Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Snorri’s old site is a sheep-pen; the Law Rock is hidden in heather,
blue with the berries that make boys—and the ravens—a feast.
I knew the next two lines of this poem by Jónas Hallgrimsson (in the translation by Dick Ringler):
Oh you children of Iceland, old and young men together!
See how your forefathers’ fame faltered—and died from the earth!
And knew its fears were unsubstantiated: Researching Snorri Sturluson’s life for my book Song of the Vikings, I had concluded that Snorri, who lived from 1178 to 1241, was the single most influential writer of the Middle Ages.
For that we must thank the king of Norway, Hakon IV. Only fourteen when Snorri met him in 1218, King Hakon preferred the fashionably new French legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to traditional Viking skaldic poetry and tales of the gods Odin, Loki, and Thor. Snorri must have been shocked. It also hit him in the pocketbook. Poetry was Iceland’s cultural capital, to use a term popularized by sociologists. It was all Snorri had to sell on the international market. Iceland’s other exports were wool and dried fish. The bright-colored alum-dyed cloth from England and Flanders was more highly prized, and Norway had ample fish.
His motives were not pure. Snorri was not only a poet and lover of books. He was one of the richest men in Iceland, holder of seven chieftaincies, owner of five profitable estates and a harbor, husband of an heiress, lover of several mistresses, a fat man soon to go gouty, a hard drinker, a seeker of ease prone to soaking long hours in his hot-tub while sipping stout ale, not a Viking warrior by any stretch of the imagination, but clever. Crafty, cunning, and ambitious. A good businessman. So well-versed in the law that few other Icelanders could out-argue him. At age forty-two, he was at the height of his power.
His secret ambition was to rule Iceland—and he almost succeeded. On the quay at Bergen in 1220, departing for home, he tossed off a praise poem about the king’s regent, Earl Skuli, said to be the handsomest man in Norway for his long red-blond locks. In response, the earl gave him the ship he was to sail in and many other fine gifts. Young King Hakon honored Snorri with the title of landed man, or baron, one of only fifteen so-named. The king charged Snorri, too, with a mission: He was to bring Iceland—then an independent republic of some 50,000 souls—under Norwegian rule.
Or so says one version of the story. The other says nothing about a threat to Iceland’s independence. Snorri was not asked to sell out his country, simply to sort out a misunderstanding between some Icelandic farmers and a party of Norwegian traders. A small thing. A few killings to even out. A matter of law.
This trip to Norway was the turning point of Snorri’s life. One quick, persuasive speech to the king, along with one colorful poem pronounced on the quay at Bergen, would mar his reputation—and seal his doom. When he sailed to Norway in 1218 he was, by most calculations, the uncrowned king of Iceland. When he returned in 1220, he was a suspected traitor.
The voyage did not go well. It was late in the year to sail, and the weather in the North Atlantic was fierce. His new ship lost its mast within sight of Iceland; it wrecked on the Westman Islands off the southern coast. Snorri had himself and his bodyguard of a dozen men ferried over to the mainland with their Norwegian treasures. They borrowed horses and rode, bedecked in bright-colored cloth like courtiers, wearing gold and jewels and carrying shiny new weapons and sturdy shields, to the nearby estate of the bishop of Skalholt. There Baron Snorri’s new title was ridiculed. Some Icelanders even accused him of treason, of having sold out to the Norwegian king.
Yet his work remains. In the twenty turbulent years between his Norwegian triumph and his ignominious death, while scheming and plotting, blustering and fleeing, Snorri Sturluson did write his books: the Edda, Heimskringla, and Egil’s Saga. He covered hundreds of parchment pages with world-shaping words, encouraging his friends and kinsmen to cover hundreds of pages more.
I had come to Reykholt to keep vigil on the night of his death. The clouds crept up on me as I drove north from Thingvellir, slowly, on the torturous, washboard roads of Uxahryggir and Kaldidalur, alone for hours, no other cars, not even a bird, only the gleaming presence of Skjaldbreidur over my shoulder, the inverted smile of Ok, a chunk of rainbow here and there, a hidden stream, patches of dirty snow, a cairn. Now, at Reykholt, I sought darkness—some place I could see if the northern lights were shining in celebration of Snorri’s life and art.
Snorri’s Reykholt is much the same as it was in 1241, though nothing medieval but his hot-tub remains: Beside an imposing church is a school, hotel, and library. Up a spiral stair is a writer’s studio. But the modern designers were in love with light. Streetlamps and spotlights washed the night sky everywhere but here, at Snorri’s pool, tucked beneath the hill beside the school. I leaned back and looked up—no northern lights; the stars were faint, veiled in cloud. I imagined Snorri’s last moments.
His enemy (and former son-in-law) Gissur of Haukadal had spies watching Reykholt. Late at night on September 23, 1241, he rode up with seventy men. They broke into the building where Snorri slept. He leaped out of bed in his nightshirt and ran next door into the fine Norwegian-style loft-house he had built at the height of his power twenty years before. He was heading, perhaps, for his writing studio and the secret spiral stair that led from it down into a tunnel to his hot-tub and escape…
Snorri hid in a cellar. A priest gave him away. Gissur sent five men down.
I dried off my feet and headed back toward the Snorrastofa writer’s studio, which I had booked for five days. On the way I heard people oohing and aahing. They were halfway down the drive, looking up at the northern lights, they said. I saw nothing. “They’re breaking up now,” said a man standing in the road.
