Njal’s Saga

Fresh off the ferry from the Vestmannaeyjar I caught a lift with a fish merchant who was happy to take an alternative route through the back roads and drop me off at Bergþórshvoll. This unprepossessing site, today just a low mound in an otherwise uninteresting field, was the home of Njal and Bergthora and the main setting of Njal’s Saga.

Arriving at Bergþórshvoll.

Arriving at Bergþórshvoll.

Njal’s Saga is the longest of all the family sagas, and some would say the best; across 159 chapters and 220 pages it tells the stories of Njal and his friends and relatives, their heroic deeds and deaths. The most tragic of all is perhaps the death of Njal’s beloved foster-son Hoskuld at the hands of Njal’s own unruly sons, for it leads directly to the climax of the saga, the burning of Bergþórshvoll.

According to the story one hundred of the enemies of the Njalssons, led by Flosi of Svinafell (see ‘Pioneers’), descended on Bergþórshvoll on a prearranged date and surrounded the house. They tried to slay Njal’s sons with force of arms, but were unable to overcome them, and resorted at last to setting fire to the house. They offered an armistice to Njal and Bergthora and the women and servants of the house, but Njal would not leave his sons to die knowing that he was too old to avenge them, and Bergthora would not leave Njal. Their young grandson too refused to leave and the three of them lay down in their bed under a thick cowskin rug while the fire raged around them. Njal’s son Skarphedin and his brothers and brother-in-law Kari ran up and down the hall, throwing out burning logs at the attackers and searching for a way out. In the end only Kari was able to escape, by running up a fallen beam and away from the house under cover of darkness.

Bergþórshvoll

Bergþórshvoll

Standing on the mound in the grey light of an overcast September morning it was hard to envisage the horror and drama of the attack on this farm a thousand years ago. But on the northern horizon something caught my eye: the jagged black ridge of the mountain Þríhyrningur. It was on Þríhyrningur that the conspirators met before the attack, and to Þríhyrningur that they returned after the Burning. According to the saga the Burners then spent three days hiding on the mountain and watching while Njal’s surviving relatives rushed around the countryside looking for them.

Þríhyrningur from Bergþórshvoll

Þríhyrningur from Bergþórshvoll

Even today the mountain has a slightly threatening aspect, and it must have seemed most threatening of all to Ingjald of Keldur who lived just west of Þríhyrningur. He had agreed to join the conspiracy but then changed his mind, potentially forfeiting his own life when he did not arrive at Þríhyrningur on the agreed date. After the Burning the conspirators did come for him, but as is often the way in the sagas, the wickedness of their attack on Bergþórshvoll had changed their luck, and Ingjald was able to slay Flosi’s nephew and escape.

Þríhyrningur from the hay field at Keldur.

Þríhyrningur from the hay field at Keldur.

Keldur, where there is still a Viking age floor in the hall.

Keldur, where there is still a Viking age floor in the hall.

Also visible from Bergþórshvoll was the long bank that marks the northern edge of the Austur-Landeyjar plain, where Gunnar Hamundarson lived at Hlíðarendi. Gunnar was Njal’s best friend, and it is with his adventures and feuds that the first half of the saga is primarily concerned. Gunnar is an interesting and likeable character, the greatest warrior of his day, a man who wouldn’t hesitate to attack eight men single-handedly, but also sensitive, generous, and the best of friends. After one bloody battle his pleasure in victory is tempered with confusion and sadness, and he confesses to his brother, “what I don’t know is whether I am less manly than other men because killing troubles me more than it does them.”

Stylish Icelandic horses near Bergþórshvoll

Stylish Icelandic horses near Bergþórshvoll

Unfortunately Gunnar’s prowess and noble character made him a target for the envy of lesser men, and he became embroiled in feud after feud until at last he was ordered to go into exile for three years. This he planned to do, but as he left Hlíðarendi his horse stumbled, and springing from the saddle he found himself looking back at his home. At that moment he exclaimed one of the most famous lines of all the sagas:

“Fögur er hlíðin svo að mér hefir hún aldrei jafnfögur sýnst, bleikir akrar en slegin tún, og mun eg ríða heim aftur og fara hvergi.” ‘So fair is the hillside that it has never seemed more beautiful to me, with its pale fields and mown meadows, and I will ride home again and go nowhere.’

“Fögur er hlíðin"

“Fögur er hlíðin”

That autumn Gunnar’s enemies attacked him in his hall at Hlíðarendi, where he defended himself with his bow and arrows for a long time. Eventually the attackers found a way to pull the roof off the hall, and then by attacking from all directions at once they were able first to cut his bow string, and then at last to kill Gunnar himself; he had killed two men, and badly wounded sixteen more.

Unlike Bergþórshvoll, Hlíðarendi still has something of the saga atmosphere about it. Not of the final battle and Gunnar’s death, but of that stirring and poignant moment when he realised he would rather die in his home than leave it. The wind rustles the long grass around a little church, for a moment the sun lights up the plain beyond and Seljalandsfoss in the distance, while a narrow belt of trees shelters the site from the active farm next door. There is a peacefulness and a quiet at Hlíðarendi, as if it still holds a respectful thousand-year silence for the hero that will forever be associated with it.

Hlíðarendi

Hlíðarendi

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Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

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Pioneers

The southern coast of Iceland is among the most beautiful and dramatic parts of Iceland. It is also one of the least hospitable areas, dominated by washed-out sand and lava flows, and an exposed coastline with no natural harbours for hundreds of kilometres west of Höfn. Inevitably given its location, it was the first part of Iceland that many travellers came to, including the very first Norse settler, Ingolf Arnarson. It shows either confidence or desperation that Ingolf and the settlers that followed him pushed on past this unpromising beginning to find good land and safe harbours further round the coast.

Ingólfshöfði

Ingólfshöfði

In 874, according to The Book of Settlements, Ingolf Arnarson and his sworn-brother Hjorleif arrived in Iceland and were separated as they approached land. Ingolf spent his first winter on Ingólfshöfði, a distinctive 77m high headland in a vast expanse of flat sand. During that first winter they must have explored the surrounding area and found some of the pearls of the Icelandic landscape.

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Svartifoss

Svartifoss

A short way to the north of Ingólfshöfði they would have stumbled upon magical Svartifoss, framed by its overhanging basaltic cliff; like many thousands of visitors since they must have been entranced by the delicate waterfall in its wooded gully.  From Svartifoss they would have continued up the mountain behind what is now the main centre for Vatnajökull National Park at Skaftafell, until they came out onto a viewpoint like this over the glacier Skaftafellsjökull:

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Skaftafellsjökull

Skaftafellsjökull

Probably Ingolf and his followers would have continued up the mountain until the vast bulk of the Vatnajökull ice cap appeared before them, Europe’s biggest by volume. On other expeditions they might have travelled east along the coast until they came to Jökulsárlón, a glacier lake made famous by several films and television programs, including two James Bonds. They would surely have been as enthralled as I was by the landscape, but they must also have been worried by the apparent lack of good land – though a couple of successful farms were later established along the foot of the mountains here.

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Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón

On Kvíárjökull

On Kvíárjökull

I hitched my way westwards along the coast from Höfn, stopping to visit glacial lakes, waterfalls, and for an ill-advised scramble onto a treacherously ridged glacier. My aim was to get to Vík that night, near where Hjorleif landed and spent his first winter. Here too natural wonders abound; the petrified trolls of the Reynisdrangar sea stacks and the basalt cave at Reynir. And not least the miles and miles of perfectly black beaches, emphasised by the white foam of endless waves breaking on them.

Black beaches at Vík

Black beaches at Vík

On the cliff above Vík

On the cliff above Vík

Reynisdrangar from cliff

Reynisdrangar from cliff

Reynisdrangar from Vík

Reynisdrangar from Vík

Basalt cave at Reynir

Basalt cave at Reynir

Further west is the waterfall Skógafoss, among the most distinctive and postcard friendly of Iceland’s waterfalls; it was even the scene chosen for Iceland’s Eurovision introduction this year. The land around Vík and westwards along the coast is better, though natural harbours are still lacking, and Hjorleif decided to settle permanently. The story goes that having no oxen he forced some recently captured Irish slaves to pull a plough before sowing the first crop the following spring. They weren’t overjoyed by this task, and at the first opportunity they killed Hjorleif and his followers, took his boat, and rowed out to some islands they could see offshore.

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Skógafoss

Skógafoss

Later that spring Ingolf discovered his sworn-brother’s body, and noting the absence of the boat, correctly guessed where the slaves had gone. He followed them there with his men, and catching them unprepared slaughtered the lot. The islands are still called the Vestmannaeyjar (Westmen Islands) after their first unfortunate inhabitants, and they have a history of disaster.

First of the Vestmannaeyjar the ferry passes.

First of the Vestmannaeyjar the ferry passes.

In the seventeenth century the islands were targeted by raiding Algerian pirates and a large proportion of the islanders were killed or captured and forced into slavery. Then in 1973 a two-hundred metre high volcano appeared on the edge of the main town literally overnight, and spewed out vast quantities of lava for months. The entire population of about five thousand people was evacuated in a few hours that first night, and then a desperate battle began to halt the lava by cooling it with seawater before it overran the town and blocked the only entrance to the harbour. The total area of the island was increased by one fifth during the eruption, but the cooling efforts were eventually successful and both the harbour entrance and most of the town were preserved.

Interior of Heimaey

Interior of Heimaey

I spent a night camping on Heimaey, the main island of the Vestmannaeyjar, and an afternoon climbing the steep ridges that line the nothern side of the island, and the young volcano Eldfell. Today it looks as innocent as Hverfell by Mývatn, just a pile of black and red shingle in a U-shape around a burst crater, and makes a great viewing point for looking over the islands.

Heimaey town and harbour from Eldfell

Heimaey town and harbour from Eldfell

Vestmannaeyjar from Eldfell

Vestmannaeyjar from Eldfell

Eastern Iceland

For over one hundred kilometres along the main road between Mývatn and Jökuldalur in the east there is not a single house or farm to be seen. The landscape is desolate and moonlike; mile after mile of ancient lava, dust and rocks, and sand. Some of it has grown over with grass and moss, but the overall impression is of a bleakness to rival the washed-out sandflats of the southeast. In the middle of this emptiness, some way north of Route 1, is Dettifoss, the third largest waterfall by volume in Europe.

Dettifoss

Dettifoss

It is not beautiful, but the roaring mass of muddy grey water hurtling into the canyon below is overwhelming. It is one hundred metres wide and 44 metres high; the scale is hard to grasp in a photo, but those are people on the far side.

Dettifoss

Dettifoss

A short way upstream the same volume of water spills over an eleven-metre V-shaped ledge in a score of smaller falls. Selfoss is more aesthetically pleasing but difficult to appreciate fully after the awe-inspiring raw power of Dettifoss.

