Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Trolls: An Unnatural History, by John Lindow

What is a troll? That's the question answered (sort of) by the very first troll on record, a troll-woman who accosted the 9th-century Viking skáld Bragi the Old on a deserted forest track late one night and challenged him to a poetry match.

Trolls call me moon of the dwelling-Rungnir, she declaimed: giant's wealth-sucker, storm-sun's bale, seeress's friendly companion, guardian of corpse-fjord, swallower of heaven wheel: what is a troll other than that?

In an earlier post I talked about how difficult it is to understand Viking poetry (see "The Viking Art of Poetry"). What do these kennings--giant's wealth-sucker, storm-sun's bale--mean? John Lindow, in his book Trolls: An Unnatural History (Reaktion Books 2014), only explains one of them: swallower of heaven wheel means "swallower of the sun or moon," which in Norse mythology is a wolf.

Is this troll a wolf? A shapeshifting werewolf? A wolf-like monster? Who knows--all that matters is, it's scary. Says Lindow, "The exchange between Bragi and the troll woman forms a paradigm that will often recur: a threatening encounter, in a place far from human habitation, between troll and human, with the human emerging unscathed in the end."

The trolls always lose. Remember that. It will help when you see how long-lived and nasty these creatures can be.

Through the Viking Age, the Saga Age, and into Iceland's Sturlung Age, when the Icelandic sagas were being written, trolls were a kind of malevolent land spirit. A woman who throws a love token away is said to have given it to the trolls. A warrior swears, "May the trolls take me if I never again redden my sword with blood." These trolls were "associated with the Other," Lindow notes: "the mysterious, inexplicable, and unknowable. … Or to put it another way," he adds later, "as the giants are to the gods in the mythology, so trolls are to humans."

Not until the later Middle Ages, will trolls take on the form familiar to us, the kind of ugly, stupid monster that appears in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit or J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone. In Illuga saga Griðarfóstra (written as late as the 15th century), an Icelandic youth enters a cave in search of fire. He hears the heavy footsteps of the cave dweller and sees a decidedly un-wolflike troll woman:

He thought a storm or squall was blowing out of her nostrils. Mucus was hanging down in front of her mouth. She had a beard but her head was bald. Her hands were like the claws of an eagle, but both arms were singed and the baggy shirt she was wearing reached no lower than her loins in back but all the way to her toes in front. Her eyes were green and her forehead broad; her ears fell widely. No one would call her pretty.

This paragon of ugliness persists in our imagination largely due to folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, who published a collection of Norwegian fairy tales in the 1840s. There we read: "'under that bridge lived a big, ugly troll, with eyes like pewter plates, and a nose as long as a rake handle.' Everybody knows this story," says Lindow. It's "The Three Billy Goats Gruff."

Of the ugly troll woman in the Icelandic cave, Lindow remarks: "What I find most striking about this description is the blurring of categories: male/female (beard and bald head), animal/human (claws), immodest/chaste (her garment). Such blurring suggests powerful operation of the imagination in creating the degree of otherness as it plays with the very shiftiness of trolls."

Blurring, otherness, shiftiness--and ugliness--these are the characteristics of the trolls that populate Scandinavian folk tales. In Sweden, "The trolls could change their shape," wrote folklorist Gunnar Olof Hylten-Cavallius, "and take on any sort of form whatever, such as hollowed-out trees, stumps, animals, skeins of yarn, rolling balls, etc."

Adds Lindow, "Trolls come at night. The night belongs to them, and they belong to the night." That's why--as Tolkien taught us--trolls turn to stone if the sun hits them. Actually, Lindow points out, that's only true for Icelandic trolls. According to Hylten-Cavallius, in Sweden it's giants whom the sun turns to stone. When Swedish trolls see the sun, they burst--pop!--and disappear.

Blurring, otherness, shiftiness, ugliness, and now darkness--or invisibility--or a dread of the light of truth… It didn't take long for literary artists to seize on the metaphor of the troll. When the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen in 1867 sent Peer Gynt into the Hall of the Mountain King, the troll-king asked, "What is the difference between trolls and humans?"

Answered Peer, "There is no difference, as far as I can tell. Big trolls want to cook me and small trolls want to claw me--same with us, if they only dared."

Norwegian author Jonas Lie said the same in his collection of stories, Trolls, published in 1891. In an introduction, he wrote: That there is something of the troll in human beings, everyone knows who has an eye for such things. It is situated inside in the personality and binds it like the immoveable mountain, the fickle sea, and violent weather...

He writes of seeing the troll inside an old lawyer: a strikingly wooden face, eyes like two dull opaque glass stones, a strangely certain power of judgment, not liable to be moved or led astray by impulses. His surroundings blew off him like weather and wind; his mind was so absolutely certain … Trolldom lives in that stage inside people as a temperament, natural will, explosive force.

Trolls in modern literature not only "threaten us from the outside," says Lindow, "but they can lurk inside, too."

Which brings us to today's trolls: Internet trolls. According to one list Lindow quotes, the wilderness of the web is populated by "plain trolls, bashing trolls, smartass trolls, non-caring trolls, opinion trolls, 12-year-old trolls, blaming trolls." They continue to be ugly, shifty, fearing the light.

"In the old tradition, people who spent time in the world of the trolls described it mostly as unpleasant," Lindow concludes, "and I cannot say that my brief visit to the world of today's trolls was in any way pleasant. Yet I experienced, ever more strongly, the fact that we cannot truly know trolls. If we could, they would not be trolls. This holds for the very first trolls, found in Viking Age poetry, through the trolls who populated the wilds of Scandinavia, to the trolls in books, films, and the Internet. Trolls are what we are not, or what we think we are not. Or was Jonas Lie right? Could there be a bit of troll in each of us?"
Trolls: An Unnatural History by John Lindow was published in 2014 by Reaktion Books.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Michael Ridpath's "Where the Shadows Lie"

"Amid Iceland's wild, volcanic landscape, rumors swirl of an ancient manuscript inscribed with a long-lost saga about a ring of terrible power..."

Whoever wrote the jacket copy for Michael Ridpath's thriller Where the Shadows Lie, number one in his Fire & Ice series, might just as well have added, "This one's for you, Nancy," because, though I've never met Ridpath, I think he had me in mind as his perfect reader.

Rarely have I read a book about Iceland by a non-Icelander in which I can find nothing to complain about. (Okay, maybe the behavior of the golden plovers.) Ridpath may have grown up in Yorkshire and live in London, but it's clear he's visited Iceland--probably as many times as I have--and he hasn't just hung around Reykjavik and seen the standard tourist spots. He's read a lot of the books I have on my shelves, from Njal's Saga to Jesse Byock's Viking Age Iceland to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and he's mashed them all up inside a wholly believeable crime novel that has real people bumbling around in a real Iceland.

Here is an example. Our hero, Magnus, an Icelander who has grown up in Boston and is now a Boston police officer, and an Icelandic woman named Ingileif are driving through south Iceland, in the shadow of Mount Hekla:

At Ingileif's direction, Magnus turned off the road and along a dirt track, winding up through the hills and into a small valley. His police-issued Skoda strained to maintain traction: the road was in poor condition and in places very steep. After a bone-rattling eight kilometres they finally came across a small white farm with a red roof nestling in the hillside at the head of its own little valley. Beneath the farm the obligatory lush green home meadow stretched down to a fast-flowing stream. The rest of the grass in the valley lurked brown and lacklustre, where it wasn't still covered in snow.
"'How fair the slopes are,'" Ingileif said.
Magnus smiled as he recognized the quotation from Njal's Saga. He finished it: "'Fairer than they have ever seemed to me before.'"

I've been in that car. I've had that interaction--though usually the Icelanders with me don't offer such an obvious quotation to complete.

And when the story continues, I recognize the farmhouse, the kitchen, the people there:

The father, an impossibly wizened man, stirred himself from a comfortable armchair, while the mother busied herself with coffee and cakes. A stove warmed the living room, which was chock full of Icelandic knick-knacks, including at least four miniature Icelandic flags.
And a giant high-definition television screen. Just to remind them that they were truly in Iceland.
The younger farmer who had greeted them did most of the talking. His name was Adalsteinn. And before they could ask him any questions he told them about his parents, the fact that he himself was single, the fact that the farm had been in the family for generations, and particularly the fact that farming these days was tough, very tough indeed.
The coffee was delicious, as were the cakes.

Michael Ridpath has met Icelanders and paid attention to their wisdom and depth, as well as to the obvious quirks and foibles most journalists seize upon. He understands how Icelanders feel about volcanoes and glaciers--as well as elves and trolls. Most importantly, he understands Icelandic sagas and the role they have played in Icelandic culture.

And not only in Icelandic culture. One of the reasons I wrote my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings, was to reveal how, through Tolkien, medieval Icelandic literature has shaped modern American and British culture. A number of readers have told me how surprised they were to learn, as one put it, that Snorri Sturluson was the "granddaddy of Bilbo Baggins."

Ridpath makes the same point--effortlessly and convincingly--in Where the Shadows Lie, though he has the advantage of fiction where I had to stick to fact.

For centuries, a family of Icelanders has hidden away a saga--and the ring of power it refers to. One of the only people they allowed to read it was J.R.R. Tolkien, and it clearly inspired The Lord of the Rings. (They even have letters from Tolkien to prove it.) So when the economic crisis hits Iceland and one of the family members decides to bail out her business by selling the family saga, it finds a ready market in LOTR fans. One of them is a Silicon Valley billionaire. Another is a Yorkshire truck driver. A number of people get bashed in the head and/or plunge to their deaths beside waterfalls before Magnus, our Boston cop, solves the mystery. As he and the Yorkshire truck driver are rushing to prevent the final killing, the Yorkshireman says,

"'There's nothing wrong in being a Lord of the Rings fan… What is wrong is when you let it blind you to what's going on in the real world.' He looked around at the extraordinary countryside flashing through the mist around them. 'Although sometimes I find it hard to believe that this country is part of the real world.'"

"I know what you mean," Magnus says.

I know what he means too.

