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.




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