Wanderer and storyteller, wise, half-blind, with a wonderful horse.
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
The Saga of Oddny Island-Candle
I'm thinking about riding horses today--in Iceland. With my friend Guðmar Pétursson and the company America2Iceland, I'm leading a trek this June based on my book Song of the Vikings. We'll be riding tracks known to the 13th-century Icelandic chieftain and writer Snorri Sturluson, from his estates of Reykholt and Borg.
One place we might go is the island of Hjörsey, across the tidal sands from Borg. There's a great story about Hjörsey--one of those medieval Icelandic tales that's just begging to be turned into a psychological novel. It's the story of Oddny Island-Candle, the heroine in The Saga of Bjorn the Hitardal-Champion.
In the days of King Olaf the Saint, who reigned from 1015-1030, there was a man named Thordur. He lived at Hitarnes, a little north of Borg in the west of Iceland. Thordur was a great skald, or Viking poet, the saga says, although his verses tended to be mocking and spiteful.
At Borg itself lived a young man named Bjorn. He was the great-grandson of the first settler of Borg, Skalla-Grim, whose father was reputed to be a werewolf. Skalla-Grim's famous son, the poet and berserk Egil, has a whole saga of his own (probably written by Snorri Sturluson). Bjorn was descended from Egil's sister, Saeunn.
Horses play a major role in this saga, as they do in many of the Icelandic sagas. The sagas, which take place between the settlement of Iceland in 870 and about 1050, but were written down in the 1200s and 1300s, create a quirky but believable picture of a country in which complex laws, a convoluted sense of duty to one’s family and friends, and a strong sense of personal honor let people live with a good deal of freedom and comfort in a harsh environment.
Feuds are a common occurrence, and often horses are involved in one way or another. Such is the case in The Saga of Bjorn the Hitardal-Champion.
Bjorn, the saga says, was a tall youth, freckle-faced, with curly hair, a red beard, and handsome features, a good fighter even though his eyesight was weak. He was in love with a girl named Oddny, who lived nearby on the island of Hjörsey. She was so beautiful she had the nickname Island-Candle.
Bjorn asked Oddny Island-Candle to marry him and, with the consent of her father, they were betrothed. Bjorn then went off to Norway to seek his fortune, as did many young Icelanders in the Saga Age, with the promise that Oddny would wait for him for three years.
In Norway Bjorn fell in with Thordur, the poet from Hitarnes. He was about fifteen years older than Bjorn. One night just before Thordur left to go back home to Iceland, he and Bjorn sat up late drinking, and the subject of Oddny Island-Candle came up.
Two years passed. Thordur, in Iceland, learned that Bjorn had been wounded in a duel. He paid some Norwegian merchants to spread the news that Bjorn had been killed, then he went to ask for Oddny’s hand in marriage. Her father, a wealthy man, put him off. But when Bjorn didn’t arrive at the appointed time for the wedding, Oddny and her father assumed he must truly be dead. Saddened but practical, Oddny married Thordur instead. She was content with her choice until Bjorn turned up, a year too late, having recovered from his wounds. “I thought you were a good man,” she said to her husband, “but you are full of lying and falsehoods.”
Bjorn’s joyful father gave him a stallion called Hvitingur (White One) and his two white colts—a great treasure, the saga says—to take his mind off the loss of his beloved Oddny. Bjorn pastured one colt with a herd of black mares and the other with all chestnuts to see what mix of colors might result. But horse breeding couldn’t keep him away from Oddny. Year by year, the insults and attacks escalated between the two men.
At the height of the feud, Thordur invited Thorsteinn Kuggason, a rich and well-respected man from northern Iceland, to a midwinter feast. On his way, Thorsteinn was caught in a blizzard and forced to take refuge at Bjorn’s house. By the time the weather broke, he had agreed to try to make peace between Bjorn and Thordur. To seal this agreement, Bjorn gave Thorsteinn a magnificent gift of four horses: a white stallion (one of Hvitingur’s colts) and three chestnut mares. Thorsteinn asked Bjorn to keep the horses for him until he saw how the peacemaking went. Ironically, it was in the springtime, as he was trimming the white stallion’s mane to present him to Thorsteinn Kuggason, that Bjorn was set upon by Thordur and killed.
Bjorn’s is a classic saga, spun of honor and friendship, love and betrayal, all set against the harsh reality of medieval life. I am always particularly moved by Oddny’s role: When she learned of Bjorn’s death, she fell down in a faint. From then on, though she lived many years, she was out of her wits. She was only happy on horseback, the saga says, with her husband leading her about.
This story appears in my book A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse and, in 1998, I published a version of it in The Icelandic Horse Quarterly, the official magazine of the U.S. Icelandic Horse Congress. Visit the congress’s website (www.icelandics.org) to read a free copy and learn more about Icelandic horses today, or take a virtual ride on my friend Stan Hirson’s video blogs, Hestakaup.com and Life with Horses (http://www.lifewithhorses.com/). If you're really adventurous, come riding with me in Iceland this June. You can book the trip online at either America2Iceland.com or Ishestar.is.