Selfoss

Selfoss

Not surprisingly, there are few stories about this part of Iceland; it is only when you come down again into the valleys to the east that names and places from the Viking Age reappear. The story of a merchant who grew up beside the glacial river Jökulsá Á Dal gives an insight into what the Vikings got up to when they weren’t feuding or raiding, and the perils that accompanied even peaceful pursuits. As Thorstein the Fair discovered, a simple trading voyage to Norway could lead to you contracting scurvy and becoming bedridden. Your partner and crew might turn against you and mock you in your helplessness, then abandon you with little money and no friends in a large city in a foreign country. To top it all off, your partner might then spread a rumour back in Iceland that you had died, and marry your intended himself. Fortunately, if you were as handy with a spear as Thorstein the Fair there would be a simple solution to all this dishonouring and treachery. Unfortunately, this would inevitably drag other innocent members of both families into conflict; but as long as you protect your honour the retaliatory murders of your brothers is just the price you have to pay.

Jökulsá á Dal

Jökulsá á Dal

At last the road comes down into a wide fertile valley near the town of Egilsstaðir. The 25 km long lake of Lagarfljót runs down the valley floor, and the eastern slopes of the valley are home to Iceland’s largest area of woodland. This was an important district during the Viking Age, and several short sagas are set along the lakeshore and in the valleys around. Of these the most famous is The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi, most of which takes place in a valley to the west and south of the lake. It is among the most highly regarded of the sagas for its literary qualities, and unusually the moral, if there is one at all, seems to be that to live in dishonour is better than to die. Hrafnkel kills a servant for riding a horse he had dedicated to his patron god Frey, and some time later finds himself hanging upside down from his barn roof from a rope threaded around his Achilles tendons. His attacker, Sam, gives him a choice between death and disgrace, and choosing the latter Hrafnkel limps off to set up a new farm by Lagarfljót. After several years of managing his new farm wisely he is as powerful as ever, and is eventually able to offer Sam the same choice from the same uncomfortable position. Sam too chooses to live, and the saga ends ambiguously, with no clear villain, hero, or moral, and with success found in the balance between patience and opportunism. Sort of like real life.

Lagarfljót

Lagarfljót and Egilsstaðir

Further on again I came at last to the sea where it snakes its way through the mountains of eastern Iceland to form the Eastfjords. The Eastfjords have magical, promising names: Seyðisfjörður, Reyðarfjörður, Fáskrúðsfjörður, Stöðvarfjörður (remember ‘ð’ is pronounced ‘th’). And apart from the huge and controversial aluminium smelting plant in Reyðarfjörður they live up to the promise of their names.

Seyðisfjörður

Seyðisfjörður

Aluminium smelting plant in Reyðarfjörður

Aluminium smelting plant in Reyðarfjörður

The village of Seyðisfjörður, surrounded by thousand-metre peaks, is where the weekly ferry from Europe arrives, and I could wish I had travelled to Iceland by sea just for the pleasure of arriving into such a charming and unlikely little place; there can hardly be anywhere less like an international ferry terminus. The disadvantage of the place is that it is a very long way from anywhere else; but on the other hand, when you’re there you’re not sure you want to be anywhere else anyway. An unseasonably early display of northern lights brought the entire population of the youth hostel onto a small roof terrace and confirmed a shared sentiment that Seyðisfjörður was the place to be.

Northern Lights above Seyðisfjörður

Northern Lights above Seyðisfjörður

Seyðisfjörður on a rainy September morning.

Seyðisfjörður on a rainy September morning.

Want to or not, I had to continue my journey, and a cold rain (falling as snow on the peaks) made hill-walking, the main activity available in Seyðisfjörður, an unattractive prospect the next morning. Instead I hitched my way on down the Eastfjords, stopping at various towns and museums, including the incredible Steinasafn Petru, a small house and garden entirely filled with beautiful rocks and minerals collected over a lifetime in Iceland by the zealous Petra.

Steinasafn Petru - Petra's Stone and Mineral Collection

Steinasafn Petru – Petra’s Stone and Mineral Collection

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I arrived at last the following evening at Höfn, another magical harbour town on the southeastern tip of Iceland. Höfn is built on a peninsula in a lagoon protected by two narrow sandbanks; behind it rise mountains and the vast bulk of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier by volume in Europe. The summer sun sets over the glacier, and it is hard to imagine a more beautiful location for a town than this.

View to glacier from Höfn

View to glacier from Höfn

Sunset in Höfn

Sunset in Höfn

Grettir and the North

The afternoon of the same day I had toured Laxárdalur found me travelling eastwards across northern Iceland with the owner of the tour company IceAk. As you might expect, an experienced tour guide makes an excellent lift; once we had swapped stories of the Westfjords (he had also been to the magical Einhamar in Geirþjófsfjörður) he took care to point out other interesting places and saga sites.

Hot streams along Hrútafjörður

Hot streams along Hrútafjörður

Grettir the Strong, you may remember, lived for a time in a cave in Hítardalur under the protection of the poet and champion Bjorn. But long before Grettir became a fearsome outlaw, murdering his enemies, robbing travellers and stealing sheep, he was a fearsome little boy who grew up in a valley we now drove across. Grettir had a difficult relationship with his father, who Grettir punished for his lack of interest by playing the cruellest pranks. Ordered to look after the geese, he broke all their wings and snapped the necks of the goslings; told to watch the horses, he flayed the hide off the back of his father’s favourite mare; asked to rub his fathers back, he took a vicious wool comb and scored deep wounds into his flesh. Kids those days.

