The Icelandic sagas tell the stories of the country’s settlers 1100 years ago, and mostly the stories that Snorri Sturluson, who lived at a volcanic hill called, simply, Borg (the German “Burg” for castle and “Berg” for mountain have the same root). The Icelandic town Borgarnes, or Borg Point, is just up the bay, at the mouth of the Breiðafjörd, or Broad Fjord. The view from Borg at sundown at 3 pm in November is really worth a saga in itself.
The story of these sagas and their importance to literature, Iceland and memory, are being told this week on CBC Radio. You can listen in. Here’s Part One, which played on January 1…
… and part 2 which is playing tonight:
Well worth a couple hours of your time. The light disappears quickly here.
It’s always good to warm yourself by a good story.
And even the ice tells stories at Borg!
Only nine years ago, Icelandic tourism was a simple thing: you drove around the country viewing the things Icelanders found interesting, and they served you coffee, put you up for the night, and cooked a lamb for you. An old bridge, for instance…
… or a waterfall.
… a troll at Dimmuborgir…
… and some smooching among the birches, the trees that helped to gain them a country.
Now, pain.In the waste water from a power plant. You, dear visitor, are an industry now. Iceland shows your face in a mirror.
Yet in the small towns now, far from Reykjavik, people are tired of us all; they want us to go away. In Grindavik, an old woman even rammed me with her shopping cart in the grocery store. “Fair enough,” I thought. But I remember the generosity and gratitude that began this madness…
… and trust it will continue.
The manly trolls of Gulfoss…
… and the worms (um, gold collecting dragons, you know the type) of Gulfoss…
… the Golden Falls …
… look across to the female trolls across the gorge, which are riding a worm…
.. and if the worm has the head of a ram, well, this is Iceland, after all.
And the flag … this flag:
… flies between them.
So now you know, too.
The cliff at Ásbyrgi, in the far northeast, is full of ravens, trolls and elves. They’ve been camping out there (if you have eyes to see them) from the beginning of the world. If you don’t have such eyes, they are lovely lava flows cut by a paraglacial flood, with a birch, willow and rowan forest worth a trip across Iceland or around the world.
Or, you can just go to Reykjavik.
Now, that’s love for the land! Well done!
In West Iceland, the aluminum plant in Hvalfjörður, which draws power from the dammed highlands, is watched over by the abandoned World War II fighter base that guarded the British Fleet, and which is now gone to the birds.
In East Iceland, the aluminum plant in Reydarfjörður draws power from Skaftafell, in the cloud at the height of the Lagarfljót, watched over by an abandoned horse-drawn manure spreader on the farm Gunnar bought to avoid the Second World War.
These too are the faces of war. In Iceland, which won its independence during the Second World War while its colonial masters in Denmark were occupied by the Germans, that war is honoured by double-edged memorials such as these.
Humans, it is commonly said, live on Earth and ravens in the air. Not so in Iceland. Look below.
See that? The humans have a nice farm with lots of light and air, although they walk about on the land like old rocks. The ravens, though, who fly through the air with the greatest of flashiness, have a home deep in a dark, opened crack of the earth, where they hunker down. See it there? If not, I’ve highlighted it below.
Humans and ravens: the perfect pair. Just ask Oðin.
It was all forest once, in the whole country, at least by the water. Even here in Hvalfjörður, it was trees. But the trees were cleared to make pastures and to keep the Icelanders warm, and then there were no trees, and so it remains in most of the country. Because of this history…,
… horses are now trees. Stick a pale of hay in the middle of a forest clearcut 1000 years ago, and there you have it, a grove. As I’ve said. before, in this country everyone is an artist.