Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Songs of Iceland

The title of my book, Song of the Vikings, doesn’t refer to music, as I’ve noted previously. It’s more like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, his overall title for the series that starts with Game of Thrones.

But I was fascinated to find, second on this list of “typical Icelandic songs,” one written by a contemporary of Snorri Sturluson, the 13th-century Icelandic writer and chieftain whose story Song of the Vikings tells.

“This is what Icelanders listen to when they want to hear the very best Icelandic songs,” writes the listmaker, Benedikt Jóhannesson, on the Iceland Review website. “We may sing, dance, or cry, depending on the mood. Listen to the songs and then you will understand Icelandic culture a bit better.”

About his second choice, Benedikt writes: The next song is a psalm, and the text comes from the 13th century by Kolbeinn Tumason, who is said to have written the psalm the day before he was killed in battle with the bishop of Iceland! The composer, Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson, is best known for his very modernistic compositions. Here the psalm is performed by Eivör, the great Faroe Isles singer, who has resided in Iceland on and off for the last few years. Hördur Áskelsson, organist and conductor, has called this an almost perfect psalm. It is called Heyr himna smiður or ‘Hear me, Maker of Heaven.’”

I found Eivör’s version especially moving (though one of my Icelandic friends pointed out that she sings with a Faroese accent). This is not the kind of song I would have associated with Kolbein Tumason, who makes a brief appearance in Song of the Vikings. Like Snorri, Kolbeinn was quite greedy for wealth and power, yet here he is opening his soul.

Here is another version (in proper Icelandic), with English translation, sung by the Icelandic singer Ellen Kristjánsdóttir:

You can also find the full text and translation here:

Listen, smith of the heavens,
what the poet asks.
May softly come unto me
your mercy.…

Drive out, O king of suns,
generous and great,
every human sorrow
from the city of the heart….

Here is the story behind the psalm: In 1206, in the north of Iceland, Bishop Gudmund the Good came to court in full episcopal regalia and broke up a lawsuit between the chieftain Kolbein Tumason and a priest who owed him money. It was a little, everyday lawsuit. No one could have predicted the cataclysm it unleashed.

The bishop “forbade them to pass sentence on the priest,” the saga says. “But they passed sentence on him just the same.”

The priest was outlawed—exiled from Iceland.

The bishop took the outlawed priest into his own household at Holar (which made the bishop an outlaw too), and banned Kolbein from church. When Kolbein protested, Bishop Gudmund formally excommunicated him.

Kolbein was taken aback. He considered himself a pious Christian. He had long been the bishop’s firm supporter. Gudmund was a cousin of Kolbein’s wife and had been chaplain of the family’s church before the chieftain pushed for his election as bishop in 1201. True, his support may not have been entirely selfless. Notes Sturlunga Saga, “Many men commented that Kolbein had wanted Gudmund chosen bishop because he thought he himself would thus control both laymen and clergy in the north.” The writer of a later Life of Gudmund the Good, adds, “As soon as they got to Holar, Kolbein assumed full control both of household affairs and of finances.”

Historians blame Gudmund the Good for much of the strife that enveloped Iceland during the Sturlung Age—strife that would climax with the murder of Snorri Sturluson at the request of the king of Norway in 1241 and result in Iceland becoming a colony of Norway in 1262. When Bishop Gudmund denied the universality of Iceland’s laws, “the fate of Iceland’s independence was ultimately sealed.”

But Gudmund was not thinking about Iceland’s independence. If he thought about anything other than the rights of the Church it was the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket, murdered in Canterbury Cathedral when Gudmund was a stubborn boy of ten. Saint Thomas’s dispute with King Henry II hinged on the punishment of “criminous clerks,” churchmen who committed crimes, just as Gudmund’s dispute with the Icelandic chieftains did. In the Saga of Gudmund the Good, written by one of his pupils, a woman dreams that Gudmund will “rank as high in Iceland as Thomas in England.” A verse by Kolbein himself is quoted: Gudmund, he says, “keeps firm his wish / to wield such power / as Thomas Becket. / This bodes danger.”

The first time Gudmund insisted that churchmen were above the law—when Kolbein sued the priest who owed him money—Kolbein backed down. The chieftain offered the bishop self-judgment and settled for a fine of twelve cows. He got six. The next time Kolbein sued some clerics (for theft), he said there was no use making an agreement, since the bishop wouldn’t keep it. 

A scuffle broke out. Someone threw a stone. It hit Kolbein in the forehead and killed him. God’s will be done.

Listen, smith of the heavens,
what the poet asks.
May softly come unto me
your mercy.