Bessaborg - where Grettir herded horses.

Bessaborg – where Grettir herded horses.

My driver pointed down the valley in the direction of the farm where all this happened, and then as we drove past a low hill he added:

“This is the hill where Grettir went to look after the horses, you know the story?” Unremarkable in every other way, the gentle slopes suddenly took on character and significance. I had to ask how he could know something like that; someone must have told him once? “I don’t know; I’ve always known it”, was the reply.

Turf built farm (now a museum) at Glaumbær, near Sauðárkrókur.

Turf built farm (now a museum) at Glaumbær, near Sauðárkrókur.

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Some time and several lifts later I arrived in the town of Sauðárkrókur, on the shores of the fjord where Grettir finally met his end. From a low but steep ridge behind the town I could see 20 km over the fjord to the natural fortress island of Drangey, seven kilometres from land and protected all around by hundred metre cliffs. Drangey had been shared by the farmers around the fjord as a place to graze sheep and collect eggs, until one autumn when they came to collect their sheep and found their rope ladder drawn up and Grettir at the top with two companions. Even from a distance I could appreciate the predicament of the farmers, faced by the double challenge of the perilous cliffs and Grettir waiting at the top. The island looked every bit as impregnable as the saga had led me to believe, and yet it was the place of Grettir’s downfall and death anyway.

Drangey

Drangey

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(Both taken with substantial zoom)

After Grettir had been some years on Drangey, a local chieftain won the support of a witch who cursed a twisted tree stump and sent it out to the island, where Grettir, his brother, and a good-for-nothing servant needed all the driftwood they could gather for their fire. Grettir was chopping wood in a hurry, and his axe glanced off the stump and into his leg; a flesh wound only, but it festered and rotted. The hero of dozens of fights and the strongest man in Iceland, Grettir was lying dying, delirious and weak with fever, when his enemies came for him. Grettir’s brother was nursing him and the servant had neglected to pull up the ladder; before they knew it a crowd of warriors were tearing apart their turf hut, and after a desperate and bloody fight Grettir was dead and his brother captured. When he warned them that if they let him live he would come back for them they beheaded him on the cliff top at dawn. The servant annoyed them so much with his whining on the journey back to the mainland that they finished him off too.

Lone rider in the morning light - outside Sauðárkrókur.

Lone rider between morning showers – outside Sauðárkrókur.

The next day I continued across the North to Akureyri, Iceland’s second city, and from there on towards the lake of Mývatn. Some way past Akureyri I stopped at Goðafoss, a waterfall distinguished not for its modest 12m height or its power, but for its beauty, and to a lesser extent, historical significance. The ‘Waterfall of the Gods’ is so named, according to the sagas, because the lawspeaker who declared Iceland a Christian country in the summer of the year 1000 came here afterwards and threw his old idols into the falls.

Goðafoss

Goðafoss

Some years later Grettir came to this area, and risked being swept over the falls himself. He was staying with a farmer’s wife a few kilometres upstream, because he had heard that a murderous spirit of some kind was plaguing the household and had killed the farmer. For all his wrongdoing, Grettir was a scourge to anything more monstrous than himself, and this was a challenge he could not resist. On Christmas Eve a sudden thaw prevented the farmer’s wife and daughter from travelling to mass at a neighbouring farm, but Grettir took them on his shoulder and waded out into a chest-high flow of freezing water to see them across. Huge lumps of ice hurtled downstream towards them, and any normal man would have been swept helplessly away downstream and, dead or alive, over Goðafoss. But Grettir fended off the ice with his free arm, managed the crossing both ways, and then fought all night with the trollwoman who had been terrorising the household.

Mývatn, when I got there, I found to be a particularly beautiful and wonderful place; lying on a faultline between continental plates, the lake is surrounded by extraordinary natural features, better shown than described:

Hverfell crater

Hverfell crater

Grjótagjá

Grjótagjá

Hot pools in cave at Grjótagjá.

Hot pools in cave at Grjótagjá.

Hverfell crater

Hverfell crater

Inside the crater.

Inside the crater.

Lava towers at Dimmuborgir

Lava towers at Dimmuborgir

Shadowy figures at DImmuborgir - the 'Dark Castle'.

Shadowy figures at Dimmuborgir – the ‘Dark Castle’.

Bubble bursting in mud pool at Námafjall, just east of Mývatn.

Bubble bursting in mud pool at Námafjall, just east of Mývatn.

Fumarole, Námafjall.

Fumarole, Námafjall.

Víti crater, Krafla.

Víti crater, Krafla.

Krafla geothermal power plant.

Krafla geothermal power plant.

Leirhnjúkur (not a typo), near Krafla.

Leirhnjúkur (not a typo), near Krafla.

Lava field at Leirhnjúkur - 30 years old and still steaming.

Lava field at Leirhnjúkur – 30 years old and still steaming.

Leirhnjúkur

Leirhnjúkur

Laxárdalur

The prosperous Dalir region to the south of the Westfjords is, as one might expect, the setting for a rather grander and nobler saga than those of the Westfjords. The Saga of the People of Laxardal tells the story of several generations of a family that settled in Laxárdalur in the tenth century. The saga has a bit of everything: beginning with the account of Unn’s arrival and settlement of the region described in my Breiðafjörður post, the story continues with the separate adventures abroad of two half-brothers and their subsequent feuding over their inheritance. A ghost story and a feud with a family of witches are thrown in for good measure, and then at last Laxdæla saga arrives at its tragic climax, a tumultuous Shakespearian epic of love, betrayal, and murder.

