Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Charlemagne's Elephant

Twelve hundred years ago yesterday--January 28, 814--to quote my friend Jeff Sypeck, "the Franks lamented the death of a tall, paunchy, mustachioed king whom they already knew was one of the most important people in European history: Karl or Charles the Great, Karolus Magnus, Charlemagne."

Europe will be celebrating this anniversary all year, Jeff points out on his blog, Quid Plura, with scholarly symposia, pilgrimages to Charlemagne's cathedral at Aachen, an art installation of 500 Charlemagne statues in a public square, a new Aachen Bank card, an opera, and a comedy performance, "Karl and the White Elephant," among many other events.

I celebrated in a quieter way--by rereading some chapters from Sypeck's own fabulous biography, Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800, published by HarperCollins in 2006. This was one of the books that made me think I might want to write popular history myself.

If you read only one book about Charlemagne this year, read Becoming Charlemagne by Jeff Sypeck.

Charlemagne's reign (768-814) overlaps with the beginning of the Viking Age (793), which is the reason I'm especially interested. Some scholars say his wars with the Saxons provoked the first Viking raids on the Continent; others that the power vacuum after his death gave the Vikings their opportunity.

Sypeck doesn't look north in Becoming Charlemagne, his interests are east and south, in Byzantium and Baghdad. Here you will learn, for example, about the great Islamic empire that stretched from Baghdad to Cordoba. You'll visit the City of Peace at daybreak, in one beautiful chapter: the monasteries where secret wine parties were held, the markets which sold every luxury, the circular walls and four grand gates, the green-domed mosque in the center.

You'll learn how the Franks looked to their neighbors. In 10th-century Baghdad al-Masudi wrote:

 "The warm humor is lacking among them; their bodies are large, their natures gross, their manners harsh, their understanding dull, and their tongues heavy. Their color is so excessively white that it passes from white to blue… Those of them who are furthest to the north are the most subject to stupidity, grossness, and brutishness."

And you'll read about Charlemagne's elephant, Abul Abaz, a gift from the caliph Harun al-Rashid (the caliph of The Arabian Nights).

"The first thousand miles were probably the worst," Sypeck writes. "Coming from Baghdad, the man known to Frankish annalists as Isaac the Jew passed through Jerusalem, crossed the Sinai, and journeyed along the Egyptian coast. …

"All caravans moved slowly, of course, but in this case the pace was even slower, because of one of Isaac's traveling companions, a lumbering ambassador from Baghdad who was vast in size, ravenous, and prone to wander… He needed around twenty gallons of water each day. He needed shade, and he rarely slept. Keeping Abul Abaz happy, and keeping him moving, was a job without end.

"The sun was harsh, the earth was cracked, and Isaac was in a dead zone between the culture of Baghdad and the comforts of home. Whatever reward awaited him for leading an elephant across 3,500 miles, it could not have been enough."

Sypeck laments, as do I, that everyone remembers Charlemagne's elephant--but no one thinks about poor Isaac, Charlemagne's ambassador. Is this what he'd agreed to when he signed on? Should he not, at least, have won undying fame for bringing Europe the first elephant it had seen since Hannibal's in 218 B.C.?

Modern writers have even replaced him with a hero more like themselves: A 19th-century Egyptian novel describes "the adventures of a Persian noble, not a Frankish Jew, who delivered a white elephant to Karl on behalf of Harun. Two modern children's books about Abul Abaz also eliminate Isaac"--these are C. Walter Hodges's The Emperor's Elephant (1975) and Judith Tarr's His Majesty's Elephant (1993). One makes the elephant's keeper a boy named Selim.

"Perhaps," Sypeck says, charitably, "modern storytellers have too little to work with, but it is sad that the world has no memory of Isaac and the details of his amazing five-year journey."

