Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The First Icelandic Horse

Icelandic horses are special. (We all say that about our pets.) But few other horse breeds have a thousand-year history.

Skalm is the first Icelandic horse known by name. The Book of Settlements, or Landnámabók, in which she appears, was written in the mid-1100s. It tells the stories of more than 400 people who came to Iceland between 870 and 930 from Scandinavia and the British Isles. Along with Skalm, the book also names the racehorse Fluga and the stallion Eidfaxi, who came from Fluga’s line, and tells of a magic horse that lived in Lake Hjardarvatn. Dozens more horses appear in the Icelandic sagas, written in the 13th century. (In future blog posts, I’ll tell about some of these saga horses.)

Horses play key roles in many of these stories. Like Skalm they were first beasts of burden, carrying everything from coffins to charcoal to haybales to roof beams. Iceland’s landscape, with its high mountains, wide bogs and mires, impassable lava fields, and torrential glacier-fed rivers, made wagons impractical, and roads were not built in many parts of the country until the mid-1900s. A sturdy strong horse, pleasant to ride but able to carry heavy loads over long distances, was the one tool that could open Iceland’s vast empty lands and stitch its scattered settlements into a society.

Newborn foals at Hallkelsstadahlid.

Skalm’s story begins when an Icelander named Grim went fishing one day around the year 900, taking along his little son, Thorir, tucked into a sealskinn bag tied up under his chin. The boy must have looked like one of the seal people who, like their kinfolk in the fairytales of Ireland and Scotland, can cast off their sealskins and dance on the shore in human form on certain days of the year, for a merman came up to see what what going on. Grim caught him and hauled him into the boat.

Mermen are magic and know the future. According to the Book of Settlements, as translated by Herman Palsson and Paul Edwards, Grimur asked the merman to tell him if he’d be better off in another part of the country.

“ ‘There’s no point in my making prophecies about you,’ said the merman, ‘but that boy in the sealskin bag, he’ll settle and claim land where your mare Skalm lies down under her load.’”

When Grimur drowned on his next fishing trip, his widow Bergdis took the merman’s words to heart, loaded up Skalm (whose name comes from the verb skálma, “to stride with a long pace”) and with her son, now called Seal-Thorir, followed the mare’s path. They traveled “from Grims Isle west across the moor over to Breidafjord,” a distance of some 75 miles, and “Skalm went ahead of them but never lay down.”

Descending Seal-Thorir's red "sand dune."

When they next set out, after a winter’s rest, they turned south, going around the entire fjord and over a high mountain range until “just as they reached two red-colored sand dunes, Skalm lay down under her load,” having covered about 100 miles. Bergdis and Seal-Thorir claimed the land from one river south to the next, and from the mountains down to the sea. They lived at Western Raudamelur, and Seal-Thorir became a great chieftain.

I learned about the history of Icelandic horses to write A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse, out of print but available as an e-book from and In 1998, I published a version of this story in The Icelandic Horse Quarterly, the official magazine of the U.S. Icelandic Horse Congress; shortly afterwards I joined the magazine’s editorial committee. Visit the congress’s website ( 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, and Life with Horses (

The Book of Settlements, or Landnámabók, was translated by Herman Palsson and Paul Edwards (University of Manitoba, 1972).

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

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Practical Education

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 for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Greening of Iceland

This week at an American Geophysical Union conference in Iceland, my friend Anna Maria Agustsdottir gave a talk on the importance of planting trees in Iceland to repair the damage caused by volcanic eruptions. (See news coverage here.It’s a project she and her husband, Magnus Johannsson, have been working on for a long time at Iceland’s Landgræðslan ríkisins, or Soil Conservation Service. In 2000, I went out in the field with Anna and Magnus, in the shadow of the volcano Hekla, to report on their work for the alumni magazine of Penn State University. 

Here’s an excerpt from that story: Comparing it to the AGU report, you can see that Anna and Magnus and their colleagues have accomplished a lot in ten years. 

