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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: