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15 October 2007 @ 02:55 pm
Iceland: Doomed lovers and doomed warlords  
June 20

(Photos here.)

(Earlier Iceland trip reports here.)

Last night, at Laugar, I swam in a pool fed by the same spring that fed the pool where Guðrún and Kjartan, of Laxdæla Saga, used to soak and talk together when they were young and in love. As I swam I stared out at the green hills, thinking this was a lovely place to swim--and a lovely place to be young and in love.

Before heading to sleep I walked in the valley those hills surrounded for a while, following the road a bit, watching a stream trickle through the green and yellow wildflowers; watching some stray sheep make their way down a hillside; watching the sun and a sliver of just-past-new moon set sometime around midnight. There were a few other tents in our campground, but not many.

In the morning, we went looking for the actual pool Guðrún and Kjartan would have soaked in. The most likely spot wasn't very far from the campground: a chalky spot in the rocks near a waterfall.

lnhammer and I stared out at that spot for a while, trying to picture Guðrún and Kjartan talking together there and finding each other clever.

What did they talk about, we wondered? Law cases being argued at the Alþing? Who was going to Norway that year? Esoteric theoretical philosophical and legal debates, the sort that keep college students up well into the night even today? How annoying they found the older generation?

Or did Guðrún and Kjartan spend more time looking at one another than talking? Making out, perhaps, if no one else was there? (Only, was there ever no one else there?)

Later in the day, as I wrote these thoughts down, I also wondered: Did they laugh much together?

Later still, getting reading to share these thoughts, I find myself thinking: I hope they laughed. They deserved some laughter, given all that would happen later.

Eventually we packed up camp and left Laugar. We had time to explore Laxdæla saga country just a little more before leaving it behind.

We headed along the south toward Hvammsfjörður [Hvamm Fjord]. As we drove, we saw a cross at the top of a hill. At the hotel near our campground, there'd been mention of an "elf church." We couldn't tell, back at the hotel, whether this was a legitimate bit of folklore or just something of a tourist trap; if it was a tourist trap, it wasn't a very good one, as I couldn't get a clear answer as to just where it was. :-) I had no idea whether this was the place the hotel brochure meant, but we pulled over to check it out, and I climbed up the hill to the cross.

The gray rocks made a distinctive clinky sound beneath my feet as I climbed. The hill, I thought, was the right kind of hill to have hidden folk beneath it, at least based on what I'd learned back at Lauharhóll; though another hill, beside the first, seemed even more likely. I took some of the clinky rocks back with me and showed them to Larry. He had no more idea what sort of stone they were than I did.

I almost took those rocks home with me. But then I thought, well, if this was actually an elf church, well, I knew nothing good ever came of stealing from the elves, in any folklore. So I walked the rocks back to the hill, and I left them there.

Only here is the danger in trying to guess at a place's lore without anything much to base those guesses on. Much later, back in the States, I looked at the picture I'd taken of that cross, and set about trying to interpret the words inscribed upon them. After a bit of dictionary work and a bit of googling, I realized the words on the cross were more or less taken right out of Landnámabók, which is an account of the settlement of Iceland, and that they read something like, "Auður the deep-minded lived at Hvamm. She prayed at Cross-Knolls; there she had them raise crossed because she was baptized and a true believer."

Auður the deep-minded was the ancestor of many of the characters in Laxdæla Saga, and of the characters in other sagas as well. The cross must have been some sort of a memorial or tribute, though whether that was the specific place where she prayed, I don't know.

Just as well I left those clinky stones behind, though. Auður was yet another strong saga woman--one of the first strong saga women. Perhaps she wouldn't have appreciated my taking stones away from her prayer station any more than the elves would have.

In fact, we were heading toward Hvammsfjörður in part so that we could stop at Hvammur, Auður's home after she settled in Iceland. A couple centuries later this would also be home, for a time, to Snorri Sturluson, poet and scholar and chieftan and lawspeaker.

Hvammur wasn't very far from the cross on the hill. Auður's farm--and Snorri's farm, later sold to cover his bride-price when he married--was in a deep valley with good access to the fjord. Here, as at Höskuldsstaðir, I had the feeling I stood on good rich farmland.

