Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Turf Houses and Hobbit Holes

Whenever I see an Icelandic turf house, especially from the back, I think of the opening of Tolkien's The Hobbit:

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."

When I first went to Iceland, I wondered why it seemed so familiar. Then I learned that Tolkien had read William Morris's journal of his travels to Iceland in 1873 and used them as the basis for much of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins's quest.

Morris's view of an Icelandic turf house, though, was that of a guest. "We are soon all housed in a little room about twelve feet by eight," he writes, "two beds in an alcove on one side of the room and three chests on the other, and a little table under the window: the walls are panelled and the floor boarded; the window looks through four little panes of glass, and a turf wall five feet thick (by measurement) on to a wild enough landscape of the black valley, with the green slopes we have come down, and beyond the snow-striped black cliffs and white dome of Geitland's Jokul."

Quaint and pretty, it seems--with a little imagination, it could be a hobbit hole.

But what was it really like to live in a turf house?

When I was in Iceland earlier this month, I picked up a book by the writer Thórbergur Thórdarson that has just come out in English translation as The Stones Speak. Thórbergur was born in 1888 in a remote part of the country. He moved to Reykjavik in 1906, became a schoolteacher, and in 1924 published a novel, Bréf til Láru (or, Letter to Lára) that "became an overnight sensation," says translator Julian Meldon D'Arcy. (The book also got him fired from his teaching job.) Thórbergur is now considered "as important an author in the Icelandic canon as his friend, the contemporary novelist and Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness," D'Arcy says.

The Stones Speak tells of his childhood living in a turf house in Suðursveit, about 400 kilometers east of Reykjavik near the beautiful national park of Skaftafell. If you want to get an idea of what it was like to live in Iceland in the early 1900s, this is the book to read.

Here is how he describes his home:

"Its three houses stood next to each other in a row with their peaked front gables facing south and their sterns toward the mountain. It was a pleasure to see them from the home field below standing side by side like that, as if they were taking care of each other, and it was easy to see that they all got on well together. When it started to grow dark it was as if they slept all huddled up as one."

It's characteristic of Thórbergur's writing style to infuse the houses with feeling, as if they were alive--as if they, like the stones of the title, the paving stones outside his front door, could speak. What stories they could tell if only we would listen!

Yet for all the warmth with which he looks back on his childhood home, Thórbergur's eye is sharp. One of my favorite passages in The Stones Speak describes the kitchen, warmed by its fire of sheep dung:

"The first thing you saw when you came in through the kitchen passageway, after you'd just carried in the dung, was the dung screen. This was a high wall made from stacked sheep droppings at the front of the dung heap to prevent the heap from tumbling all over the floor. The screen reached right across the kitchen, from wall to wall, a short distance from the fireplace. I thought it was beautiful. It made quite an artistic impression on me seeing the droppings regularly stacked up like cards on top of each other and side by side in a high and broad wall. And when the fire blazed brightly in the fireplace, a living glow flickered on this screen in different shades and tones. It was a poem in living colours. What a pleasure it was to look at, it was as if something delightful was aroused deep inside me as I stood and gazed at it."

A pile of sheep shit--is a "poem in living colours"! Thórbergur's description made me laugh. He is writing as the older and wiser man looking back on his naive childish self and, of course, he means to make me laugh. But he also means to make me think. Here in Vermont we heat with wood, not sheep dung, and those who stack the wood also take pride in their work. I could probably even find one or two who would describe their woodstacks as poems.

Another key feature of Thórbergur's kitchen was its rather temperamental smoke vent: When the wind changed, someone had to climb up onto the kitchen roof to reposition the vent.

Writes Thórbergur:
"In good weather it was always nice to get up onto the front wall of the kitchen. From there the whole of existence was a little different from down on the paved forecourt. The home field became broader and so did the Lagoon. Breiðabólsstaður and Gerði and the sheepcotes and stables on the home field seemed lower. You could see further out over the sea and west to the Breiðamerkursandur gravel plain. Hrollaugseyjar isles were a little further from land, and the folk and the dog on the forecourt became smaller while you yourself became bigger. That's life for you. When you yourself become big, others become small."

