Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Wizards

Gerbert of Aurillac as a young monk.
Fresco in the church of St. Simon.
One book leads to another. That’s how I usually answer the question, Where do you get your ideas?

The Far Traveler certainly led to The Abacus and the Cross. Writing about the adventurous Viking woman Gudrid the Far-Traveler, I found myself making an imaginary pilgrimage to Rome just after the year 1000. Wondering which pope (if any) Gudrid had met, I discovered Gerbert of Aurillac, Pope Sylvester II. I was astonished. Nothing in my many years of reading about the Middle Ages had led me to suspect that the pope in the year 1000 was the leading mathematician and astronomer of his day. That sense of surprise inspired the book.

But sometimes the connections between books reveal themselves long after the inspiration phase is past. Writing my latest, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, I thought I was solving another puzzle in The Far Traveler: Where did the Icelandic sagas come from?

As I’ve said here before, I believe Snorri Sturluson deserves the credit for writing the first true saga, and so Song of the Vikings presents his biography.

Snorri grew up at Oddi, a large estate in the south of Iceland where there was a famous school. This school was set up in about 1100 by the priest Saemund the Wise, about whom a fantastic set of legends remains, but little real information.

My favorite collection of tales about
Saemund the Wise.
 In his youth, Saemund studied in “Frakkland,” perhaps in Paris at the university that would become the Sorbonne—though the later folktales say Saemund studied at the Black School run by Satan himself, where the students lived in the dark and studied books written in letters of flame. Satan claimed the last student out the door each year as his payment, but Saemund outfoxed him. He wore a great cloak; when Satan grabbed him, Saemund shrugged off his cloak and slipped away safe. Or, says another tale, when Satan cried, “Halt, you are the last!” as Saemund was about to step into the sunshine, Saemund pointed to his shadow on the wall and replied, “No, there’s one behind me.” He had no shadow for the rest of his days.

Saemund tricked the devil into ferrying him dryshod from Norway to Iceland. He tricked the devil into building a bridge over the river Ranga. He tricked him into fetching the hay into his barn ahead of a rainstorm. He tricked him into changing into a gnat and crawling into a bunghole, which Saemund promptly plugged. To get out, the devil had to promise to come when Saemund whistled.

These tales were first written down in the 1800s, but one survives from Snorri’s days, in the Saga of Bishop Jon written by the Icelandic monk Gunnlaug Leifsson, who died in 1219. (Gunnlaug rather liked magicians; he also translated into Icelandic the fabulous “Prophecies of Merlin” from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.)

Bishop Jon Ogmundarson
Saemund had studied abroad so long, Gunnlaug wrote, that he forgot everything from his youth—even his name. But his friend Jon Ogmundarson finally found him. He described Iceland to Saemund, then Oddi, before finally sparking a glimmer of memory.

Said Saemund, “Now I seem to remember that there was a hillock in the home field of Oddi where I always played.”

His friend convinced him to come home, but Saemund said his master would never give him leave. They made a plan and on a cloudy night slipped away. The master searched, but could not find them until the next night, when the skies cleared and he could read the stars.

Saemund read the stars too. He saw his master coming. “Quick,” he said, “fill my shoe with water and put it on my head.”

“Bad news!” said the master. “The Icelander has drowned my student.” He turned back. The next night he looked again. He located Saemund and rode after him.
“Quick,” said Saemund, “fill my shoe with blood and put it on my head.”

“Bad news!” said the master. “The Icelander has murdered my student.”

The third night he searched the skies once more. “Aha!” he cried. “You are still alive, which is good, but I have taught you more than enough, for now you get the better of me. So fare you well and much may you accomplish.”

Gerbert the Wizard, in a 15th-century
Lives of the Popes.
When I read this tale in the Saga of Bishop Jon, I had a strange jolt of recognition. I knew the story. It had been written down in Latin in the 1120s by the English cleric William of Malmesbury—but his hero was not the Icelander, Saemund the Wise. It was the Scientist Pope, Sylvester II, born Gerbert of Aurillac and known in his lifetime as the leading mathematician and astronomer of his age. After his death in 1003, Gerbert acquired a reputation as a wizard, as I explain in the last chapter of The Abacus and the Cross.

Chances are that Saemund heard the tale of Gerbert the Wizard in Paris and brought it home to Iceland, where it became attached to him—and eventually created the magical linkage between two of my books that I would have said had very little in common.

Parts of this essay were adapted from my forthcoming biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, available in October from Palgrave Macmillan.

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

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