We headed drove on, west along the Hvammsfjörður northern coast. Some stretch of that shore--we were never quite sure which--was labeled Fellsströnd on our map; and somewhere along Fellsströnd, Hallgerður (one of Auður's many descendants) lived with her first husband, Þorvaldur.

The further west we drove, the more the stretch of flat land we drove along narrowed, pressed between the hills and the fjord. Þorvaldur's farm, I realized, would also have been pressed between hills and fjord. It would, I guessed, have been a much smaller, leaner farm than Höskuldsstaðir, Hallgerður's childhood home, had been.

In Njál's Saga, when Hallgerður's father tells her she's to marry Þorvaldur, Hallgerður complains, among other things, that this marriage is beneath her. Driving along Fellsströnd, I began to understand why.

I began to understand, too, why Hallgerður so quickly ran through her new husband's household provisions, which was one of the things they fought over. She wouldn't have been used to living in a place with limited resources; she probably really didn't know how to manage those resources properly, having had no experience doing so. She was a young wife, inexperienced-- Þorvaldur may not have been wrong, exactly, when he accused her of being extravagant, but that also may not have been the whole story.

One could see how she would have been furious at Þorvaldur, too, when he gave her a hard time. More, one could see how she would have been furious, years later as Gunnar's wife, when in spite of all she'd learned provisions ran short again--this time because of a famine, and Gunnar's generosity, and a neighbor who wasn't nearly so generous when they were wanting in turn.

I've lost track of all the ways in which the land has deepened my understanding of these stories.

We followed the fjord a while, then drove back toward Láxardalur (the Lax River Valley Laxdæla Saga is named for) and stopped at Hjarðarholt, home to Hallgerður's half-brother Ólafur the Peacock, as well as to his son Kjartan. From here we could see Höskuldsstaðir clearly. We could also see out toward Kambsnes, the place where Bolli--Ólafur's foster son, and the man Guðrun married instead of Kjartan--lived. As in Njál's Saga country to the south, the lives in Laxdæla Saga here to the west were messily intertwined in large part because they lived so close to each other.

Laugar was about 8 km away from Hjarðarholt, or less than a two-hour ride by horse. Would that have been considered a bit far to go to soak in a hot spring? Perhaps not, especially if you knew that a pretty girl waited for you when you got there.

We continued south, toward Reykholt, which was home to Snorri Sturluson later in life.
The land grew broad in feel, surrounded by hillsides, but no longer bounded by bays and fjord. We began to once more see places where random bits of steam rose from the ground; we once more found ourselves driving past random fields of lava--both reminders that we were, indeed, making our way not only south, but back toward the geologically active rift that Þingvellir is a part of.

We came to another unexpected roadside pulloff, this one with a sign. Grábrókargígar (Grábrók crater) the sign read, and beyond it a trail led up to a caldera created by a volcanic eruption some 3000 years ago.

It only took a few moments--and a look at the map on the sign--to decide to climb the couple kilometers to the rim. Lava rocks clinked and crunched beneath our feet. Those rocks provided good purchase for our steps, and were as nearly as grippy as the pillow-lava we walked over in the south; in a few places the trail grew a little steep, but otherwise, it was an easy hike.

The lava rocks were gray and black and brown and rust red and mustard yellow. They felt incredibly light in the hand, filled with air holes and air as they were. In some of the darker rocks I saw hidden holes, small caves.

It was a fun hike. This mountain did not feel at all alive to me, not the way Hekla had. I could easily believe it had been over 3000 years since it had erupted, and that the hill was now tame--or as tame as any land can be, in so geologically active a place. I felt no unease, no sense that I didn't belong here or ought to go away--none of the sense of dread I had at Hekla, which still erupts every ten years or so.

Finally we made our way to Reykholt, and to Snorrastofa, the history museum focused on Snorri Sturluson's life and the history of the era he lived in.

Snorri Sturluson is 13th century figure, a part of Iceland's Sturlung era. I still know a lot less about the Sturlung era than I do about the settlement (9th to 10th century) and saga (10th to 12th century) eras before it. In the saga era, the power of chieftains and other landholders was relatively limited, and each of them was more or less responsible for their own lands and a relatively small household. By the Sturlung era, power had become consolidated into fewer hands. Chieftains were more powerful, more like warlords. They had armies; they had fortresses. The feuding of the saga era was no longer a one-on-one affair, or even a matter for small groups. When a hundred men descended on Njál's home to burn it in Njál's Saga, that was considered a huge force; but by the Sturlung era, there were chieftans with forces of 500 or 1000 men at their command.

The Sturlung era is also when the sagas were written down, however, and while he may have been a chieftain, Snorri Sturluson is more better-known as a writer and scholar. He's the author of the Prose Edda, from which much of our present-day understanding of Norse mythology comes. He's also the author of the Heimskringla, a history of the Norwegian kings; and he may or may not be the author of Egil's Saga. He also served as law speaker to the Alþing twice. He may well have been a better scholar than chieftain; in the end, he was assassinated by his political enemies at Reykholt.

The exhibits at Snorrastofa were packed full of historical information, and my journal is filled with random Sturlung-era historical notes.

Like that skrud (skrúð?) was a fabric that was not only costly in and of itself, but that you weren't even allowed to wear unless you first met the financial prerequisites.

Or that most battles began with a flurry of stone-throwing.

Or that lamps consisted of a wick of bog cotton in a fuel of sea-oil, shark oil, or cod-liver oil. While candles were more expensive, and mostly only used in churches and cloisters.

Or that the small bound saga of St. Margaret, patron saint of women in childbirth, was often placed in bed with women, beneath their clothes, while they were giving birth.

Or that one of the oldest (the oldest?) surviving documents in Old Norse is the deed to Reykholt's church. "To the church in Reykholt belongs the home farm with all it's produce. Along with that go twenty cows, a two-year-old bull, and one hundred and thirty ewes..."

And so on. It was a good place for historical geekery, and the staff at the museum were more than willing to answer questions, too. "It's not just the academics interested in these stories," one woman explained to me as we discussed the sagas. "It's the farmers, too." Which may be one of the things I love most about Iceland: that the sagas, and literature in general, have never been assumed to be of interest only to a few intellectuals.

The bookshop was filled with a wonderful array of history books, too. I picked up a book on various historical takes on Njála, and a volume of the series of graphic novels based on the saga hildigunnur had recommended as well, and jotted down many other titles to seek out once I returned to the States. (In order to keep from going utterly broke, lnhammer and I had a rule: if it was published in the U.S., we could buy it later. If it was published in Iceland, we bought it there. If it was published in England ... well, then we had to think about it. :-))

We camped that night in Húsafell, a resort campground designed for locals rather than tourists, where we pitched our tend amid a small planted grove of birch trees. Again, the hills we saw in the distance were clearly volcanic.

It was a pleasant campground with a pleasant pool, and if it had any historical significance we didn't know it.

The next night we would be camping in Reykjavík once more. I felt a bit of a twinge at the thought. Back at Eiríksstaðir, returning to the present had felt very right; but now, I wasn't sure I was quite ready to return.

I have one more note in my journal from this day. It says, simply, "The mistery of past time." I have no idea anymore whether that came from Snorrastofa or a typo on a sign or whether we made it up, but I like it.
probably pining for the fjords: reynisdrangarhildigunnur on October 15th, 2007 10:55 pm (UTC)
I really like the area of Dalirnir - Laxárdalur and surroundings. Not been there too often but every time I've been there, I've just felt something I like about those place.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Hjarðarholtjanni on October 15th, 2007 11:15 pm (UTC)
Yes, I very much liked it too. I forgot how much, until I went back to my journal from those days.

It just has the feeling of being a good place.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on October 16th, 2007 12:16 am (UTC)
VERY smart rule.

I love the image of the pool, and the lovers.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Hjarðarholtjanni on October 16th, 2007 12:30 am (UTC)
The saga becomes so painful later, when things go wrong between them. It was good to look out and picture their early selves.

"Take me with you, for it is not Iceland that I love," Guðrún said when Kjartan announced he was heading to Norway. If only he could have listened, everything would have been different.

But then, we wouldn't have a story.
(Deleted comment)
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/Hjarðarholtjanni on October 17th, 2007 03:18 pm (UTC)
Yes! Especially in winter, when you're far enough north that you can't simply do all your work during daylight.