At a time when Viking ships were bearing down on British monasteries, when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, when Baghdad was at its peak and Byzantium was teetering, a Frankish ambassador named Isaac the Jew was struggling to bring a white elephant from Baghdad to Aachen. He arrived in 802.

In 810, when Charlemagne marched north to face a fleet of 200 Viking ships then ravaging the coast of Frisia, he took his white elephant with him to terrify the enemy. Unfortunately, Abul Abaz died on the way.

Read more about Charlemagne--and order Jeff Sypeck's book--at The carving of the elephant is from the "Charlemagne chess set," once thought to have been another gift of Harun al-Rashid, but now dated to the 11th century.

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

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Poet-Maidens and Shield-Maidens

Songs of the Vikings--Viking poetry--has been the topic of this blog a number of times. Poetry was the gift of Odin, according to the 13th-century Icelandic chieftain Snorri Sturluson (you can read that story from an earlier blog post here), and Vikings loved their poems as much as they loved drinking mead.

Poets, or skalds, as I've written in my book Song of the Vikings (just out in paperback!), were a fixture at the Norwegian court for over 400 years. They were swordsmen, occasionally. But more often they were a king’s ambassadors, counselors, and keepers of history. They were time-binders, weaving the past into the present.

In a world without written record—as the Viking world was—memorable verse made a man immortal. Or a woman.

I recently discovered a book by Sandra Ballif Straubhaar called Old Norse Women's Poetry: The Voices of Female Skalds, published by D.S. Brewer in 2011. It contains nearly 50 poems, some long, some short, by women, real or imagined, from Viking Age Norway through the time of Snorri Sturluson's Iceland (and a little beyond). In Straubhaar's translations, these medieval women are valkyries of verse, with tongues as sharp as swords.

One of them was a king's skald--and possibly a shield-maiden. Jorunn skáldmær ("Poet-maiden") composed a poem congratulating her fellow king's skald for negotiating peace between two princes, both sons of Harald Fairhair, the ninth-century king who unified Norway. Snorri quotes her poem in his Saga of King Olaf the Saint. Notes Straubhaar: "The Flateyjarbok manuscript of Olafs saga helga uniquely calls Jorunn not skáldmær ('poet-maiden') but skjáldmær (‘shield-maiden’). Given that Olafr … was known to station his male warrior-poets around him in the shield-wall for the better subsequent recording of great battle-deeds, it is tempting to think of Jorunn playing such a role for Haraldr."

Another women poet Straubhaar introduces us to was well able to handle a sword. When the 10th-century Icelander Breeches-Aud is divorced by her husband--ostensibly because she dresses like a man, in breeches--she not only spits out a poem, she gets on her horse (yes, wearing breeches) and rides off to avenge herself. Finding her husband asleep, Straubhaar writes, Aud "draws her sword on him, striking not to kill, but only to cripple. She gashes him across the nipples, successfully puts his sword-arm out of commission, and leaves him pinned in the bed with the blade. Then she rides away, presumably feeling the score to be now even."

In two of my favorite poems in Straubhaar's collection, the woman poet has a tongue every bit as sharp and precise as Aud's sword.

In Iceland in 999 a woman named Steinunn makes fun of a Christian missionary in a poem that is "metrically near-flawless," Straubhaar says. "It has a fine, aggressive rhythm, echoing its sea-going topic, and lively kennings."

I explained the complexity of skaldic verse in an earlier post on the mechanics of Viking poetry (read it here). Straubhaar handles that complexity by translating each poem twice: once in verse (to capture the form) and once in prose (to give the literal meaning). "In the poetry translations," she explains, "I have tried to maintain at least some of the following features of the originals, in this order of precedence:
--Tone (e.g., heroic, comic, serious, frightening)
--Alliteration (at least sets of two, ideally sets of three…)
--Syllable count (six per line, in dróttkvætt) and/or stress count
--Internal rhyme (perfect and slant); also occasional end-rhyme
--Circumlocutions for nouns, both complex and simple: kenningar (e.g., ‘goddess of gold’ for ‘woman’) and heiti (e.g., ‘ski’ for ‘ship’).

