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31 August 2007 @ 03:03 pm
Iceland: Back into saga country  
June 19, Part 1

(Photos here.)

I woke this morning feeling as if I was swimming in story--a stone beside the road where an evil spirit possessed a child; a valley filled with a sorcerer's fog; a pool blessed by a homeless bishop. I was filled with thoughts of how stories and places are bound to one another, and of how neither exists without the other.

In those early moments, I felt more connected to those stories than to the present, and I was okay with that. The saga heroes I'd been chasing down seemed less real, just then, than everyday people whose names I didn't know.

We had breakfast at the hotel (sour milk, cold lamb, bread, cheese, pate, corn flakes--traditional!), then took some time to tromp up the hillside behind the hotel, getting to know the terrain better. We walked over long green and yellow grasses, cut through by deep, narrow streams. More of a trudge than a stroll--I had to lift my legs to walk these slopes, which were less gentle than they looked.

Patches of rock, half-submerged, broke up the patches of grass. Unlike the grass, the rocks were easy to walk on, grippy beneath my rubber sneaker soles, nothing like the slippery slickrock I was used to hiking over in the southwestern U.S. There were mosses too, of course, chalky in some places, a startling bright fluorescent green in others, especially near water. Sometimes, the ground turned from solid to marshy without warning, and brown mud squished beneath my feet.

We packed up the car, looked at the morning fog--higher fog than last night, not so low to the ground, though still very much present--and decided to make another attempt to find the sorcerer's mountain.

As we drove, the seacoast--invisible the night before--appeared and disappeared out of the fog. We took a sudden turn, and then we saw a rocky gray slope, wheeling with white birds.

We had a map, but we didn't need to look at it to know we'd found Kaldbakshorn, the mountain Svanur disappeared into (or not, depending whose account you listen to) when he died.

The old sorcerer didn't let us see the mountain's peak, but he did let us see its lower slopes, a tumble of gray rocks and mossy cliffs that moved in and out of the fog.

And birds. Gulls. More of them than anywhere else along this drive.

We drove on past Kaldbakshorn, and we came to a bay with a sign: Svansbúð. Svanur´s fishing camp, where he was last seen before he disappeared into the mountain? It seemed so.

We poked around Svansbúð, then headed back out, watching the fog dance around Kaldbakshorn as we passed it once more.

Again, the sky quickly cleared as we left Svanur's mountain behind. As we drove away from Kaldbakshorn and from Laugarhóll, we saw patches of fog--including one valley filled with eerie blue fog, straight ahead of us, startling--but we saw nothing like the sorcerer's fog again, not for the rest of our trip.

Before leaving Strandir and the West Fjords entirely, we stopped by the sorcery museum and chatted with Sigurður and Björk over coffee, while they shared more bits of folklore. Like that the Hidden Folk/Huldufólk only take babies as changelings before their teeth grow in, because the old people of their own kind they leave behind in the babies' place don't have teeth anymore, either. And that it's said the largest city in Iceland isn't Reykjavík, but is a city of Hidden Folk in the north, not far from Akureryi. And that while trolls may be bigger than people, they're not dramatically bigger, perhaps the height of a one story building. And so on.

We talked, too, about the importance of ordinary people in all these stories. A good balance, to my searches for saga characters much of this trip.

Part of me really didn't want to leave the West Fjords. I felt like I could have stayed there, wandering the hills, looking for stories.

Except, really, I'd need to learn Icelandic first. By then it was pretty clear I wanted to learn Icelandic anyway, both because it'd be more fun to visit speaking the language; and because if I really am going to remain fascinated with Icelandic literature, it's time to work toward reading it in the original.

At any rate, we did leave the West Fjords, heading south down the coast. The land grew tamer; the hills less steep, less wild; the black cliffs and rock walls mostly gone.

After a couple hours, we left the coast and headed inland, toward Laxárdal, the Lax River Valley. We were back in saga country--specifically, Laxdæla Saga country. The valley flattened out, a river valley. Signs along the road indicated various farms.

I watched those signs. Somewhere near here, I knew, Hallgerður Höskuldsdottir grew up.

We saw the church of Hjarðarholt, home Ólafur the Peacock, Hallgerður´s half-brother, one of the main characters of Laxdæla Saga. (Hallgerður herself gets just a mention in that saga, though it's largely concerned with her relations.)

Then, there -- Höskuldsstaðir, her father's home, and still a working farm today. We pull over. I get out of the car and look around. (Do you suppose the inhabitants of that farm are used to complete strangers pulling over beside their farm to look around?)

I see a valley, with gentle low slopes. Good farmland, this, fertile and lush.

I think of young Hallgerður growing up on this rich, fertile farmstead. I stare out at those slopes, and I try to picture her, standing there.

Words come to mind: Spoiled. Cossetted. I can almost picture a young Hallgerður -- 10 years old? 12? 14? proudly tossing her head.

She was a rich man's daughter. I'd not really thought about that before. And whatever demons tormented her -- if they did -- they tormented first her on this comfortable, well-off farmstead.

We drove on, out of the valley. The hills grew a little steeper again, a little more like the south had been, only with lakes and ... a different feel, though I'm not sure why. Perhaps it was the south touched with a lingering bit of West Fjord wildness? Or maybe it was just me, seeing that there. At any rate, within a few miles we were in a different country again--and on our way to another bit of history--saga history, and North American history, too.
Karenquiller77 on September 1st, 2007 04:23 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Janni. I know nothing of Icelandic sagas, except the snippets I've picked up from your descriptions. They're fascinating, and your pictures are beautiful.