Sunday, 29 May 2011

From Snæfellsnes to the West Fjords: Gísla saga Súrssonar

I promised a second post on Eyrbyggja saga and the Snæfellsnes peninsula -- but events have taken various turns the past couple of weeks and time is flying...and so I have made an executive decision to move straight on with a post on Gísla saga so as not to leave you all too far behind as I move on! More about Eyrbyggja (and there is so much to say) will be worked into the book...  

On the geography of Iceland and the location of the West Fjords (Vestfirðir), William Gershom Collingwood wrote, delightfully: „The map of Iceland has been sometimes drawn by school-boys as an eider-duck, quacking with wide opened beak; the head whereof is that great peninsual of the north west between Breidifjord and the Arctic Ocean, and its lower mandible Snæfells-nes. In our pilgrimage we have now got into the duck‘s mouth: next we propose to make the tour of the head before returning to the neck for further explorations over the ruffled quills of the back“ (A Pilgrimage to the Sagasteads of Iceland, p. 107).

This upper westernmost part of Iceland that stretches its many clawlike fingers out into the Atlantic is one of the most visually spectacular and dramatic parts of Iceland: I approached and entered the region from the water, via the ferry that runs across Breiðafjörður from Stykkishólmur to Brjánslækur on the southern coast of the Vestfirðir, a journey of a little over 2 hours or so. The roads that follow the shorelines of the many fjords that comprise this western peninsula and wind their way, hairpin-bending, up over the heaths and mountain passes between valleys (often with great deep drifts of snow still – though the dark night hours have been banished by now, spring is still slower to show itself here than it is further south) are for the greater part unsurfaced and it is challenging driving in places. Though Icelanders comment frequently on the fact that the Embulance is a left-hand-drive vehicle, i.e. with the steering wheel on the right, and call it ‚silly steering‘, this actually has proved a rather useful feature as I can keep an eye on the edge of the road to my right much more easily...and make sure that I don´t fall off it when negotiating tight bends or passing oncoming vehicles.

View along Dynjandisvogur into 
Árnarfjörður from Dynjandi
From Brjánslækur I headed straight up north over Dynjandisheiði, spending the night beside the great waterfall Dynjandi en route to Dýrafjörður, where the outlaw-hero Gísli Súrsson and his family established their homestead(s) after emigrating from Norway around 952 C.E.. Dynjandi – true to its name – thundered mightily like so many lanes of motorway traffic through the night; I walked up the waterfall (or waterfalls, since there is a series of them, each kicking up sparkling spray), the only soul there, at 11pm and looked west along into Arnarfjörður where low clouds in faint pinks and smudgey greys were building up and catching the light from the late evening sunset. After reaching Hrafnseyri on the northern shore of Arnarfjörður the next morning (the home of the 13th-century chieftain Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson, whose life is outlined in the contemporary saga Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar), I took the road north up over Hrafnseyrarheiði and down into Þingeyri, which sits on the southern shore of Dýrafjörður.

After refuelling I drove straight on west along the fjord, to Haukadalur, which was only 10 minutes or so further on. The weather was bright and the sky blue – and my arrival in Haukadalur was an intense moment to which I had long looked forward. I wrote my PhD thesis on Gísla saga – but until now, had never made it out to the Vestfirðir to explore the actual places where the saga unfolds. A couple of sentences in a book about the history and settlements in the Vestfirðir that I looked at while I was in Haukadalur made a strong impression on me: ‚Úr fornsögum er Haukadalur í Dýrafirði betur þekktur en flestir aðrir staðir í Vestfjörðum því allir þræðir í Gísla sögu Súrssonar mætast hér í einum punkti‘ (‚Haukadalur in Dýrafjörður is better known from old stories than most other places in the West Fjords because all the threads in Gísla saga meet here at one point‘, Kjartan Ólafsson, Vestfjarðarit I: Firðir og fólk 900-1900. Vestur -Ísafjarðarsýsla, 1999).

