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October 3, 2022

Adventures in Iceland’s Saga Country

By Yoav Tirosh

I’ve been living in Iceland for the last 10 years, and have researched the sagas for around the same time. For me, Iceland‘s landscape and the sagas are intertwined and inseparable.

Naturally, then, when I heard about Emily Lethbridge’s Saga Steads Project – where she travelled Iceland while reading the sagas, tying the text to where its story takes place – I was inspired, and since then every once in a while set off on what Lethbridge calls a “21st-century pilgrimage” of my own. Here I will share the first of these trips.

In 2013 I set out with my friends in a dirt cheap rental car to the north of Iceland. Our goal was to make a presentation for a course taught by Emily Lethbridge and Torfi Tulinius about landscapes, and I guess we took our task a bit too seriously. Personally, I was fascinated by Valla-Ljóts saga’s Bǫðvarr, the peace-loving brother of a local enforcer, who somehow gets involved in his brother’s feud. Bǫðvarr is a sailor having just returned from a trading voyage, and is caught in an ambush as he walks from Ólafsfjörður to modern day Akureyri in the North of Iceland.

Bǫðvarr’s voyage and defeat are fascinating, he is described as a man who is unaccustomed to walking, and he vents out his frustrations by complaining out loud to nobody in particular “now you have lost the way, and the night is dark.” After a night sleeping at the farm of his family’s enemies, his host warns him to avoid the main path. He promises to find an alternative path, but walks along the main road nevertheless. Right before being killed in the ambush upon seeing their enemies his kinsman Bersi says what I believe is one of the greatest lines in saga literature: “we may yet drown in sight of dry land.” Moments before their demise, Bǫðvarr and Bersi invoke sea travel; up until that point drowning was probably the kind of death they feared the most.

Much like Bǫðvarr, I too am inexperienced in walking on snow, more accustomed to walking on sandy Mediterranean beaches and busy city streets than to venturing on slippery ice and deep snow. When asked by my travel companions what I had in mind for the trip, I said that perhaps we should try and retrace Bǫðvarr’s path by hiking. They looked at me with disbelief and said that we’ll be lucky if we manage to get to Óláfsjörður with our cheap rental car.

I refused to acknowledge this reality, and it was only when we finally made it to Óláfsjörður after a longer-than-expected drive from the nearby town of Dalvík that I realized how right they were. The mere fact that they bothered digging a tunnel through a mountain to get to Óláfsjörður rather than having cars taking the road along the shore gives us a good impression of how avalanche-prone and problematic the old path had been. The road itself was mostly cleared from snow by the local authorities, but one could easily imagine how hopeless the landscape would be without the reassuring grey asphalt that holds within it the promise of civilization.

When we drove up to the area of Ásmundr’s farm Kvíabekkr, we risked a walk outside. The snow was much more than knee-deep, and it took us a while to realize that we were actually walking on top of a river which was flowing underneath many meters of snow. Sea travel was clearly not an option in a winter like this, but was walking an option? This proved difficult as well. As much as my companions had warned me beforehand that the weather up north was nothing like that of cozy Reykjavík, it was hard to register this in my mind. ‘How different could weather be?’ I asked myself. After all, it is the same country. How could a man who was unaccustomed to walking make much headway in these harsh conditions?

The mere fact that Bǫðvarr made it as far as Upsir is quite impressive in itself. Harsh weather was an issue during his travel as it was during my own, though I had the benefit of being inside a car which was warming us up by blowing burning clutch fluid in our faces. Bǫðvarr and his companions were one with the elements without any aluminum carcass to protect them and without district administrators that take care of the road if it gets too piled up with snow. This is easy to forget and important to keep in mind.

On the next day we drove around, trying to find the probable site where the ambush on Bǫðvarr would have taken place. It was a sunny day and, coming from a country desert, I found it odd that there was snow everywhere. We managed to find some brushwood sticking out of a snowed-in tree in the area, which fit the description of the ambush’s location. Looking around, it was clear that this was no place for avoiding attacks. The area was completely flat, and as one of my companions observed, anyone walking in the area would be spotted instantly. It was also clear that unless you knew the terrain very well, one would struggle to find an alternate trail Bǫðvarr might have tried to avoid the main road, knowing that an ambush was possible, but would have easily lost his path due to his inexperience with the snow.

In the photo: My recreation of Bǫðvarr’s death next to some brushwood.

After spending some exciting hours tracking down Bǫðvarr’s path, we went on a nice excursion into Svarfaðardalr to see where the character of Klaufi terrorized his fellow neighbors in the disturbing Svarfdæla saga, appearing to people decapitated and smacking them around with his head, as is represented in the photo below.

In this photo we recreated Klaufi smacking around his decapitated head. The head was portrayed by the talented Pierre de Lépinay.

