Thursday, 24 February 2011

Hvalfjörður and Harðar saga ok Hólmverja

"This is one of the most picturesque of sites, and has one of the most romantic of sagas attached to it", opens William Gershom Collingwood's description of Hvalfjörður in his 1899 book A Pilgrimage to the Saga-Steads of Iceland -- whose title, and overall concept, are the principal inspiration for this project.

Hvalfjörður lies north of Reykjavík and Mosfellslbær and is the longest fjord in the south-west of Iceland, cutting 30kms deep into the land along a north-east/south-west axis and curling to the east at its head. Before the Hvalfjarðargöng tunnel was opened in 1998 and the main ringroad re-routed underneath the fjord, all traffic heading north or west to and from Reykjavík had to follow the fjord all the way around -- a drive of an hour or two. The volume of traffic on the road now -- which at times is cut into the steep edges of the mountain-sides rising straight out of the fjord -- must be a tiny fraction of what it was, and the fjord as a whole now has a quiet but powerful feel.  

View down Hvalfjörður from the eastern end of the fjord

There's a lot of local history here. Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674), poet and priest (Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík is named after him, and every year his Passíusálmar are broadcast on the national radio each day over the course of Lent) served as minister at the church at Saurbær for the last 24 years of his life. In the WWII, a British/American naval base and oil refuelling station was established here with over 20, 000 soldiers -- a staggering number, given that the current population of Hvalfjarðarsveit now is around 600 and can't have been that much bigger in previous generations. Part of the naval camp can still be seen, not far from where the whaling staion is, on the northern shore of the fjord, towards the eastern end.

I've been here since Monday -- on the trail of Harðar saga ok Hólmverja. For the main part, Harðar saga tells the story of Hörðr Grímkelsson, who was born around 950 CE. Hörðr's first steps, aged 3, brought his mother Signý's wrath upon him when he stumbled into her lap causing her precious necklace to break. "Ill varð þín ganga in fyrsta, ok munu hér margar illar eptir fara, ok mun þó verst in síðasta" (Harðar saga, ed. Þórhallur Vilmundarsson and Bjarni Vilhjálmsson, Íslenzk fornrit 13 (Reykjavík, 1991), ch. 7, p. 17; "Evil were your first steps, and much ill will follow, with the worst, however, to come last"), she exlaims in anger. Aged 15, Hörðr travelled to Norway and Sweden where he broke into a burial mound, fought the zombie-viking-mound-dweller Sóti and acquired Sóti's precious sword and ring -- thereby incurring Sóti's curse ("Skaltu þat víst vita ... at sjá hringr skal þér at bana verða ok öllum þeim, er eiga, utan kona eigi", Harðar saga ch. 15, p. 43; "You will know this for certain ... that that ring will be your death, and the death of all those who own it, unless a woman owns it").

Litli-Botn, at the eastern end of Hvalfjörður 
After marrying Helga, the daughter of jarl Haraldr of Gautland, Hörðr returns to Iceland 15 years later. He farms for a couple of years, and then is outlawed after events force him to the killing of a man named Auðr, and the burning of Auðr's farm. Hörðr -- together with his foster-brother and close friend Geirr, whose farm Neðri-Botn (now Litli-Botn, photo right) is at the head of Hvalfjörður, and a number of others -- moves onto the small island of Geirshólmi which lies in the bay formed by the spit Þyrilsnes (photo below right). The band survive by raiding farmers in the area and stealing their livestock.
Eventually, local resistance (including Hörðr's uncle and brothers-in-law) comes to a head and the Hólm-dwellers are tricked into coming to the mainland, where they are slaughtered. Hörðr's wife, Helga, and two sons remain on the island, and Helga swims ashore at night with the children and makes for the farm where Hörðr's sister Þorbjörg, and her husband Indriði, live. The last part of the saga tells of further killings instigated by Þorbjörg in order to avenge her brother -- firstly, that of Hörðr's killer, Þorsteinn Gullhnappr of Þyrill, whose head Þorbjörg demands her husband bring to her.

