Wednesday, January 28, 2015
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
The promise of spring laughed in a brook and whispered in the yellow grass at the swamp. It shook the ptarmigan in flight with a playful gust of wind, which made it spring into the air, brown-breasted and white-winged.
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
I like to stay on one farm for a week, traveling only as far as I can reach on foot or horseback or the occasional half day's drive. On various trips I've found a path through the lava that had long been lost, crouched behind a rock while a sea eagle strafed me, rode a horse across a swift salmon river (careful not to let the eddies dizzy me), collected crowberries, watched fox pups play, rescued trapped sheep, frightened myself in a pitch-dark cave, drank sweet water from the well in another, soaked in a wilderness hot pool, sunned on the flank of a volcano.
I'm not a naturalist: What drew me to this part of Iceland were the sagas, with their tales of sheep-farmers and sorcerors, horse fights and feuds, love and grief and hard times and strife. Tales of a satisfying life scratched from an unforgiving land. Tales tempered with poetry and grace.
I've sat where the wily chieftain of Helgafell, Snorri goði, sat, ten centuries before, pondering his next move. On horseback, I've ridden the route he followed to collect his father-in-law's corpse--and the one his namesake, Snorri Sturluson took to confer with his nephew a few nights before he died.
The first time I visited Iceland, in 1986, I went in search of Snorri goði, a character in two of my favorite sagas, Eyrbyggja Saga and Laxdæla Saga. I was then a graduate student studying medieval literature and simultaneously working for a science magazine; I wanted to write a historical novel about Snorri. That book was never published, but ten years later much of my research--done on horseback, as well as in libraries--found its way into my first published book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse (Stackpole Books, 2001).
My second book about Iceland brought me back to Snæfellsnes. The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (Harcourt, 2007) uses medieval literature and modern archaeology to tell the story of Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir and the Norse expeditions to North America. Guðriður grew up on the tip of Snæfellsnes, in the shadow of the glacier some people call the third most holy spot on earth. (Seeing it rise out of the sea is certainly one of my favorite views of Iceland). I've since retold Guðríður's story as a young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, which will be published by Namelos in the spring of 2015.
My most recent book, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) required me to get to know Borgarfjörður even better. This book is a biography of another Snorri--Snorri Sturluson, who lived at Borg and then at Reykholt, and by the end of his life in 1241 ruled most of the West Quarter of Iceland. At Borg he probably wrote Egils Saga, while at Reykholt he wrote the Edda, which contains almost everything we know about Norse mythology, as well as Heimskringla, his long collection of sagas about the kings of Norway from the ancient days of Oðin the Wizard-King through King Magnus Erlingsson in 1177.
The best way to research my books, I've found, is to walk through the landscape where history happened, to live where my subjects lived and face some of the same challenges. To cross rivers on horseback, for example, or climb a volcanic crater. To experience the midnight sun in summer, when the birdsong never stills, as well as the dark days of winter (though I must admit, I've let a very few of them stand in for the rest).
Next summer, by request, the tour will have no mandatory horseback riding (though, since we will be based at a horse farm with a resident riding teacher, optional lessons and trail riding can be added). From July 27 to August 2, we'll follow in Snorri Sturluson's footsteps, taking the chieftain's trail from Thingvellir, where he took part in the yearly assembly, to Reykholt, his main estate--now a research institute with an exhibition about his life.
We'll see the highest-volume hot spring in the world, discussing the value of hot springs in medieval Iceland--and how a fight over this one may have caused the sagas to be written. We'll meet the Icelandic horse and learn why the horse, not the dog, is "man's best friend" in Iceland. We'll visit the Settlement Center in Borgarnes and compare new theories about Iceland's settlement. We'll see the Egil's Saga exhibition there as well, and discuss how that saga reflects Snorri Sturluson's own life. We'll drive into the highlands to see the cave Surtshellir, named for the Fire Giant who will destroy the world at Ragnarök, and discuss the connections between Icelandic nature and Norse mythology. And we'll see how those myths are still vital in modern popular culture, by sharing some of the literature and art Snorri Sturluson inspired, from Wagner to Tolkien to Neil Gaiman.
This tour is limited to 12 people, so each will get my personal attention. For more information, or to sign up, see America2Iceland.com or contact Rebecca at America2Iceland by email at email@example.com or phone at 1-828-348-4257. I think this is the perfect tour for first-time visitors to Iceland. Even if you've been to Iceland before, you'll see it in a completely new light.