Laugar, home of Gudrun Osvifsdottir.

Laugar, home of Gudrun Osvifsdottir.

The struggle between the half-brothers Hoskuld and Hrut over their inheritance from their mother Thorgerd provides a nice exception to the way we usually imagine Vikings settling their differences, as well as some further detail about the position of women in Viking society. Although Thorgerd travelled to Norway and remarried after the early death of Hoskuld’s father, her property remained her own, most of it remaining under the supervision of Hoskuld on his farm Hoskuldsstaðir in Laxárdalur. In other words, she had more property rights in marriage than is standard even today; but Hoskuld’s legal defence for not handing over to Hrut his share shows that matters weren’t quite as egalitarian as they sound. Hoskuld argued that he was the legal guardian of his mother when she remarried without his permission or knowledge, and that therefore neither the marriage nor its progeny were legitimate. It was generally thought that Hoskuld was wrong about this and that Thorgerd had been in a position to choose for herself, but there was some disagreement, and as possession really was nine tenths of the law Hoskuld kept the property for himself.

Hoskuldsstaðir caught by the sun.  Lots of good hay fields.

Hoskuldsstaðir caught by the sun. Lots of good hay fields.

When Hrut came out to Iceland to claim his inheritance he settled nearby and for three years pressed Hoskuld to hand over his inheritance at every assembly, making a good case and never resorting to violence. When this failed he took advantage of Hoskuld’s absence one day to go to Hoskuldsstaðir and drive away half the cattle there. Some of Hoskuld’s farm hands pursued him and his men and a battle was fought in which Hoskuld’s men came off worse. Hoskuld himself was furious when he heard what had happened and rode home to gather all his supporters for revenge. Things looked bad until Hoskuld’s wife Jorunn intervened, pointing out that most people thought Hrut had justice on his side and had behaved honourably and patiently. Also pointing out that attacking him would be dangerous and difficult, she persuaded Hoskuld that making a settlement instead ‘would do honour to both’. This was accomplished, and I suspect that the majority of disputes in early medieval Iceland were settled in this same way. The sagas probably disproportionately favour disputes that end in murder because it makes for a better story, but even in the stories we often find disputes settled peacefully through the law courts or through the mediation of mutual friends.

Hrut's farm Hrutsstaðir just outside Laxárdalur.

Hrut’s farm Hrutsstaðir just outside Laxárdalur.

Meanwhile Hoskuld’s children were growing up, foremost among them the beautiful Hallgerd (more of her later), and Olaf (known as Olaf Peacock), Hoskuld’s son with an Irish slave woman purchased while travelling in Denmark. Although ever since her captivity this woman, Melkorka, had been thought to be unable to speak, one day Hoskuld overheard her talking with their son in Irish. He discovered that she was in fact the daughter of the Irish king Myrkjartan, and had been captured there aged fifteen. Although Olaf was technically still illegitimate this revelation massively changed his fortunes; an old and wealthy farmer offered to foster him, and people began to treat him with the respect his notable character and appearance demanded. In this story at least being Norse or Irish seems to make little difference; nobility is what counts. When he was old enough Melkorka sent Olaf off to Ireland to find her father.

 

Arriving in Ireland Olaf’s ship was attacked by hostile locals, but fortunately was anchored just far enough off shore to prevent them all being captured, as usually happened to Vikings in the sagas who came to Ireland accidentally. At that moment a group of well-armed horsemen arrived on the scene, among them the old King Myrkjartan, Olaf’s grandfather. Olaf’s family resemblance, fluent Irish, and possession of a golden ring given to his mother by Myrkjartan when she was a baby (miraculously preserved throughout her abduction and years of slavery!) convinced Myrkjartan that Olaf really was his grandson, and Olaf was welcomed into the court. Like any young Icelandic hero at a foreign court, Olaf soon showed that he was a cut above the rest, and was even asked by Myrkjartan to succeed him as king – which he sensibly declined on the grounds that Myrkjartan’s other relatives wouldn’t stand for it.

Returning to Iceland rich and successful, with his high social status confirmed, Olaf was able to marry none other than the daughter of that old ruffian Egil Skallagrimsson of Borg, and to set up his own farm Hjarðarholt, which like those of his father and uncle is still there and apparently prospering, with the striking district church just below the farmyard.

Church at Hjarðarholt

Church at Hjarðarholt

However, all these episodes are but a preamble to the central drama of Laxdæla saga, which follows the friendship and enmity between Olaf’s family and the household at Laugar in Sælingsdalur, where I arrived on the final Sunday afternoon of last August. The sun was shining for once, so I pegged out my inner and outer tents to dry out after several days of continual dampness, and then walked a short way up the valley. The central feature of Sælingsdalur is the ‘elf cathedral’ in the middle of the valley, where according to a folk tale (as opposed to a saga) two brothers fell foul of the elves when one of them interrupted a sacred service that the other had been invited to in the magical cathedral. The intruder was trampled to death by elf riders on the slope beyond the knoll, while the other brother lived several more decades, until one year when he was giving the Easter service a chance gust blew open the doors of both human and elf church opposite at the same moment. He looked straight out of the door and into the elf cathedral, met the eye of the elf bishop, and fell down dead on the spot. And he wasn’t even the one who’d disturbed the elves in the first place! Icelandic elves clearly require very respectful treatment…

Grazing land at Laugar (Tungustapi 'elf cathedral' to right)

Grazing land at Laugar (Tungustapi ‘elf cathedral’ to right)

Tungustapi, an Elf Cathedral

Tungustapi, one of Iceland’s elf cathedrals

However, I was more interested in the events of a few centuries earlier, when Gudrun Osvifsdottir, the same Gudrun whose grave I visited at Helgafell, lived at Laugar with her father and brothers. Just above a present day boarding-school/hotel a little stone pool that calls itself ‘Gudrun’s Pool’ is situated near the buried remains of the original Viking age hot pool which Gudrun famously liked to hang out in, chatting to visitors and travellers who stopped for a bath. The current pool was hot and I had travelled a long way from Bolungarvík that morning, so I changed and waded in in a cloud of swirling green algae. It settled gradually as I gently soaked and, looking over at the little copse where their house is supposed to have been, tried to imagine Gudrun and her family doing just what I was a little over a thousand years earlier.

'Gudrun's Pool'

‘Gudrun’s Pool’

(almost) Bath hot!

(Almost) bath temperature!

I summarised the tragic story of Gudrun, Kjartan (Olaf Peacock’s son, named for King Myrkjartan), and Bolli (Olaf’s nephew and Kjartan’s foster-brother) in the post ‘To Helgafell’, and, in any case, no summary can do justice to the masterful build up of tension and escalation of their feud in The Saga of the People of Laxardal; I can only heartily recommend it as reading material.

Site of Viking Age farm thought to be that of Gudrun's family.

Site of Viking Age farm thought to be that of Gudrun’s family.

But what about that Irish influence in these old families? Did that outlive Olaf and his children? In one way at least it certainly has. By a curious coincidence the names of the couple that gave me the lift to Laugar, where Kjartan Olafsson so often travelled to see Gudrun, were Ásta and… Kjartan!

Campsite at Laugar

Campsite at Laugar (Tungustapi in distance)

The Wild Westfjords

On top of the cliff outside Bolungarvík the next morning, I had a much stronger sense than at Látrabjarg of standing on the edge of the world. It was partly knowing that I was almost as far north and west as Iceland allows, but mostly the tremendous scale of the cliff itself. Almost 600m of vertical cliff face runs for several kilometres along the outermost part of the fjord Ísafjarðardjúp, topped by a lunar plateau of loose dirt and rock. Some distance away across the fjord to the north and east is the peninsula of Hornstrandir, the remotest place in all Iceland, while between due north and almost to due west the troubled waters of the Denmark Strait appear to go on forever. Knowing that somewhere out there over the sea is the coast of Greenland seemed to only heighten my sense of being on the edge of the world, attuned as I was to the Saga Age ideas of a treacherous and mysterious Greenland, the most hostile environment of all the lands in which the Vikings settled.

Looking west-north-west, out to sea.

Looking west-north-west from Bolafjall

Valley outside Bolungarvík

Valley outside Bolungarvík

Outside Bolungarvík

Looking south from Bolafjall

Looking across at Hornstrandir I recalled a story that takes place there on a cliff probably rather like the one on which I was standing, though not so high. It is from the Saga of the Sworn Brothers, which is a fun read mostly because unlike the other sagas it seems to confirm every stereotype and malicious rumour you ever heard about the Vikings. It is important to consider that their behaviour and especially their casual violence seemed as wrong and inappropriate to the medieval Icelanders who told these stories as it does today – and often just as funny! The story that a cliff edge brings to mind describes a day the sworn brothers Thorgeir and Thormod spent picking angelica on a cliff top over on Hornstrandir.

Bolafjall cliff top, looking north to Hornstrandir

Bolafjall cliff top, looking north to Hornstrandir

Thormod was carrying a bundle of angelica away from the cliff face when the loose ground suddenly gave way beneath Thorgeir’s feet. As he slipped from the cliff edge Thorgeir managed to grab hold of a large angelica plant near its base, and hung there with a hundred metre drop onto sharp rocks below him. However, he was so completely fearless that he refused to call to Thormod to help him, and continued to hang from the cliff edge as the angelica plant slowly came out by the roots. Thormod meanwhile began to wonder what was taking Thorgeir so long, and shouted back to him, asking if he hadn’t collected enough angelica yet. The reply came back, unwavering and with no trace of fear:

“I reckon I’ll have enough once I’ve uprooted this piece I’m holding.”

Luckily Thormod realised from the delay that something was wrong and hurried back to help Thorgeir to safety – by which time the angelica plant was all but uprooted.

Bolafjall

Bolafjall

A local gave me a lift around the bay from Isafjörður, and dropped me off on the side of the road outside his farm. He told me this was the very farm mentioned in the Saga of the Sworn Brothers where Thormod used to go and recite poetry to a young woman known as Kolbrun while the rest of his household were at work catching seals. An innocent enough occupation, you might think, but it caused Thormod plenty of trouble later on when he tried to pass off his Kolbrun verses as if he had written them for another woman. Kolbrun appeared in his dreams that night, threatening to blind him if he didn’t tell the truth about who he had composed the poems for. His eyes began to burn, and he spent the night in excruciating agony, fearing that they might burst from their sockets at any moment; the next morning he confessed publicly that the verses had originally been dedicated to Kolbrun, and the pain left him.

The site of Kolbrun's farm.

The site of Kolbrun’s farm.

