What is college for? I pondered the question a few years back in an essay published by Penn State University in the magazine I then worked for, Research/Penn State:
I studied the Icelandic sagas in graduate school at Penn State because they were compelling. A mix of The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien had been a saga scholar) and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” magical realism a millennium before Garcia Marquez, they were unlike anything I’d ever read.
I had been introduced to them by a professor of folklore, who, though retired, still taught one course. Sam Bayard was an impish man, small, bald, rotund, and hunched like a wise turtle walking upright. He had an impressive nose, which he periodically aroused with snuff taken from one of the half-dozen boxes secreted in his pockets. He would courteously offer me some, smile when I declined, then, snuffling up a liberal pinch, harrumph into a large handkerchief which he subsequently used to brush the dust off his breast. His snuff boxes were antiques, portable works of art carved of horn, cast in silver or brass with ancient scenes of hunts or warfare, shaped of handsome woods. Another pocket held a tin whistle, which he’d occasionally demonstrate. A fiddle hid in his filing cabinet. A narrow bookshelf along one wall was crammed with Icelandic sagas, which he loaned me, one after the next.
I indulged. I read them in English first, then in the original Old Norse. The professor who taught me the language, Ernst Ebbinghaus, was an icon of his occupation -- high forehead, aquiline nose, a halo of silky white hair. I translated bits of sagas into my notebooks, puzzling over the three genders and four cases, singular and plural, into which the grammar slotted the words, memorizing the twenty-four different forms of such essentials as “the” or “this” or “who.” Ebbinghaus stood at the lectern and explicated such words as ójafnaðrmaðr: the unjust, overbearing man, the man who upsets the balance of the world.
I gave up the sagas to be practical. Deciding whether to go on from a master’s degree in 1985, I, like any sensible graduate student, looked at the job market. Opportunities for a medievalist with a speciality in Icelandic sagas were zilch. A friend with a stellar resume -- Ivy League Ph.D., Fulbright fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities grant, papers published, book in progress, experience teaching abroad -- got no job offers. Others with theses in Old Norse were teaching Old English (a related language) or history or English composition instead.
I already had a job as a science writer, working at Research/Penn State, a magazine published by Penn State University. I decided to forget an academic career.
But before I packed my books in boxes, my husband and I took a trip to Iceland. We rode the bus to a small fishing village on the west coast. We shouldered our backpacks and hiked four miles out to Helgafell, an egg-shaped hill that marked the ancestral holdings of the saga chieftain Snorri Godi, who died in 1031. His farm at Helgafell was still a working farm: sheep, cows, horses, a barking dog. I knocked on one door of the low modern duplex. The old man who answered, dressed formally in coat and tie, could not make out my attempts at Icelandic. He called his son out of the milk house.
“Snorri Goði -- Búa hér?” I asked. “Living here?”
The son, a lanky man in his early forties, in orange coveralls and a stocking cap, beamed. “Já, já, já, já, já,” he exclaimed, in the Icelander’s long-repeated yes. Snorri Godi had indeed lived here -- a thousand years ago, he said. He took off his cap and shook our hands.
He led us around to his half of the house and, as his wife and five children and her old crippled mother all gathered around the too-small table, and the coffee and cakes and cheeses and cucumbers appeared and then disappeared, he began to tell stories from the sagas.
One night a shepherd saw the whole north face of Helgafell swing open like doors. The god Thor was holding a feast inside the hill.
He would look at me and nod, and I would nod back as if to say, “Yes, that’s how I learned it.” My Icelandic was so poor I understood only a tenth of what he was saying, yet it was enough to recognize the tale.
It was queer to be sharing tales a thousand years old, an American tourist and an Icelandic farmer, as if I and a neighbor in central Pennsylvania had discussed over coffee the mere-hall scene in Beowulf or the Old English riddles of the Exeter Book. Queer and delightful -- and why I’ve gone back to Iceland again and again since that first time in 1986.
I’ve shared sagas with many Icelanders. My Icelandic has improved to the extent that in 1997 I spent a month among Icelandic horsebreeders, and bought two horses, all the while speaking only a few words of English. The experience became my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse. The horses themselves, Icelandic horses, have been my entree into a whole new world.
I am still a science writer. But my life has been enriched by that compelling, impractical graduate education in a medieval literature still current in one small corner of the world. As British writer W. H. Auden (another Icelandophile) once told a newspaper, “This memory is background for everything I do. Iceland is the sun which colours the mountains without being there.” For me, my graduate education is the sun, the background for everything I do.
I had thought about it once as a way to earn a living. It turned out to be a way to make a life.
Since writing this essay, I have written two more books about Iceland: The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman came out in 2007 and Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths will appear in October 2012. I took the photos shown here at Helgafell in 1986, 2009, and 2011. Many thanks to Hjörtur Hinriksson and his children and grandchildren for being my dear friends. If you visit Stykkisholmur, Iceland, be sure to buy a hotdog from the hotdog cart run by Óskar, Hjörtur's son.
Join me again next Wednesday at nancymariebrown.blogspot.com for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.