The mocking tone, especially, of Steinunn's poem comes through brilliantly:
Thorr snatched Thangbrandr’s longboat,
thwacked it, smashed it, wrecked it,
shook the prow-steed, plowed it 
precisely, nicely under.
So sad! No more sliding
of ski upon the sea-foam:
god-gales grabbed the sail-horse,
god-winds chewed its splinters.

The tone, again, is perfect in Straubhaar's translation of another mocking poem. Here, the daughter of Earl Arnfinn, somewhere in 10th-century Denmark, rebuffs the advances of an untried warrior:
Who said this seat was yours, boy?
Seldom have you drawn sword.
From you the wolf gets no flesh.
My flesh likes sitting solo.
You’ve never seen the crow caw
on corpses slain at harvest;
when shell-sharp swords came slashing
you shied away, and stayed home.

Many of the verses Straubhaar translates are said, in the sagas that contain them, to be spoken by witches, trolls, wise-women, and valkyries. Who would not shiver at this witch's curse?
May wights wander free, 
and wonders be seen;
may cliffs crash, 
and plains quake;
may the weather worsen…

I curse your ears 
so they cannot hear.
I curse your eyes 
to turn inside out…

When you set sail, 
the riggings will slit,
the rudder will rip 
free from its frame,
the sails will rot 
and fall free from the mast,
the sheets will split 
and fly free in the wind…

In your bed, 
burning straw;
in your privy 
queasy unease;
and after that 
worse things…

And then there is the poignant set of verses by a 16-year-old in the south of Iceland in 1255, eight stanzas that constitute "the largest body of poetry by a single historically attestable woman that survives in Old Norse literature," Straubhaar says. Knowing her kinsmen are caught up in a great battle in the north, Jorunn speaks a poem she heard in a dream:
By his house-door he bides,
byrnied for battle.
Fiends wait with fire,
false dogs that they are.
False dogs that they are!
The snare is snapped;
fate has them trapped.
These men I would tell
to go straight to Hel,
to go straight to Hel.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And if you would like to go to Iceland with me next summer, check out the tours at

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Burial Rites

A friend who is going to Iceland with me next summer, on her first trip there, gave me Hannah Kent's novel, Burial Rites, last October. We had both been thrilled with the early reviews, thrilled to see a book set in Iceland in 1828 getting so much attention.

But my friend had read Burial Rites before she gave it to me and, though she tried to hide it, I could tell she didn't like it. I had a lot to read already. I put it on my shelf and didn't open it until right before Christmas.

Once I started, I read it in a rush. It's a beautiful book, though a very sad one, about a young woman condemned to be beheaded for murders she may or may not have committed. Kent's lyrical writing drew me in and, though I intended to be critical and frowned at her mention of thorn bushes and brambles plucking at a woman's skirts (I've never seen thorn bushes and brambles in Iceland), there were very few mistakes of this kind. Kent had, indeed, visited the Iceland I knew, had read the same 18th- and 19th-century travelers' tales as I had, had read the Icelandic sagas.

I asked my friend why she didn't like the book. It was "claustrophobic," she said.

True. But to me that's proof of Kent's skill as a writer: She was able to make the reader feel the claustrophobic atmosphere of life inside a turf house on a farm a bare step above abject poverty in a country that has, in addition to its gloriously long summer days (when I visit), an equally long, dark winter.

In Iceland in 1828 there were no jails. So until her execution the convicted murderess, Agnes, is kept on a farm where the housewife, Margrét, chooses to treat her as a servant (she's sane and a good worker) instead of locking her up. But there's no real difference, when winter comes, between being a servant and being a prisoner on a poor Icelandic farm.

