Monday, 10 October 2011

Vatnsdæla saga: Place-Names and Petit Point

Vatnsdalur, looking north up the valley

"As we advance along the rich meadows of the dale, Jörundarfell rises grandly over a magnificent facade of contorted beds of rock, like a bit of the Savoy Alps in general aspect, though not identical in geology. Among the incidents of the valley there is a pretty waterfall ... hanging from the cliffs, -- losing itself half way down in spray, and finding itself again in a stream collected out of the thin fringe of falling rain, in which the iris shines distinct in the afternoon against the black background of the gill" (Pilgrimage, p. 160). As I drove south down Vatnsdalur the other day, the rich meadows Collingwood noted in his description of the valley were barely visible for thick low rainclouds; the waterfall was less of a -fall than a -lift or an upward-kicking of spray because of the winds; and when the clouds eventually lifted, snow could be seen to have dusted itself over the upper reaches of the steep mountain Jörundarfell, and had lined the countless vertical cracks and gullies running down to the lower reaches, producing a sharp inlay effect.

Hof in Vatnsdalur, Ingimundr's farmstead
Collingwood thought Vatnsdalur to be one of the most beautiful valleys in Iceland. The saga which tells of the valley's first settlers and their descendants, Vatnsdæla saga, is a rich one too, with a romping mythical-heroic opening section set in Norway that includes giant-killing and princess-marrying; a reluctant emigration to Iceland by the son of the giant-slayer and the princess; local feuds a-plenty over several generations once Vatnsdalur and the surrounding area has been settled; magic of various kinds; prophetic dreams; a clowder of cats (really!); and endless anecdotes explaining how one place or another acquired its picking-grounds for those interested in saga-onomastics.

In the entrance hall of the local school is a vast mural painted by the Catalan artist Baltasar Samper (famous for his frescoes in the church on the island of Flatey) in the 1980s which presents the saga narrative chronologically in visual form. I was told that all children know of the saga and know the principal episodes in it because of this mural; presently, the saga is being 'retold' in textile-form by a group of local people who began work on the 'Vatnsdæla tapestry' this year. The tapestry's design takes its inspiration from the Bayeaux Tapestry; work will continue for a good 10 or 15 years...until the tapestry reaches its projected length of 45 metres...

In an inversion of the more usual topos at the beginning of the Íslendingasögur where 'independent Norwegian emigrates to Norway after refusing to bow to the tyranny of King Haraldr hárfagri ('Fair-Hair)', Ingimundr -- who is a close friend and ally of King Haraldr -- is reluctant to emigrate to Iceland, calling it an eyðisker ('wasteland skerry'; Vatnsdæla saga, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson, Íslenzk fornrit 8 (Reykjavík 1939), ch. 10, p. 27). But a Finnish seeress prophecies that Ingimundr's fate lies on this hostile rock, and says that her prediction will come true -- as a proof, some silver that is in Ingimundr's purse will disappear and he will find it in the place in Iceland where he is ordained to build a farm. A little later, three more supernatural Finns perform an out-of-body exploration of Iceland on Ingimundr's behalf, and survey the area where Ingimundr's fate will lead him, describing the local features of the landscape.

Memorial stone to Þórdís at Þórdísarholt
Ingimundr sails from Norway with his wife and children; they come into Borgarfjörður in the North-west, and set off to explore the land to the north, naming valleys and natural features as they go. In one fjord, two rams run down a mountain towards them: that fjord they call 'Hrútafjörðr' ('Rams' Fjord'); they come across a large piece of driftwood on a small peninsula in Hrútafjörður and call that place 'Borðeyri' ('Plank-spit'); on a valley that is widely-grown with willow-trees they bestow the name 'Víðidalur' ('Willow Valley'). Eventually, the landscape unfolding before them resembles that which the Finns described for Ingimundr; they reach the mouth of Vatnsdalur ('Water Valley'), and Ingimudr's wife calls a temporary halt to the travelling while she gives birth to a daughter. The baby girl is given the name Þórdís, and the birth-site is given the name Þórdísarholt ('Þordís's coppice').  