After an hour of bouncing us down a dusty road in his high-powered SUV, Magnus swerves over the berm and inches across the lava plain, over black sand and large rocks blasted there by the volcano Hekla, that snow-capped eminence over our left shoulders that people in the Middle Ages knew as the Mouth of Hell. I’m taking the grand tour of the research plots of Iceland’s Soil Conservation Service with Magnus, his wife Anna, and their children, five-year-old Sara and infant Snorri. The same tour, Magnus says, that he gave to Deng Xiao-Ping’s granddaughter the week before. For his Ph.D. at Penn State, Magnus spent his summers growing zucchini and testing the viability of its seeds. Anna’s dissertation was on volcanoes. Back home in Iceland, they have a much harder row to hoe: growing grass—or anything—to stop the blowing sand.

There’s nothing for miles here, it seems, but black sand and snowy peaks. Volcanoes erupt frequently. An earthquake registering 6.5 on the Richter scale struck the week before I came. According to Kristin Vogfjord, another Penn State alumna and the earthquake specialist at Iceland’s National Weather Service, the epicenter of the quake was just where Magnus is trying to grow grass. His fields lie atop a major fault, where two tectonic plates beneath the continents are pulling apart. On an average day, the area is shaken by 20 to 30 tiny quakes; today there are 3,000. One of Kristin’s colleagues, monitoring the fault, registers the movements each night. Said Kristin, “It’s almost as if you can see the tectonic plates moving in her data.” The earthquakes are often precursors to eruptions. In the last 20 years, Mount Hekla has erupted three times, coating the ground each time with six inches or more of rubbly, sandy black pumice.

Yet Magnus is undeterred. “We’re fixing the land,” he exclaims, waving a hand out the car window.

Far in the distance I see specks of color against the vast expanse of gray. It’s a small cadre of workers, among them Magnus’s 16-year-old brother. As we park and walk toward them, I begin to laugh. Each of the teens has a flat of lupine seedlings, spindly plants about four inches tall. Each also has a potato planter: like a coffee can on a stick. They’re spending the summer trudging back and forth across the black sand plain, six steps, plant a lupine, six steps, plant a lupine. Today the midges are thick. The teens wear face nets, but Magnus and I are fanning our hands like crazy. The kids and Anna have stayed in the car. Six steps, plant a lupine. It’s like the summer job from hell.

Magnus sees the humor, but he’s still miffed that I’m laughing. “In a reclamation project you want your lupine,” he insists. A spire of blue or purple or rose-colored flowers, lupine is a legume; it takes nitrogen out of the air and fixes it in the soil, making its own fertilizer. “We’re creating dunes by planting melgresi—Icelandic lyme grass—perpendicular to the direction of the drifting sand,” Magnus continues, “but we need to use fertilizer year after year for three years to get it to grow. Legumes are the answer to this. We’ve tried native Icelandic species such as white clover or sea pea, but they’re not as vigorous as lupine.”

We drive a little closer to the volcano, and now, indeed, I see that the peculiar Icelandic persistence is paying off: The sands have taken on a tinge of green. They were sown and fertilized four months before Hekla erupted last February [2000], and now the grass shoots are poking up through the new lava and ash. “Ashfall is not a problem in heavily vegetated areas,” Magnus says, “but here we get pumice blowing and drifting like snow. That’s quite a different matter.” Only the native lyme grass and a new Alaskan import, Bering hair grass, can stand having sand blown over them. “They just push up through it.”

When the first Viking settlers arrived in Iceland in 874, the medieval Icelandic sagas say, the land was green “from the mountains to the sea.” Birch woodlands blanketed at least 25 percent of the country; they now cover only 1 percent. Sites of old farmsteads, once grassy and full of sheep, are now black sand deserts. Nearly 40 percent of the country is threatened by desertification. The cause of the problem, Magnus says, is a mix of volcanic action, wind, weather, and human activity.

Icelanders can’t control the first three, so they’re working on the fourth: reducing the grazing herds and planting trees. As one Soil Conservation Service brochure puts it, “The Icelanders still owe their country more than half of the original vegetation cover.”

I like the way they put that: Icelanders owe their country. It’s a lesson other nations need to learn as well. From South Africa to northern China, desertification directly affects some 250 million people, almost four percent of the world population, according to a news release from the United Nations Environment Program last June [2000]. The Icelanders’ experiment could set an example around the world.

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

The Most Influential Writer of the Middle Ages

Who influenced your favorite writers?