Looking south down Haukadalur
Gísla saga is not overly long – about 80-odd pages in the Penguin Classics translation; structurally and stylistically, the narrative is articulated with consummate artistry. It is one of the more widely-read sagas in Iceland on account of its being on the school-syllabus for several decades; a famous (famous at least in Iceland, and in the world of Old Norse/medieval Icelandic saga studies...) film of the saga was made too, by the director Águst Guðmundsson in the 1980s too – the only film of a whole saga of which I am aware. Gísla saga is sometimes described as a medieval murder mystery: at the heart of its plot are two violent murders. The Scandinavian crime novel phenomenon (Arnaldur Indriðason, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir to name but two world-popular Icelandic crime-writers) is not a new one...

Gísli and his family build a farmstead at Sæból in Haukadalur after arriving from Norway; Gísli‘s sister Þórdís is soon married to Þorgrímr ‚Freysgoði‘ Þorsteinsson (there‘s a connection here to Eyrbyggja saga, Þorgrímr appearing therein; Þórdís eventually ends up on the Snæfellsnes peninsula too—Snorri the chiefain in Eyrbyggja saga is Þórdís and Þorgrímr‘s son), Gísli to Auðr, and Þorkell to Ásgerðr. Þórdís and Þorgrímr take up residence in Sæból, and Gísli and Þorkell (together with their wives) build a second farmstead at Hóll and live together there. Gísli is hard-working and conscientious whilst Þorkell is less inclined to work, and one morning Þorkell lies down after breakfast and overhears a conversation between his wife Ásgerðr and Gísli‘s wife Auðr in which he learns that his wife has feelings for – and is possibly having, or had an affair with -- Auðr‘s brother, Vésteinn. Þorkell and Ásgerðr move out of Hóll over to Sæból where Þorgrímr and Þórdís live, and a rift grows between the brothers and the two households; a damage-limitation attempt by Gísli to bind the four men (Gísli, Þorkell, Vésteinn, Þorgrímr) together with a blood-brotherhood oath fails. Vésteinn returns from a trading voyage and arrives in Haukadalur to visit his sister and Gísli; that night, an unnaturally violent storm blows up and while Gísli and his men go out to rescue the hay, Vésteinn is murdered while he lies in his bed by an unidentified intruder who then escapes.

The spear is left in Vésteinn‘s corpse and Gísli pulls it out and recognizes it as the reforged fragments of a cursed family sword that Þorkell took with him when he parted with Gísli and moved to Sæból. Gísli is obliged by virtue of his marital ties to Vésteinn, and his blood-brotherhood bond, to avenge Vésteinn‘s death. The evidence suggests that the murderer must have come from Sæból: thence Gísli goes by cover of night some time later, wading down the stream that runs beside both farms so he does not leave tracks in the snow. On entering Sæból, and making his way silently into his sister and brother-in-law Þorgrímr‘s bed-closet, Gísli, in turn, impales Þorgrímr with the same spear Grásíða that he pulled out of Vésteinn‘s dead body. After Vésteinn‘s death, winter-ball games on the frozen pond at the mouth of the valley were held by the Haukadalur men; Vésteinn was buried in a mound at the western end of the pond. Þorgrímr is buried at the eastern end of the pond, and the ball-games are again held on the pond. After a clash with another player, Gísli pauses for a moment, looks up at Þorgrímr‘s mound, and recites a riddling verse in which he acknowledges his responsibility for Þorgrímr‘s death. Þórdís, who is now married to Þorgrímr‘s brother Börkr, overhears Gísli‘s verse, remembers it, unravels it, and reports its substance to Börkr – who now must kill Gísli in order to avenge Þorgrímr‘s death.

