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.