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.


  1. Very Hobbitish indeed! Or would that be Hobbitesque? Either way I can't help but chuckle when I imagine Frodo stacking sheep !@#$%^&* in Uncle Bilbo's kitchen and muttering to himself "poetic my stump, round butt!"

  2. I just discovered your blog after a recommendation by some mutual friends (the Falks), and your posts are informative and lovely. I will definitely pick up a copy of The Stones Speak for my personal studies and will be checking back here on Wednesdays :)