Sunday, 18 September 2011

Grettir´s Head...and his Family´s Strandir Origins

Rune at work photographing Eiríksjökull

My pursuit of the outlaw Grettir Ásmundarson and his trails across and around Iceland has been continuing over the past week. I remember first reading Grettis saga as a BA student at Cambridge -- parts of his saga and a good number of the many verses in it were then set-texts for the Old Norse-Icelandic language and literature paper -- and I remember enjoying the saga especially then. It's an endlessly rich and entertaining read: Grettir is a magnetic figure, a giant amongst saga-protagonists, not just for his troll-wrestling and swimming feats and prodigious verse-composition and the frequent recourse he makes to pithy proverbs, but for his weaknesses too (his fear of the dark despite his superlative physical strength is poignant) and for the way that he is, simply, unlucky, in the way that events seem to conspire against him.
In the last post (September 11th) I wrote about Drangey and how Grettir met his death there in the 19th year of his outlawry. There are probably more place-names around Iceland -- rocks, caves, other landscape features -- with his name in them than any other character in the sagas. Many of these commemorate moments or episodes during his long period as an outlaw: places where he is said to have hidden out, where he tested or showed off his strength by heaving huge boulders around... One place I wanted to explore was Arnarvatn, north of Eiríksjökull and in the north-western part of the Highlands: Grettis saga states that 'Grettir went up onto Arnarvatnsheiði and built a hut there, the remains of which can still be seen, and lived there because he wanted do something other than rob, and got himself a net and a boat and caught fish to feed himself. He thought it very dreary on the mountains because he was so afraid of the dark' ('Grettir fór upp á Arnarvatnsheiði ok gerði sér þar skála, sem enn sér merki, ok bjósk þar um, því at hann vildi nú hvatvetna annat en ræna, fekk sér net ok bát ok veiddi fiska til matar sér. Honum þótti daufligt mjök á fjallinu, því at hann var mjök myrkfælinn', Grettis saga ed. Guðni Jónsson (Reykjavík 1936), ch. 54, p. 178). In the notes of the edition of the saga I've been using, I read that the outlines of this hut beside the lake can still be seen -- over 700 years or so after the saga was written down -- and the place-names Grettistangi (a long spit that protrudes into the lake) and Grettishöfði (cliffs which loom over the lake) testify to the tradition that Grettir dwelt there for a time. 

Grettisskáli, with Grettistangi behind
I met up with Norwegian photographer Rune Molnes who's been travelling around Iceland taking photos -- and we headed off together south down Miðfjörður (past Grettir's home, Bjarg, about which more anon) and up onto Arnarvatnsheiði. There were stunning views of Eiríksjökull along the way, and a beautiful herd of horses grazing by a river. We got to the lake, followed the track around and -- as dusk drew on -- combed the stretch of land beside the lake where the outlines of 'Grettisskáli', Grettir's hut, was said to be. I ran from one hummock to another and to the end of Grettistangi and back, the evening-sunshine blinding me and my hopes being raised again and again as I thought I'd found the spot, only to be dashed on closer examination... finally though, we stumbled on the outlines of something that was clearly man-made. Elated, I tried to take pictures in the failing light -- credit is due to Rune here for stepping in as a human tripod when I needed to be taller than my natural 5'4". Was this 'Grettisskáli'? I wanted to believe it was -- and maybe it really was -- though as always, the question of the relationship between places such as these and their identification with mentions in the sagas reared its knotty head. Equally, the grassed-over foundations of what then turned out to be 2 huts could have been shelters built by later hunters... Whatever the 'truth', I still find the extent that, all over Iceland, there are such traditions associating saga-characters with specific places in the landscape and borne out by place-names, riveting. 

Grettisþúfa at Bjarg

Grettistak at Bjarg...the big rock, that is...
Grettir's head -- which his enemy Þorbjörn Öngull hewed off his corpse to parade in front of people as proof of his deed -- is said to be buried at Bjarg, Grettir's home, under a stone that is known as Grettisþúfa ('Grettir's tussock'). I knocked on the door at Bjarg, met the present farmer and his brother, talked about Grettis saga with them and was shown the striking memorial to Grettir's mother, Ásdís, raised on Bjarg land in 1974 and incorporating four cast-iron plaques by the artist Halldór Pétursson which depict scenes from the saga featuring Ásdís. Grettir's mother was a strong woman: the saga describes how Grettir's relationship with his father was always strained but how Ásdís was always supportive of Grettir, giving him a family heirloom, the sword Ættartangi (which comes into another saga set in the area, Vatnsdæla saga -- to be covered in a blogpost soon), when he was first outlawed and had to leave home. I walked up onto the heath above the farm at Bjarg to seek out an enormous 'Grettistak' boulder which Grettir is said to have must be about twice my height; one of the two farmer-brothers at Bjarg told me how they used to climb up onto it for fun as kids. Some of these 'Grettistök' are more likely than others...Grettir would have had to have been a giant to have lifted this one. I took up the offer of a bit of physical exercise by helping the Bjarg farmers round up their sheep...and laughed at the collection of stones at the foot of the outdoor staircase up to the front door which they joked are their exercise stones.