Here's a passage from Burial Rites:

Autumn fell upon the valley like a gasp. Margrét, lying awake in the extended gloom of the October morning, her lungs mossy with mucus, wondered at how the light had grown slow in coming; how it seemed to stagger through the window, as though weary from traveling such a long way. Already it seemed a struggle to rise. She'd wake in the chill night with Jón pressing his toes against her legs to warm them, and the farmhands were coming in from feeding the cow and horses with their noses and cheeks pink with the ice in the air. Her daughters had said that there was a frost every morning of their berrying trip, and snow had fallen during the round-up. Margrét had not gone, not trusting her lungs to last the long walk up over the mountain to find and herd the sheep from their summer pasture, but she'd sent everyone else. Except Agnes. She could not let her walk over the mountain. Not that she would flee. Agnes wasn't stupid. She knew this valley, and she knew what little escape it offered. She'd be seen. Everyone knew who she was.

As the story progresses, it's clear that Agnes is not the only person under a sentence of death. Everyone Agnes has ever cared about in the past has died--in childbirth, through illness or accident--and those the reader comes to care about, like Margrét with her bad lungs, are equally fragile.

I do have one complaint with Kent's approach. There's a bit of the medieval Laxdaela Saga plunked into the last quarter of Burial Rites. A line of the saga--"I was worst to the one I loved best"--is used as the epigraph. To someone, like me, who has studied Laxdaela Saga it's a puzzling inclusion. I can't imagine what someone who's never read Laxdaela Saga would make of it, but to me the comparison between Gudrún of Laxdaela Saga and Agnes is belittling to both stories. The motives of both women are reduced to mere jealousy, whereas there's no comparison between Kjartan (whose death Gudrún masterminded) and Natan (whom Agnes is convicted of killing). The Kjartan-Gudrún love story is tragically complex. Natan is just a womanizer, in Kent's rendition. I felt no loss at his death, rather that something foul had been cleaned from the beautiful, if desolate, farm where he and Agnes had lived. To make Agnes echo Gudrún, Kent needed to make Natan more rounded, more sensitive, more appealing, more like the prized and powerful member of society that Kjartan is--at whose death every reader weeps.

But then Burial Rites would have been a different book. And not, I don't think, a better one. As it is, I just skimmed the pages from Laxdaela Saga and continued on. If I ever meet Hannah Kent (and I hope I do, in Iceland), perhaps we can have a cup of tea and discuss her reading of Laxdaela Saga. It's the kind of thing people do all the time in Iceland: examine each other's understanding of the past.

Join me again next week at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And if you would like to go to Iceland with me next summer, check out the tours at

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Faraway Nearby

Last June, on my way to Iceland for the 17th time, I read a luminous essay, "Summer in the Far North," in the magazine Mother Jones. It began, "One summer some years ago, on a peninsula jutting off another peninsula off the west coast of Iceland, I lived among strangers and birds."

The writer, Rebecca Solnit, loved the birds, especially the arctic terns: "The impeccable whiteness of their feathers, the sharpness of their scimitar wings, the fierceness of their cries, and the steepness of their dives were all enchanting." She wove a story out of these birds, who migrate from the Arctic to the Antarctic each year, living their entire lives in light.

She contrasted them to herself, finding she could not live without darkness--of which there is none, naturally, in Iceland in the summertime. Fleeing the midnight sun, Solnit found darkness in an art museum, in an installation by a young Icelandic artist, "a zigzag route of Sheetrock" that allowed in only slivers of light. Inside "Path" by Elín Hansdóttir--essentially a box inside the box of the building--Solnit could riff on "empathy." Her essay ends: "Few if any of us will travel like arctic terns in endless light, but in the dark we find ourselves and each other, if we reach out, if we keep going, if we listen, if we go deeper."

I was intrigued. Solnit was so evocative writing about Iceland's birds, I wondered what she'd say about the "strangers." I clicked on the link, "Buy this Book," The Faraway Nearby, from which the essay was excerpted. It arrived while I was in Iceland and sat on my "to read" shelf for several months, as I began writing a new book myself, one inspired by that light-filled trip to Iceland (#17) last June, a book that brought me back to Iceland for trip #18 in dark and gray November.

