Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Song of the Vikings: What’s in a Title?

Authors don’t have total say over their books’ titles. Publishing houses have people who specialize in such things as the marketability of a phrase—something I’m apparently not so talented at, since only two of the titles I’ve picked for my five books have made it through the process.

“Song of the Vikings,” for instance, wasn’t my choice for my upcoming biography of Snorri Sturluson, the story of how a scheming Icelandic chieftain gave Norse mythology to the world.

But it has a pleasing tension to it. Singing is not the first action that comes to mind when thinking about Vikings. Yet it was through their songs—using “song” the way Walt Whitman did in “Song of Myself”—that Snorri Sturluson, writing in the early 1200s, was able to reconstruct the Viking world of centuries before. Viking songs are the source of almost everything we know about the gods, kings, and warriors who ruled the North between 793 and 1066 (the Viking Age) and for two centuries after, until the Icelandic Sagas were written—some of the best by Snorri himself—in the 1200s.

Poets, or skalds, were a fixture at the Norwegian court for over four hundred years. They were swordsmen, occasionally. But more often in his collection of sagas about the kings of Norway, Heimskringla, Snorri depicts skalds as a king’s ambassadors, counselors, and keepers of history. They were part of the high ritual of his royal court, upholding the Viking virtues of generosity and valor. They legitimized his claim to kingship. Sometimes skalds were scolds (the two words are cognates), able to say in verse what no one dared tell a king straight. They were also entertainers: A skald was a bard, a troubador, a singer of tales—a time-binder, weaving the past into the present.

Illustration by Gerhard Munthe.
Who would remember a king’s name if there were no poems composed about him? In a world without written record—as the Viking world was—memorable verse provided a king’s immortality. As the skald Sigvhat Thordarson said to King Olaf the Saint (1015-1030), in Lee Hollander’s 1964 translation of Heimskringla:

            List to my song, sea-steed’s-
            sinker thou, for greatly
            skilled at the skein am I—
            a skald you must have—of verses;
            and even if thou, king of
            all Norway, hast ever
            scorned and scoffed at other
            skalds, yet I shall praise thee.

We know the names of over two hundred skalds from before 1300, including Snorri, one of his nieces, and three of his nephews. We can read (or, at least, experts can) hundreds of their verses: In the standard edition, they fill a thousand two-column pages. What skalds thought important enough to put into words provides most of what we know today about the inner lives of people in the Viking age, what they loved, what they despised. The big surprise is how much they adored poetry. Vikings were ruthless killers. They were also consummate artists.

“These old Norse songs have a truth in them, an inward perennial truth and greatness,” said the Victorian critic Thomas Carlyle. “It is a greatness not of mere body and gigantic bulk, but a rude greatness of soul.”

Illustration by Gerhard Munthe.
Whether Viking songs were sung, chanted to the strumming of a harp, or simply recited, we don’t know. Recently, Benjamin Bagby and the group Sequentia has tried to reconstruct the music of some Viking songs (with mixed results, in my opinion) on their 1999 album “Edda.” 

For a completely different approach to the concept of a “Song of the Vikings,” listen to this delightful recording made in 1915 by the Victor Male Quartet, available through the National Jukebox project of the Library of Congress: 

And finally, theres Todd Rundgren“Song of the Vikings” here:

Let me know if you find any more.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Horse of the Gods

Horses were sacred in many of the old religions of northern Europe. When Iceland was discovered in about 870, the gods most Scandinavians worshipped, according to Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, rode Shining One, Fast Galloper, Silver Forelock, Strong-of-Sinew, Shaggy Fetlock, Golden Forelock, and Lightfoot. Only the mighty Thor the Thunderer went on foot across the rainbow bridge to the Well of Weird, where the gods held court each morning beside the great ash tree, Yggdrasil (translated by some scholars as “Odin’s Horse”).

The gods of Day and Night drove chariots drawn by Skinfaxi (“Shining Mane”) and Hrimfaxi (“Frosty Mane”): The brightness of the sun was the glow of the day-horse’s mane, while dew was the saliva dripping from Hrimfaxi’s bit. The goddess Gna had a horse that could run “through the air and over the sea.” Called Hoof-Flourisher, it was sired by Skinny-sides on Breaker-of-Fences.

The most famous horse was Odin’s eight-legged steed, Sleipnir, who was born of the god Loki. Only Snorri Sturluson tells the story of Sleipnir’s birth—and who knows how much of it he made up?

One day a giant came knocking at the gates of the gods’ Asgard, Snorri writes, and offered to build them a wall guaranteed to keep out Fire Ogres and Frost Giants. All he wanted in return, he said, were the sun and the moon and the goddess Freyja for his wife. The gods debated. Loki the Trickster suggested they set the giant a time limit—one winter, impossibly unrealistic for the task. That way, Loki winked, they’d get most of a wall and would risk nothing. The giant agreed to the time limit, provided his horse could help him.

Days passed and the wall grew. The giant laid up by day the stones his horse hauled by night. When summer was but three days off, the gods saw for certain the giant would keep his end of the bargain. They wanted out of theirs. Whose idea was it, they argued, to ruin the sky by sending the sun and moon to Giantland? Who promised beautiful Freyja as a giant’s bride? It was Loki, everyone agreed, and he’d better come up with a trick to fix it.

That night as the giant’s horse set off to haul stone, he scented a mare in season. He raced off after her, with the giant in pursuit. All night they galloped about, and work on the wall came to a halt. The giant flew into a rage and began throwing things—at which point Thor stepped in and, swinging his mighty hammer, sent the giant to the realm of the dead before he could do any more damage. Some time later, Loki the Trickster bore a gray foal (Snorri doesn’t tell us if Loki had been able to change out of mare’s shape in the meantime). That foal was Sleipnir, the eight-legged steed, called the best horse among gods and men.

Because of their association with the gods, horses were a worthy sacrifice in ancient Scandinavia. A horse, usually white or gray or with unusual markings, would be ritually slaughtered, its blood sprinkled on the altar, the meat stewed and shared out among the celebrants.

Earlier pagan cults had saved the head and hide and set them up on poles to guard a grave or other holy place, but by the Saga Age, these poles had devolved into a type of natural magic. Egil’s Saga tells of a time when the viking hero Egil, having killed the king of Norway’s son, “picked up a branch of hazel and went to a certain cliff that faced the mainland. Then he took a horse head, set it up on the pole and spoke these formal words: Here I set up a pole of insult against King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild—then, turning the horse head toward the mainland—and I direct this insult against the guardian spirits of this land, so that every one of them shall go astray, neither to figure nor find their dwelling places until they have driven King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild from this country.” Egil set sail for Iceland; a year later, King Eirik was deposed by his brother and had to flee to England.

Photo by Matthew Driscoll from Lehre, Denmark. 

When Iceland became Christian in the year 1000, three things were banned: worshipping the old gods in public, exposing children (a form of infanticide), and eating horsemeat, which Pope Gregory III had banned in the year 732 because of its use in pagan rituals.

Sagas covering the conversion period ridicule the old horse sacrifices. The Saga of Saint Olaf tells of the Norwegian king responsible for Christianizing much of the North. In one version, Olaf visited a poor family so benighted that they worshiped the penis of an old cart horse, wrapped in linen and kept in a chest with garlic and herbs so it wouldn’t rot. King Olaf witnessed a ceremony in which the penis was passed from hand to hand around the circle, each person saying a verse over it. When the “idol” came to him, he threw it to the dog. “The king then cast off his disguise and … talked to them of the true faith.”

The story blames an old woman for making the idol. When the cart horse was butchered, she had snatched the penis from the farmer’s son, who was giggling and shaking it at his sister. “She said they shouldn’t waste this or anything else.” It’s not a bad attitude to have.

Illustration by Gerhard Munthe for Snorri's Heimskringla.

Snorri Sturluson and his Edda are the focus of my forthcoming book, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, due out in October from Palgrave Macmillan. I first looked into the myths about Icelandic horses to write A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse, which is out of print but available as an e-book from and

In 1999, I published a version of this story in The Icelandic Horse Quarterly, the official magazine of the U.S. Icelandic Horse Congress; shortly afterwards I joined the magazine’s editorial committee. Visit the congress’s website ( to read a free copy and learn more about Icelandic horses today, or take a virtual ride on my friend Stan Hirson’s video blogs, and Life with Horses (

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Homosexuality in the Icelandic Sagas

 A story I read the other day in The Reykjavík Grapevine, “Iceland’s First Gay Lovers,” surprised me by explaining something I had written about many years ago.

In 1997, while researching my book A Good Horse Has No Color, I stayed for some weeks at Snorrastadir in the west of Iceland. One afternoon I listened in as the farmer, Haukur, and another guest, a horsewoman named Hallgerdur, discussed Njal’s Saga, the medieval masterpiece that contains a famous “feminist” character also named Hallgerdur.

Here’s how I described the scene in my book:

…Known for her hip-length hair and her “thief’s eyes,” this storied Hallgerdur had been wooed and wed by the handsome Gunnar of Hlidarendi, that paragon of Icelandic manhood who, according to the saga, could “jump more than his own height in full armor, and just as far backwards as forwards.”

“He could swim like a seal,” the book said.

“There was no sport at which anyone could even attempt to compete with him.”

“There has never been his equal.”

The marriage was a disaster. It ended in Gunnar’s death when, his house surrounded by enemies his wife had made for him, his bowstring broke and he asked for some strands of her long hair to plait into a new one; she refused.

Snorrastadir at midnight.

It was this that Haukur and Hallgerdur were discussing: why the Saga-Age Hallgerdur—an historical woman who lived and died about a thousand years ago—had refused the gift of her hair.

They chattered on too fast for me to more than snatch at the argument. I marveled again that these sagas, of esoteric, antiquarian interest at home, were so alive here, centuries after they were written. I was heading again for that hot cup of tea when Haukur gave out a great guffaw.

“Er Gunnar á Hlidarendi, nú, hommi?!” he asked. “Is Gunnar of Hlidarendi, now, a homosexual?”

I stopped. I looked at Hallgerdur. The answer she was arguing was yes. You could write a dissertation on that one, I thought—Homosexuality in Njal’s Saga. Gunnar did have an unusually close friendship with Njal, whose manhood was in question because he couldn’t grow a beard. I wished I could comprehend the details of Hallgerdur’s thesis and join in the conversation, but though I’d read the saga several times and knew it inside out, my spoken Icelandic wasn’t up to the task. I retreated to the kitchen, where Ingibjorg gracefully drew my attention to the fact that the dishwasher could be unstacked and the table set for dinner. With the clatter drowning out Haukur’s increasing outrage, I replayed the point in English in my head and awarded the set and match to Hallgerdur…

Snorrastadir and the crater Eldborg.

That’s what I witnessed in 1997.

I had gone to Iceland first in 1986, after studying Old Norse for several years—and having been taught that the language was “dead,” like Latin. As I wrote earlier in this blog (“Practical Education”), I was delighted to learn to the contrary on that first visit that Old Norse wasn’t “dead” after all. It had just shifted into Icelandic, changing about as much as English has since Shakespeare’s day.

By 1997 (my seventh trip to Iceland), I knew that the sagas themselves were still very much alive, some 800 years after they had been written. Everywhere I went in Iceland, someone shared an allusion from a saga. The medieval past was remembered in the name of every hill and farmstead (not to mention every beer and candybar). There was a saga everywhere I turned.

What I didn’t know, when I witnessed Haukur and Hallgerdur arguing over homosexuality in Njal’s Saga, was the news peg.

Horses at Snorrastadir.

It’s true that Icelandic farmers are surprisingly keen readers compared to the farmers I know in America. Another day I came upon Haukur and a guest comparing the novel Independent People, by Iceland’s Nobel prize-winner Halldor Laxness, to Growth of the Soil, by the Norwegian Nobelist, Knut Hamsun.

But Homosexuality in Njal’s Saga was not Hallgerdur’s idea. The dissertation didn’t need to be written—a book was already in print, as I learned last week from The Reykjavík Grapevine.

In “Íslenska Kynlífsbókin” (The Icelandic Sex Reader), published in 1990, Óttar Guðmundsson, a psychiatrist at the Landspítali hospital in Reykjavík, “famously argued that Njáll and Gunnar, heroes of ‘Njáls Saga,’ were gay and in love with each other,” the Grapevine says. The newspaper also mentions Óttar’s new book, “Hetjur og hugarvíl” (Anxious Heroes), “devoted to psychoanalysing the main characters of some of the more prominent Icelandic Sagas.”

Looks like I have some further reading to do. And a thank-you letter to send to psychiatrist Óttar Guðmundsson for his help in keeping the Icelandic sagas alive.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Sorceror’s Horse: An Icelandic Folktale

If I had to choose one favorite horse from all of those mentioned in medieval Icelandic literature, it would be Fluga. She was an exceptionally fast horse—as she should be to earn a name that derives from the verb “to fly.” And for some unknown reason, she has been exceptionally inspiring.

Horse races were common entertainments in Saga Age Iceland, and horses known for speed were often challenged. The Book of Settlements, or Landnámabók, tells of one such challenge to Fluga, a mare that came over on “a ship with a cargo of livestock” in the early 900s. She probably came from Norway, although horses were brought to Iceland from the British Isles and one, the famous Kinnskaer, an extremely tall horse that had to be fed on grain both summer and winter, according to The Saga of the Men of Thorskafjord, came from Eastern Europe or even Asia.

When the ship bearing Fluga was being unloaded at the harbor of Kolkuos in Skagafjord, she escaped. Thorir Dove-Nose, a freed slave, “bought the chance of finding the mare, and find her he did.”

Apparently he bragged about her speed. One day, the story goes, Thorir was riding along Kjolur, one of the two main routes that cross through the interior wasteland of Iceland. Suddenly he was waylaid by a mysterious character named Orn, “a sorceror who used to wander from one part of the country to another.” Orn “made a bet with him as to which had the faster horse. Orn himself had a particularly fine one. Each of them staked a hundred marks of silver.”

They rode south on Kjolur until they came to a level stretch of land still known as “Dove-Nose’s Racetrack.” They laid out a course and raced off. But “Orn was only half way up the course by the time Thorir met him on his way back, so great was the difference between the two horses.”

Orn took his loss so badly that he went up into the mountains and was never seen again. Fluga was exhausted, so Thorir left the mare behind (Icelanders usually travel with several riding horses, switching the saddle to the next as each one tires) and continued on his way.

Yet when he came back to fetch her several weeks later, he was surprised to find “there was a gray, black-maned stallion with the mare.” Given that the Kjolur route is in the middle of Iceland, set between two of the largest glaciers, it’s unlikely this stallion had wandered away from a nearby farm. Gray horses, particularly, are often magic; the suspicion hinted at is that the stallion is the sorceror Orn himself.

Fluga had a foal the next spring, the story goes, “and from their line sprang the horse Eidfaxi, the one that was taken abroad and killed seven men at Mjors in a single day before he was killed himself.”

There’s no story told about the Battle of Mjors. Eidfaxi remains famous a thousand or more years after his death because he was “the one that was taken abroad.” Eidfaxi is now the name of a magazine about Icelandic horses: The name combines eidur, “oath,” and fax, “mane.”

I learned the legend of Fluga and the sorcerors horse while writing A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse: I even visited the farm named for her, Flugumyri. In 1998, I published a version of Fluga’s story in The Icelandic Horse Quarterly, the official magazine of the U.S. Icelandic Horse Congress; shortly afterwards I joined the magazine’s editorial committee. (Visit the congress’s website to read a free copy and learn more about Icelandic horses today.) Some years later, I wrote a childrens book based on the Fluga tale (still unpublished).

But Fluga’s great race remained stuck in my brain. So in 2009, I rode Kjolur, the trail Thorir Dove-Nose took from the north of Iceland to the south, with the trekking company Íshestar. On Day Four of our six-day trek, we passed right by the spot known as “Dove-Nose’s Racetrack”—and it was nothing like I had imagined. Im in the process of writing that story. Let’s just say it’s a little long for a blog post. It may be some time before I come to terms with all I learned--about Iceland, Icelandic horses, and myself--on that long ride.

In the meantime, you can visit the website of my friend Stan Hirson, who shares my fascination with the story of Fluga. His video blogs about Kolkuos and Flugumyri can be found at and Life with Horses (

The original story of Fluga (and the quotations above) can be found in The Book of Settlements, or Landnámabók, as translated by Herman Palsson and Paul Edwards (University of Manitoba, 1972).
Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Tolkien’s Icelandic Trolls

My recent post on Bilbo Baggins’s ride and the influence of Iceland on JRR Tolkien brought a wonderful response from Þóra Magnúsdóttir in Iceland, who sent me a link to the February 28, 1999 issue of the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið. There, reporter Linda Ásdísardóttir interviewed 89-year-old Arndís Þorbjarnardóttir who had been an au-pair in the Tolkien household while JRR Tolkien was writing The Hobbit.

Describing her time in Oxford, Arndís noted that the Tolkien boys often asked her to tell them about Iceland, especially “about trolls and monsters.” After reading The Hobbit, she said, she realized “the professor” had been listening in to her Icelandic tales. He must have, “to create those little folk who have hairy toes just like ptarmigans!”

I must admit I never before saw any similarity between hobbits and ptarmigans.

But I have long thought Tolkien’s trolls were Icelandic.

The troll scene in The Hobbit is one of my favorites. Bert, Bill, and Tom are so blusteringly barbaric, comparing the taste of mutton to manflesh, and Bill’s squeaking purse is such a fine surprise for both Bilbo and the reader. But mostly I liked Tolkien’s scene for its ending:

“Dawn take you all, and be stone to you!” Gandalf pronounced, after having kept the trolls arguing among themselves all night until the sun came up. “And there they stand to this day, all alone, unless the birds perch on them,” Tolkien writes, “for trolls, as you probably know, must be underground before dawn, or they go back to the stuff of the mountains they are made of, and never move again.”

John Rateliff, in his fascinating two-part study, The History of the Hobbit (HarperCollins, 2007), finds Tolkien’s “as you probably know” to be rather coy. Tolkien “seems to have introduced the motif” of trolls turning to stone if struck by the sun’s rays “to English fiction,” Rateliff writes, so his readers could not possibly have known.

Yet I knew. Perhaps not the first time I heard The Hobbit read to me, at the age of four, but at least by the time I read it to my own son when he was four in 1993. For by then I had been to Iceland several times.

And in Iceland you can hardly take a hike without meeting a troll—often with birds perched on them, as in the beautiful picture book by Guðrun Helgadóttir and Brian Pilkington, Flumbra: An Icelandic Folktale (Iðunn 1981; though they call Flumbra a giant, not a troll). Here is one of Pilkington’s illustrations:

The summer my family lived at the abandoned farm of Litla Hraun on the west coast of Iceland—a summer described in my book A Good Horse Has No Color, as well as in my husband’s Summer at Little Lava (FSG 1998)—we looked out our window every day at the story of a troll.

One night, an amorous trollwoman decided to visit her lover on the western end of the Snaefellsnes peninsula. She took her horse, and a bucket of skýr (a kind of Icelandic yogurt) as a gift. She and her lover sported all night and she got a late start going home. About the middle of the peninsula, she dropped the empty bucket to ride faster. A little further on, her horse foundered and she abandoned him, running as hard as she could for home. The sun caught her at the mountain pass now named for her, Kerlingarskarð, and turned her to stone. Or at least that’s how our neighbor, the farmer at Snorrastaðir, told us the story.

Out my window, I could easily pick out the mountain peaks called Skýr Bucket and Horse. (You can see the back of the Horse just above the crater of Eldborg in this photo.) Crossing (on the old road) north to the town of Stykkishólmur, I would crane my head out the car window to say hello to the old trollwoman, the Kerling.

On a later visit to Skagafjörður, I learned the story of the blocky island Drangey that dominates the fjord. A troll and his wife had a cow in heat, but their cowherd was away so they decided themselves to lead her across the fjord to a neighbor’s bull. They misjudged the distance. The rising sun caught them only halfway across the water, and there they remained: the cow as the island itself, Karl as a tall rock stack on the seaward side, and Kerling as a matching stack on the landward side (though one or the other of the trolls, I forget which, has since tumbled down).

Every Icelandic farmer I’ve met knows stories like these of the mountains and islands and rocks near his or her farm. One of my friends jokes that you can’t take a step in Iceland without standing on a story. I agree. And while we know that Tolkien himself never visited Iceland, it seems that Iceland—and its stories—visited him. In the interview in Morgunblaðið, Arndís notes that she was not the first Icelandic au-pair to work for the Tolkiens in Oxford. Aslaug, an Icelandic woman who had gone to school with Arndís, had been there for the previous year and a half and had gotten Arndís the job. Who knows what stories Aslaug might have told. Perhaps the stories of Iceland’s Hidden Folk, who are so much like Tolkien’s elves?