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

P1030039

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.

P1020902

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:

P1020912

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.

P1020782

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.

P1030026

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

P1020618

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.

P1020093

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

P1020112

(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

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

Snaefellsnes

I was travelling out along the peninsula of Snaefellsnes with a friendly Icelander who had picked me up, wet and dirty after my trek around Hítardalur, and particularly my second river crossing, which had soaked me to above the waist.  After reassuring me cheerfully that the car belonged to his son, ‘an expert at cleaning cars’, Elías took care to point out and stop at many of the stunning natural features along our route.  When he learned that I was planning to camp that night, he even invited me to stay with him in the holiday cottage he had booked from his worker’s union.  I gratefully accepted, and with my night’s accomodation sorted settled down to enjoy the scenery.

Eldborg - the extinct volcano of 'Fire Fortress'

Eldborg – the extinct volcano of ‘Fire Fortress’

Mineral rich and naturally sparkling spring at Ölkelda

Mineral rich and naturally sparkling spring at Ölkelda

Volcanic rock in the sand dunes at Búðir

Volcanic rock in the sand dunes at Búðir

As you travel west along the Snaefellsnes peninsula the landscape seems to become greener and undefinably richer and more vigorous in life.  Perhaps the soil is better on this long arm of land that stretches out into the sea; perhaps the sea makes the climate slightly milder.  The medieval Icelanders had their own tradition about Snaefellsnes that might explain the phenomenon.  According to Bard’s saga, one of the settlers in that area was Bard, who was part human, part giant, and part troll.  As he grew older he became increasingly retiring, and in the end Bard moved away from other men altogether, and went to live on the glacier on the summit of Snaefell.  He became a guardian spirit of sorts, exerting his benign influence over the landscape, and appearing when his friends or relatives were in trouble.

Waterfall on Snaefellsnes

Waterfall on Snaefellsnes

We stopped to buy fresh mackerel from the fishing boats in the harbour at Arnarstapi, where Bard had his farm before he disappeared, and where he is celebrated in a larger than life stone statue:

Bard at Arnarstapi

Bard at Arnarstapi

Arnarstapi - a paradise for seabirds

Arnarstapi – a paradise for seabirds

We were staying in the next village, and as the next morning was a Saturday, and Elías was on holiday, he offered to help me explore the peninsula.  We started just outside the village we had stayed in, Hellnar, where a small lake in a remarkable hidden crater is known to have been Bard’s bathing spot of choice.  In fact the lake was once naturally heated, and though not hot, was warm, or at least lukewarm, so there is almost certainly some truth in the story of the lake’s historic use.

Bard's bathing spot of choice

Bard’s bath

A short distance further along the road is the site of the farm Laugarbrekka where Gudrid Thorbjornsdottir was born in the tenth century, famed for being the most widely travelled Icelandic woman until the twentieth century.  This extraordinary claim to fame was achieved partly due to her participation in one of the Vínland expeditions, when a group of intrepid Icelanders set up a settlement in North America.  Her place in the history books was assured when in later life she made a pilgrimage to Rome.

Laugarbrekka

Laugarbrekka

It all sounds very egalitarian, and indeed, Viking society is often celebrated for its progressive attitude to women, who kept ownership of their property in a marriage, ruled for all practical purposes their household, and could even demand a divorce, provided the discontented wife had some male relatives to handle the legal and physical business of recovering her property.  And there are only a couple of instances of physical violence towards women (except witches, naturally) in all the forty odd family sagas.  But it is too easy, especially for a Viking enthusiast, to idealise this, and to forget that for women many of the practicalities and attitudes in daily life were, well… medieval.

Lónbjörg, western end of Snaefellsnes

Lónbjörg, western end of Snaefellsnes

Bard’s saga provides some excellent examples of this inequality, largely through the story of Bard’s daughter, Helga.  When Helga was young, perhaps in her early teens, she was playing a competitive game with her sisters and cousins, and became stranded on an ice floe that blew out to sea.  Miraculously it carried her to Greenland, where Eirik the Red had recently established a settlement.  Her life was saved, but the extraordinary way in which she had arrived in Greenland and her unusual strength, equal to that of a man in everything, prevented her full acceptance into the community there.  Some of the men called her ‘troll’ (and to be sure, according to her ancestry given in the saga she did have troll blood in her, but that is not the point!), and she longed to return to Snaefellsnes.  But when she did finally return to Iceland her father took her away from the man she loved, and she was left to travel the country alone.  Her experiences meant she had difficulty sleeping, hid her identity, and always distrusted men.  At one farm a fellow traveller, a Norwegian, tried to take advantage of her, and was left with a broken arm and leg – but it was Helga who slipped away in embarrassment soon afterwards.

Kirkufell in Grundarfjörður

Kirkjufell in Grundarfjörður

Bard himself was no angel in his treatment of women.  On one of his returns to the human world he spent the winter with a family and seduced the fifteen-year-old daughter.  Soon after he left the following summer she gave birth, and from then on the girl’s father more-or-less ignored her, as if he had not facilitated the whole situation.  Not the egalitarian society we occasionally like to imagine!  As always, we can rely on the sagas to combine fantasy with gritty reality and a truly human element in their accounts of medieval life.  And to be fair to the Vikings, I’m not sure we’ve come so very much further in these matters than they did – except perhaps in Iceland itself.

Waterfall at Grundarfjörður, northern Snaefellsnes

Waterfall at Grundarfjörður, northern Snaefellsnes

Besides, nobody wants too much reality in stories, so it is not surprising that Bard is primarily remembered as a benevolent father figure who always appeared when needed, the guardian spirit of the Snaefell glacier.  And even just passing by, one does sense some kind of supernatural power emanating from the almost always cloud-covered glacier peak of the mountain.  Perhaps it is just the magic of the bleak but enchanting landscape that surrounds the mountain.

Grundarfjörður

Grundarfjörður, looking west in direction of the glacier

Reykjanes Peninsula

It was with a determination to find this mysterious Iceland of the sagas that I landed at Keflavík airport late one Friday night in mid August.  My head was full of Laxdæla saga after reading it on the flight, and my rucksack was full of more sagas, a copy of Lonely Planet, a road atlas, a bird guide, a few changes of clothes, some emergency food, and a warm but bulky sleeping bag.  Strapped to the outside was my tent, and I was going to need it very soon, because I knew all the hostels in Reykjavík were fully booked until Sunday.  So I ignored the buses outside the airport and set off on foot into the night.

With hard walking and a very lucky lift I arrived not too long after midnight at a campsite on the very northwesternmost tip of Reykjanes Peninsula, outside the little town of Garður.  The campsite lay right up against the sea, between the old and the current lighthouse, and the few other tents on the site were mostly positioned along a thick sea wall of large rocks for shelter.  It was windy and cold, and I wondered how my limited wardrobe would cope in several weeks time in the north of the country, with conditions this bad here in the south in mid August.  It was still very cold the next morning when I got up at six, but as the sun came up the temperature improved and the clouds rolled away, leaving a beautiful day behind them.

Image

Garður Campsite – mountains of west coast in distance

I walked several kilometres back through Garður and along the road towards Keflavík; there was no traffic except for jeeps with golf buggies on trailers heading the other way.  A couple of hundred metres over the bare moorland to the northeast the coastline ran parallel to the road, while on the other side the moor stretched away to the horizon.  It was punctuated by occasional low ridges and patches of some thriving green plant that looked suspiciously like an invasive weed, but was for the most part bleak and bare except for moss and a thin scattering of struggling grass.  My attention was caught by a large number of wooden frames standing a short distance away on my right, which I guessed were for drying fish on.

Fish drying along Krysuvík - Reykjavík road

Fish drying along Krysuvík – Reykjavík road

This was the first indication of a traditional industry that could have supported life on this peninsula before the Modern Age.  The fields around Garður, such as they were, all had horses in rather than cows or sheep or pigs, and the Icelander who drove me to Hafnir on the west coast of Reykjanes pointed out his dozen horses in a field on the edge of Hafnir.  What did he use them for? “Riding,” he replied.  In the rest of Europe this might seem pretty excessive, but in Iceland keeping horses has little to do with post-industrial prosperity; for many it is a natural part of life.  Reference to almost any medieval saga reveals that despite the strong association we have with vikings and the sea, the early Icelanders were effectively a horse culture.

Image

Horses outside Garður

Horses were used all the time for travel and shepherding, for popular entertainment by making stallions fight at prearranged gatherings, and sometimes they fulfilled a spiritual or religious role as well.  In the saga named for him the chieftain Hrafnkel is set on a dramatic course of ups and downs after killing a servant boy who had ridden without permission his prize stallion, which he had dedicated to the god Frey.  This obsession with horses seems to have survived ever since, and in fields and on hillsides all over Iceland you will see countless Icelandic horses, a breed they protect fiercely, and which as a result is more or less unchanged from its early medieval ancestors.

Hafnir has a more tangible survival from the settlement period in the form of a partially excavated longhouse from about the year 900.  It is one of a few pieces of evidence for medieval occupation of this bleak corner of the countryside, another being a reference to a journey around Reykjanes taken by a family of beggars in the Saga of Hord and the People of Holm.  However, the poor land quality and exposed coastline must have meant that it was always a region where few people lived, and the land becomes even less hospitable beyond Hafnir, where I headed next.

P1000146

Partially excavated longhouse, Hafnir

In the world of tourism Reykjanes Peninsula is famous (apart from the Blue Lagoon) for its bubbling mud pools and steaming springs, the most dramatic of which are at Gunnuhver in the far southwestern corner, and Krysuvík, where a turning off the coastal road eventually leads cross country back to the main road into Reykjavík.  I spent the next few hours visiting these sites and the sea cliffs beyond Gunnuhver, and arrived footsore, tired, and happy, in Reykjavík late that afternoon.  I will let photos describe that journey, and you will have to imagine the sulphurous reek and ferocious steaming and bubbling sounds of the mud pools.

P1000160

Meeting of European and American continental plates, south of Hafnir.

P1000166

Cliffs at southwestern tip of Iceland.

P1000172

Cratre, Valahnúkur

P1000178

Boiling mud pools at Gunnuhver

South coast of Reykjanes, outside Grindavík

South coast of Reykjanes, outside Grindavík

Boiling mud, Séltún (Krysuvík).

Boiling mud, Séltún (Krysuvík).

Steaming stream, Séltún

Steaming stream, Séltún

Icelandic horses in upland meadow, Krysuvík

Icelandic horses in upland meadow, Krysuvík