The Stones Speak by Thórbergur Thórdarson was published in 2012 by Mál og Menning, an imprint of the publisher Forlagið. You can buy it from the publisher's website, here:

The first two turf-house photos accompanying this blog are of the farmhouse in the Skagafjordur Heritage Museum at Glaumbær--about as far from Thórbergur's Suðursveit as you can get and still be in Iceland--but one of the best-preserved turf houses in the country. Learn more about it at:

The last one is from the Skogar Folk Museum in south Iceland: I wrote about visiting both Skogar and Glaumbær in June in "An Icelandic Horse(hair) Tale":

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

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Saga Man: Arni Magnusson

Lovers of Icelandic sagas are celebrating these days: It's the 350th birthday of Arni Magnusson, the man who, more than anyone else, saved Iceland's medieval manuscripts.

Brought up at Snorri Sturluson’s ancestral estate of Hvamm in the west of Iceland, Arni went to Copenhagen in 1683, when he was 20 years old, and found work as a copyist and translator for Thomas Bartholin, Jr. With Arni's help, Bartholin published a 700-page history of the Danes in 1689. Drawing examples from Snorri’s Heimskringla, Egil’s Saga, and other sagas, Bartholin’s Danish Antiquities Concerning the Reasons for the Pagan Danes’ Disdain for Death made popular the Viking stereotype of the bold, blond, laugh-in-the-face-of-death hero.

Arni became a professor at the University of Copenhagen in 1701, and the next year the king sent him back to Iceland to gather statistics on his country’s land and people. His massive Land Register, compiled over ten years, describes every farm in Iceland, its size and shape, buildings, people, cows, sheep, horses, the bulk of butter and cloth it owed in tithes, the quality of its turf, peat, hay, and woodlots, its fishing and driftwood rights, and the extent of the property ruined by volcanic ash or sand or rendered useless by quagmires, bogs, erosion, or flooding.

Off the record, Arni asked every farmer about manuscripts—and poked about in every farmhouse. In his novel Iceland's Bell, Halldor Laxness imagines Arni searching every nook and cranny, even the stuffing of the mattress:

Dust and poison gushed up from the old and moldy hay within the woman’s bed as they began their search. Mixed up in the hay was all kinds of garbage, such as bottomless shoe-tatters, shoe-patches, old stocking legs, rotten rags of wadmal, pieces of cord, fibers, fragments of horseshoes, horns, bones, gills, fishtails hard as glass, broken wooden bolts and other scraps of wood, loom-weights, shells both flat and whorled, and starfish. 

There were often also scraps of parchment in hiding places like this: Arni collected every one. He found two leaves from a 13th-century manuscript with holes punched in them to make a flour sifter. He found sheets used as dress patterns, shoe soles, knee patches, and even the stiffening in a bishop’s mitre. He pieced them back into books: One 60-page manuscript came from eight different farms.

When Arni's collection was packed for shipping to Copenhagen in 1720, it filled 55 wooden chests and required 30 packhorses to carry it.

Then in 1728 Copenhagen caught fire. Half of the city was incinerated, including the university library. Arni, disbelieving that fate could be so cruel, refused to evacuate his private library until the fire reached the end of his street. He and two other Icelanders had time to rescue only the oldest books. The rest were lost, including, Arni cried, “books that will never and nowhere be found until doomsday.”

We can only guess what wonderful sagas they held.

But the rest of Arni's collection now fills two libraries named for him, the Arni Magnusson Institute in Iceland and the Arnamagnaean Institute in Copenhagen. The Icelandic one held its birthday celebration last week; Copenhagen's is coming up on Friday. (For details see I'm looking forward to tipping a glass to Arni's memory.

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

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Visit to Thingvellir

On a sunny day in Iceland, when I'm traveling east out of Rekjavik, it's almost impossible not to detour to Thingvellir, as I did last week.

Approaching these Assembly Plains in 1871, William Morris wrote, "My heart beats, so please you, as we near the brow of the pass, and all the infinite wonder, which came upon me when I came up on the deck of the [ship] to see Iceland for the first time, comes on me again now, for this is the heart of Iceland…"

In spite of his flowery Victorian prose style, Morris speaks for me too: My heart does beat faster when I see the great rift valley of Thingvellir beside its deep blue lake.

Here is where the tectonic plates are pulling apart, America getting infinitesimally farther from Europe with each passing year.

And here, on the tenth Thor's Day of summer each year from 930 to 1262, Icelands chieftains and their wives and children and followers gathered for the Althing, the General Assembly of all Iceland.

In the medieval Icelandic sagas--what Morris familiarly calls "those old stories"--the Althing is a grand party. Thousands of people stayed for two weeks in tents and turf-walled booths on the banks of the Axe River, drinking ale, telling tales, taking part in horse fights and wrestling matches, races and dice games, making wedding plans or finalizing divorces, witnessing court cases, and wrangling over the law.

Disputes between Icelanders of any rank could be settled at the Althing, by appeal to Iceland's laws. There was no king to enforce the laws. Instead, there were five law courts: one for each quarter of the country plus an appeals court, each with 36 judges. The judges were chosen by the chieftains, each chieftain being allowed to nominate or to veto a certain number.

Presiding over the courts was Iceland's only elected official, the Lawspeaker. The first Lawspeaker brought the laws of western Norway to Iceland in 930. For nearly two hundred years, until 1118, the Lawspeaker recited from memory one third of the law code at each Althing. After that, the laws were read aloud from a lawbook.

The place where he stood to recite, the Law Rock, is marked now by a flagpole. (Notice that the flag is hanging limp. It's almost never this calm in Iceland.) This height of land, with its backdrop of columnar basalt, formed a natural amphitheatre. The chieftains gathered below the Law Rock and, after the recitation, the laws were debated, adjusted, and agreed upon for, as it says in Njal's Saga, "With laws shall our land be built up, but with lawlessness laid waste."

There were laws concerning stolen horses, rented cows, dogs that bit, or bulls that ran amok in the neighbor's haystacks. There were laws about betrothals and divorces, buying sheep or claiming debts. There were laws concerning the welfare of orphans, widows, the sick, the handicapped, and the poor. There were laws about renting land or investing in a trading ship. There were numerous laws defining murder and homicide, setting the compensation a killer should pay the victim's family if he hoped to avoid being exiled from the island.

Of course, not everyone followed the laws and not every feud was peacefully settled. One of the great themes of the Icelandic sagas is what happens when someone defies the law.

Of Iceland in general, William Morris wrote, “It is an awful place: set aside the hope that the unseen sea gives you here, and the strange threatening change of the blue spiky mountains beyond the firth, and the rest seems emptiness and nothing else: a piece of turf under your feet, and the sky overhead, that's all; whatever solace your life is to have here must come out of yourself or these old stories, not over hopeful themselves."

Iceland is indeed an awful place: a place that fills me with awe. "Whatever solace your life is to have here must come out of yourself or these old stories." Is it different anywhere else?

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

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Touring Saga Land

I'm in Iceland, for the 18th time, to learn more about the sagas. And although today is a library day (gray skies, spitting rain, fierce wind), I'm hoping to visit some saga sites over the weekend. I might rent a car, or even take a bus tour.

When I first went to Iceland in 1986, saga tourism was minimal. I, like many writers before and since, wanted to see the places made vivid and unforgettable by the medieval authors: 

Where Njal and his wife, their house afire, their enemies surrounding it, refused to come out. Said Njal, "I am an old man now and ill-equipped to avenge my sons; and I do not want to live in shame." Said Bergthora, "I was given to Njal in marriage when young, and I have promised him that we would share the same fate." 

Where Gunnar's horse stumbled and he spoke the famous lines, "How lovely the slopes are, more lovely than they have ever seemed to me before, golden cornfields and new-mown hay. I am going back home, and I will not go away."

But these places were on working farms and the farmers, understandably, treasured their privacy. I passed by on the main road, looked from afar, was never quite sure I'd found the right spot.

Now, I'm happy to say, there's a museum devoted to Njal's Saga at Hvolsvöllur [] in southern Iceland, offering exhibits and guided tours to the saga sites. There's even a community-wide activity, embroidering the Story of Burnt Njal in the style of the Bayeux tapestry.