Parts of this essay were adapted from my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Snorri Sturluson’s Reykholt

The Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241) may have written the most influential book of the Middle Ages: His Edda inspired such writers as the Brothers Grimm, Longfellow, Ibsen, William Morris, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jorge Luis Borges, Günter Grass, A.S. Byatt, Jane Smiley, and Neil Gaiman.

But only in the last few years have we begun to get a picture of Snorri’s own life, as I discovered when I began researching his biography for Song of the Vikings.

Since 1987, archaeologists led by Guðrún Sveinbjarnardóttir have been studying the farm of Reykholt in western Iceland, which Snorri took control of when he was 28 and where he was killed at age 63. Their work is summarized in a new book, Reykholt: Archaeological Investigations at a High Status Farm in Western Iceland, published by the National Museum of Iceland.

Snorri’s Reykholt was one of the largest church estates in Iceland, with an enormous income from the tithe. It encompassed extensive lands, including 30 tenant farms, along with grazing rights in the mountains and rights to collect driftwood and beached whales by the sea. Two salmon rivers cut through the estate. In the vast marshlands—nearly 50 percent of the estate was wetlands—ample grass could be cut for the livestock’s winter hay. Nor was there any shortage of turf for building house-walls or peat for firing the smithy. Some barley (for beer) was grown, but Snorri made little effort to manure his fields. He could afford to buy barley if he needed more.

To the east of Reykholt the soil became thin until it petered out altogether in wasteland under the eye of the glaciers. A main route from the north of Iceland to the assembly plains at Thingvellir ran along the edge of this wasteland, meeting a route to the sea near Reykholt. Trade was thick along both routes—one saga tells of a man who became rich peddling such things as chickens. The archaeologists found that Reykholt imported fish, seal meat, and seaweed, as well as driftwood, from the coast, and lumber, glass, ceramics, and grain from farther away. Artifacts were found from Germany, England, and France, including a gold finger-ring engraved with a Romanesque design.

 The estate’s name, “Smoky Wood,” derives from two important natural resources. The hillsides to north and south of the valley were thickly wooded with scrubby birch and willow, useful for making charcoal, though the forests were in decline and wood would become scarcer by the end of the 13th century. As elsewhere in Iceland, the trees never grew tall or straight enough to use in ship-building—the wind saw to that.

“Smoky” referred to the steam from the hotspring on the property, which had long ago been plumbed. Conduits ran downhill to supply warm water for a hot-tub. Mornings, the women would use the hot water for laundry and cooking. Evenings, the men would gather and soak, sorting out the day’s troubles, telling stories, and talking politics.

Snorri’s predecessor at Reykholt, the priest Magnus, had taken over this fine estate upon his father’s death in 1185 and “gradually used up all the wealth as he began to grow older.” His agreement to turn the management over to Snorri in 1206 is recorded in the church’s inventory, a single sheet of calfskin which, though tattered and nearly unreadable, still exists; it is the oldest surviving document written in Icelandic. According to Sturlunga Saga, which was written by Snorri’s nephew, “Snorri was a very good businessman.” He restored Reykholt to prosperity and “became a great chieftain, for he was not short of money.”

Twelve years passed. Then Snorri went to Norway, where he received the title of Landed Man (equivalent to Baron) from the king. On his return to Reykholt in 1220, Snorri began a vast building project. Snorri had apparently taken notes in Norway, not just on history and mythology, but on the latest fashions in architecture.

As the archaeologists discovered, Snorri built huge timber houses with stone foundations and wooden floors and paneling. There was a great hall with a turf roof for his henchmen to sleep in, another hall for feasting and entertaining, and a little parlor for a private chat or to use as a writing studio. These rooms were connected to each other by a maze of hallways, but Snorri’s bedroom was a freestanding wooden cottage. Next to it was a two-story house with a small ground floor and an overhanging loft like the townhouses Snorri saw in Bergen. One door opened into the feast hall, another into the parlor, and a third—perhaps a trapdoor—into the fateful cellar where Snorri would be murdered by the king of Norway’s men in 1241.

 But that dark night was still some years off. Now Snorri, the richest and most powerful man in Iceland, was busy building a sauna with stone walls and floor. Steam was piped to it from the nearby hotspring via stone-and-clay conduits. Steam pipes may also have run under the floor of the parlor and feasthall, like a Roman hypocaust; the archbishop’s palace in Trondheim had a similar heating system.

Snorri enlarged the hotspring-fed bathing pool to the south of the houses. His circular, stone-lined pool was 12 feet in diameter and had a ledge to sit on. The hot water was piped 350 from the spring in a buried, stone-lined channel. A hidden door in the hillside opened onto a convenient tunnel that led from the pool to the basement below Snorri’s parlor or writing studio. A curved stone stairway, perhaps concealed in a wall, led up to his room.