Memorial stone to Ingimundr at Hof
The party continue on down the valley and stop on a grassy slope; here, Ingimundr decides to build his new home. Digging into the hill while building a large temple, Ingimundr finds the silver that had disappeared from his purse back in Norway...The farmstead is called Hof ('farm' or 'temple'). There is more naming around the local area: a female polar-bear and her two cubs who have washed up on Iceland on an iceberg give rise to the name 'Húnavatn' ('Young bear lake'); some sheep who disappear in the autumn and are then found the next spring are remembered in the place-name 'Sauðadalr' ('Sheep Valley'); a boar called Beigaðr gives his name to a hill on which he dies, 'Beigaðarhóll' ('Beigaðr's Hill').

The valley is settled widely over time, and the saga narrative proceeds. Ingimundr is killed in a fight by the river in the middle of the valley by a trouble-making outlaw to whom Ingimundr has offered protection; Ingimundr's sons avenge him and the saga then takes up their stories, and then the storie of their sons. Vatnsdæla saga is truly a multi-generational saga, though local knowledge seemed mostly to focus on Ingimundr, the first settler of the valley. In one vivid episode, one of Ingimundr's sons, Jökull, chases another local trouble-maker called Þórólfr down the valley, catching him up on a moor above the river; when Þórólfr sees that he will not escape, the saga states that ‘he sat down in the bog and cried; that place has been called Grátsmýrr (‘Weeping bog’) since’ (þá settisk hann niðr í mýrinni ok grét. Þar heitir síðan Grátsmýrr, Vatnsdæla saga ch. 30, p. 83). Jökull gains great renown for ridding the area of this dubious character.

Breiðabólstaður today
Vatnsdæla saga is thought to have been written by someone in the Benedictine monastery at Þingeyrar (founded in 1133) which sits on a raised open stretch of land in the mouth of Húnaflói, north of Vatnsdalur, and which is visible from miles around. Þingeyrar was the first monastery in Iceland; an event of great significance and with great literary ramifications had taken place in the area some 15 years beforehand, however. Over the winter of 1117/18, under the supervision of a powerful chieftain called Hafliði Másson who lived on a farm called Breiðabólstaður, the laws of the Commonwealth of Iceland were written down in the Icelandic vernacular, for the first time. A memorial stone at Breiðabólstaður marks this vital step in the ‘process of textualisation’ in Iceland, i.e., the shift from an oral culture (prior to 1117/18, the laws were recited by heart by the elected lög(sögu)maðr (‘law (reciting) man’), every summer at the National Assembly (the Alþingi), one-third at a time over 3 summers) to a literary/manuscript culture. Aspects of the oral culture never disappeared entirely though – and even fully modernised 21st-century Vatnsdalur, something of that spirit still seems to live on. On Saturday afternoon, between 1 and 5pm, people met in the building in the local town Blönduós where the Vatnsdæla tapestry is being produced, and sewed away at the story of the people of Vatnsdalur as they listened to someone reading aloud from the saga and ‘re-oralising’ the very events their needles were weaving in and out of.   

Þingeyrar church

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Insult Verses and Death-By-Scissors: Bjarnar saga Hítdælakappa

Hítárdalur, looking north into the valley
In my last post, I wrote about the tragic love between Gunnlaugr ormstunga ('serpent-tongue') and the beautiful Helga in fagra ('the fair'), and about how after Gunnlaugr dies fighting his treacherous rival-in-love, Hrafn, Helga is remarried and eventually dies herself, gazing at a cloak Gunnlaugr once gave to her. The farmstead on which Helga died, Ytri-Hraundalur, is in the Mýrar district in north-west Iceland, close to a long valley called Hítárdalur -- the location of much of the action of another saga about a poet and tragic lover, Bjarnar saga Hítdælakappa.

Bjarnar saga states that Björn was raised with his uncle at Borg: Björn's maternal grandmother was a sister of Egill Skalla-Grímsson, and Skalla-Grímr was Björn's great-grandfather (see my earlier post of 25th March  on Egils saga and Borg). This makes Björn -- I realise for the first time myself now -- a cousin of Helga the fair, who was the daughter of Egill's son Þorsteinn...the Icelandic obsession with genealogy is starting to rub off on me... Beyond the genealogical overlap and the geographical proximity of Bjarnar saga and Gunnlaugs saga, the protagonists of these two sagas -- Björn and Gunnlaugr -- are both poets and the sagas share a common plot (a plot that is found in two further sagas about poetic protagonists, Kormáks saga and Hallfreðar saga, both of which will be covered soon): the tragic love-triangle. And now for some story-telling on a rainy Sunday afternoon...