Geirshólmi, from Þyrill; Þyrilsnes, on which Hörðr
fought his last fight and died, stretches out into the
fjord from the left-hand side

The saga is very much written into the topography of the area and a great number of place-names bear witness to the events related in it, bringing the text of the saga together with the physical contours of this part of Iceland in a very real way. I'll write more on this, and more about specific place-names and their relationship to Harðar saga in the next post, to follow shortly. The saga is used extensively by local tour-guide Arnheiður Hjörleifsdóttir ( in her presentation of the area to visitors; it is very much in the consciousness of those who live here too.
I spent a fantastic two hours yesterday talking to a couple in their late 70s/early 80s who have lived on a 'Harðar-saga farm' (Ferstikla) on the northern shore of the fjord for many decades. Vífill was full of information about local places connected with the saga, had all kinds of opinons about the veracity and artistry of saga and its events and characters, and offered numerous nuggets of local history. Dúfa had had to read the Íslendingasögur as a girl at school and found them then to be utterly boring...nothing in them but people killing each other, which is interesting to boys maybe, but not to girls. Interestingly though, in further conversation on this point with Dúfa, it transpired that the way some episodes from Harðar saga -- Helga's swim from the island with her two boys in particular, for example -- fit into the local landscape, however, is stories rather than printed text, these episodes are human, and alive, and have great appeal.        
Time to move on now, despite the rain and grey clouds which shroud the fjord as I write (happily, I'm writing inside, washed and warm, thanks to Gaui litli at Félagsheimilið Hlaðir, I'm going to drive north from Hvalfjörður over into Svínadalur and then into Skorradalur in search of further Harðar saga locations...more will follow.
One last media alert though for those who wish to hear about the adventures via the radio/TV: I'll be talking to Bergsson and Blöndal live on RÚV 2 just after 9am on Saturday morning...and can be seen in conversation with Egill Helgason on his TV programme Kiljan next Wednesday evening. The Embulance, too, features in person (in vehicle?), in the studio... 

Friday, 18 February 2011

Embulance trials and tribulations parts 2, 3, 4...and medieval Icelandic manuscripts

The Embulance on the track to Sólheimajökull in south Iceland (photo by Axel Steuwer)'s been a little while since my last post, but for those who may have been worrying, I haven't been wandering lost through lava-fields or stolen away by the huldufólk (the 'hidden people')... The Embulance continues to test my patience and purse by throwing up all kinds of mechanical issues: the drive down south was not exactly an easy ride what with a whimsical alternator and battery/electrical issues, the fan-belt coming off and some serious engine overheating, no power-steering thanks to the power-steering pump seizing up so the belt couldn't turn, and further clutch-related problems...On the plus side, I'm constantly learning from these trials and tribulations and they also present me with the opportunity to meet all kinds of extremely kind people. I have been quite overwhelmed by the lengths to which people have gone to help me out when I've been broken down. Thank you to all who have helped me so far! There's 10 minutes or so of live interview chat with Liz Rhodes on her BBC Cambridgeshire programme from Wednesday (at about 1hr 19mins) if you'd like to hear a little more...

Right now though I'm in Reykjavík where I´m finishing up a couple of pieces of academic work that need a real desk, inside!! Yesterday morning saw me at the door of the Þjóðmenningarhús on Hverfisgata at 9am in order to look at a very important manuscript: the Konungsbók or Codex Regius of Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, classmark GKS 2367 4to. Most of the medieval Icelandic manuscripts are kept at the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar (The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies) which is attached to the University of Iceland. But GKS 2367 4to is on display at the Þjóðmenningarhús as part of a permanent exhibition about the Eddas and Sagas and medieval Icelandic manuscript culture -- essential viewing for anyone visiting Reykjavík! It was a great privilege to be allowed access to the manuscript, and it was taken out of the musuem cabinet in  which it's housed so I could examine it and check various things for the edition of a poem (Jómsvíkingadrápa) I'm editing for the Skaldic Editing Project. I had two hours to scrutinise the manuscript's surprisingly small -- and often worn and dark -- leaves before it was replaced behind the glass on its pedestal, and the doors to the exhibition were opened to the public.  

The manuscript is thought to have been written between 1300 and 1350 and is famous first and foremost for containing Snorra Edda -- a prose retelling of Old Norse pre-Christian myths and legends, and a repository of skaldic verse and metres put together by Snorri Sturluson (d. 1241), an Icelandic politician, scholar and poet. On the last few leaves of the manuscript, however, the texts of a couple of poems were copied out in full (or nearly in full) by the anonymous scribe: firstly Jómsvíkingadrápa, composed by the Orcadian Bishop Bjarni Kolbeinsson (d. 1222), followed by the anonymous Málsháttakvæði which dates to around the same time as Jómsvíkingadrápa and may also have been composed in the Orkneys. For those interested in reading more about Norse myth and literary production in medieval Orkney, a conference paper on the subject by Professor Judith Jesch (University of Nottingham) can be found here