Learn more at http://www.michaelridpath.com/icelandic-series-home.html

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Anders Winroth's "The Age of the Vikings"

Were the Vikings raiders or traders? Scholars waffle on this question. Looking at the Latin chronicles from the time, Vikings were cruel, bloodthirsty, rapacious barbarians. But since the publication in 1970 of The Viking Achievement by Peter Foote and David Wilson, historians have tended to stress the brave, adventurous, clever, and artistic side of life in the North in the years between 793 and 1066.

Some say the pendulum has swung too far.

That's a point stressed by the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition held at the Danish National Museum in 2013, the British Museum in 2014, and on its way to the State Museum in Berlin in 2015. As its curators stress, "For all of the peaceful achievements of the Viking Age, some of those encounters were undoubtedly violent and this is reflected in the accounts of those they fought. The repeated focus on such attacks should warn us against too peaceful an interpretation of the Vikings." The emblem of their exhibition is a sword; the centerpiece is a warship.

Anders Winroth, in his new book The Age of the Vikings, has a slightly different take on the question. As he states in his introduction, "I argue that their violence, seen in broad historical context, was no worse than that of others in a savage time, when heroes like Charlemagne (d. 814) killed and plundered on a much greater scale than the northern raiders."

He makes a good argument that by focusing on one side or the other--raiders or traders--we really don't know the Vikings at all.

Winroth's The Age of the Vikings is meant as a general introduction; as such, it covers a lot of familiar ground. But one section very new and exciting to me was the story of Estrid Sigfastsdotter, who died in the late 11th century and was buried on a farm just outside of Stockholm. Using archaeology, runic studies, and traditional historical sources, Winroth pieces together the story of this "independent and active woman."

Estrid's "influence and wealth are still discernible in the Swedish landscape through the many runic inscriptions that she created to memorialize the dead of her family," he writes. "But when we read the inscriptions, we are perhaps less fascinated by the men of the family than by Estrid herself, the matriarch, who stands out in unusually vivid colors."

Estrid outlived two husbands, three sons, and her stepson--she raised five runestones to their memory, telling us so. She ran two large farms, first as her husband's helpmeet, in charge of food, clothing, and education. "She carried the keys of the farm (one key followed her into the grave)," Winroth writes, "and she managed the storehouses."

Also in her grave were three weights, of the kind used with a Viking Age balance scale to weigh out silver. "They symbolize Estrid's responsibility for managing family affairs," Winroth says. "As the men around her died, Estrid took on an even more central role in the family, managing farms and thralls, running the family business, making the important decisions."

Estrid's grave was discovered in the 1990s through an accident of road building. Studying her skeleton, archaeologists learned she died in her 60s--a great age for that time. She was a tall, slim woman "with gracious features," Winroth says.

Estrid was rich, but still her family suffered from sickness and hunger. Her first-born son died at about age 10; a skeleton identified as his shows signs of malnourishment in his first five years, along with a severe ear infection. Estrid herself had once broken her arm, though it healed well. Both she and the tall man buried beside her (probably her second husband) had terrible problems with their teeth.

And she was Christian. Born in about 1010 or 1020, Estrid may have been given her somewhat unusual name in honor of the Swedish queen, Estrid, who came from northern Germany. Winroth speculates that Queen Estrid may even have been the child's godmother. Scandinavian  kings, he writes, "used Christianity and especially the relationship-creating ceremony of baptism to create and confirm alliances with the great men and women of their kingdoms," a theory he develops further in his earlier book, The Conversion of Scandinavia.

But the most exciting detail of Estrid's story is that she, too, was a far-traveler. The runestone she raised to her first husband, Östen, tells us that he died on the way home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Though the runes do not say so, Estrid probably went with him. In a famous record of 11th-century Scandinavian travelers who stopped at the monastery of Reichenau, on the border of Germany and Switzerland, are the names "Östen, Estrid." The name preceding these two is Sven; Estrid had a son named Sven. And in Estrid's grave was a small wooden box locked with a key. It contained two coins, one of which came from Switzerland.

The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth was published in 2014 by Princeton University Press. Read about another exceptional Viking woman in my book, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (Harcourt 2007; Mariner 2009). Join me again next Wednesday at nancymariebrown.blogspot.com for more adventures in Iceland or the medieval world. And if you would like to go to Iceland with me next summer, check out the tours at America2Iceland.com.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Fridrik Erlings's Boy on the Edge

Some books stay in my mind long after I've finished them. Some books stay in my soul. Fridrik Erlings's Boy on the Edge is one of these.

Written for young adults and translated by the author himself from Icelandic, Boy on the Edge is the story of big, ugly Henry, with his club foot and his stutter and his fear of reading aloud, son of an abused, alcoholic mother who is little more than a prostitute. Sounds bleak, but it's not. It's one of the most uplifting books I've ever read. Henry does not find happiness; Henry earns it.

Shunted from school to school, bullied past the breaking point, Henry snaps. Tragically, the person he hurts is the only one he loves: his mother. He is sent away to a reform camp run by a half-crazy evangelical minister on an isolated sheep-and-dairy farm far out in the Icelandic countryside. Arriving, scared, silent, resentful, he has his first brief hint of a future that could be different: The minister's wife, Emily, is making pancakes.

Writes Erlings: "There was this wonderful smell he'd never smelled before, and the sound of batter being poured gently into a frying pan, where it crackled briefly in melted butter, giving off an amazing scent."

Despite the pancakes, all is not well on the farm, either. The minister is a tyrant; Emily is unfulfilled. They have different visions for their reform school--and vastly different methods. The minister preaches hellfire and damnation and locks misbehaving boys in a dark basement room, visiting only to kneel with them in prayer. Emily, instead, teaches Henry how to milk the cows, feed the sheep, and clean up the manure: He was the King of Dung, collecting the dues from his subjects, filling the wheelbarrow. … He was somebody. Who would have thought? 

Of course, the thrill of being the King of Dung wears off. But throughout the book, the peaceful rhythms of the farm, the glory of the nearby sea, the danger of the sea cliffs, the pounding of the rain, the treacherous lava field, with its ruts and cracks, the brutal butchering of the bull, the happy cavorting of the cows in the spring, the serenity of the moon in the vast night sky, and the busy-ness of the little birds play counterpoint to Henry's efforts to understand himself.

The rain showers arrived from the ocean and the snow melted into the lava. One day a green knoll of moss appeared from under the snow and the southern winds rounded up the fluffy clouds and made them gallop across the sky. 
The promise of spring laughed in a brook and whispered in the yellow grass at the swamp. It shook the ptarmigan in flight with a playful gust of wind, which made it spring into the air, brown-breasted and white-winged.

Henry tries hard to make friends with some of the other reform-school boys, only to be disappointed over and over again. Ultimately, his striving for friendship leads to disaster--as, simultaneously, the fabric of the reform-school is unraveling. Then, in a tense and brilliant ending, Erlingsson allows Henry, almost in spite of himself, to succeed, finding not only friendship, but love.

Like Halldor Laxness's Brekkukotsannall, published in English as The Fish Can Sing, Boy on the Edge uses a child's coming of age to examine the failings of society, contrasting city and country, new ways and old, and reaching a compromise in which tradition can be honored and modernity embraced. How should we live in the world? How should we love one another? The answers are in Boy on the Edge.

Boy on the Edge by Fridrik Erlings was published in the U.S. by Candlewick Press in 2014. It received a starred review as one of the best books of the year from Publisher's Weekly, which judged it "poetic and powerful." I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Touring with the Sagas

When some people go to Iceland for the first time, they want to see it all. In seven days they drive the entire Ring Road, bagging all the sights.

I'm a little different. I've been to Iceland 19 times, twice staying over three months, and I have yet to see huge swaths of the country. I've never been to the East Fjords. I've only glimpsed much of the north.

Instead, I've gone deep. I've gotten to know one corner of Iceland very well: the area between Borgarnes and the island of Flatey in Breiðafjorður, out to the tip of Snæfellsnes with its evocative glacier, and in to Surtshellir cave at the edge of the highlands. It's an area with a wonderful variety of landscapes--farms, fishing villages, lava fields, glaciers, beaches, waterfalls.

I like to stay on one farm for a week, traveling only as far as I can reach on foot or horseback or the occasional half day's drive. On various trips I've found a path through the lava that had long been lost, crouched behind a rock while a sea eagle strafed me, rode a horse across a swift salmon river (careful not to let the eddies dizzy me), collected crowberries, watched fox pups play, rescued trapped sheep, frightened myself in a pitch-dark cave, drank sweet water from the well in another, soaked in a wilderness hot pool, sunned on the flank of a volcano.

I'm not a naturalist: What drew me to this part of Iceland were the sagas, with their tales of sheep-farmers and sorcerors, horse fights and feuds, love and grief and hard times and strife. Tales of a satisfying life scratched from an unforgiving land. Tales tempered with poetry and grace.

I've sat where the wily chieftain of Helgafell, Snorri goði, sat, ten centuries before, pondering his next move. On horseback, I've ridden the route he followed to collect his father-in-law's corpse--and the one his namesake, Snorri Sturluson took to confer with his nephew a few nights before he died.

The first time I visited Iceland, in 1986, I went in search of Snorri goði, a character in two of my favorite sagas, Eyrbyggja Saga and Laxdæla Saga. I was then a graduate student studying medieval literature and simultaneously working for a science magazine; I wanted to write a historical novel about Snorri. That book was never published, but ten years later much of my research--done on horseback, as well as in libraries--found its way into my first published book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse (Stackpole Books, 2001).

My second book about Iceland brought me back to Snæfellsnes. The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (Harcourt, 2007) uses medieval literature and modern archaeology to tell the story of Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir and the Norse expeditions to North America. Guðriður grew up on the tip of Snæfellsnes, in the shadow of the glacier some people call the third most holy spot on earth. (Seeing it rise out of the sea is certainly one of my favorite views of Iceland). I've since retold Guðríður's story as a young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, which will be published by Namelos in the spring of 2015.

My most recent book, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) required me to get to know Borgarfjörður even better. This book is a biography of another Snorri--Snorri Sturluson, who lived at Borg and then at Reykholt, and by the end of his life in 1241 ruled most of the West Quarter of Iceland. At Borg he probably wrote Egils Saga, while at Reykholt he wrote the Edda, which contains almost everything we know about Norse mythology, as well as Heimskringla, his long collection of sagas about the kings of Norway from the ancient days of Oðin the Wizard-King through King Magnus Erlingsson in 1177.

The best way to research my books, I've found, is to walk through the landscape where history happened, to live where my subjects lived and face some of the same challenges. To cross rivers on horseback, for example, or climb a volcanic crater. To experience the midnight sun in summer, when the birdsong never stills, as well as the dark days of winter (though I must admit, I've let a very few of them stand in for the rest). 

In 2012 I was approached by the trekking company America2Iceland, which had just moved its base of operations to the farm of Staðarhús in Borgarfjörður. They wondered if I'd be willing to join their tours and share my love of Iceland's history and sagas. Together, we began developing a tour called "Song of the Vikings," after my book. The first year it was a riding trek circling through Snorri's domain. The next year we combined riding lessons for beginners with more sightseeing by bus, visiting saga sites and museums, and allowing more time to learn about Iceland's history and culture.

Next summer, by request, the tour will have no mandatory horseback riding (though, since we will be based at a horse farm with a resident riding teacher, optional lessons and trail riding can be added). From July 27 to August 2, we'll follow in Snorri Sturluson's footsteps, taking the chieftain's trail from Thingvellir, where he took part in the yearly assembly, to Reykholt, his main estate--now a research institute with an exhibition about his life.

We'll see the highest-volume hot spring in the world, discussing the value of hot springs in medieval Iceland--and how a fight over this one may have caused the sagas to be written. We'll meet the Icelandic horse and learn why the horse, not the dog, is "man's best friend" in Iceland. We'll visit the Settlement Center in Borgarnes and compare new theories about Iceland's settlement. We'll see the Egil's Saga exhibition there as well, and discuss how that saga reflects Snorri Sturluson's own life. We'll drive into the highlands to see the cave Surtshellir, named for the Fire Giant who will destroy the world at Ragnarök, and discuss the connections between Icelandic nature and Norse mythology. And we'll see how those myths are still vital in modern popular culture, by sharing some of the literature and art Snorri Sturluson inspired, from Wagner to Tolkien to Neil Gaiman.

This tour is limited to 12 people, so each will get my personal attention. For more information, or to sign up, see America2Iceland.com or contact Rebecca at America2Iceland by email at info@america2iceland.com or phone at 1-828-348-4257. I think this is the perfect tour for first-time visitors to Iceland. Even if you've been to Iceland before, you'll see it in a completely new light.

(A version of this essay was published in the December 15 edition of the Icelandic-Canadian newspaper, Lögberg-Heimskringla.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Fiske Collection at Cornell

Earlier this week the president of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, traveled to Cornell University in Ithaca, NY to present the Order of the Falcon, one of Iceland's highest honors, to a librarian.

Why? The Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell is one of the three largest collections of books on Icelandic literature and civilization in the world (the other two are in Reykjavik and Copenhagen), and its librarian, Patrick Stevens, has been very active not only in preserving the collection and making it accessible, but also in greatly increasing it.

Cornell's first librarian, Daniel Willard Fiske, was a friend of Iceland. Upon his death in 1904 he bequeathed the university a collection of books now valued at over $30 million. Since then, the Fiske Icelandic Collection has quadrupled in size. It contains the largest selection of books in America by modern Icelandic authors and claims to be "unrivaled in its resources for the study of the medieval Nordic world."

That doesn't sound like an exaggeration to me. As a writer who specializes in Viking culture, Norse mythology, Icelandic sagas, skaldic poetry, and the Norse voyages to America, the Fiske Collection is the library of my dreams. Some of its books date back to the 1500s. Others were published this year.

Patrick Stevens (right) receives the Order of the Falcon.
I first visited the Fiske Collection in November 1989, 12 years before my first book came out. At the time I was employed as a science writer for Penn State University, and I had gone to Cornell to attend a meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. The speakers at these meetings are hand-picked for their skill at making the latest scientific discoveries both relevant and exciting--and I'm ashamed to say I remember none of it at all. What I do remember is contacting librarian P.M. Mitchell in advance of my visit and asking if I might take a look at some of the books in the Icelandic collection. I was working on a historical novel and was particularly interested, I told him, in old accounts of people traveling by horseback. I arranged to meet him on the first day of the conference, a Sunday.

It hadn't occurred to me that the Fiske Collection would be closed on a Sunday. Asking directions at the library information desk, I was redirected down a darkened corridor toward an open door from which spilled a pool of yellow light. Stepping inside, apologies on my lips, I was greeted warmly by an elderly gentleman--I want to dress him in a cardigan sweater and give him a pipe, but I think I'm confusing him with a famous portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien. He was that kind of fellow. He was just making tea, would I like some?

He had several stacks of books on his desk for me, from Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas by Sabine Baring-Gould (1863) to Six Weeks in the Saddle by S.E. Waller (1874) to Routes Over the Highlands by Daniel Bruun (1907). Now these books are available over the Internet, scanned by Google Books, but in 1989 they were very rare. As I paged through them, wondering where even to begin, Mitchell handed me a mug of tea--and a key. "I'll just leave you to it," he said. The key opened both the library building and his office. I could use his desk, after hours, as long as the conference lasted. "And help yourself to the tea."

And so began several long, long nights poring over musty old traveler's tales and taking notes (on a yellow legal pad, in pencil), some of which informed my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse (2001) and others of which ended up in my most recent book, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths (2012). (The historical novel I'd been working on was never published.)

Willard Fiske
If I could go back in time, I'd love to meet Willard Fiske. We have a lot in common. According to "The Passionate Collector," an exhibition Patrick Stevens and his colleagues put on in 2005 and preserved online, Fiske's "fascination with Norse myth" inspired him to sail to Copenhagen in 1850, when he was only 19. He studied Danish and Icelandic--and began collecting Icelandic books. Soon he moved on to the University of Uppsala, where he learned Swedish well enough to give lectures on American and English literature. He had hoped to sail on to Iceland in 1852, but things didn't work out and he would not make it to the island whose literature he loved until 1879.

Fiske was not only a gifted linguist, he was a writer, supporting his studies by working as a journalist. Returning home, he embarked on a career marked by his passion for the written word--and his inability to keep still. He was assistant librarian at the Astor Library in New York. He founded a magazine, The American Chess Monthly. He became general secretary of the American Geographical Society, then left for Vienna in 1861 as an attache. In 1863, he became an editor of the Syracuse Daily Journal. He tried to run a bookstore, returned to journalism as the managing editor of the Hartford Courant, then gave it all up to travel again, this time through Europe and the Middle East.

In 1868, Fiske joined Cornell University (founded in 1865) as its first librarian. He also took charge of what we'd now call the university's PR office, its alumni office, and even its university press. He taught a journalism course and served, as well, as Professor of North European Languages, offering classes in Icelandic, Swedish, German--and even Persian.

According to "The Passionate Collector," "In July 1879, Willard Fiske was finally able to travel to Iceland." He landed at Húsavík in the north and went by horseback to Reykjavík. "Along the way, he absorbed the fantastic landscape, with its waterfalls and rugged fells." He met several friends, including the poet Matthías Jochumsson. Jón Sigurðsson himself, the leader of the Icelandic independence movement, wrote him a letter of introduction, which remains in the Fiske Collection.

A year later in Berlin, Fiske married Jenny McGraw, a young heiress Fiske knew from Ithaca, who was touring Europe in search of a cure for her tuberculosis; tragically, she died just after the married couple returned home in 1881. Fiske used the millions he inherited to buy more books, many of them about Iceland. He also endowed the Reykjavík Chess Club, founded the Icelandic chess magazing Í Uppnámi, and donated chess sets and books to the inhabitants of the island of Grimsey, whose story had impressed him when he was in Iceland (though he hadn’t visited Grimsey itself). He also bought a villa in Italy, where he spent the last two decades of his life.

Fiske playing chess in Italy c. 1900.
When Fiske died he was working on volume two of his history, Chess in Iceland and in Icelandic Literature. It was never published, but I've consulted volume one quite heavily while writing my current book, The Ivory Vikings, which argues that the world famous Lewis chessmen were carved in Iceland by a woman artist around the year 1200. I didn't have to visit the Fiske Icelandic Collection to read Fiske’s book—it’s now available on the Internet—but librarian Patrick Stevens graciously searched the archives to answer the many questions I emailed him. The technology may have changed, but the Fiske Icelandic Collection remains the library of my dreams. I'm proud to say it contains every one of my own books about Iceland.

To learn more about the Fiske Icelandic Collection, a good place to start is the website of Cornell's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/collections/icelandic.html. Links from that page explain how to search the Cornell Library online for its Icelandic holdings, including books, letters, journals, and photographs, many of which can also be viewed online.

Photos here are courtesy of the Cornell University News Service and the Fiske Collection.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ayla's Dream Is to Study the Art of Riding in Iceland

When I first met Ayla Green, she was trying to dissolve into the back of a sofa. A beautiful 16-year-old with long blonde hair, she looked distinctly out of place in the guesthouse at Staðarhús in western Iceland last June: The person closest to her in age was her aunt, Laura Benson.

Laura had arrived that morning from California to teach a group of 60-year-old Americans (and one in her 30s) how to ride an Icelandic horse as part of the America2Iceland tour I was leading. Ayla had come along to help--and to get to know Iceland better.

She sat on the sofa, as we all chatted, and fiddled with her hair or fiddled with her phone, or maybe she was reading a book--I admit, I paid her very little mind.

Throughout the week, while our tour group took their riding lessons, she was put to work cleaning stalls or exercising young horses. Once she had to babysit. Other than "Good Morning," I don't think she and I exchanged two words.

Ayla competing at the CIA Open in Santa Ynez, California.

Then, one morning, as our excited group of beginners was heading out for their first-ever Icelandic trail ride, our hostess, Linda, flagged down Laura and Ayla. Laura waved me over. A pair of German tourists, also staying at the guesthouse, had booked a horseback ride for that morning and Linda had just realized, watching Laura about to disappear down the drive, that she had no one who could lead them. (Linda herself is a horse trainer, but had to watch the children that day.)

The Germans said they were good riders. They could not reschedule: They had to catch a plane. Could Ayla babysit? Laura had a better idea: Why not let Ayla lead the ride? She didn't know the trail--but I did. We agreed. I'd show them the way, but Ayla would be in charge of making sure the Germans had a safe and pleasant ride.

Ayla and I led our horses back to the barn, where the two Germans were waiting. Somehow, on the short way there, she was transformed from a shy teenager in the shadow of her aunt into a confident and confidence-inspiring riding instructor herself.

Ayla competing at the CIA Open in Santa Ynez, California.

She took the two horses Linda had suggested out of their stalls and helped the Germans groom them and properly tack them up. She asked polite questions to assess their riding skill (something that many tourists exaggerate). These two, we learned, were experts--they owned a riding stable in Germany and had competed on Icelandic horses. Still, Ayla left nothing to chance, but had them warm up their horses in the indoor arena while she watched to make sure horse and rider were well matched.

They were, and we headed down the trail. Ayla had not been intending on leading a tour group. She was riding a young horse with very little training--and a lot of spirit--who tended to spook at just about everything. Ayla didn't let that bother her. She kept her horse even with mine (a very solid trekking horse), every now and then drifting back to check that our guests were enjoying themselves. It soon was apparent that I was the least experienced rider of the group (though I've owned and ridden Icelandic horses since before Ayla was born).

The road beside the river at Stadarhus.

We rode along the stream on a narrow track, passing our beginners' group on their way back, then waded the stream to pick up a gravel road that serviced some summerhouses. We stopped briefly to rest the horses in a grassy glade surrounded by birch thickets, the snow-streaked mountains brushing the sky all around us. Then we went back by a different path, crossing the stream again just above a waterfall. Once back on the riding track, heading home, we picked up speed and had an exhilarating run to the barn, still riding two-by-two.

When I said goodbye to Ayla Green after that week at Staðarhús, I knew I'd met an exceptional young horsewoman--and one I'd be hearing more about in the small world of Icelandic horses in the U.S. So I was happy to learn recently that Ayla has decided to pursue her dream of "building a life around this wonderful breed."

Through the website GoFundMe, she is raising money so that she can afford to attend Hólar University, Iceland's premier school for equestrian science, beginning in the fall of 2015. "This university specializes in the training of the Icelandic horse," she explains. "Hólar is also one of the most respected schools where one can learn horsemanship with Icelandic horses."

What she has failed to add is that her aunt, Laura Benson, was the first American to graduate from Hólar with a B.S. degree.

If you ride Icelandic horses and hope to see the breed flourish in North America, as I do, I hope you'll join me in adding a few dollars to Ayla's fundraising campaign. She's not offering T-shirts or coffee mugs (this isn't Kickstarter), but if you're lucky, you'll meet her in Iceland and she'll take you for a ride.

Share Ayla's dream at http://www.gofundme.com/aylagreen

Photos of Ayla by Heidi Benson

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

America2Iceland's 2015 Trekking Bootcamp

In late July, with the help of America2Iceland--and you, if you're game--I'm going to recreate my favorite scene from my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse.

Be prepared to ride fast and far, to get tired and probably wet, and to have an adventure you'll never forget riding on the silvery sands beneath the great glacier Snæfellsjökull, or "Snow Mountain Glacier," on Iceland's west coast.

The year before I bought my horses, I spent the summer in an abandoned house on the edge of the Longufjörur, or Long Beaches trail, a 40-mile riding trail uncovered only at low tide. The route, along the south side of Snæfellsnes, has been in use since the Saga Age. It cuts the mouths of several rivers, some of them deep-channeled salmon streams, others edged with quicksand. The safe paths shift from storm to storm, while the force of the wind and its direction, and the fullness of the moon, decide how fast a rider must cross.

"It's a dangerous path," my neighbor, Haukur of Snorrastaðir, told me, "if you don’t know the tides." But one memorable day he lent me two of his best "family" horses, Elfa and Dögun, and let me go with him and the group of riders he was leading over the sands.

At last the tide was low, I wrote in A Good Horse Has No Color:

We opened the paddock gate and let the swirl of color resolve itself into free-running horses. First after them went Haukur on Bjartur, the cream-colored gelding he always rode. His hand horse, a black, he led at his knee, and I did my best to mimic him, riding Elfa and ponying Dögun, though I kept losing my right stirrup: with her every step Dögun banged into my heel.

We rode from the farm beside the River Kaldá on a path so deep our feet brushed the rim of the ruts and grass swished against our boot tops. The ponying got easier when the deep path emptied out onto a black-pebbled beach. I relaxed, took great drafts of the salty air, and settled in to enjoy the ride. This was living, Haukur said. This was Iceland.
We crossed over mudflats pocked with airholes and headed for several grass-topped islands abandoned by the tide like a pod of stranded whales. A sea eagle lifted off one of the islands as we approached and scolded us with a high-pitched cackle. Geese flew over, banking, startled. We rode north onto the sandbar, across some grassy flats, back out through the sucky mud to the hard wet sand, whose color ranged from black to coffee-colored to tawny to gold. 