In fact, according to an Icelandic publication called The Museum Guide 2013, there are currently 134 museums in Iceland--for a population of 320,000. Can you imagine 134 museums in Pittsburgh, PA or St. Louis, MO? Of these 134, by my count 11 focus on the sagas or the Viking Age. 

In addition to the Saga Centre in Hvolsvöllur, one of my favorites is the Settlement Centre in Borgarnes in western Iceland. [] One of its exhibits explores the settlement of Iceland between 870 and 930, as told in the sagas; the other tells the story of Egil's Saga through renderings by modern artists. An audio guide for your smartphone allows you to drive around the vicinity and find the places mentioned in the saga.

Such as the farm of Borg, where Egil, depressed, lay down to die after the drowning of a beloved son. One of his daughters craftily revived his will to live by getting him to make a poem about it, the beautiful “Lament for My Sons”: 
My mouth strains
To move the tongue,
To weigh and wing
The choice word:
Not easy to breathe
Odin’s inspiration
In my heart’s hinterland,
Little hope there… 

The poem is as much about poetry, the “purest of possessions,” the “word-mead,” as it is about the dead boy. “Now I feel it surge, swell / Like a sea, old giant’s blood.” As he created the poem, the saga says, “Egil began to get back his spirits.” When it was finished, he took his seat in the hall and declaimed the lament before all the family. 

A little further inland is Snorrastofa [], a museum, library, and research centre named for the 13th-century writer Snorri Sturluson on the site of his estate, Reykholt. Snorri may have written Egil's Saga. He is better known as the author of Heimskringla, a set of 16 sagas that contain almost everything we know about the history of Norway from its foundation to 1177. His masterpiece, though, is the Edda, which is our major (and sometimes our only) source for the stories of Norse mythology. 

In my biography of Snorri, Song of the Vikings, I imagine him in the hot-tub at Reykholt, regaling his friends with the story of Odin's eight-legged horse, Sleipnir:

One day while Thor was off fighting trolls in the east, a giant entered the gods’ city of Asgard. He was a stonemason, he said, and offered to build the gods a wall so strong it would keep out any ogre or giant or troll. All he wanted in return was the sun and the moon and goddess Freya for his wife.
The gods talked it over, wondering how they could get the wall for free. “If you build it in one winter, with no one’s help,” the gods said, thinking that impossible, “we have a deal.”
“Can I use my stallion?” the giant asked.
Loki replied, “I see no harm in that.” The other gods agreed. They swore mighty oaths.
The giant got to work. By night the stallion hauled enormous loads of stone, by day the giant laid them up. The wall rose, course upon course. With three days left of winter, it was nearly done.
“Whose idea was it to spoil the sky by giving away the sun and the moon—not to mention marrying Freyja into Giantland?” the gods shouted. They wanted out of their bargain. “It’s all Loki’s fault,” they agreed. “He’d better fix it.”
Loki transformed himself into a mare in heat. That evening, when the mason drove his stallion to the quarry, his horse was uncontrollable. It broke the traces and ran after the mare. The giant chased after them all night and, needless to say, he got no work done. Nor could he finish the wall the next day with no stone. His always-edgy temper snapped. He flew into a giant rage. The gods’ oaths were forgotten. Thor raised his terrible hammer and smashed the giant’s skull.
Eleven months later, Loki had a foal. It was grey and had eight legs. It grew up to be the best horse among gods and men. 

There's a wonderful exhibition about Snorri Sturluson's life and art at Reykholt now. Last June I spent a good hour or two going through it with a group of tourists from the horse-trekking company America2Iceland. I had very few quibbles with the text--not surprising, since it was written by Óskar Guðmundsson, whose masterful 2009 biography, Snorri: Ævisaga Snorra Sturlusonar 1179-1241, inspired me to write Song of the Vikings. 

We dipped our fingers in Snorri's hot-tub, before mounting our horses to continue our week-long trek through the countryside of Borgarfjord. Yes, you guessed it, I am now leading saga tours myself. They're not precisely the kind of tours I was looking for in 1986--but I hadn't discovered the joys of riding Icelandic horses back then. If you'd like to join me in 2014, visit and put your name on the list.

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