The 45 stanzas of Jómsvíkingadrápa focus largely on the late-10th-century naval battle of Hjörungavágr, south of Ålesund, Møre and Romsdal in Norway. On the one, attacking, side was the famous Jómsvíking warband led by the bold chieftains Sigvalldi jarl Strút-Haraldsson, Búi digri Vésetason and Vagn Ákason: the Jómsvíkings established and maintained a warrior-brotherhood stronghold, Jómsborg, where present-day Wolin is now (i.e. on the Baltic coast of Poland) in the latter decades of the 10th century and first half of the 11th century. On the other side was the father-and-son-duo Hákon and Eiríkr, Norwegian jarls of Lade. There are numerous descriptions of the various feats of daring executed by these characters during the battle, and accompanying graphic detail of bodily dismemberment...but the poem is particularly interesting and unusual stylistically for the way that at certain points, the poet weaves his personal experiences of unrequited love alongside the standard viking swash and buckle and battle-gore, as in the verse below: 

Jómsvíkingdrápa verse 31

Ein drepr fyr mér allri                 
-- ylgr gekk á ná bolginn --
-- þar stóð ulfr í tu --
ítrmanns kona teiti.
Góð ætt of kemr grimmu
-- gein vargr of sal mergjar --
grðr þvarr gylðis jóða --
gœðings at mér stríði.
Prose word order: Ein kona ítrmanns drepr allri teiti fyr mér; ylgr gekk á bolginn ná; ulfr stóð þar í tu. Góð ætt gœðings kemr stríði at mér; vargr gein of {sal mergjar}; grðr jóða gylðis þvarr.
Translation: A certain nobleman’s wife kills all joy for me; a she-wolf stepped on the swollen corpse; a wolf stood there eating. The good descendant of a nobleman brings torment upon me; a wolf gaped over {the hall of marrow} [BONE]; the greed {of the offspring of the wolf} [WOLVES] diminished.

Lights, camera, action (photo by Axel Steuwer)
Love is in the air...and may feature in upcoming posts -- strictly with respect to the sagas, of course -- since I plan to drive north out of Reykjavík on Monday (fingers crossed for Embulance co-operation) and will head for Borgarfjarðarsýsla and Mýrasýsla where a number of poets and outlaw sagas are set (Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu, Bjarnar saga Hítdœlakappa, Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar). Business will bring me back to town at the end of February so I'll only have a week or so on the road but it should be a productive and fun one so please do come back soon for a progress report!

Saturday, 5 February 2011

On the Víga-Glúmr trail at Munkaþverá and Espihóll

The modern farm at Munkaþverá,
as seen from the road
In conjunction with exploring the landscapes in which the Íslendingasögur are set over the course of the year, an important part of my project is to meet people currently living in the places that are mentioned in the sagas. One of the things I find most remarkable and compelling about the sagas and Iceland -- something that is rarely found in Britain or elsewhere to the same degree -- is that a great number of the farms in which saga-characters lived, places where events in the sagas were played out, are still inhabited and bear the same names. Of course, the dwellings in which the saga-characters lived are long since vanished: farms now generally comprise a number of modern barns and outhouses and a 20th-century farmhouse. The predecessors to these modern buildings were turf-roofed houses which were often added to over the course of several centuries in some cases; one example of an old turf-house construction can be seen at Laufás, 30 kms north of Akureyri. Archaeological excavations of a large Viking-Age longhouse in the centre of Reykjavík (Reykjavík 871 +/-2) give an idea of what settlement-period and early medieval sagasteads (or at least important ones) might have looked like.      

The modern farmhouse and buildings at Munkaþverá, Víga-Glúmr's farmstead (called Þverá in the saga), stand where old turf-houses were before, as do those at Espihóll across the river from Munkaþverá on the western side of the valley. Much of Víga-Glúms saga tells of the disputes and physical clashes between Víga-Glúmr and his family, and the Esphœlingar, the inhabitants of Espihóll. The current inhabitants of both Munkaþverá and Espihóll are not descended from the saga characters...but generations of each family have lived and farmed the land for a century or so. Guðný Kristjánsdóttir (b. 1941), who lives with her husband at Espihóll, told me how her father passed down stories about Víga-Glúmr and the Esphælingar orally when she was a child growing up at Espihóll: he had read the saga, and Guðný remarked that much of what she knows about the saga comes from him, in addition to her own reading of it. Events from the saga were related in conversation around the kitchen table; Guðný remembers also how, while at school, she was taken on outings to saga-sites in Skagafjörður. 

Espihóll, ('Aspen/poplar hill')
Looking out of the east-facing sitting room window in Espihóll, the bare hill of the same name rises abruptly just to one´s right. Diagonally to the left, across the river, is Munkaþverá. Guðný tells me that the river -- as is to be expected, and as the saga itself notes at one point -- changes its course from year to year ('Þar var þá vað á ánni, er nú er ekki', 'There was a ford then across the river, which does not exist now').* Walking down from the farm, just beyond the foot of the Espihóll hill, one hits a small tributary. This, Guðný states, is where the river ran at the time of the Víga-Glúms saga, and she mentions one of the saga's climactic fights in which Glúmr and his men take up position on their side of the river, and the Esphœlingar on the other, and the two sides throw stones and weapons at each other. Honour and reputation in the district are at stake.