It was Grettir's great-grandfather Önundr who settled first in Iceland, after emigrating from Norway following a battle against King Haraldr hárfagri in which he lost his leg and gained the nickname 'tréfót' ('peg-leg'). Önundr didn't establish the farm at Bjarg, but landed in the east on the Langanes spit, sailed west into Húnaflóa, and finally claimed land on the eastern stretch of the West Fjords known as Strandir after staying with Auðr/Unnr in djúpúðga of Laxdæla saga fame (see post of 24th April). Önundr built a farm at Kaldbak, lookng south over a small bay called Kaldbaksvík -- north of Bjarnarfjörður. Kaldbak is the name of a mountain on the southern lip of Kaldbaksvík; Grettis saga describes how Önundr looked over at this mountain, which was covered in snow, and spoke a verse lamenting how he has left behind his family, and exchanged his Norwegian land and inheritance for this cold landscape. Early chapters in the saga describe events that took place along the Strandir coast: a dispute over the rights to a beached whale that is found on a skerry called Rifssker (just off the Reykjanes peninsula north of Kaldbak), and how the bay called Trékyllisvík got its name after some merchants were wrecked and lost their ship, a broad-bottomed boat called Trékyllir. 

Looking into Kaldbaksdalur over Kaldbaksvatn

Tréfótshaugur, in shadow left of river
When he died, Önundr was buried in a mound at the end of Kaldbaksdalur -- the mound is named Tréfótshaugur ('Peg-Leg's Mound') in Grettis saga and he has one of the funniest epitaphs in the sagas: 'he was the most bold and agile one-legged-man in Iceland' ('hann hefir fræknastr verit ok fimastr einfættr maðr á Íslandi', Grettis saga ch. 11, pp. 25-26). I drove up the Strandir coast to find Peg-Leg's grave... Autumn is very much in evidence here -- the leaves on scrub and bushes on the hillsides are turning all bright fiery shades of orange, red, pink, yellow, and sheep were being rounded up here too this weekend. Hiking in to the end of the Kaldbaksdalur valley took longer than it might have done...on account of the vast quantities of beautiful blueberries that kept presenting themselves to me (I was surprised by this, as it's been cold the past week and most berries have perished in the overnight frosts). Eventually I reached the end, and ate my sandwich in the sunshine looking over at the mound -- in fact, there seemed to be two. One was enormous, a great pointed pile of rock and rubble; the second smaller (though still not inconsiderable) and more believably man-made...again, I wondered whether the story about Önundr's burial here might have been attached to the place at some point after his 'real' or historical death and burial...

It wasn't only Grettis saga that was directing my footsteps along Strandir though -- several places along the coast come into a number of other sagas and I have been enjoying the challenge of working out the overlap between them in terms of their geography, genealogy, and the events they relate. A character called Finnbogi inn rammi ('the strong') -- another saga character renowned for his strength -- ended his life at a place called Finnbogastaðir in the Trékyllisvík bay, whence he moved after being driven from the Víðidalur valley in Húnavatnssýsla by the sons of Ingimundr inn gamli ('the old'). Finnbogi's story is told in Finnboga saga; that of Ingimundr's sons in Vatnsdæla saga; both sagas describe the feud. Much of the action in Vatnsdæla saga takes place in Vatnsdalur -- where events in two further sagas, Kormáks saga and Hallfreðar saga, also take place...but these sagas are for future posts; for the present I will sign off and enjoy the luxury of a one-off night in the cosy hotel at Djúpavík...a belated birthday present to myself, for I am now 32 and my aging bones could not resist the temptation of a night reading and writing *inside* a real house on my way back south down Strandir...

Looking over to Finnbogastaðir in Trékyllisvík

1 comment:

  1. gorgeous reflection - I love the idea of a bold and agile one legged man - properly hopping mad :)