We rested the horses on a grassy hillside out of sight of a nearby farmhouse. The buzz had been growing in our ears for some time before any of the riders registered what it was (some of us were half asleep with our hats over our eyes). A plane was coming in low. It zoomed over our hillside, making us sit up and snatch at the nearest bridles. A little red and white two-seater, the craft rose and banked steeply over the sea, then turned its nose toward us and dove again. Again it turned, and now it sparked Haukur's ire. He waved his cap and hollered at it.

The other riders had mounted their horses and were circling around the spares. Again the plane passed low over us, then dipped even lower until it was skimming the mudflats. Haukur's holler suddenly turned concerned. The pilot would crash, would kill himself if he tried to land in that soft mud. Haukur thrashed his hat in the air again and began riding toward the beach. The plane lifted slightly, sailed across a wide tidal stream, and came down at last on the sandbar a quarter-mile offshore.

Haukur shook his head. There must be something wrong, he said. The pilot must be out of gas. There was no way off that sandbar, and the tide was rising. He turned and looked over his riders, all quite experienced except for me. We'll have to rescue him, he said. We'll have to swim.

Down he rode toward the stream and, without hesitating, urged his two horses in. The water rose above his thighs. The horses lifted their heads and bared their teeth, all but their heads and necks underwater. The loose horses and the other riders followed, but my hand horse balked and Elfa skittered farther down the shore before I could steer her in—with the result that she missed the sloping bank and was instantly swimming.

My boots filled up. The current pressed hard against my right leg and tugged away at my left. I lost my stirrups. The spare horse I was ponying began swimming with the stream, dragging her rein around behind my back. Elfa began turning seaward as well, her swimming a strange rolling motion. I began to panic.

Rationally I knew that what we were doing was quite ordinary. Horses have long been called "the bridges of Iceland," and Icelanders still will not go out of their way to stay dry crossing a bit of a brook. The English painter Samuel Waller wrote of a day in 1874 when he crossed 40 streams. He warned, "The great thing to beware of is looking at the water. You lose your head at once if you do so, as the eddies swirl around you so rapidly." If you should become unseated, he advised, "strike out for the bank at once and leave the animals to take care of themselves. To be engulfed with a horse in the water is a very complicated piece of business."

And I had two horses. It occurred to me suddenly that I was not "used to horses" at all.

I quickly took inventory and concluded I was hardly a rider. Rather than standing "firm in the stirrups," as Waller suggested, I had no stirrups. My hand horse was tipping my balance awry with her rein tight behind my back. Determined at all costs to stay on, I had cocked my feet up to lessen the drag on my water-filled boots and was clenching my knees, my hands in a death-grip on the reins.

In spite of all this, Elfa was swimming steadily, her ears back, but otherwise not noticeably upset that we weren't gaining the shore. Suddenly I knew what to do. Keeping firm hold of my hand horse, I dropped Elfa's rein, grabbed onto her mane, and relaxed. Immediately, as if I'd called out in a language we both understood, Elfa's head swung toward shore. My hand horse fell behind and swam nicely along after us. Soon we had sand under our hooves. Elfa kicked up and we came splashing out onto the beach in a fine smooth tolt. We charged over to where the other horses waited and I gratefully slid off.
My first thought was to empty out my boots. Someone handed me a beer. I chugged it down, standing on one foot, holding two fidgeting wet horses and a boot full of water. Slowly I made out the tale. The pilot was the boyfriend of one of our riders and had flown out to treat her to a cold drink.

Hardly had the absurdity of the situation sunk in when I realized the riders were remounting. The plane's engine was being revved up. Someone grabbed my empty bottle and I was up and off, Elfa stretching out behind Haukur's Bjartur in the incredible gait called the flying pace—fast enough that my hand horse had to gallop to keep up, yet still Bjartur outdistanced us. We eased back into a canter and let the loose horses catch us, while our little beer-plane scooted by overhead, waggled its wings, and disappeared….

Never would I have imagined that, 17 years later, I would be leading riding tours in Iceland myself. But in 2013 I started doing so for America2Iceland, which is owned in part by the riding instructor and horse trainer Guðmar Pétursson and based at his farm of Staðarhús in the west of Iceland.

Photo by Rebecca Bing for America2Iceland
In 2015 Guðmar and I will be recreating the beach ride I wrote about in A Good Horse Has No Color, riding on the sands beneath the great glacier Snæfellsjökull on the America2Iceland Trekking Bootcamp Tour, July 27 to August 2.

There’s only room for 12 riders, so sign up soon if you want to come with me. Look here for more information:

Note that I cannot guarantee there will be a plane to deliver beer to us on the sands, as there was in the book. But I can guarantee a memorable ride.

(Don't ride? Then take a look at my other America2Iceland tour, "Song of the Vikings," here: http://america2iceland.com/trips/song-of-the-vikings/)