'Þar var nú vað á ánni, er nú er ekki. Þeir sǫfnuðu nú at sér átta tigum vígra manna um nóttina ok bjuggusk við á hólinum framanverðum, þvá at þar var vaðit á ánni við hólinn sjálfan. En frá Arnóri er at segja, at hann finnr Glúm ok segir honum frá fǫrum sínum. Hann svarar: "Ekki kom mér at óvǫrum, at þeir léti eigi kyrrt, ok er nú á vandi nǫkkurr, svívirðing, ef kyrrt er, en allósýn virðing, ef við er leitat at rétta, en þó skal nú safna mǫnnum." Ok er ljóst var um morgininn, þá kom Glúmr at ánni með sex tigu manna ok vildi ríða yfir ána. En þeir grýttu á þá, Esphœlingar, ok gekk eigi fram reiðin, ok hvarf Glúmr aptr, ok bǫrðusk yfir ána með grjóti ok skotum, ok urðu þar margir sárir, en engir eru nefndir. Ok er heraðsmenn urðu varir við, þá drifu þeir til um daginn ok gengu í milli, ok var á komit sættum ok leitat, hvat Esphœlingar vilja bjóða fyrir ósœmðarhlut þann, er þeir hǫfðu gǫrt Arnóri.' (Víga-Glúms saga, ed. Jónas Kristjánsson, Íslenzk fornrit 9 (Reykjavík, 1956), p. 39. My English translation below at *)

Somewhere on the Munkaþverá side of the river, on the diagonal between Munkaþverá and Espihóll, is the site of the field 'Vitazgjafi', the dispute over which initially sparks the feud between Glúmr and the Esphœlingar early on in the saga. The field, whose name means something which gives certain returns (the field seems to have supernaturally fertile properties perhaps through its association with the god Freyr, whose temple is said to be at Þverá), is used by the Esphœlingar and those at Þverá in alternate years. While Glúmr is abroad in Norway, however, the Esphœlingar encroach on Glúmr´s and his mother´s rights to the field; on his return, Glúmr is prompted by his mother into taking action against this unjustness.
Looking from the river on the Espihóll side over to
After an incident when the Esphœlingar cattle have broken into the Þverá homefield and they are beaten and driven back to Espihóll by Glúmr, we hear how Glúmr laughs and about the extraordinary physical reaction that comes over him when the killing-mentality comes on him. 'Glúmr veik heim, ok setti at honum hlátr, ok brá honum svá við, at hann gerði fǫlvan í andliti, ok hrutu ór augum honum tár þau, er því váru lík sem hagl, þat er stórt er. Ok þann veg brá honum opt við síðan, þá er víghugr var á honum' ('Glúmr turned home, and laughter came upon him, and he was so affected that he became pale in his face, and tears sprang from his eyes which were like hail, they were so big. And he was affected in that manner often afterwards, when the mind for killing was on him'). One morning soon after, Glúmr dresses himself in his fine blue cloak and takes up his gold-inlaid spear in his hand, and he rides down to the field Vitazgjafi where the Esphœlingar Sigmundr Þorkelsson and his wife are working. Sigmundr´s wife expresses regret that the relationship between the Esphœlingar and those at Þverá -- they are kinsmen -- has broken down and she fixes Glúmr´s brooch to his cloak. Glúmr looks over the field and comments that the field appears still to be true to its name; he turns then to Sigmundr and strikes at his head with his spear. 'Þurfti Sigmundr eigi fleiri' ('Sigmundr did not need anything more'): Sigmundr is dead.   

* 'There was then a ford across the river, which does not exist now. They [the Esphœlingar] gathered to them now 80 good men during the night and positioned themselves at the front of the hill, because the ford across the river was there by the hill itself. And about Arnórr there is this to say: that he finds Glúmr and tells him about his journey. He [Glúmr] answers: 'It doesn´t come as a surprise to me that they do not let things be, and there will be some difficulties now: disgrace if things are left as they are, but not guaranteed honour if we try to do something about it; however, we will now gather men." And when it was light in the morning, they Glúmr came to the river with 60 men and wanted to ride over the river. But they, the Esphœlingar, threw stones at them, and it wasn´t possible to advance, and Glúmr turned back and they fought each other across the river with stones and shot, and many were wounded, but none are named. And when men in the district became aware of this, they hurried there during the day and intervened, and the parties came to parley and it was asked what the Esphœlingar would offer for the insult that they had directed at Arnórr.'