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

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