Finally, the archaeologists found that around the whole complex Snorri built a wall of enormous stones and turf blocks topped by wooden stakes. It had drawbridges facing north and south, making Reykholt a seemingly impregnable fortress. Later events would prove its defenses were showy, but easily breached. Snorri had paid more attention to comfort and prestige than safety. As Sturlunga Saga describes him, Snorri Sturluson was “a man of many pleasures.”

This essay was adapted from my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, published by Palgrave Macmillan. Thanks to Guðrún Sveinbjarnardóttir for permission to reproduce her photograph of Snorri's stairs and to Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon (GOddur) for the use of his drawing of Reykholt. An earlier version of this essay appeared in the August 15 edition of Logberg-Heimskringla, the Icelandic Community Newspaper. See Order Reykholt: Archaeological Investigations at a High Status Farm in Western Iceland from the National Museum of Iceland:

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Tolkien Connection

People often ask me how I became interested in Iceland. I have no Icelandic ancestors (that I know of). I’d never heard of Iceland until I went to college. Reading Snorri Sturluson’s Edda for a class on mythology, I began recognizing names: Bifur, Bafur, Bombor, Nori, Ori, Oin, and … Gandalf! These were all names from The Hobbit. What were J.R.R. Tolkien’s wizard and his dwarves doing in medieval Iceland?

Tolkien, I learned, was deeply influenced by Icelandic literature. The tale of Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer appeared in Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book, published in 1890, two years before Tolkien was born. Reading it as a boy, Tolkien said, “I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.”

At 16, having already learned Latin, Greek, French, German, Anglo-Saxon, and a little Welsh, Tolkien picked up the Volsunga Saga in Icelandic and began puzzling it out. He soon was relaying the gory parts to his friends.

As a student at Oxford University, Tolkien read Snorri’s Edda, the Poetic Edda, and the major sagas. During World War I he fought on the Somme, returning to England with trench fever in November 1916. In the hospital he began writing his fantastical tales of Middle-earth.

In 1920, he took a post at Leeds University and taught a linguistics course that featured Icelandic. He also formed a student Viking Club, mixing beer bashes with saga-reading and the composing of silly songs in Old Icelandic.

In 1925, as a new professor in the English Department at Oxford, Tolkien suggested substituting Icelandic literature for a few of the many hours devoted to Shakespeare. Reading the sagas and Eddas was more important than reading Shakespeare, Tolkien argued, because the Icelandic books were more central to the English language and to our modern world.

Tolkien won over his Oxford colleagues with a version of the Viking Club, inviting his fellow dons to read Icelandic literature aloud with him. One of these was C.S. Lewis, who would later write the classic fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia.

It was Lewis who urged Tolkien to publish The Hobbit, which he did in 1937. Lewis wrote to a childhood friend, “It is so exactly like what we would both have longed to write (or read) in 1916: so that one feels he is not making it up but merely describing the same world into which all three of us have the entry.”

That world was largely Icelandic. Many of the characters and motifs readers assume Tolkien had invented were based on Snorri’s Edda and Heimskringla, the Poetic Edda, and the Icelandic sagas.

The wizard Gandalf, for example, is an “Odinic wanderer” (in Tolkien’s words)—like the old man with a broad-brimmed hat and a staff who wanders the nine worlds in Snorri’s tales and sits by King Olaf’s bedside keeping him up late with his wondrous stories.

Besides the wizard, Icelandic literature inspired Tolkien’s dwarves and elves, dragon, shapeshifter, warrior women, riders, giant eagles, and trolls, not to mention his wargs, barrow-wights, magic swords, and the cursed ring of power.

Even the landscape of Tolkien’s Middle-earth (except for the very-English Shire) is Icelandic. Although Tolkien never visited Iceland, he read author and arts-and-crafts designer William Morris’s journals of his travels there in the 1870s. The hobbit Bilbo Baggins’s ride to “the last homely house” of Rivendell, for example, matches one of William Morris’s horseback excursions in Iceland point-for-point.

Finally, Tolkien was enchanted by saga style. Like Snorri Sturluson, Tolkien knew the worth of glamour—in its first meaning of enchantment or deceit. By “fantasy” Tolkien meant “a quality of strangeness and wonder” that frees things and people from “the drab blur or triteness of familiarity.” The Hobbit does all that—thanks to its Icelandic roots.

When Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Hobbit is released this December 14, Icelanders and people of Icelandic descent can take pride in the fact that their literature is still central to our modern world. New Zealand may be the movie’s setting, but Iceland is its soul.

This essay was adapted from my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, just published by Palgrave Macmillan. The final chapter details Snorri’s effect on Tolkien and fantasy literature.

The black-and-white image above is not Gandalf, but Odin, as drawn by Georg von Rosen in 1886, before Tolkien was born. The photo of Gandalf is from “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” downloaded from the official movie site: