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…
You want to stick close to it. What you want to avoid is water and ice.
Let the sheep risk that stuff. Such is the knowledge of a people whose origins are in “settlement” and not colonization — a people for whom “land” is a “landing”, a being lifted out of the sea. You don’t forget a thing like that. The darned thing keeps coming back.
An Old Story Telling its Knot on the Road West of Sælingsdal
Over eleven hundred years, men can cut down all the trees, keep their horses for memory, erode the soil with sheep, battle frost heaves, put in a jeep track, buy a German tractor and some good American haying equipment, and strew nitrogen fertilizer around to stay alive, but the Cross that a woman ordered hammered into a stone to hold back the elves who lived inside it remains, and you will likely think of it as a children’s story. Still, your tractor can’t do a thing with it, nor your sheep, nor your beautiful horses.
I like to think of this monolith in Reykjavik’s old harbour, near the Viðey Ferry and the industrial docks, as the mother of the city. Look at the sand she has drawn out of the sea’s currents and sheltered here… … sand perfect for Ingólfur’s long boat in 870. In a country in which most beaches are stretches of surf or keel-ripping rock, that is no small thing. Here is the mother of the city. And look at her, isn’t she gorgeous? Wouldn’t you put into shore for her?
It used to have trees, and it is eaten by sheep. A little bit of replanting has been done. Here are some Siberian larches in East iceland, placed in like a quilting block.
One works with what one knows. Everything else is a compromise. Spiritually, as I showed you yesterday, the compromise is between paganism and Christianity. Environmentally, it is between earth before and after settlement. Below is an image of Iceland flowing to sea, which is called the force of wild nature.
Well, yes… wild nature with sheep and shivering humans. Iceland is not an indigenous nation. It is a nation of settlers. Settlement is an ongoing process. It is at the root of the country’s past and future. This is what it looks like.
It also looks like this:
The point is, when you live on a sub-arctic island, and keep sheep, everything is hay, as the Icelanders say, meaning that when the hay runs out in the middle of the winter you will feed your sheep anything — anything — to survive. Even this:
Yes, in Reykjavik even John, Paul, George and Ringo are hay. And danish beer is hay, too.
In the 9th century, long, long before Nicola Tesla, the vikings of Iceland changed the course of the Öxá, to create a waterfall in þingvellir. The sagas tell that it was named after a troll that used to chop up early parliamentarians with an axe — surely a witty reference to early spiritual struggles in Iceland, which was grounded simultaneously by at least three spiritual traditions: Norse, Irish and Christian. Wikipedia tells how the waterfall was used to provision campers with water.I will merely point out a couple things. First, the Icelandic killing fields were in this river, either by the drowning of witches, ie reunion with the troll, or by beheading on a rock in the water, ie the cancellation of Christian belonging, as a form of organic justice. This was hydro power before the industrial age. We now call it “nature” and “beauty.” Those are only industrial terms. Beware.