Turns out that I, like Snorri that fateful night 772 years ago, had been looking the wrong way.
Join me again next Wednesday at nancymariebrown.blogspot.com for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
One day last summer, under the midnight sun, I drove through the surreal landscape surrounding Iceland's Myvatn in a tour bus decorated with streamers and balloons. The driver, Thorstein, carried a big bag of candy. The company logo was No crybabies, cranks, or pantywaists allowed. What's a pantywaist? I didn't have the nerve to ask.
Paired with this hoopla was the elegant image of a raven, painted by the Icelandic artist Jón Baldur Hlíðberg (see more of his work here: http://www.fauna.is/defaulte.asp) and used as the company's logo by permission (okay, after the fact, but she did get permission) by the founder of Krummi Travel, Gerri Griswold of Connecticut.
Yes, Krummi Travel. Krummi is a fond nickname for ravens in Icelandic, but it was pronounced by pretty much everyone in Gerri's group as "crummy."
Being able to hold those two competing thoughts in your mind--elegant artwork, sounds like "crummy"--explains Gerri's brilliant approach to travel in Iceland. Yes, ravens are beautiful. They're also crummy: They eat the eyes out of newborn sheep. And Icelanders love them enough to give them a nickname on the order of "Tommy." (I know Icelandic men with the nicknames Gummi and Mummi.)
With Krummi Travel you get the nature and the culture of Iceland: the beautiful bird (mountain, fjord, etc.) and the layers and layers of cultural meanings. And you get it by meeting Icelanders.
Our tour guide around Myvatn, for example, Illugi (pronounced something like It-Louie), was a real raconteur. He jabbered on and on about how he lost his dog in the lava field. He made himself cry, remembering it. He made all of us cry. We were all out there in the lava field with him, in the snow, looking for the dog, who had fallen through a hole in the lava into a cave and burned her toes in the hotspring that nearly filled the cave floor. She was gone overnight. Illugi had to call in the Icelandic Rescue Squad to lift her out.
But there she was, in the bus with us, missing a few toes. She happily climbed up an enormous tuff-ring volcano and hiked all the way around the crater rim as if we were taking a walk in a park watching the sunset--which we were, Icelandic style.
Along the way, Illugi stopped to dismantle a cairn of stones some previous tourists had piled on the rim. He was quite annoyed by it. Cairns are used in Iceland to mark a path. They're not to be taken lightly or set up willy-nilly. To put one here was like spray-painting a statue. It was rock graffiti, which reminded Illugi to tell me about the real graffiti.
Can you imagine? Someone had clambered down into the bowl of this crater and spray-painted "CRATER" on the rocks. The letters were 17 meters tall, I later learned from a report on IcelandReview.com.
The same someone had written "CAVE" in a nearby cave and "MOOS" on a mossy lava field (couldn't spell). Interviewed on local TV, the local police inspector said, "I mainly find it strange. A very peculiar motive must be behind it.”
Peculiar indeed. Somebody thought it was "art."
A few days after my visit with Krummi Travel, I read about an Icelandic artist who was gallery hopping in Berlin. Reported IcelandReview.com, "He noticed an exhibition at the Alexander Levy gallery by an artist by the name of Julius von Bismarck, a student at the Studio Olafur Eliasson," run by the famous Icelandic-Danish artist. The visiting Icelander, Hlynur Hallsson, took photos of what he found on the gallery walls:
[For more photos, see http://www.icelandreview.com/icelandreview/search/news/Default.asp?ew_0_a_id=400624]
He then contacted the Icelandic media--and the police.
Bismarck, the German art student, quickly released a statement denying that he was the "nature terrorist." He said, in part: "Different anonymous artists collaborated on each location to produce the inscriptions." He said he wasn't even in Iceland at the time.
The gallery's website, on the other hand, gave him credit: "… In a series of nature inscriptions, Bismarck and Julian Charriere directly bring together nature and its conceptual (humanised) form …" [See http://www.icelandreview.com/icelandreview/search/news/Default.asp?ew_0_a_id=400643]
Hlynur, who outed Bismarck, is also known for "spray-paint artwork." As he told the website Akureyri Vikublad, "I don't approve of works that damage nature, regardless [of] whether they're made in the name of visual art or commercialism. To mark moss, lava, or rock faces with paint which doesn't wash off in the rain is unnecessary…. To write in the sand or snow can be more effective even though it only lasts a short time. … Then nature would have been given the respect it deserves."
Reading this, I was reminded of an essay by Justin Erik Halldór Smith called "The Moral Status of Rocks." [Read it here: http://www.jehsmith.com/1/2013/05/moral-status.html] He writes of meeting a "student in rural Iceland, of sheep-farming stock" who said, "in the hope of conveying to me the whole ethical-spiritual outlook of her country in a single concrete example: In Iceland we are taught not to smash rocks."
Smith goes on to talk about "environmental ethics" and why it usually refers to animals, sometimes to plants, but rarely to rocks. Except in Iceland. Where building a meaningless cairn, spray-painting a title on a crater, or smashing a rock are things no thinking human should do. Not even crybabies, cranks, or pantywaists--I mean, tourists. Or artists. Or those of us who aspire to being both.
Join me again next week at nancymariebrown.blogspot.com for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.