Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Touring with the Sagas

When some people go to Iceland for the first time, they want to see it all. In seven days they drive the entire Ring Road, bagging all the sights.

I'm a little different. I've been to Iceland 19 times, twice staying over three months, and I have yet to see huge swaths of the country. I've never been to the East Fjords. I've only glimpsed much of the north.

Instead, I've gone deep. I've gotten to know one corner of Iceland very well: the area between Borgarnes and the island of Flatey in Breiðafjorður, out to the tip of Snæfellsnes with its evocative glacier, and in to Surtshellir cave at the edge of the highlands. It's an area with a wonderful variety of landscapes--farms, fishing villages, lava fields, glaciers, beaches, waterfalls.

I like to stay on one farm for a week, traveling only as far as I can reach on foot or horseback or the occasional half day's drive. On various trips I've found a path through the lava that had long been lost, crouched behind a rock while a sea eagle strafed me, rode a horse across a swift salmon river (careful not to let the eddies dizzy me), collected crowberries, watched fox pups play, rescued trapped sheep, frightened myself in a pitch-dark cave, drank sweet water from the well in another, soaked in a wilderness hot pool, sunned on the flank of a volcano.

I'm not a naturalist: What drew me to this part of Iceland were the sagas, with their tales of sheep-farmers and sorcerors, horse fights and feuds, love and grief and hard times and strife. Tales of a satisfying life scratched from an unforgiving land. Tales tempered with poetry and grace.

I've sat where the wily chieftain of Helgafell, Snorri goði, sat, ten centuries before, pondering his next move. On horseback, I've ridden the route he followed to collect his father-in-law's corpse--and the one his namesake, Snorri Sturluson took to confer with his nephew a few nights before he died.

The first time I visited Iceland, in 1986, I went in search of Snorri goði, a character in two of my favorite sagas, Eyrbyggja Saga and Laxdæla Saga. I was then a graduate student studying medieval literature and simultaneously working for a science magazine; I wanted to write a historical novel about Snorri. That book was never published, but ten years later much of my research--done on horseback, as well as in libraries--found its way into my first published book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse (Stackpole Books, 2001).

My second book about Iceland brought me back to Snæfellsnes. The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (Harcourt, 2007) uses medieval literature and modern archaeology to tell the story of Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir and the Norse expeditions to North America. Guðriður grew up on the tip of Snæfellsnes, in the shadow of the glacier some people call the third most holy spot on earth. (Seeing it rise out of the sea is certainly one of my favorite views of Iceland). I've since retold Guðríður's story as a young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, which will be published by Namelos in the spring of 2015.

My most recent book, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) required me to get to know Borgarfjörður even better. This book is a biography of another Snorri--Snorri Sturluson, who lived at Borg and then at Reykholt, and by the end of his life in 1241 ruled most of the West Quarter of Iceland. At Borg he probably wrote Egils Saga, while at Reykholt he wrote the Edda, which contains almost everything we know about Norse mythology, as well as Heimskringla, his long collection of sagas about the kings of Norway from the ancient days of Oðin the Wizard-King through King Magnus Erlingsson in 1177.

The best way to research my books, I've found, is to walk through the landscape where history happened, to live where my subjects lived and face some of the same challenges. To cross rivers on horseback, for example, or climb a volcanic crater. To experience the midnight sun in summer, when the birdsong never stills, as well as the dark days of winter (though I must admit, I've let a very few of them stand in for the rest). 

In 2012 I was approached by the trekking company America2Iceland, which had just moved its base of operations to the farm of Staðarhús in Borgarfjörður. They wondered if I'd be willing to join their tours and share my love of Iceland's history and sagas. Together, we began developing a tour called "Song of the Vikings," after my book. The first year it was a riding trek circling through Snorri's domain. The next year we combined riding lessons for beginners with more sightseeing by bus, visiting saga sites and museums, and allowing more time to learn about Iceland's history and culture.

Next summer, by request, the tour will have no mandatory horseback riding (though, since we will be based at a horse farm with a resident riding teacher, optional lessons and trail riding can be added). From July 27 to August 2, we'll follow in Snorri Sturluson's footsteps, taking the chieftain's trail from Thingvellir, where he took part in the yearly assembly, to Reykholt, his main estate--now a research institute with an exhibition about his life.

We'll see the highest-volume hot spring in the world, discussing the value of hot springs in medieval Iceland--and how a fight over this one may have caused the sagas to be written. We'll meet the Icelandic horse and learn why the horse, not the dog, is "man's best friend" in Iceland. We'll visit the Settlement Center in Borgarnes and compare new theories about Iceland's settlement. We'll see the Egil's Saga exhibition there as well, and discuss how that saga reflects Snorri Sturluson's own life. We'll drive into the highlands to see the cave Surtshellir, named for the Fire Giant who will destroy the world at Ragnarök, and discuss the connections between Icelandic nature and Norse mythology. And we'll see how those myths are still vital in modern popular culture, by sharing some of the literature and art Snorri Sturluson inspired, from Wagner to Tolkien to Neil Gaiman.

This tour is limited to 12 people, so each will get my personal attention. For more information, or to sign up, see or contact Rebecca at America2Iceland by email at or phone at 1-828-348-4257. I think this is the perfect tour for first-time visitors to Iceland. Even if you've been to Iceland before, you'll see it in a completely new light.

(A version of this essay was published in the December 15 edition of the Icelandic-Canadian newspaper, Lögberg-Heimskringla.)