It seemed to me, travelling in a series of lifts eastwards along Ísafjarðardjúp, that this particularly remote and challenging landscape must have been partly responsible for the unruly characters of Thorgeir and Thormod, as well as the toughness of Kolbrun and many characters in other sagas as well. Perhaps the lower population density also contributed to make the inhabitants of the northern part of the Westfjords tougher and more independent, for there seems to have been less social pressure to conform and behave than in other parts of the country. It is particularly noticeable that with chieftains fewer and further between in this area the checks and balances that kept the rest of Iceland largely peaceful did not function so well up here; tyrants, whether chieftains or not, seem to have gotten away with oppressing their neighbours worse and for longer than elsewhere.

Fox outside the Arctic Fox Center in Súðavík

Fox outside the Arctic Fox Center in Súðavík

Elf house near Ísafjarðardjúp

Elf house near Ísafjarðardjúp

Seals in Ísafjarðardjúp

Seals in Ísafjarðardjúp

Eventually Thorgeir did become too unpopular to stay in the Ísafjarðardjúp region, and decided to take a trip abroad while things cooled off a bit. My own route southwards out of the Westfjords and across Dalir over that day and the next followed that of Thorgeir as he travelled to a ship that was waiting for him in Borgarfjorður. Even on his way into exile Thorgeir could not help causing trouble, and his companions became increasingly frustrated as they paid off the families of a servant and then a farmer’s son who Thorgeir murdered for the crimes of ‘not hearing a question shouted at him’ (due to the rustling of the firewood he was carrying), and ‘borrowing Thorgeir’s horse and not returning it immediately he was asked.’ The third and funniest of these incidents took place in a field just opposite a lay-by where I waited the following afternoon for a lift northwards along Route 1.

Route south from Dalir to Borgarfjörður, same as taken by Thorgeir.

Route south from Dalir to Borgarfjörður, same as taken by Thorgeir.

Thorgeir came riding down out of the same valley that the road from Dalir passes through today, and coming into a hayfield ahead of his companions saw a group of servants standing chatting in the late afternoon sunshine. In their midst was an old shepherd leaning on his stick who particularly attracted Thorgeir’s attention:

‘It was a short staff, and the shepherd was tired. Thus he was rather hunched over, with his tired legs bent and his neck sticking out. When Thorgeir saw this he drew his axe in the air and let it fall on the man’s neck. The axe bit well and the head went flying off and landed some distance away. Then Thorgeir rode off and the rest of the men in the field stood there helpless and amazed.

Shortly afterwards, Illugi and Thorgils (Thorgeir’s companions) came by. They were told what had happened and were not pleased. It is said that they provided compensation for Thorgeir’s deed and then rode on to meet him. He greeted them warmly. They asked him why he had slain the man and what possible fault he had found with him.

Thorgeir replied, “He had committed no wrong against me. If you want the truth I couldn’t resist the temptation – he stood so well poised for the blow.”

“One can tell from this,” said Thorgils, “that your hands will never be idle. We have already paid compensation for the man’s life.”

After that they all rode together to the ship.’

Route 1.  Across road to right fields where Thorgeir slew the old shepherd.

Route 1. Across road to right fields where Thorgeir slew the old shepherd.

To the farmhands in that (relatively!) lush and bountiful valley Thorgeir’s actions were as incomprehensible and unexpected as they seem to us today. But fresh from the wild and lonely landscape of the Westfjords myself, I thought I could understand part at least of the personality difference between brutal and fearless Thorgeir and the gentler, nobler folk of the valleys. Once again the landscape itself acts as a silent but significant contributor to both telling and understanding the story, and landscape and story are certainly each richer for the other.

Hestfjörður, off Ísafjarðardjúp

Hestfjörður, off Ísafjarðardjúp

Gisli

The story of the outlaw hero Gisli is one of my favourite of all the Icelandic sagas.  I can’t be sure why this is, but it may be due to the compact and well-crafted structure and style of the work – it certainly strikes me as one of the better sagas from a literary point of view.  It may also, or even more so, be due to the realism and relevance of the story, the family orientated drama of which, apart from an exaggerated comic interlude and a bloody climax, could be transposed almost without alteration to modern Western society.  And Gisli himself is a strangely magnetic character, apparently straight-forward but hiding complex depths and paradoxes – a warrior and a poet, sometimes a friend to the friend of an enemy and sometimes an enemy to the friend of a friend, a murderer and yet clearly a good man.

Einhamar, where Gisli was killed.

Einhamar, where Gisli was killed.

I began my physical journey into Gisli’s saga on a rainy Sunday morning in late August, and I began it in the middle of his story, with the comic interlude.  Somewhere in the drizzle and fog around the ferry that was taking me to the Westfjords was an island on which Gisli sought refuge with a friend some years after he had first been outlawed.  His friend had an idiot son, a giant of a man who, in line with the highest humanitarian standards of the day, lived outside, ate grass, and was kept chained to a heavy rock with a collar.  Gisli made good use of this circumstance one day when he was caught out at sea in a little fishing boat by his enemies and fooled them by playing the fool.  While his host rowed quickly to the island in another boat, convincing Gisli’s would-be killers that he was in that other boat, Gisli rolled around in the fishing nets and even jumped overboard a couple of times, still wrapped up, and was dragged along through the water.  His enemies thought this was hilarious, but their leader called them to order and they rushed off to the island, allowing Gisli to make his escape.  It didn’t take the astonished and then furious villains long to realise their error, and in their larger boat they caught up with Gisli just as he reached shore and disappeared into the woods, across the bay from where the ferry dropped me at Brjánslækur.