In early December, missing Iceland, I opened Solnit's book. I wanted a book about light and darkness and arctic terns and Icelanders. What I got was a book about a mother with Alzheimer's, a failed romance, a breast cancer diagnosis, fairy tales and Frankenstein, tale-telling in general, a heap of rotting apricots, Che Guevara, the Marquis de Sade, Peter Freuchen, Buddhism...

A reviewer for the New York Times (see, whom I did not consult until after I'd finished The Faraway Nearby and was still wondering what it was "about," explains that "Creating links between seemingly disparate ideas is Solnit's gift, her stock in trade. It's what gives her writing its eccentricity, its spirit and frenetic energy. This worked well in her popular 2005 book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which explored all that the unknown had to offer." The reviewer implies that it does not work so well in The Faraway Nearby. I'm not so sure. That heap of rotting apricots was quite thought-provoking. I liked the "wild mash-ups," as the reviewer named them, of, for example, Narnia and the Chinese artist Wu Daozi and Easter Island and the Road Runner cartoons.

What disappointed me was that Rebecca Solnit never really went to Iceland. Sure, she resided on the island for a time. But her "Iceland" is not my Iceland. She didn't meet any Icelanders.

Solnit was the first international writer-in-residence at an art museum in Stykkishólmur called the Library of Water. She writes:

I wandered around my temporary home on this island shaped like a heart, the volatile ice-covered heart that occasionally beat, with lava, boiling water, and steam in its veins. The farthest point I could reach on foot was Helgafell, the sugarloaf hill around which stories were wrapped like clouds, and where Gudrun Osvifursdottir was buried a thousand years before, the proud woman at the center of the Laxdaela Saga and all its slaughter and loss.

Once a farmer who spoke only Icelandic gave me a ride back from Helgafell in a rain; and cashiers spoke brusquely to me about money in the low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit den that was the chain supermarket; and there was a librarian with some responsibility for the Library of Water who provided practical aid every now and again. Otherwise no one spoke to me because Iceland was not good at strangers ...

Helgafell, as I've written before on this blog, is my "thin place." See

In my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color, I described how a visit to Helgafell had inspired me to write; an excerpt is here:

I can guess who the "farmer who spoke only Icelandic" might be who gave Solnit a ride, since I have been friends with the farmer at Helgafell (who speaks only Icelandic) for 27 years. It's something he would do. If she had tried a few words of Icelandic on him--even the few words she includes here in her book, "Gudrun Osvifursdottir" and "Laxdaela Saga"--he would have tried to speak with her. I know, because I did that and he spoke with me.

I walked up to the door at Helgafell in 1986, knocked and said, "Snorri Godi, here?" I was greeted with a warm handshake and invited in for coffee. My husband waved his binoculars and said, "Hrafn" (Raven). Through some combination of English, Icelandic, and hand-waving, he conveyed to the family that had clustered around us that he had found a raven's nest on the side of the hill. Turns out the mother had been looking for that nest. After coffee and cakes, we took a field trip to see it. We were invited to stay for dinner (fresh trout from their lake) and to set up our tent in the yard. The family called up the local English teacher to come translate.

I decided right then to learn Icelandic so that I could speak to this remarkable family. But they are not the only Icelanders I've met who are "good at strangers."

A few days later, I got off a ferry in the driving rain and was struggling into my rainsuit when a car stopped and a stranger approached me. She knew a little English. "You look cold," she said. "Would you like coffee?" She motioned for us to follow the full car to a yellow house and, instead of birdwatching in the rain, we spent the afternoon warm and snug and well-fed, "talking" about birds with another large, extended family who spoke little or no English.