Björn is a promising young man: snimma mikill vexti ok rammr at afli, karlmannligr ok sæmiligr at sjá (Bjarnar saga, ed. Sigurður Nordal and Guðni Jónsson, Íslenzk fornrit 3 (Reykjavík 1938), ch. 1, p. 112; 'very large in stature at a young age and physically powerful, manly and becoming in appearance'). He falls in love with the beautiful and noble-charactered  Oddný eykyndill ('Island-candle') whom he visits on the island of Hjörsey where she lives -- and many people in the district reckon it will be a good match if Björn marries Oddný, with him being the finest of men and well bred. So Björn is engaged to Oddný -- but he longs to go abroad to make his name and fortune -- and thus the betrothal is fixed for a period of 3 years but if Björn doesn't return after that time, Oddný will be married to someone else, and Björn must send a message back to Iceland if he will not make it back. 

Hítarnes, Þórðr's (and later Oddný's) home
(with view over to the Snæfellsnes peninsula)
All goes well and Björn is treated generously at Eiríkr jarl's court in Norway, where another poet from the north-west of Iceland is also visiting. Although previously in Iceland, Björn had been on the receiving end of a certain amount of mockery and abuse from this man, Þórðr Kolbeinsson, Björn and Þórðr are on good terms over the winter, and one evening as they drink together (Björn was more affected by the alcohol than Þórðr, the saga notes), the conversation turns to Oddný and the question as to when Björn intends to head home. Not immediately, says Björn -- which Þórðr says sounds unwise when he has such a treasure as Oddný waiting for him back in Iceland. Þórðr suggests he takes a token and a message back for Oddný from Björn -- the gold armband that the jarl has given Björn might do -- and Björn, after hesitating, agrees. In the morning, Björn rather regrets saying so much to Þórðr and thinks he may have trusted him overly...

And these misgivings prove -- after a few sentences and a voyage by sea -- to be all too well founded. Þórðr delivers Björn's message (that he still intends to return to marry Oddný) and gives her the ring -- but treacherously, he adds a false post-script to Björn's message and claims that Björn has made over the betrothal to him should he die or not return to Iceland. Meanwhile, Björn is sent to Russia where he wins a great duel but is badly wounded; by the time he gets back to Norway at the end of the next summer, three years have passed and he all the boats sailing to Iceland have left...Þórðr marries Oddný; Björn hears the news and won´t go back to Iceland now, preferring rather to go to England where he kills a dragon. Björn runs into Þórðr back in Norway on one occasion and vows to fight him next time they meet; only his respect for King Óláfr (who has come to power now) prevents him from challenging Þórðr to a duel immediately. Eventually, Björn does return home (as, 1000 years later, do most Icelanders abroad, unless they are útrásarvíkingar on the run). And the feud between Björn and Þórðr -- the subject of the rest of the saga -- begins in earnest.

At first, this feud is conducted verbally and the two men exchange insult verses in which they communicate accusations of cowardice and deviant sexual behaviour or origins, with escalating seriousness. On one occasion, a local man and his farmhand discuss the relative insulting value of the verses Björn and Þórðr have composed about each other while busy with the outdoor task of charcoal-burning. Björn had composed a poem called 'Grámagaflím' ('Grey-belly Satire') in which he describes how Þórðr's mother had eaten a slimy rotten fish she found by the side of a lake and thereby conceived Þórðr. The farmhand has never heard anything to rival this poem in the gravity of its insult but his master thinks the poem that Þórðr composed about Björn and which is known as 'Kolluvísur' ('Cow Verses') is worse. He won't recite it at first despite the farmhand's urging since if Björn hears anyone perform it aloud he will kill them without having to pay compensation, since the transmission of such insult 'níð' verses in medieval Iceland was prohibited by law. Eventually he gives in -- only for Björn to leap out from behind a tree and strike him a deadly blow...tantalisingly, we, as the readers of the saga, never get to judge the which of the two poems is the more scurrilous for ourselves.
The red track to Hítarvatn (looking south)
Eventually – after a series of physical confrontations, various characters’ deaths, and some bad dreams which trouble Björn and anticpate his approaching death – Þórðr and a band of men travel to the end of Hítárdalur where Björn’s farm, Hólmr, is situtated beside the lake (Hítárvatn). I spent a night here, following a winding up-and-down, and sometimes bright red, track past the last farm in the valley and through lava-fields and bare sandy stretches. It’s sheep round-up time in the saga (as it was when I was in the area) and Þórðr’s men divide up into three groups of six, not knowing which route Björn will be taking, but covering each path. Björn decides to go out to trim the manes on some horses: he won’t let his bad dreams dictate his actions and he ignores his wife’s pleading to stay at home. Björn and a boy cross the river where it runs out of the lake and walk the path towards where the horses are, at Hvítingshjalli (so-named after one of Björn’s horses, Hvítingr; ‘-hjalli’ is a shelf or ledge along a mountain-side – I looked over towards this place from where I parked the ambulance overnight). The boy sees six men come towards them; “I’m going to hunt that bear (björn) that we all want to catch”, cries one of the men.

Björn won’t run and he sends the boy away after the horses; there is a bloody fight and Björn defends himself strongly killing some of his opponents. Other attackers arrive, including Þórðr (and a boy, who is nominally Þórðr’s and Oddný’s son, but actually fathered by Björn), and Björn continues to fight using the shears he brought out with him to cut the horses’ manes. I wonder whether Björn was the prototype for Edward Scissorhands... All marvel at Björn’s valiant defence but eventually Þórðr causes Björn to fall and he then chops off Björn’s head. It was sobering to think of such merciless violence being conducted in this now-deserted place; thoughts about Björn’s death, coupled with the slightly oppressive silence of the place, made the night I spent there a rather cold and dark one.

Þórðr, having decapitated Björn, ties the head to his saddle and rides back to Björn’s farm where he announces news of Björn’s death to his wife, and then to Vellir, about half-way down the valley, where Björn’s parents live. In a scene which has a close parallel with Grettis saga (and Grettir’s enemy throwing Grettir’s head at his mother’s feet, see post of September 11th), Þórðr casts Björn’s head before his mother. “I recognise the head,” says Björn’s mother, “And you may recognise it too because you were often terrified by the same head before, when it was attached to its body” (“Kenni ek höfuðit ... ok kenn mættir þú, því at fyrir inu sama höfði gekktu optliga hræddr, meðan þat fylgði bolnum”, Bjarnar saga ch. 33, p. 205). When Oddný hears of Þórðr's killing of Björn she grieves and dies herself shortly afterwards...

Hítárvatn; Hvítingshjalli on the left-hand shore

Driving back down Hítárdalur the next morning, I stopped to walk along the river in search of some stones that form a chain across the river known variously as 'Grettisstikklur' or 'Grettisstillur' (‘Grettir’s stepping- or leaping-stones’). In chapter 19 of Bjarnar saga, and chapter 61 of Grettis saga, mention is made of how Grettir, on the run as an outlaw, spends time hiding out in a lair ('Grettisbæli') on the mountain Fagraskógarfjall, on the western side of Hítárdalur, not far from Vellir, where Björn lived when he was not further up the valley at Hólmr. Björn and Grettir try each other’s strength and are said to be equally strong; on one occasion, they entertain themselves by hauling these stones into the river ‘which have never been moved since, neither by the power of flooding water, nor ice-floes, nor glacial flooding’ (er aldri síðan hefir ór rekit, hvárki með vatnavöxtum né ísalögum eða jöklagangi, Grettis saga, Íslenzk fornrit 7, ed. Guðni Jónsson, p. 188). A note in the edition of Grettis saga comments that these huge stones could never have been arranged thus by humans and must be a natural phenomenon – but then again, for better or worse, they don’t make men like Grettir or Björn nowadays...