Seftjörn, looking west down Dýrafjörður

The pond, Seftjörn, is still there at the fjord-end of Haukadalur, with a natural bank separating it from the beach and sea just below. It has silted up considerably but green shoots of the rushes which the inhabitants of Sæból and Hóll gathered to strew on their hall floors were pushing out of their pale, winter sheaths; the rushes will grow to over my height, I was told. Great numbers of birds – gulls, oyster catchers, geese, ducks -- flew up into the air calling shrilly as I walked down to the pond. The two mounds aren‘t visible now though Vésteinn‘s was, partially at least, when the Icelandic archaeologist and antiquary Sigurður Vigfjússon examined the valley in the early 1880s. A house, enclosed by trees, stands on the site where Vésteinn‘s mound rose (now called Vésteinshólt); at the other end of the pond, where Þorgrímr‘s mound was, the concrete/stone foundations of buildings put up there in the late 19th/early 20th century can be seen. At one point, the population of the valley numbered over 100 and there were a couple of shops or trading centres, a small school, and the first ice house in the west of Iceland.

Now, one elderly but completely independent woman lives in the valley; I also met a farmer who keeps his horses and sheep there (lambs were tripping around outside in the field beside his barns); the remaining few houses are used as summer-houses. A grassed-over track runs down to the ruins of the 19th-century settlement by the pond – it must have been on this slope that Þórdís sat and overheard Gísli‘s fateful verse; the mouth of the river (Haukadalsós) where the family put in with their boat and belongings on first arriving in Iceland, and where subsequent voyages were concluded, is just to the east. And the other side of the Haukadalsós is Saltnes, the small promontory between Haukadalur and the neighbouring Meðaldalur where the sorceror Þorgrímr nef and his witch-sister were stoned to death.

Gíslaaugu ('Gísli's Eyes')
What struck me most forcibly was the size and dimensions of the valley, and how densely settled it must have been with all of the farmsteads named in Gísla saga standing (6 in total, according to the saga: Sæból and Hóll, and four more at points either side of the central river, up the valley), compared with other ‚saga‘-valleys I´ve explored elsewhere in Iceland. The valley is not a large one: it's approximately 5 kms long, and 500-800 metres wide at its broadest points; at its southern end, the highest mountain in the Vestfirðir, Kaldbak (998m), rises starkly. It would have taken a matter of minutes to walk from Sæból to Hóll or vice versa: the strained relations between the two households take on an immediacy that I had not appreciated when reading and thinking about the saga up until this point--and the valley is so bare, with very little cover for any kind of private activity.

The faint foundations of the three buildings that comprised Sæból (a hall, cow-barn, and hof) are just traceable in the middle of a hay field south of Seftjörn; the farmer‘s son says that his tractor bounces over them when he ploughs/mows the field. The site of Hóll was on a low hill south-west of Sæból, which is now known as Gíslahóll. In fact, there are two hills: the southernmost and slightly higher one has the clearly visible foundations of a couple of modern (19th/20th century) cow-sheds on its crown; the lower, northern one is where Gísli‘s farm Hóll would have stood. It is a good spot with visibility up, down, and across the valley. Back down Gíslahóll, in the field below to the north of it, are a couple of pools where water wells up: the stream that this water fed ran north to the pond past Sæból and was the stream that Gísli waded along the night of his murder of Þorgrímr. The pools have the slightly sinister name of Gíslaaugu (‚Gísli‘s eyes‘) now; the stream no longer runs its natural course, having been diverted into a ditch, but a slightly sunken channel betrays where it lay.

I followed the stream--or the traces of its original course--as far as I could, thinking about Gísli watching over the valley through the two Gíslaaugu pools, over 1000 years later.  Gísli is outlawed after his riddling verse admitting his murder of Þorgrímr is unravelled by Þórdís -- and the second half of the saga describes his 13 years on the run while pursued by Þorgrímr's brother Börkr, whose responsibility it is to avenge Þorgrímr's death. The past few days have been spent visiting some of the places Gísli hid out as an outlaw (while filming for the 'Cambridge Ideas' series--very exciting--the documentary will be beautiful and will be released in August!) in the next post, I´ll be following Gísli's outlaw tracks. 

Looking north over Seftjörn at Mýrafell


  1. the Seftjörn pics are gorgeous - and I love the boat twins :))

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  4. Beautiful and powerful landscape. I wish to go there someday (with a really good friend and a 4×4-jeep), seeking for the roots of my name... at Arnarfjordir./Arne Odenlid, Sweden