Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Gaga and Gerðuberg

Random newsflash from Reykjavík: Lady Gaga is in town to collect a peace award from Yoko Ono... and I'll be talking this evening (in Icelandic) at the Gerðuberg menningarmiðstöð (Gerðuberg Cultural Centre) in Reykjavík about some of my and anecdotes aplenty for those who aren't hanging out on this rainy grey day in Austurvöllur hoping for a glimpse of Gaga...  

Further information about the event can be found here and a short piece about the Centre published in today's edition of Fréttablaðið is here

Monday, 1 October 2012

William Gershom Collingwood and the Icelandic Sagas in New York

On Friday 28th September, Icelandic photographer/journalist Einar Falur Ingólfsson's exhibition 'Saga Sites' opened at Scandinavia House in New York. The exhibition will run until January 12th 2013.

Between 2007 and 2009, Einar Falur photographed many of the saga-sites that William Gershom Collingwood sketched in the summer of 1897, when he explored the landscapes and settings of the Icelandic sagas. The 'Saga Sites' exhibition displays Einar Falur's photographs alongside Collingwood's watercolours. The juxtaposition of the modern photographs and the 19th-century watercolours generates a compelling dialogue between past and present -- not only the past represented by Collingwood over a century ago, but that of the medieval Icelandic sagas themselves (written down some 700-800 years ago, and telling of events that happened around 1000 years ago).

Einar Falur's photographs illustrate both how Collingwood enhanced certain features of the Icelandic landscape for dramatic effect and how his representation of thes detail of these landscapes is often remarkably accurate. The exhibition was first shown at the National Museum of Iceland in 2010; it has travelled around Iceland and was also featured at the Frankfurt Bookfair in 2011, where Iceland was the Guest of Honour

Scandinavia House have arranged an exciting series of public events in conjunction with the exhibition; the full programme can be found here. My and Patrick Chadwick's 2011 short documentary film about Gísla saga and my Sagasteads project, Memories of Old Awake, is being screened as part of the exhibition; I will give a talk about the film and my project at Scandinavian House in January 1013.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Cinema Screens and Podcast Chat...and More Snæfellsjökull News

"Memories of Old Awake", Patrick Chadwick's Cambridge Ideas series documentary about my research (online on Vimeo here), hit the big screen in Reykjavík a couple of weeks ago when it was screened as part of the Reykjavík Shorts and Docs Film Festival. It also showed at the Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival in India. Gísli Súrsson goes global...

A 25-minute long chat about the sagas and my travels that I recorded back in January with BBC History Magazine's editor Dave Musgrove can be downloaded and listened to as a podcast here.

Much more excitingly, last Thursday (which was a bank holiday in Iceland on account of its being Ascension Day, "Uppstigningardagur" in Icelandic, literally meaning "Climbing Up Day"), saw me join a few others in the ascent of Snæfellsjökull, ice-axes at the ready and fully crampon-ed (the neat Icelandic word for crampon is "mannbroddur", "man-spike"). A description of the climb and thoughts arising from it will be posted here soon.

On our way up, up, up...

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Under the Glacier

I have mentioned Snæfellsjökull, the glacier at the western tip of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, before (in a post on Eyrbyggja saga, the saga that is set around this western part of Iceland). Snæfellsjökull is the iconically horned ice-cap rising up behind the trusty old ambulance in the title-photo at the head of this blog...I've had an interesting few weeks and the glacier has been at the centre of a happily serendipitous series of discoveries. 
Snæfellsjökull from the east

My parents, sister, and brother-in-law spent the long Easter weekend in Iceland visiting me; I thought a few days around Snæfellsnes would make for a good trip. Which it did on many counts...although unfortunately, they didn't see Snæfellsjökull itself while we were beneath it because of incessant, very heavy rain and very low cloud. Not a lot one can do about the Icelandic weather. At least on their last day in Reykjavík, Mum and Dad glimpsed the captivating landmark shimmering in the distance the far side of the broad Faxaflói bay. 

Snæfellsjökull (as I mentioned in my older Eyrbyggja saga post) is the extinct volcano that is the starting-point for the journey to the centre of the earth that Jules Vernes writes about in his book of that name. A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a copy of his Around the World in 80 Days as an evening alternative to saga-reading. Seeing me with the book in my hands, a German friend of mine asked if I knew about the Halldór Laxness Film Festival that was about to take place at a cinema in Reykajvík, and whether I would be interested in seeing a film called 'Kristnihald Undir Jökli' ('Christianity Under the Glacier'). I said yes, but that I had better read the book first, over the weekend.

Snæfellsnes from the north, with the church of  Ingjaldshóll
The book tells of a young man who calls himself 'Umbi' (short for 'umboðsmaður biskups', 'Emissary of the Bishop' > 'Embi' in the English translation by Magnús Magnússon). Umbi is sent to Snæfellsnes by the Bishop of Iceland to try to get an idea of what the local priest (who is beyond eccentric, or perhaps wiser than everyone else in the world put together) is up to. A nice review of the book can be found here. It is in turn and all at once brilliantly funny, utterly perplexing, deeply philosophical, uncompromisingly serious, a huge spoof, endlessly colourful in the detail Umbi reports and the situations he finds himself in. And in one of the early chapters, lo and behold, a reference to a certain Phileas Fogg, whose journey around the world young Umbi finds more impressive than Otto Lidenbrock's descent into Snæfellsjökull.

I was further drawn in by the way Laxness weaves Eyrbyggja saga into his book. The story of a certain Þórgunna, a strange Hebridean woman who stays at a Snæfellsnes farm called Fróðá (where there are some very strange hauntings), is told in Eyrbyggja and retold in Kristnihald. The mysterious Úa in Laxness's book is in some ways a reincarnation of this remarkable Þórgunna...both are the kind of women who are never seen to wash but are always clean, are never seen to eat but are always plump, are never seen to sleep but are always ready for anything, are never seen to age and one day, just disappear... And then come back from the grave, in a benevolent way.

Búlandshöfði, around which Þorgunna's coffin was carried

Eyrbyggja saga describes how Þórgunna dies, and how -- according to her last wishes as a Christian -- her corpse is carried in a coffin to Skálholt where she wants to be buried, since Skálholt will become one of the two Icelandic bishoprics. The journey is a tough and long one for the coffin-bearers; at one place where they stop for the night they are grudgingly given lodgings but no food. A great clattering noise is heard in the night and when the coffin-bearers investigate, they see the stark-naked Þórgunna risen from the dead, preparing food for them. Þorgunna chastises the miserly host; átu gestir mat sinn, ok sakaði engan mann, þótt Þórgunna hefði matbúit (Eyrbyggja saga, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson 1935, p. 144; "The guests ate their food and it harmed no-one, though Þórgunna had prepared it"). There's no sequence in the film of Kristnihald of Þórgunna's original naked chef exploits; many beguiling shots of Snæfellsjökull though.

I talked to a few people with Snæfellsnes connections about Laxness's book and the film: "'Well of course Laxness based the character of Pastor Jón partly on X, partly on Y, and partly on Z. And the thread in the book about the red horse and the grey horse who always run away alternately...that episode was directly based on this time when...". And the film was made by Laxness's daughter, Guðný Halldórsdóttir. One of the most remarkable things for me about Iceland is how pieces of the puzzle just seem to fit together like they do nowhere else I know of.  A biography in several volumes of the Snæfellsnes priest Árni Þórarinsson (born 1860, died 1948), written by Þorbergur Þórðarson and recommended to me by several people, is next on my reading list; my Snæfellsjökull puzzle will doubtless expand in all kinds of directions.     

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Excess Baggage and Paris in the Spring

In February, Sandi Toksvig and BBC Radio 4's "Excess Baggage" team turned up in Iceland for a few action-packed days. The resulting travel programme (produced by Harry Parker) was aired last Saturday morning and can be listened to again online here There's a nice mix of modern and medieval; I had the pleasure of accompanying the team to Þingvellir and I talk a bit about the sagas and the most important rock in Iceland, the law-rock at Þingvellir, towards the end of the programme.

Other fun sagasteads-related news is that over the weekend, I attended the European Independent Film Festival's screening of Patrick Chadwick's film about my project ("Memories of Old Awake", online on Vimeo here It was fantastic to have the chance to admire Patrick's work on the big screen and particularly to listen to the audio (the birds, and the wind and water). A member of the audience made an interesting point in the Q and A session afterwards: "How is it that when the sagas are so full of graphic violence, you have made such a serene and peaceful film?" One of the intriguing aspects of last year's travelling was, sometimes, precisely the disjuncture between the peaceful atmosphere I experienced in certain places, and the brutality of events described in the sagas said to have happened there. Something I will think more on.

Paris on Sunday, with its tulips, bright green chestnut trees, and children sailing boats in the Luxembourg Gardens pond, is a little ahead of Iceland on the spring-front. Crocuses, snowdrops, daffodils are emerging from flower beds in Reykjavík front gardens though; gleðilega páska!   

Saturday, 3 March 2012

News Round-up

I am delighted to announce that the short documentary about my project released last autumn ("Memories of Old Awake", produced by Patrick Chadwick for the University of Cambridge) has been selected for competition in the European Independent Film Festival which will be held in Paris, 30th March to 1st April. Further details about the Festival programme and tickets are here "Memories" has already picked up a prize at the Jaipur International Film Festival in January.

...Red carpets are universes away from the world I inhabited last year. For those who worried about the somewhat abrupt termination of regular blog posts, all is well! The ambulance and I are safe though now separated (I'm still in Iceland, the ambulance is back in the UK). By the beginning of October, it became clear that it was time to start writing the book about my travels, the sagas, and I retreated to an old turf-roofed and corrugated-iron-walled house in the south of Iceland. No internet connection, an outdoor suspended-bucket shower (a luxury after having no means of washing at all while I was living in the ambulance!), and stunning views south over to the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano. And I hammered out the first draft of my book. 

I drove the ambulance home to Britain in December and got back just before Christmas; the trip took 10 days. Temperatures in the north of Iceland while I was driving through were just under -30 and I had to scrape off ice that formed on the inside of the windscreen... a fittingly extreme way to end the Icelandic journeying.

Goðafoss, early December

I'm back in Iceland now and working on medieval manuscripts by day in the Árnastofnun Manuscripts Institute, and on the book and other projects by night...including putting up photos and posts about sagas that I covered but didn't go up on the blog. So please check back from time to time! Returning to normal city life has taken a bit of adjusting and when the wind howls, I long to be out in the middle of nowhere. One reason why I haven't yet sold on the Embulance!