Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Homosexuality in the Icelandic Sagas

 A story I read the other day in The Reykjavík Grapevine, “Iceland’s First Gay Lovers,” surprised me by explaining something I had written about many years ago.

In 1997, while researching my book A Good Horse Has No Color, I stayed for some weeks at Snorrastadir in the west of Iceland. One afternoon I listened in as the farmer, Haukur, and another guest, a horsewoman named Hallgerdur, discussed Njal’s Saga, the medieval masterpiece that contains a famous “feminist” character also named Hallgerdur.

Here’s how I described the scene in my book:

…Known for her hip-length hair and her “thief’s eyes,” this storied Hallgerdur had been wooed and wed by the handsome Gunnar of Hlidarendi, that paragon of Icelandic manhood who, according to the saga, could “jump more than his own height in full armor, and just as far backwards as forwards.”

“He could swim like a seal,” the book said.

“There was no sport at which anyone could even attempt to compete with him.”

“There has never been his equal.”

The marriage was a disaster. It ended in Gunnar’s death when, his house surrounded by enemies his wife had made for him, his bowstring broke and he asked for some strands of her long hair to plait into a new one; she refused.

Snorrastadir at midnight.

It was this that Haukur and Hallgerdur were discussing: why the Saga-Age Hallgerdur—an historical woman who lived and died about a thousand years ago—had refused the gift of her hair.

They chattered on too fast for me to more than snatch at the argument. I marveled again that these sagas, of esoteric, antiquarian interest at home, were so alive here, centuries after they were written. I was heading again for that hot cup of tea when Haukur gave out a great guffaw.

“Er Gunnar á Hlidarendi, nú, hommi?!” he asked. “Is Gunnar of Hlidarendi, now, a homosexual?”

I stopped. I looked at Hallgerdur. The answer she was arguing was yes. You could write a dissertation on that one, I thought—Homosexuality in Njal’s Saga. Gunnar did have an unusually close friendship with Njal, whose manhood was in question because he couldn’t grow a beard. I wished I could comprehend the details of Hallgerdur’s thesis and join in the conversation, but though I’d read the saga several times and knew it inside out, my spoken Icelandic wasn’t up to the task. I retreated to the kitchen, where Ingibjorg gracefully drew my attention to the fact that the dishwasher could be unstacked and the table set for dinner. With the clatter drowning out Haukur’s increasing outrage, I replayed the point in English in my head and awarded the set and match to Hallgerdur…

Snorrastadir and the crater Eldborg.

That’s what I witnessed in 1997.

I had gone to Iceland first in 1986, after studying Old Norse for several years—and having been taught that the language was “dead,” like Latin. As I wrote earlier in this blog (“Practical Education”), I was delighted to learn to the contrary on that first visit that Old Norse wasn’t “dead” after all. It had just shifted into Icelandic, changing about as much as English has since Shakespeare’s day.

By 1997 (my seventh trip to Iceland), I knew that the sagas themselves were still very much alive, some 800 years after they had been written. Everywhere I went in Iceland, someone shared an allusion from a saga. The medieval past was remembered in the name of every hill and farmstead (not to mention every beer and candybar). There was a saga everywhere I turned.

What I didn’t know, when I witnessed Haukur and Hallgerdur arguing over homosexuality in Njal’s Saga, was the news peg.

Horses at Snorrastadir.

It’s true that Icelandic farmers are surprisingly keen readers compared to the farmers I know in America. Another day I came upon Haukur and a guest comparing the novel Independent People, by Iceland’s Nobel prize-winner Halldor Laxness, to Growth of the Soil, by the Norwegian Nobelist, Knut Hamsun.

But Homosexuality in Njal’s Saga was not Hallgerdur’s idea. The dissertation didn’t need to be written—a book was already in print, as I learned last week from The Reykjavík Grapevine.

In “Íslenska Kynlífsbókin” (The Icelandic Sex Reader), published in 1990, Óttar Guðmundsson, a psychiatrist at the Landspítali hospital in Reykjavík, “famously argued that Njáll and Gunnar, heroes of ‘Njáls Saga,’ were gay and in love with each other,” the Grapevine says. The newspaper also mentions Óttar’s new book, “Hetjur og hugarvíl” (Anxious Heroes), “devoted to psychoanalysing the main characters of some of the more prominent Icelandic Sagas.”

Looks like I have some further reading to do. And a thank-you letter to send to psychiatrist Óttar Guðmundsson for his help in keeping the Icelandic sagas alive.

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

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