I’ve begun studying Icelandic, and I believe that the literature produced during the Middle Ages in that remote island close to the Arctic Circle is one of the most important in the world.
Jose Luis Borges
…The horse-shoe ravine, the issue of steam from a cleft
In the rock, and rocks, and waterfalls brushing the
Rocks, and among the rocks birds.
W H Auden
Writers, poets, walkers, travellers, many fall in love with the Land of Fire and Ice.
Richard Fidler and his co-author Kari Gislason are two among them, and they have produced a large and highly useful book, not only about the Sagas, but about the topography, the history, the politics, and the everyday life of this small island. They write alternate chapters in the book, Fidler retelling some of the Sagas, and Gislason telling the story of his beginnings in Iceland and his quest to have legal status there. But they also tell the story of the places they visited and their impressions of life there in the 2000’s.
It is a dark and difficult place to live; high snow capped mountains overshadow the tiny settlements and make the long dark winter darker. Some are volcanic and may erupt at any time.
Iceland was stricken by the plague in the 15th century and had a population of only 32,000 for a time. Today the population is around 334,000 and the government has to walk a fine line between encouraging tourism and being swamped and almost destroyed like Venice and Barcelona.
The tales of the Sagas are not tales of Viking warriors and heroic Giants. They are about squabbles over land, of brother falling out with brother, father with son. Women also sometimes deliver the axe blow to a hostile brother in law. For hundreds of years a belief in ghosts and sorcery added fuel to the fire of these feuds.In the little town at the foot of Kirkjofell the Pastor was so convinced a local farmer and his son were putting spells on him, he didn’t rest until he had them burnt at the stake.There are many names for ghosts in Iceland. Richard Fidler writes,
A draugur is a restless phantom that leaves its tomb and wanders about anxiously; a skotta is a violent female spirit; a haugbui is a spirit that goes looking for the money it left behind; and an utburdur is the ghost of an infant left outside to die in the cold.
There is a chilling tale of a poor young woman who has an unwanted pregnancy and leaves her child, wrapped in rags, to die in the snow. Later in the year she is bemoaning the fact that she has no fine clothes to wear to a dance,
Then a small strained voice welled up from under the floor and sang:
Mother mine, in the fold, fold
You needn’t be so sad, sad,
You can wear my rags,
So you can dance.
Struck numb from fear the woman was pushed past the point of sanity and never recovered.
These chilling little songs were often sung to children at bedtime.
Iceland, though, has had its moments on the world stage. In 1986 an historic summit took place there between Reagan and Gorbachov, where a total ban on nuclear weapons almost became a reality.
One of my favourite stories in this great collection is the account of the 1972 World Chess Championship played in Iceland between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. The Icelanders had to play Fischer like a salmon to get him to actually attend, playing against his increasing demands and obvious mental instability. Later in his life, when Fischer was in immigration detention in Japan and persona non grata in almost every other country, Iceland gave him citizenship. He spent the rest of his life wandering the streets of Rekjavik..
Criticisms have been made of the structure of this book. Do the alternating chapters work, are the two authors equally necessary? I found it absorbing and enlightening; an excellent overview of a very different culture, and a country many know little about.
If you intend to visit Iceland, or, like us, have been and want to know more, Saga Land is the book for you.