As Laura Miller reported in Salon recently, a group of mathematicians led by Daniel Rockmore of Dartmouth College analyzed the works of 537 authors who wrote in English from 1550 to the present. The mathematicans concluded that “today’s literary writers have little use for the classics,” in Miller’s wording. She continues, “They are, the study asserts, much more influenced by their peers than they are by the most revered authors of earlier centuries.”

The Dartmouth study focused on style--word usage--and I won’t disagree that no one these days writes quite like Shakespeare, Donne, or Milton. But look back farther than 1550 and you'll start to see more similarities. 

Take Snorri Sturluson. A few years ago, when I began writing my biography of Snorri, Song of the Vikings (due out in October), I read Neil Gaiman’s best-selling genre-bender American Gods (published in 2001). I was delighted to see how heavily Gaiman was influenced by Snorri Sturluson, in both style and content. 

American Gods won the Hugo and Nebula awards, was the first “One Book One Twitter” title in 2010, and is being made into an HBO television series. But put aside the fact that it’s a great story. What intrigued me is that American Gods essentially updates Snorri’s masterwork, the Edda, for both Gaiman and Snorri ask, What do we lose when the old gods are forgotten? 

Gaiman’s Mr. Wednesday is closely patterned on Snorri’s Odin One-Eye, the god of Wednesday. In this passage from American Gods, Mr. Wednesday reveals himself—by paraphrasing Snorri: “His right eye glittered and flashed, his left eye was dull. He wore a cloak with a deep monklike cowl, and his face stared out from the shadows. ‘I told you I would tell you my names. This is what they call me. I am Glad-of-War, Grim, Raider, and Third. I am One-Eyed. I am called Highest, and True-Guesser. I am Grimnir, and I am the Hooded One. I am All-Father, and I am Gondir Wand-Bearer. I have as many names as there are winds, as many titles as there are ways to die.’”

Mourned Snorri in his Edda, “But these things have now to be told to young poets.” They have forgotten the names of Odin. The old lore is dwindling and will soon vanish into neverwhere: “But these stories are not to be consigned to oblivion,” he insisted. 

And because of the books he wrote, they were not.

More than eight hundred years after his death, Snorri’s books are the basis of a best-selling American novel and a TV series. And Neil Gaiman is not the only author Snorri influenced.

Wellspring of Western Culture
Snorri Sturluson died, accused of treason by the king of Norway and murdered by thugs, in 1241. His books over time were forgotten, though manuscripts of them were preserved in Iceland and Norway. 

Then in the early 1600s Snorri was resurrected. Translations from Old Norse began to appear throughout Europe. The craze led to the Gothic novel and ultimately to modern heroic fantasy. 

Snorri has influenced writers as various as Thomas Gray, William Blake, Sir Walter Scott, the Brothers Grimm, Thomas Carlyle, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Richard Wagner, Matthew Arnold, Henrik Ibsen, William Morris, Thomas Hardy, Hugh MacDiarmid, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jorge Luis Borges, W.H. Auden, Gunther Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A.S. Byatt, Seamus Heaney, Jane Smiley, Michael Chabon, and Neil Gaiman.

Through Tolkien, Snorri has inspired dozens of writers of fantasy. Fantasy and science fiction now account for ten percent of books published, and few books on the fantasy shelves of modern libraries or bookstores are free of wandering wizards, fair elves and werewolves, valkyrie-like women, magic swords and talismans, talking dragons and dwarf smiths, heroes that understand the speech of birds, or trolls that turn into stone—all drawn from Snorri’s Edda and Heimskringla

An incomplete list of fantasy writers indebted to Snorri includes: Douglas Adams, Lloyd Alexander, Poul Anderson, Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Lester del Rey, J.V. Jones, Robert Jordan, Guy Gavriel Kay, Stephen King, Ursula K. LeGuin, George R.R. Martin, Anne McCaffrey, and J.K. Rowling.

Snorri has inspired countless comic books—from Marvel’s Thor to the Japanese anime Matantei Loki Ragnarok—and games, including the wildly popular Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft, and Eve Online. The hit movie The Avengers would not exist without Snorri.

Snorri Sturluson is the most influential writer of the Middle Ages. His Edda, according to one translator, is “the deep and ancient wellspring of Western culture.” That comment was published in 1909—how much more true it is today. 

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