Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The 'official' project outline

The Saga-Steads of Iceland: A 21st-Century Pilgrimage

I complete my term as a post-doctoral Research Fellow (in medieval Icelandic literature) at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in December 2010 and I am planning an ambitious and exciting project for 2011. I intend to move to Iceland in January 2011 in order to embark upon a year-long '21st-century pilgrimage to the saga-steads of Iceland'. I will drive from the UK to Denmark, where I will catch a ferry from Hirtshals over to the Faroe Islands, and then on to Iceland, weather at sea permitting. Once in Iceland, over the course of the year, I will travel around and across the country reading each one of the 13th-century Íslendingasögur (the Icelandic family sagas) in the physical landscapes in which they and their 9th-, 10th-, and 11th-century action are set. I will live for the most part out of my Land Rover ambulance and will move from farm to farm on the basis of introductions I already have and growing awareness and interest in the project. I want to talk to people I meet about their personal interests in, and responses to, the sagas and I hope to persuade people to tell oral versions of sagas they know, or episodes from sagas that are local to their part of the country.
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In addition, I will draw on published 19th-century travel accounts by figures such as William Morris, W. G. Collingwood, and Sabine Baring-Gould, comparing what they found on visiting the saga-sites with what is to be found now. As I travel, I will write up my experiences and the end-product will be a book that will be published by a mainstream commercial publisher, and will be of interest not only to those who are already knowledgeable about Iceland and familiar with the sagas, but the wider British reading public. In essence, the book will be about Iceland and its unique landscape, the sagas against and within that landscape, the Icelandic people and their relationship with the landscape and the sagas, and continuity and change in Iceland from medieval to present times. The book will be illustrated with my photographs.
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The financial collapse in 2008 and the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010 flung Iceland onto the global stage--albeit under a cloud, literally and metaphorically. British perceptions of Iceland are (often negatively) based on the after-effects of these events--i.e. the lock-down of international air travel--and on images of a bleak and inhospitable landscape used as the backdrop to 4-by-4 car adverts. I want to redress this situation by communicating to the British public how much more there is to Iceland. Most of what is written about Iceland for general consumption is based on the superficial experiences of commercial writers who have little or no previous knowledge of the country, its history and culture, and most importantly, the Icelandic language. I speak Icelandic fluently, however, and I know rural parts of the country well (and how Icelandic rural life works) as a result of working on a dairy farm in the north of the country.
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Beyond the book, additional project outputs will be high-profile media coverage (national newspapers, magazines, radio), and I will also keep a blog in which I will report on my progress. By these means, I hope to communicate something of the remarkable character of Iceland--founded on informed knowledge and experiences--to the wider, non-academic public in the UK.


  1. Dear Emily,
    Very exciting project which I look forward to reading the next developpments.
    I do not know whether you know the existence of a "travel-book" by Sir Richard Burton, the translator of the Arabian Nights, amongts other things. It is a very learned book, although its statistics may prove slightly outdated.
    Bon voyage !

  2. Hello Cyril --

    Thanks for writing. Yes, I do know of Burton's 'Ultima Thule': I love all of these older travel books. Do you know this site (link below)? You might find it of interest if not.

    Sjáumst! Emily

  3. Hi Emily,

    This sounds like a most excellent adventure and I wish you well. Actually, I'm envious as all get out & wish I could do the same thing :). But, I'll follow your postings with eagerness & dedication.

    Good fortune to you!


  4. Your project sounds like a saga worthy of its own telling. I will certainly be looking out for your book and following your blog as your adventures unfold. I wish you the best of luck! Góða ferð!

  5. Hello Emily,
    What a great project! We met at Kalamazoo a year or two ago, although you might not remember. Anyway, I hope your journey is grand. I'm sure you know the book by Jean Young, "Letters From Iceland, 1936," but in case you don't, I think its a great read.


