Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Saga-Steads of Iceland

If you’re in New York on Saturday, January 5, go to Scandinavia House at 2:30 in the afternoon to hear Emily Lethbridge speak about “The Saga-Steads of Iceland: A 21st-CenturyPilgrimage.” You’ll be inspired—or jealous. I was.

Let me explain.

One of the loveliest moments on my book tour for Song of the Vikings was when three University of Massachusetts at Amherst students waylaid me after my guest lecture in their Norse mythology class. They were the classic teenage trio: a burly young man who had not yet grown into himself; a mouse-shy young woman with long hair, who shrank behind him; and a second young woman, sharp-spoken and quick to act. The ringleader grabbed my arm. “She,” she pointed at her shy friend, transfixing her with a glare, “wants to be you.”

The mouse-girl could have been me in college, and I told her so. “Be stubborn,” I said. “Be persistent. Don’t let them talk you out of it.” If you want to organize your life around the Icelandic sagas, do it. Don’t let anyone tell you studying medieval Iceland is not relevant to a life in modern America. (If they try, point them toward Song of the Vikings, in which I argue that medieval Iceland inspired modern epic fantasy.)

I wish someone had given me such advice at 18. If so, I might not be so jealous of Emily Lethbridge and her Saga-Steads project. In 2010, Emily was a 33-year-old Ph.D. student at Cambridge University in England. She raised money to retrofit a Land Rover ambulance into a camper van and toured Iceland in it for a year, visiting all the places mentioned in the major Icelandic sagas. She read (or re-read) each saga on site, met the people who now live on the farms, and blogged about it at

I read every post, waxing greener as the months went on. I wanted to grab her arm: “I want to be you!” I emailed her to that effect. No answer.

In September 2011, I stayed five days in the guest apartment at Reykholt, with its writer’s studio up a spiral stair, researching the life of Snorri Sturluson for Song of the Vikings. The writing was not going well. In my journal, I blame it first on the architecture. Reykholt is a beautiful spot, with mountains all around. I was there on a rare string of sunny fall days—and the studio had no windows. When I can’t look out a window and project my thoughts on a mountain, I can’t write. A blank white wall just will not do.

I struggled to finish an outline for chapter five. “Not sure what this chapter is about except Ragnarok, the end of all good things,” I wrote. I wandered through the library of Snorrastofa, the institute which, with the writer’s apartment, two churches, a school, a hotel, and a row of geothermally heated greenhouses now marks Snorri Sturluson’s chief estate. I went back to my computer and, instead of writing, checked Facebook. There, I learned that Emily Lethbridge had been nearby at Gilsbakki the day before. I had driven past there. I hadn’t seen her Land Rover (though I hadn’t really looked).

I read her blog post about the saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue, happy to be distracted from Snorri. I didn’t want to write about him, I finally realized, because in chapter five I had to kill him. (Astute readers will notice that in the final draft of the book, I put off his death until chapter six.) I took a walk just before midnight to Snorri’s hot tub. I saw a little touch of northern lights, a few turquoise wisps, in the sky. Got a good whiff of sulfur from the pool. Listened to the gurgling of the 800-year-old pipes. Wondered where Emily would be going next.

Early next morning, a woman entered the library. She was bundled in a down vest and layers of sweaters over heavy insulated trousers. Her short-cropped hair stuck out at all angles, as if she had just pulled off a stocking cap. She wore fingerless gloves and spoke rapid Icelandic to the librarian helping her. I knew it must be Emily.

I was too shy, at first, to interrupt. What would I say? I want to be you. Too late for that. I waited until she sat down at one of the public computers and began working. I sidled near. “Emily?” I said. “I’m Nancy Brown.”

“Oh!” she said, with a blazing smile. “I meant to email you!”

So began the kind of conversation you can only have with a soulmate. She told me about walking up to Icelanders in gas stations and on farms to ask about the sagas. We talked about saga-tourism—how not to turn Iceland into a theme park. About A.S. Byatt’s recent retelling of the Norse myth of Ragnarok, and the influence of Snorri Sturluson on the books of Neil Gaiman.

We talked about Icelandic horses. Emily had worked on a farm in the north of Iceland (something else I’d wanted to do, but hadn’t), and rode every chance she got. I, as you know, own four Icelandic horses in the U.S. (Finally something to make Emily jealous of me!)

We talked about her plans: She would be staying in a turfhouse in the south of Iceland in December, where she planned to start writing a book based on her adventure. Actually, she planned to finish the book in that month. I smiled.

We talked about my plans: to visit Surt’s Cave, where the mutilation of Snorri’s son Oraekja took place. I’d need “a headlamp and serious shoes,” she warned me. The cave floor was just rubble. “You’ll hear the drip-drip of water inside.” Deep within the cave, an Icelandic artist has placed an exhibition of his statues: faces carved of rock.

The next morning I headed for Surt’s Cave. She was right about the rubble. I had only a flashlight and rubber Wellington boots, so didn’t make it far into the cave. I never saw the statues. Still, I managed to freak myself out entirely by turning off my light and listening to the drip-drip in the unimaginable dark. I wished Emily were with me. She is much braver than I am. Or maybe I just needed her shoes.

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


  1. Nothing like living the dream, is there?

  2. Nice post, but I can't imagine just walking up to people and asking them anything cold like that. It's a major reason I only ever used telephoto lenses. :)