Íslendingasögur; in the next post, something of Njáll and Bergþórshváll will be presented, along with further notes considering the extent to which Njáls saga seemed, to me, to be alive in the local landscapes in which it is set. But if the precise location of Gunnarr‘s mound—or a mound said to be Gunnarr‘s, at any rate—has been lost, his reputation as one of the most peerless of saga heroes still lives on. Thus Hávamál: Deyr fé, / deyja frændr, / deyr sjálfr et sama; /ek veit einn, / at aldri deyr: / dómr um dauðan hvern ("Cattle die, kinsmen die, you yourself will die too; I know one thing that never dies: the honourable reputation of each dead man").

Lupins, beside Gunnarssteinn