    David Stevens

  6. Hello Emily.
    I am really interested in your project, this will be a great adventure. I am a writer of historical fiction, living in Reykjavík but grew up in Þingeyri by Dýrafjörður, where Gísli´s saga takes place. Perhaps you will find this interesting, for preparing your visit to the Westfjords. The villagers have built a replica of a viking ship and in July a week long festival is dedicated to the viking project, see
    I will be following your blog with great interest, gangi þér vel og góða ferð!

  7. Hi Emily,
    You have already been trampling back and forth in Vígaglúmur's footsteps. Wonderful project, good luck,

  8. I visited several of the sites in Njal's Saga back in 1995, and the one thing that struck me was just how much the landscape has changed in 1000 years. The woodland that Gunnar and Njal shared - that Hallgerd used in her feud with Bergthora - for instance? Gone, and replaced by bare hillsides.

    I'm curious to learn just how much social continuity you find - I really hope there is some! - underneath all that change.

  9. Emily,
    This is a very cool and very crazy idea. You spoke of your preparedness for the winter months or any months for that matter here. I think you may be misinformed or unaware of the dramatic climates you are about to journey into...good luck none the less.

  10. Good day Emily!

    I see from the introduction above that you read Icelandic fluently, so I will of course use Icelandic:

    Það er gaman að lesa um þetta verkefni þitt. Vonandi færð þú gott veður, sérstaklega í byrjun árs, en þá geta náttúruöflin verið óblíð.

    Jeppinn/sjúkrabíllinn er einstakur ferðabíll. Eiginlega hótel á hjólum :-)

    Bestu kveðjur og gangi þér vel.

    Ágúst Bjarnason

  11. Thanks everyone for your comments and suggestions so far; takk öll saman fyrir ábendingarnar og uppástungurnar þínar þangað til núna.

    Það er mjög spennandi að heyra að fólk hefur áhuga á verkefninu mínu; it´s so exciting to hear that people are interested in the project...

    Re. the winter weather...yes, it can be very unforgiving but I have some experience of it and I will be sensible, first and foremost. Thanks for your concern though. Með tilliti til veðursins í vetur, jú, ég veit að það geti verið mjög óblíð, en ég er búin að upplifa það áður og svo ætla ég alltaf að fara mjög varlega. En takk fyrir áhyggjur þínar.

    Heyrumst! Emily

  12. Hey Em,

    Won't you drop by Århus on your way from Esbjerg to Hirtshals? Felix and I would love to see you before you head up North :)

    Christina :)

  13. I don't think sagas are mentioned but I still recommend A Girl's Ride in Iceland by Mrs. Alec-Tweedie. It is very down to earth when not at sea.

  14. @ Kaisa:
    Thanks for becoming a follower -- and for reminding me of _A Girl's Ride in Iceland_. I've known of it for some time but had not got round to reading it; have just finished it now and enjoyed it very much. EBA-T's attitude in all respects to travel, and to the discomforts she must have endured, is quite admirable! Ida Pfeiffer's account of her travels is next...will be fun to see how she compares.

    @ Skallagrim:
    Kalamazoo -- that was one medieval experience; pleased to have come across you in another 'place'! I've dug my Viking Society edition of Young's letters out; as above, reading her alongside Alec-Tweedie and other female travellers is an interesting way into the enormous amount of travel literature there is on Iceland and Icelandic 'expeditions'. Might have to think about having a chapter in the book about women in Iceland...

    @ Vilborg:
    My PhD was on Gísla saga...I will certainly make sure I'm up in the Vestfirðir at the time of the Gísli festival! I hope I´ll have the chance to meet you once I´m in Iceland, would love to hear about growing up in Dýrafjörður, and about your writing. I have a copy of Auður here with me in Cambridge though have not yet read it; I read Hrafninn when I was in Reykjavík in 2008, however, and am actually hoping to spend a couple of weeks in Greenland over Christmas...


  15. Hi
    We've never met but a message from a friend of yours appeared on my Facebook and it caught my eye.
    I am speechless with jealousy! I love the sagas and do not have enough time in the day to read them. I'm based in Scotland and I know many contemporary writers who reference them with a great empathy.
    Very, very, good luck and I shall your blog with great interest.
    Green of Glasgow