(A version of this essay was published in the December 15 edition of the Icelandic-Canadian newspaper, Lögberg-Heimskringla.)
Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Order of the Falcon, one of Iceland's highest honors, to a librarian.
Why? The Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell is one of the three largest collections of books on Icelandic literature and civilization in the world (the other two are in Reykjavik and Copenhagen), and its librarian, Patrick Stevens, has been very active not only in preserving the collection and making it accessible, but also in greatly increasing it.
Cornell's first librarian, Daniel Willard Fiske, was a friend of Iceland. Upon his death in 1904 he bequeathed the university a collection of books now valued at over $30 million. Since then, the Fiske Icelandic Collection has quadrupled in size. It contains the largest selection of books in America by modern Icelandic authors and claims to be "unrivaled in its resources for the study of the medieval Nordic world."
That doesn't sound like an exaggeration to me. As a writer who specializes in Viking culture, Norse mythology, Icelandic sagas, skaldic poetry, and the Norse voyages to America, the Fiske Collection is the library of my dreams. Some of its books date back to the 1500s. Others were published this year.
I first visited the Fiske Collection in November 1989, 12 years before my first book came out. At the time I was employed as a science writer for Penn State University, and I had gone to Cornell to attend a meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. The speakers at these meetings are hand-picked for their skill at making the latest scientific discoveries both relevant and exciting--and I'm ashamed to say I remember none of it at all. What I do remember is contacting librarian P.M. Mitchell in advance of my visit and asking if I might take a look at some of the books in the Icelandic collection. I was working on a historical novel and was particularly interested, I told him, in old accounts of people traveling by horseback. I arranged to meet him on the first day of the conference, a Sunday.
It hadn't occurred to me that the Fiske Collection would be closed on a Sunday. Asking directions at the library information desk, I was redirected down a darkened corridor toward an open door from which spilled a pool of yellow light. Stepping inside, apologies on my lips, I was greeted warmly by an elderly gentleman--I want to dress him in a cardigan sweater and give him a pipe, but I think I'm confusing him with a famous portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien. He was that kind of fellow. He was just making tea, would I like some?
He had several stacks of books on his desk for me, from Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas by Sabine Baring-Gould (1863) to Six Weeks in the Saddle by S.E. Waller (1874) to Routes Over the Highlands by Daniel Bruun (1907). Now these books are available over the Internet, scanned by Google Books, but in 1989 they were very rare. As I paged through them, wondering where even to begin, Mitchell handed me a mug of tea--and a key. "I'll just leave you to it," he said. The key opened both the library building and his office. I could use his desk, after hours, as long as the conference lasted. "And help yourself to the tea."
And so began several long, long nights poring over musty old traveler's tales and taking notes (on a yellow legal pad, in pencil), some of which informed my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse (2001) and others of which ended up in my most recent book, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths (2012). (The historical novel I'd been working on was never published.)
If I could go back in time, I'd love to meet Willard Fiske. We have a lot in common. According to "The Passionate Collector," an exhibition Patrick Stevens and his colleagues put on in 2005 and preserved online, Fiske's "fascination with Norse myth" inspired him to sail to Copenhagen in 1850, when he was only 19. He studied Danish and Icelandic--and began collecting Icelandic books. Soon he moved on to the University of Uppsala, where he learned Swedish well enough to give lectures on American and English literature. He had hoped to sail on to Iceland in 1852, but things didn't work out and he would not make it to the island whose literature he loved until 1879.
Fiske was not only a gifted linguist, he was a writer, supporting his studies by working as a journalist. Returning home, he embarked on a career marked by his passion for the written word--and his inability to keep still. He was assistant librarian at the Astor Library in New York. He founded a magazine, The American Chess Monthly. He became general secretary of the American Geographical Society, then left for Vienna in 1861 as an attache. In 1863, he became an editor of the Syracuse Daily Journal. He tried to run a bookstore, returned to journalism as the managing editor of the Hartford Courant, then gave it all up to travel again, this time through Europe and the Middle East.
In 1868, Fiske joined Cornell University (founded in 1865) as its first librarian. He also took charge of what we'd now call the university's PR office, its alumni office, and even its university press. He taught a journalism course and served, as well, as Professor of North European Languages, offering classes in Icelandic, Swedish, German--and even Persian.
According to "The Passionate Collector," "In July 1879, Willard Fiske was finally able to travel to Iceland." He landed at Húsavík in the north and went by horseback to Reykjavík. "Along the way, he absorbed the fantastic landscape, with its waterfalls and rugged fells." He met several friends, including the poet Matthías Jochumsson. Jón Sigurðsson himself, the leader of the Icelandic independence movement, wrote him a letter of introduction, which remains in the Fiske Collection.