North-western edge of Látrabjarg

North-western edge of Látrabjarg Peninsula

I spent the rest of that day doing ‘normal’ sightseeing, having got a lift with a young Israeli man who was pleased to have company as his little car bumped and juddered its way along more than 40km of rough dirt road to Látrabjarg, and the same back.  In the end we had to abandon his vehicle, and hitch a lift with a local in a big 4WD for the last five kilometres to the end of the peninsula, Iceland’s (and, excluding the Azores, Europe’s) most westerly point.

Approach to Látrabjarg

Approach to Látrabjarg

At Europe's end.

At Europe’s end.

That night when I was about to get my tent out I was lucky enough to be invited to stay with an elderly couple in their holiday cottage in Bíldudalur.  This turned out to be doubly fortunate, because although they now live near Reykjavík, they were originally from this area and were able to give me a good indication of where I could find the site of Gisli’s death, and how to get there.  So the next morning that is what I set out to do – but for the sake of the story I will skip ahead for now to the evening of that day, and the events and setting that precipated Gisli’s outlawry in the first place.

By a fortunate coincidence I had met my Israeli friend again at the spectacular Dynjandi waterfall, a blessing for both of us as Dynjandi is definitely a place you need a friend to take photographs of each other, though even so it is hard to get an idea of the overwhelming scale of the falls.

Dynjandi

Dynjandi

Dynjandi

Dynjandi, on crag to right of falls

He drove me to the end of the paved road by an airstrip west of the little town of Þingeyri, and after hiding my rucksack by the side of the road I jogged the couple of kilometres to Haukadalur.  In this peaceful valley the two brothers Gisli and Thorkel shared a farm, and a couple of hundred metres away across the valley lived their sister and brother-in-law – all very cosy.  Thorkel was particularly good friends with his sister’s husband, Thorgrim, while Gisli had a good friendship with his own wife’s brother, Vestein.  The four of them together made a fine show when they turned up at the local assembly, but a rumour spread that they were not such good friends as they appeared to be.  To quash this rumour they undertook to swear an oath of brotherhood all four, but this oath became the first serious crack in their friendship, for at the critical moment Thorgrim decided it would be enough trouble being so bound to his brothers-in-law and that he had no obligation to Vestein.  He withdrew his hand, and Gisli then did the same, refusing to tie himself to a man who had rejected his own best friend and brother-in-law.  The prophetic rumour had become self-fulfilling.

Haukadalur

Haukadalur

Things became properly complicated when Thorkel overheard his wife and Gisli’s wife accusing each other of having been romantically involved each with the best friend of the other’s husband.  When Gisli heard about this he only shrugged and left it to fate to decide, but Thorkel kept his council to himself.  At that time Vestein was away voyaging, so all that happened was that Thorkel decided to move out and live with Thorgim across the valley.

Haukadalur

Haukadalur; deceptively peaceful

To cut a long story short, when Vestein returned to Haukadalur he stayed with Gisli; one night a great storm struck, threatening the house and haystacks, and in the confusion someone slipped into the house and thrust a spear through Vestein as he lay in bed.  Though nobody declared responsibility for the murder, Gisli’s brother-in-law Thorgrim dropped a few hints that he had been involved, and some time later Gisli crept out one night, down through the hayfield and across the stream, and into his brother’s house.  He killed Thorgrim secretly and escaped, but he too was not careful enough with his words afterwards, and when it became apparent that he was the guilty party he was outlawed and doomed to spend the rest of his life on the run.

The site of Gisli and Thorkel's farms, with the stream between.

The site of Gisli and Thorkel’s farms, with the stream and hayfields between.

Gisli survived as an outlaw for thirteen years, longer than anyone except Grettir the Strong, but for the last seven years of his life he was plagued by dreams in which two women came to him, one good and kind, the other terrible and always smearing him with blood and gore.  In the dreams seven fires were burning, and Gisli understood that these represented the years left to him.

Geirþjófsfjörður

Geirþjófsfjörður from Einhamar

When the seven years were up Gisli was staying with his wife on a farmstead she had established in the remote valley of Geirþjófsfjörður, where I arrived on a Monday morning a good thousand years later.  The road runs around the top of the valley, and the valley sides are steep and rocky at first, and then boggy and wooded further down.  Crowberries and bilberries grow in abundance, and the scrubby willow trees form a thick natural barrier three metres tall, all soaking wet on that morning.  But I could see poking out through the trees a great slab of rock that I just knew was Einhamar, on which Gisli fought his heroic final battle.  A cairn on top of the rock was the best indication that this was a place of significance, but when I climbed up onto the rock I could see how well it matched the description in the saga.  Down below is a steep ridge where Gisli first turned on his fifteen attackers, and then on rough cliffs several metres high rises the crag Einhamar that he suddenly scrambled up onto to resume his defence.

Einhamar from behind

Einhamar from behind

But it wasn’t just the cairn or the physical resemblance to the story that persuaded me that this was the very spot on which Gisli bravely met his fate; there was something in the atmosphere of the place.  With a beautiful waterfall running past the crag, the mountains above and the fjord below, it is a truly special spot, remote and apparently untouched by the passing centuries.  There more than anywhere else in Iceland I felt a direct connection to the world of the sagas, and to Gisli himself, and that place and moment alone made the entire journey worthwhile.

Behind Einhamar

Behind Einhamar