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.

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