Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Saga Sites

On Monday I give a lecture at Scandinavia House in New York in conjunction with the exhibition “Saga Sites,” in which the 19th-century paintings of W.G. Collingwood are paired with the 20th-century photographs of Einar Falur Ingólfsson—both artists responding to the fact that the places made famous by the medieval Icelandic sagas still carry the same names from a thousand years ago and look much like they did then.

It was this, the immediacy of story, that drew me to Iceland first in 1986 and brought me back again and again to see the saga sites. The sagas are alive in the landscape. There is a story everywhere you turn.

Sometimes, several stories.

“You must go to Reykholt and see Snorri’s pool.” It was 1994 when I was given this order by an Icelandic farmwife. I remember it vividly for two reasons.

First, it was the wrong Snorri. I was then researching the life of Snorri Goði, the 11th-century hero of Eyrbyggja Saga, for a historical novel (never published). The Snorri with the famous geothermally heated hot-tub on his estate at Reykholt was Snorri Sturluson, the 13th-century author of the Edda.

Second, I had been invited into the farm kitchen for coffee—a usual occurrence on my trips to Iceland—and, like many Icelandic kitchens, there were too few chairs for the company. An old man got up to give me a seat. I gratefully accepted—and sat in something wet. I did not want to know what. Surely, he had just been out in the rain bringing in the cows? I don’t recall if it was raining, but it often rains in Iceland.

I didn’t go to Reykholt until 2001, when my family joined me in Iceland and we took in all the standard tourist sites. I wasn’t much impressed. I had seen—and soaked in—other geothermal pools by then. Iceland has more than 250 hotsprings. Their water heats the entire city of Reykjavik, including the city swimming pools.

On a riding tour into the southern highlands, I had enjoyed a swim in the pools at Landmannalaugar, where a hotspring overflows into a cold river, providing a gradient of temperatures sure to please any stiff or sore horse-woman.

I recalled a pool barely cool enough to dip in, deep in the lava field that surrounded the abandoned farmhouse we rented in 1996 for my husband to write his book Summer at Little Lava.

I had twice visited the pool in Skagafjord where Grettir the Outlaw warmed himself after his four-mile swim through the cold north Atlantic from his hideout on the island of Drangey.

But it wasn’t until I began researching Snorri Sturluson’s life to write Song of the Vikings that I learned what this flowing hot water meant for the people of medieval Iceland.

The first story we know about Snorri Sturluson is the story of how he came to be the fosterson of the rich and learned chieftain Jon Loftsson of Oddi, known as the uncrowned king of Iceland. Jon offered to educate Sturla of Hvamm’s three-year-old son, Snorri, to end a feud over hot water.

The story begins beside the river Hvita in the west of Iceland, where lay the rich farm of Deildartunga. It was not a large farm, but was rich in its ability to make hay, for it owned extensive water meadows along the river bottom. Even better, these were warm water meadows.

The Hvita is an ice-cold glacial river. Its name, “White River,” denotes not whitewater rapids but milky glacial till. Yet not far from the river, beneath a bluff painted pink with mineral deposits, bubbled a hotspring: the highest volume hotspring in all of Iceland.

The hotspring at Tunga provided warm water for cooking and bathing and washing clothes, but these were minor benefits compared to its effect on the hayfields. The hot water that spilled into the river and spread over the floodplain made the grass sprout sooner after winter and stay green longer in the fall.

Grass was the foundation of Iceland’s medieval economy, hay being the only crop that grew well. Thanks to his hotspring, the farmer at Tunga could make more hay than his neighbors and so keep more cows, sheep, and horses. Cows were highly valued because the Viking diet was based on milk and cheese. Sheep were milked as well (sheep’s milk is richer in vitamin C; important in a land where no vegetables grow), but sheep were prized mostly for their wool: Cloth was Iceland’s major export. Horses were necessary for transportation, since Iceland has few navigable rivers.

The farmer at Tunga’s wealth—reckoned, the usual way, in cows or “cow equivalents” (six ewes equaling one cow)—was eight hundred head of cattle. Eighty head was considered a decent farm. No wonder the two biggest men in the district took notice in 1180, between the Winter of Sickness and the Summer of No Grass, when Tunga fell vacant.

One of these men was the chieftain Pall Solvason, who lived up the river at Reykholt.

The other was the chieftain Bodvar Thordarson, whose estate was a few miles down the river. Bodvar’s daughter was married to Sturla of Hvamm, which is how Snorri’s father got involved in the feud.

Jon Loftsson, the uncrowned king of Iceland, was brought in only after Pall Solvason’s wife lost her temper during a meeting at Reykholt to decide ownership of the farm. She ran into the circle of men with a kitchen knife in her hand and thrust it at Sturla’s eye, saying, “Why should I not make you look like Odin, whom you so wish to resemble?”

Someone grabbed her from behind and the blade missed Sturla’s eye, but it caused quite a gash.

It was in payment for this attack that Snorri Sturluson went to Oddi, where he received the best education to be found in Iceland at the time. The benefit to us—to all of Western culture—is immeasurable, for it was at Oddi that Snorri became a writer.

And all due to a fight over hot water. Some say the reason Snorri took over Reykholt many years later was also to avenge the attack on his father’s eye—but that’s another story.

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. On December 3 at 6:30, I will be giving a lecture at Scandinavia House in conjunction with the “Saga Sites” exhibition. See

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure, or meet me on tour:
            11/29: Sterling College, Craftsbury Common, VT @ 6:30
            11/30: Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, VT @ 7:00
            12/3: Scandinavia House, New York City @ 6:30
            12/6: Phoenix Books, Burlington, VT @ 7:00


  1. Sorry to have missed the lecture! So interesting. Hope you might still write that historical novel... :)

  2. Excellent stories! I can't wait to hear your talk tonight in NYC.