Thursday, June 27, 2013

Names for the Sea

British writer Sarah Moss and I are kindred spirits. Shortly after I visited Greenland to see Viking Age archaeological sites in 2006, I read her novel Cold Earth, in which strange things happen during an archaeological investigation in Greenland. The novel remains one of my favorites, recommended to many friends, so it's no surprise I bought her memoir about a year in Iceland, Names for the Sea, as soon as it was available in the U.S. I have always wanted to spend a year in Iceland.

Instead, I visit frequently and I read a lot about Iceland--though most of what I read disappoints me. American journalists always seem to have landed on some other island that bears no relationship to the Iceland I've known and loved since 1986. For one thing, I've spent very little time in the city of Reykjavik, particularly the city these journalists seem to find, with its "diverse milieu of funky cafes, cutting-edge restaurants and Icelandic-chic bars, all catering to a cozy chat society that hummed late into the infinite night" (NY Times, January 18, 2013), and where "half the country appears to take it as a professional obligation to drink themselves into oblivion and wander the streets until what should be sunrise" (Vanity Fair, April 2009).

Never seen it. Granted, I'm never out wandering the city streets in the wee hours looking for it. Reykjavik to me is a city of libraries, museums, and bookstores--especially bookstores, some of which I'll grant are funky (like the one inside the weekly flea-market at Kolaportid), and which I wish were open until what should be sunrise.

Sarah Moss, in Names of the Sea, doesn't dwell on the drunken nightlife. She's in Iceland to teach English literature at the university, with a husband and two young children in tow. But her Iceland is still not my Iceland. In a year she seems to have rarely left the city. And she never discovered the joys of the bookstores. She does not read Icelandic, she confesses. I'll forgive her that. Icelandic is a very difficult language to learn.

But Moss also doesn't seem to have read much Icelandic literature in translation. Particularly, in a whole year of living in the country, Moss doesn't seem to have read a single Icelandic saga.

That is harder for me to understand. Iceland without its sagas is just not Iceland. Iceland's medieval manuscripts, in which the sagas are preserved, "are at one and the same time the repository of medieval Icelandic culture and its visible symbol," according to the 2004 book The Manuscripts of Iceland. They are Iceland’s "main source of pride."

Only someone who had never read an Icelandic saga could write, as Moss does: 

"The sagas are long narrative poems about the settlement years, which were first written down in the 12th and 13th centuries, several hundred years after the events they describe. In the 20th century, Icelandic historians questioned the status of the sagas as historical truth, and the poems are now widely seen as literary artefacts, but there is still something of the sacred text about them. Many Icelanders can quote the sagas in the way that 17th-century Puritans quoted the Bible. Every so often, a discussion in a faculty meeting will end with someone saying something in Icelandic alliterative verse. … everyone else will be nodding and agreeing, the issue somehow resolved, and I'll know the sagas have spoken again. They combine the functions of the Bible and the Domesday Book…"

Poems? Narrative poems?? At first I thought it was a typo, and Moss meant to say "the sagas are long narratives." But no, she repeats the word poems and even believes her fellow academics were quoting the sagas when they said something in alliterative verse. They were not.

Moss has missed the whole point of the sagas' literary-historical importance. The Icelandic sagas are not poems. If someone was quoting alliterative verse, they were probably quoting the Poetic Edda, or maybe just a proverb.

The Icelandic sagas are "the envy of most world literatures," according to scholar William Ian Miller, because they are not poems: The sagas are written in prose. About 40 tales, some as quick as a short story, others stretching to several volumes in today’s paperback translations, make up the corpus. They tell of Iceland’s Golden Age, the Saga Age, 400 years of a free republic before the island succumbed to Norwegian rule in 1262. And they tell it beautifully: "This is not only the stuff of art," said Miller, "it is the stuff of a confident art that needs no instruction in sophistication."

In the 13th century, when verse was the norm in Europe, Icelanders were writing a vernacular prose that "achieved a height of excellence which can only be paralleled in modern times," declared E. V. Gordon, author of the standard Old Icelandic grammar book. 

Peter Hallberg, who wrote a college text on the sagas, compared their style to Hemingway’s, with its simple, lucid sentence structure and finely calculated artistic effects. And there is none of that “metaphysical brooding,” in Hallberg’s words, that make medieval works like Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, so tedious.

The sagas are Iceland’s claim to literary fame. Literary scholars have called them "muscled, powerful narratives" that are surprising in their "seductiveness." They have inspired countless authors, from Kipling and Longfellow to Milan Kundera and Günter Grass. 

J. R. R. Tolkien found much of his Middle Earth in Icelandic literature; he and C. S. Lewis started a saga-reading club at Oxford University and translated the texts from Old Norse, the Viking language. 

Another saga translator was the Victorian writer and designer William Morris. Asked once if he was going on a trip to Iceland, Morris replied, "No, I am going on a pilgrimage to Iceland." 

Quoting Morris, the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges said, "This is also my answer. Any specialist in Anglo-Saxon literature is sooner or later drawn to Icelandic literature. It is like admiring a sunset or falling in love." 

The American novelist Jane Smiley ranks the sagas beside the works of "Homer, Shakespeare, Socrates, and those few others who live at the very heart of human literary endeavor."

I enjoyed Names for the Sea. It was fun to see Iceland through the eyes of a sensitive observer to whom everything was new--the light on the mountainsides, the cruel shapes in the lava, the misty rain, the ever-present sea. I envied her her ability to knit. But Moss's Iceland--without sagas!--is not my Iceland. 

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

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Weather-wise Horse

Riding a horse in Iceland is like traveling back in time a thousand years--there are so many stories about horses from the Icelandic sagas that come to mind. Many of the horses in the sagas have unusual intelligence and character. There’s Kengala, for instance, in Grettir’s Saga, which was written in the 1300s. I learned of Kengala while researching my book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse, in the late 1990s and was surprised recently to notice a Kengala in the pedigree of my own mare, Mukka, born 2002.

The Kengala of the sagas was a dun-colored mare with a dark stripe down her back. The meaning of her name is obscure, but could come from kenna, “to know,” or kengur, “a bowed back.” She was owned by the farmer Asmundur, Grettir’s father, and was “so wise about the weather” that a storm invariably followed when she refused to graze. “If she does this,” Asmundur told Grettir, “you are to stable the horses, but otherwise keep them grazing up north on the ridge, once winter sets in.”

Grettir was a rebellious teenager and hated the chores his father gave him. This one, at least, was “man’s work,” as he put it, and things went well until “it became cold and snowy with poor grazing. Grettir was thinly clad and not yet fully hardened, so he began to feel the cold bitterly, but Kengala grazed away in the most exposed places during the worst of the weather.” Grettir resented having to obey the horse’s weather-sense, and one morning he came to the stable with a sharp knife and jumped onto her back. “There was a fierce struggle, but in the end he succeeded in cutting loose her back skin all the way to her loins”—essentially flaying off her dorsal stripe. When he drove the horses out to pasture that day, Kengala, not surprisingly, ran straight back to the barn.

Asmundur was alarmed to hear that Kengala refused to graze, and told the household to prepare for a blizzard. After two nights and still no sign of a storm, he went out to the stable to see Kengala for himself. Greeting his favorite mare, he ran his hand along her back and was horrified to find the skin coming away at his touch. Grettir stood there grinning; his father “went home swearing violently.”

The weather-wise Kengala had to be put down, but Grettir also came to a bad end, living most of his life as an outlaw, chased from place to place. Some people reading Grettir’s Saga think of the outlaw as a tragic hero. From the horse’s perspective (and mine), he got what he deserved.

The translation of Grettir’s Saga that I like is the one by Denton Fox and Hermann Palsson (University of Toronto Press, 1974). You can read more about this saga on my friend Emily Lethbridge’s blog, Sagasteads of Iceland (

The Icelandic Horse Quarterly, where I published a version of this story in 1998, is the official breed publication of the Icelandic Horse Congress; I am on the 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, June 12, 2013

My America2Iceland Lesson

We were six riders and 20-some horses. "Do you want to be in front or in back?" asked our riding instructor, Gudmar Petursson. The loose horses would be sandwiched between us for our day's ride of 30 kilometers, from Gudmar's farm, Stadarhus, up to Langavatn, the Long Lake, in the highlands of Iceland's Borgarfjord district. It was the first of four days of horse-trekking, in a tour the company America2Iceland designed around my book Song of the Vikings.

I chose the back. I would see the herd running ahead of me--a splendid sight, a splash of color in the otherwise muted landscape of moss and lava rock, sand and just-greening grass. I could chum with Gudmar, who would be cowboying. And I would have more control over my horse's speed. Or so I thought.

I'd ridden Magnus, my morning horse, twice during the previous two days of riding clinics under Gudmar's direction: once in the indoor arena and once on a two-hour trek. I loved him. Magnus was not a flashy horse. No pretty color, no impressive mane. Gudmar had introduced him to me as "that ugly one over there. The one who needs a brushing."

He's the one at the far left in this picture. He might have been black. He still had reddish patches of winter coat and his dull gray forelock seemed stuck with glue. He came right up to me and let me scratch his forehead, which he'd obviously been rubbing against a fence post. Before tacking up, I spent a long time with the curry comb, removing knots and fuzz; he stretched his neck down and sighed. When I paused he swung his big head toward me, as if to say, more, please.

"I think he likes that," Gudmar said, before pointing out (again) where I could find a saddle.

In the arena, Magnus was very smooth, with a big, ground-covering tolt, the signature running-walk gait of the Icelandic horse. He was heavy on the reins, but I preferred that to the first horse I rode, who was so light in the mouth that a feather touch was too much. (We will not mention the fact that the bit was in upside down and backwards; I wasn't the one who put the bridle together).

So before we headed out on our first all-day trek, Magnus and I waited, patiently, with Gudmar and Ian, while Halli (our trekking guide), Kathy (below), Julia, and the loose horses passed us by. Then we started off from the barn.

And Magnus reassessed the situation. He passed Gudmar and Ian. He began weaving in among the loose horses. I hauled on the reins: nothing. He began cantering--or at least, cantering with the back end. It was not a gait in the books. I yelled at him. No use.

"Just go with it," Gudmar shouted.

So I went with it. Magnus settled back into his long-stepping, ground-covering, smooth-as-a-rocking-chair tolt and in short order we were leading the parade and could slow down to a comfortable speed, just fast enough to stay in front. I relaxed. I would be riding in front all day, I knew, and so it turned out.

I saw amazing scenery (Ian took these two photos before his camera died). We rode along the rushing River Langa, a prime fishing stream apparently, with dozens of marked pools. We passed spectacular rapids and rode up a steep ridge to a rugged farm squeezed in at the base of the cliffs. We crossed the river four, or five, or six times--I lost count.

We left the river-road and headed cross-country, our path a combination of Halli's dead-reckoning and frequent glances at his GPS unit, which he managed to read while riding along at a good clip over boulders the size of bowling balls, through bogs, and along crumbly scree slopes. Halli (below) has four hands, I'm convinced: one for the reins; one for the whip, which he extends sideways to keep the loose horses behind him; one for his GPS; and one for a cigarette.

I rode in front even after lunch, when we changed horses. Which, of course, begs the question. Was it only Magnus who was most comfortable in front? Riding on a horse-trek in Iceland is sometimes like taking a personality test: Do you want to be in front, leading by example, or in back, chivvying the loose horses along and keeping them in line? Being a follower is not an option. Only riderless horses are followers.

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

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

An Icelandic Horse (hair) Tale

Icelandic horses have a lot of hair, as anyone who has seen one knows. According to the breed standard, "a long, thick mane and tail" and a "thick, protective coat in winter" are typical. "Shaggy" is the word that usually comes to mind.

Of course it's cute. But that long mane and tail, in the old days, was an important resource on Iceland's farms, as I found out this week while visiting two of Iceland's museums.

The first was the Folk Museum at Skogar, in the south of the country. In addition to a collection of old houses, fully furnished, there's a separate building of several rooms stuffed with what can only be described as, well, stuff.

There are books and embroideries and a two-stringed fiddle. There are birds' eggs, skeletons, rocks, pinned insects, pressed flowers, and a stuffed two-headed sheep. There are busts of several local dignitaries and two paintings by one of Iceland's most famous artists, Kjarval, in the basement, along with some mid-20th-century living room furniture and a famous writer's studio. There's a fishing boat. There's an excellent description of how to make spoons from cows' horns.

And alongside a collection of butter churns and side-saddles and children's toys (made of bones) were what caught my eye: beautiful bags and ropes made of different colors of horse hair.

 The second museum I visited was the Skagafjordur Heritage Museum at Glaumbaer in the north. It's a place I know well. I visited it in 1997--on horseback--while researching my book A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse, and worked there as a volunteer on an archaeological dig in 2005, while researching my second Iceland book, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman. In addition to a Viking Age longhouse (now reburied and awaiting further excavation), there's a well-preserved turf house at Glaumbaer, part of it dating to the 17th century, and a cafe famous for its fish soup and its cheesecake made from Icelandic skyr, a kind of yogurt.

Glaumbaer's curator, Sirri Sigurdardottir, told me that a woman in Skagafjordur still made things out of horse hair. She clipped the hair from the horses' manes and tails and hand-spun it with a spindle, then braided it into rope. Sirri showed me a sample--it turned out I had taken a photo of some matching rope objects at Skogar, not knowing exactly what they were.

They are hobbles, Sirri explained. There's a loop at one end and a sheep bone at the other end of each rope. You twist the rope around your horse's feet and lock it with the bone so that your mount won't stray at night. At least, that's how these hobbles originally were used. Today the museum store at Glaumbaer sells them ... as wedding gifts. They're very popular, Sirri says.

Icelanders do have a well-developed sense of humor.

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