A year later in Berlin, Fiske married Jenny McGraw, a young heiress Fiske knew from Ithaca, who was touring Europe in search of a cure for her tuberculosis; tragically, she died just after the married couple returned home in 1881. Fiske used the millions he inherited to buy more books, many of them about Iceland. He also endowed the Reykjavík Chess Club, founded the Icelandic chess magazing Í Uppnámi, and donated chess sets and books to the inhabitants of the island of Grimsey, whose story had impressed him when he was in Iceland (though he hadn’t visited Grimsey itself). He also bought a villa in Italy, where he spent the last two decades of his life.
When Fiske died he was working on volume two of his history, Chess in Iceland and in Icelandic Literature. It was never published, but I've consulted volume one quite heavily while writing my current book, The Ivory Vikings, which argues that the world famous Lewis chessmen were carved in Iceland by a woman artist around the year 1200. I didn't have to visit the Fiske Icelandic Collection to read Fiske’s book—it’s now available on the Internet—but librarian Patrick Stevens graciously searched the archives to answer the many questions I emailed him. The technology may have changed, but the Fiske Icelandic Collection remains the library of my dreams. I'm proud to say it contains every one of my own books about Iceland.
To learn more about the Fiske Icelandic Collection, a good place to start is the website of Cornell's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/collections/icelandic.html. Links from that page explain how to search the Cornell Library online for its Icelandic holdings, including books, letters, journals, and photographs, many of which can also be viewed online.
Photos here are courtesy of the Cornell University News Service and the Fiske Collection.
|Patrick Stevens (right) receives the Order of the Falcon.|
|Fiske playing chess in Italy c. 1900.|
Photos here are courtesy of the Cornell University News Service and the Fiske Collection.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Staðarhús in western Iceland last June: The person closest to her in age was her aunt, Laura Benson.
Laura had arrived that morning from California to teach a group of 60-year-old Americans (and one in her 30s) how to ride an Icelandic horse as part of the America2Iceland tour I was leading. Ayla had come along to help--and to get to know Iceland better.
She sat on the sofa, as we all chatted, and fiddled with her hair or fiddled with her phone, or maybe she was reading a book--I admit, I paid her very little mind.
Throughout the week, while our tour group took their riding lessons, she was put to work cleaning stalls or exercising young horses. Once she had to babysit. Other than "Good Morning," I don't think she and I exchanged two words.
Then, one morning, as our excited group of beginners was heading out for their first-ever Icelandic trail ride, our hostess, Linda, flagged down Laura and Ayla. Laura waved me over. A pair of German tourists, also staying at the guesthouse, had booked a horseback ride for that morning and Linda had just realized, watching Laura about to disappear down the drive, that she had no one who could lead them. (Linda herself is a horse trainer, but had to watch the children that day.)
The Germans said they were good riders. They could not reschedule: They had to catch a plane. Could Ayla babysit? Laura had a better idea: Why not let Ayla lead the ride? She didn't know the trail--but I did. We agreed. I'd show them the way, but Ayla would be in charge of making sure the Germans had a safe and pleasant ride.
Ayla and I led our horses back to the barn, where the two Germans were waiting. Somehow, on the short way there, she was transformed from a shy teenager in the shadow of her aunt into a confident and confidence-inspiring riding instructor herself.
She took the two horses Linda had suggested out of their stalls and helped the Germans groom them and properly tack them up. She asked polite questions to assess their riding skill (something that many tourists exaggerate). These two, we learned, were experts--they owned a riding stable in Germany and had competed on Icelandic horses. Still, Ayla left nothing to chance, but had them warm up their horses in the indoor arena while she watched to make sure horse and rider were well matched.
They were, and we headed down the trail. Ayla had not been intending on leading a tour group. She was riding a young horse with very little training--and a lot of spirit--who tended to spook at just about everything. Ayla didn't let that bother her. She kept her horse even with mine (a very solid trekking horse), every now and then drifting back to check that our guests were enjoying themselves. It soon was apparent that I was the least experienced rider of the group (though I've owned and ridden Icelandic horses since before Ayla was born).
We rode along the stream on a narrow track, passing our beginners' group on their way back, then waded the stream to pick up a gravel road that serviced some summerhouses. We stopped briefly to rest the horses in a grassy glade surrounded by birch thickets, the snow-streaked mountains brushing the sky all around us. Then we went back by a different path, crossing the stream again just above a waterfall. Once back on the riding track, heading home, we picked up speed and had an exhilarating run to the barn, still riding two-by-two.