In 1992, I took the same ferry to the same island and knocked on the door of the yellow house. Our hostess was not there--turns out she shared this summerhouse with 13 siblings--but we were welcomed in and fed, regardless. That afternoon being sunny, a young nephew (who did speak English) offered to take us out in his small boat to see a colony of guillemots that nested on a nearby islet.

I have been to Iceland, as I said, 18 times--the 19th trip is already scheduled. I have never met a cold Icelander, an Icelander "not good at strangers." What I have met are the warmest and most hospitable people I can imagine. People who will not accept a gift without giving one in return. People who have piled gifts upon me--of food, of comfort, of stories, of adventures--that I can never repay except, I hope, by writing about them and the larger gifts Icelanders over the centuries have given to the world.

According to the New York Times, Rebecca Solnit's book is "loosely about storytelling." It's too bad she didn't discover the best and most influential storytellers in the world, the medieval Icelanders like Snorri Sturluson who gave us Norse mythology and the Icelandic sagas.

In Song of the Vikings, my biography of Snorri, I list some writers Iceland has inspired:

Thomas Gray, William Blake, Sir Walter Scott, the Brothers Grimm, Thomas Carlyle, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Richard Wagner, Matthew Arnold, Henrik Ibsen, William Morris, Thomas Hardy, Hugh MacDiarmid, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jorge Luis Borges, W.H. Auden, Gunther Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A.S. Byatt, Seamus Heaney, Jane Smiley, Alice Munro, Ivan Doig, Michael Chabon, and Neil Gaiman.

Through Tolkien, Snorri has inspired dozens of writers of fantasy, including Douglas Adams, Lloyd Alexander, Poul Anderson, Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Lester del Rey, J.V. Jones, Robert Jordan, Guy Gavriel Kay, Stephen King, Ursula K. LeGuin, George R.R. Martin, Anne McCaffrey, and J.K. Rowling.

These writers are just a beginning. There are many, many more--every day, I find more--Rebecca Solnit among them.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And if you would like to go to Iceland with me next summer (on my 19th trip), check out the tours at

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Book: The Ivory Vikings

What am I working on in 2014? A new book about Iceland, Vikings, and medieval history. Here's the official "pitch":

In the early 1800s, on a golden Hebridean beach, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: ninety-three game pieces carved from walrus ivory and the buckle of the bag that once contained them. Seventy-eight are chessmen—the Lewis chessmen—the most famous chessmen in the world. Between one and five-eighths and four inches tall, these chessmen are Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks: The kings stout and stoic, the queens grieving or aghast, the bishops moon-faced and mild. The knights are doughty, if a bit ludicrous on their cute ponies. The rooks are not castles but mail-shirted Vikings, some going berserk, biting their shields in battle frenzy. Only the pawns are lumps—and few at that, only nineteen, though the fourteen plain disks could be pawns or men for a different game, perhaps something like backgammon. Altogether, the hoard held almost four full chess sets—only one knight, four rooks, and most of the pawns are missing—about three pounds of ivory treasure.

Who carved them? Where? Why were they buried in a sandbank or a secret chamber on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides? These mysteries The Ivory Vikings will explore by connecting medieval sagas to modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. In the process, The Ivory Vikings will present a history of the Vikings in the North Atlantic, when the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, the islands of the Hebrides and Orkneys, and even Greenland and Norse North America. The story of the Lewis chessmen explains the economics behind the Viking voyages to the west. It illuminates the Viking impact on Scotland and shows how the whole North Atlantic was dominated by Norway for over 400 years, from the early 800s until the mid-1200s, when the Scottish king finally reclaimed his islands. The story of the Lewis chessmen reveals the struggle within Viking culture to accommodate Christianity, the ways in which Rome’s rules were flouted, and how orthodoxy eventually prevailed. And finally, the story of the Lewis chessmen brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.

The Ivory Vikings will be published in New York and London by Palgrave Macmillan in Spring 2015. Time for me to get to work.

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