We then decided to head towards Eyjafjarðardalr to get a look at the area where much of Ljósvetninga saga and most of Víga-glúms saga take place. I had recently fallen in love with the character of chieftain Guðmundr inn ríki, especially after reading Gísli Sigurðsson’s portrayal of this lively character, so I simply had to go see his farm at Möðruvellir.

We started driving up the road next to Kötlufjall mountain, when suddenly our (un)trusty car started to make noises of despair. When the all-too-familiar smell of burning clutch fluid came along, we realized that there was no escape from the unpleasant truth. Our car’s transmission was no longer pining for the fjords. It was no more. It had ceased to be. It had gone to see its maker. It was an ex-transmission. I should have known this would happen. You see, everyone was telling me, quite ominously, “you get what you pay for”. But it was hubris that led me onwards. ‘I know better,’ I knew. I was smarter than everyone else, and managed to find a cheap car. I would go, enjoy the trip, come back, and rub it in everyone’s faces.

My companions were taking the matter quite calmly, “just another experience to write on Facebook about”, they said (speaking of that ancient social media network so popular at the time). But I felt as if this was a personal failure. Then Sverrir, the knight in the shining 4X4 showed up. He took a quick look at the engine, and without making much fuss out of the matter declared that the clutch is kaput.

Ever since I saw Grease with John Travolta in my younger and more impressionable years, I realized that auto mechanics and masculinity are two things that go hand in hand. Years of counter-conditioning by studying about gender and Michel Foucault at university hadn’t managed to cure me of this condition, and although I knew it was wrong, I still felt as if my masculinity was being tested whenever car handling is involved (my wife is currently the mechanical expert in the house, though our son is a close second, so I finally embraced this disruption of gender roles).

So after Sverrir reminded me that I was an Unmanly Man, so to speak, I was the first to volunteer when he asked who wants to drive in the towed car, regretting it a second later. At one point we entered a serious slope and got too close to the 4X4 so that it required me to brake. Pressing the break, the car would not agree to do as I commanded and stop. It took me a few very frightening moments to realize that I wasn’t pressing the brake, but the (all-too-dead) clutch. From then on the drive went relatively smoothly, but my heart was filled with terror, and I kept telling myself that I wanted to go into a small and comfy hole and hide in it forever.

Much like me, much more than me, Bǫðvarr lived in a society where one’s masculinity and honor were a zero-sum game. They were constantly needed to be proved. One could not be outside of the honor game, since it was all-encompassing. While Njáls saga for example, displays an obsession about masculinity that can be defined as nothing short of destructive, Valla-Ljóts saga deals with that issue to a far smaller extent. But of course, when honor is at stake, characters are quick to react. Like me, Bǫðvarr could not turn around without losing face. Without being called a “níðingr” (coward) by his companions. That era’s sense of masculinity and honor had forced him to follow through with his disastrous choices.

As Barraclough points out: “not enough attention has been paid in saga scholarship to the literary implications of the physical terrain in which a saga constructs its narrative. The vivid descriptions of landscape occurring in saga literature not only add color to the texts, but also fulfil a powerful narrative function.” This seems imprudent, given that, as Judith Jesch notes, “the theme of travel both near and far resonates throughout Old Icelandic literature.” Even if I hadn’t visited the landscape of the saga and seen with my own eyes how it corresponds to the story, the words of Hermann Pálsson regarding Hrafnkels saga resonate in my mind: “It matters very little whether or not the description of the moor fits the route from Fljotsdale to Hrafnkelsdale; it is certainly true that there are many such moors in Iceland.”

The landscape may bend and twist for the narrative but it is, in its essence, talking to the people of the area, and to people who know what it is to walk on snow and slide on ice. We are somewhat benefited, in this sense, by the relative lack of detail in the description of the land in Valla-Ljóts saga. We are given the feeling of someone stumbling blindly in the snowy darkness, and all this fits the path from Óláfsjörður to Svarfaðardalr as we ourselves have experienced it. What we do know is that the saga events fit the actual landscape, and what more could we ask for?

The learn more about how sagas and landscape interact, I highly recommend a dive into Emily Lethbridge’s scholarship. Another fun (and very useful for saga scholars) Saga Map project, where you can read (also in translation) sagas and see where in the map of Iceland these take place. You can use it to set off on a “21st-century pilgrimage” of your own!

Dr. Yoav Tirosh is a postdoctoral researcher focusing on disability in the sagas of Icelanders at the Centre for Disability Studies, in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Iceland. He is also an external member of CVM (Center for Vikingetid og Middelalder) at Aarhus University. He creates the Viking Comics by Yoav webcomic about life in Iceland and Vikings. Click here to view his page. You can learn more about his comics on InstagramFacebook, or Twitter @RealMundiRiki.

Click here to read more from Yoav Tirosh

Top Image: Photo by Jon González / Flickr

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