When I said goodbye to Ayla Green after that week at Staðarhús, I knew I'd met an exceptional young horsewoman--and one I'd be hearing more about in the small world of Icelandic horses in the U.S. So I was happy to learn recently that Ayla has decided to pursue her dream of "building a life around this wonderful breed."
GoFundMe, she is raising money so that she can afford to attend Hólar University, Iceland's premier school for equestrian science, beginning in the fall of 2015. "This university specializes in the training of the Icelandic horse," she explains. "Hólar is also one of the most respected schools where one can learn horsemanship with Icelandic horses."
What she has failed to add is that her aunt, Laura Benson, was the first American to graduate from Hólar with a B.S. degree.
If you ride Icelandic horses and hope to see the breed flourish in North America, as I do, I hope you'll join me in adding a few dollars to Ayla's fundraising campaign. She's not offering T-shirts or coffee mugs (this isn't Kickstarter), but if you're lucky, you'll meet her in Iceland and she'll take you for a ride.
Share Ayla's dream at http://www.gofundme.com/aylagreen
|Ayla competing at the CIA Open in Santa Ynez, California.|
|Ayla competing at the CIA Open in Santa Ynez, California.|
|The road beside the river at Stadarhus.|
Share Ayla's dream at http://www.gofundme.com/aylagreen
|Photos of Ayla by Heidi Benson|
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
We crossed over mudflats pocked with airholes and headed for several grass-topped islands abandoned by the tide like a pod of stranded whales. A sea eagle lifted off one of the islands as we approached and scolded us with a high-pitched cackle. Geese flew over, banking, startled. We rode north onto the sandbar, across some grassy flats, back out through the sucky mud to the hard wet sand, whose color ranged from black to coffee-colored to tawny to gold.
My first thought was to empty out my boots. Someone handed me a beer. I chugged it down, standing on one foot, holding two fidgeting wet horses and a boot full of water. Slowly I made out the tale. The pilot was the boyfriend of one of our riders and had flown out to treat her to a cold drink.
|Photo by Rebecca Bing for America2Iceland|
There’s only room for 12 riders, so sign up soon if you want to come with me. Look here for more information:
(Don't ride? Then take a look at my other America2Iceland tour, "Song of the Vikings," here: http://america2iceland.com/trips/song-of-the-vikings/)
Wednesday, November 5, 2014
Soon it will be spun and knitted into a sweater once again, and the ewe will grow a new fleece, to be shorn off next spring.
Visit Hestholl Icelandics online here: https://www.facebook.com/hestholl?ref=br_tf
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
The Witch's Bridle transforms not only people, but individual bones into serviceable horses. Often these are bones of horses--shoulder-bone, jawbone, legbone--but occasionally they are human bones. The famous churchman Sira Halfdan of Fell once bridled the hip-bone of a man, turning it into "a willing horse that could go as well over the sea as on land." It is also said that the Witch's Bridle is the only way to fully tame a nykur or nennir, the magical white horses that come out of the sea.
To make a Witch's Bridle, one story says, cut three narrow strips of skin off the spine of a newly dead corpse and twist each one while pulling it through a hole in a skull--usually the ear hole. (The witch would use an already prepared skull, rather than that of the fresh corpse; of course she'd have one at hand.) Braid the strips into reins. Next, flay off the dead man's scalp and fashion it into the head-piece of the bridle, with the hair left on. The bones at the root of the tongue (the hyoid bones) are used for the bit, while the hip bones make the cheek pieces--the Witch's Bridle follows the form of the classic Icelandic bridle, with its large cheek pieces.
When properly pieced together, the bridle can be fastened onto "any man or beast, stock or stone, and it will go quicker than lightning wherever one wants to go." In practice, however, the bridle must have been programmed by magic words to go to one particular destination, for in no instance in the tales does the witch-ridden bone, beast, or man deviate from course--even when the rider is not the witch, as in the tale above, in which the farmhand turns the tables on his mistress and bridles her for the ride back home from Elfland. Perhaps the spell was recited while the skin for the reins was being pulled through the ear hole, thus allowing the skin to "hear" the instructions.
For more shakes and shivers (and a few love spells), read last year's Halloween post about the Icelandic Witchcraft Museum: http://www.nancymariebrown.blogspot.com/2013/10/icelandic-witchcraft.html