Thursday, 27 January 2011

And we're rolling!

So -- happy news from Iceland. First, I'm delighted to announce that the Embulance has come out of surgery (the op. involved replacing the clutch plate...) and she has made a very successful recovery, running sweet as a Land-Rover-shaped nut. Outside, further modifications include the installation of four very smart and very grippy tyres courtesy of one of my sponsors, the Icelandic petrol company N1. Inside the back of the van, I´ve been doing some interior decorating: the fold-down table has been plastered over with a large map of Iceland and I have curtains! It's feeling very homely in there, and thanks to the new tyres I feel much more secure on the road and ready to face whatever terrain I encounter.

Secondly and most importantly, the real saga-steads work has begun too. I'm revisiting Víga-Glúms saga ('The Saga of Killer-Glúmr') which is largely set around the part of Eyjafjarðarsveit (south of Iceland´s second town and the capital of the north, Akureyri, population circa 17,000) that I´m staying and working in for the next couple of weeks, while I plot a route for the next few months and organise myself generally. The subject of Víga-Glúms saga is the life of the titular Glúmr Eyjólfsson, who established himself as a powerful chieftain in the 10th century in the Eyjafjörður valley. The narrative describes various local feuds over land, personal honour, and family reputation in which Glúmr is involved over the course of his long life -- he is thought to have been born around 928 C.E., and to have died around 1003-1004 C.E..

Early on in the saga, we hear how the difficult Glúmr (more on him in the next post) -- fresh from rite-of-passage triumphs in Norway, such as overcoming a dangerous berserkr -- has a remarkable dream, in which he is standing outside his farm at Þverá looking north towards the fjord (passage in Old Norse below). He sees a woman walking in through the district: she turns directly to face Þverá and she is so huge that her shoulders touch the mountains on both sides of the valley. Glúmr goes out of the farmyard to meet her with the intention of inviting her to stay but he wakes from the dream before this is achieved. On waking, Glúmr describes the dream to his household and interprets it as foretelling the death of his powerful Norwegian grandfather, Vigfúss. The woman is his grandfather´s hamingja, or guardian spirit. When ships reach Iceland from Norway later on in the summer, the news of Glúmr´s grandfather´s death is announced, and the dream is proved to have been a prophetic one.

Looking south down the Eyjafjörður valley from Akureyri
 Þverá -- now known as Munkaþverá, on account of the Benedictine monastery founded on the site in 1155 and dissolved with the Reformation in 1550 -- is only a few minutes' drive north from the farm I´m staying on, Fellshlíð, halfway down the Eyjafjörður valley on the eastern side. Fellshlíð used to be called Öxnafellskot and was a hjáleiga (a leased smallholding) of the large (and in the past, very wealthy) neighbouring farm to the north, which is called Öxnafell -- hence the literal translation of Öxnafellskot, 'the Öxnafell farm-cottage'. Öxnafell is named in Víga-Glúms saga, along with numerous other farms in the broad valley that I can see from Fellshlíð: Grund and Espihóll, to name but two examples. It has been suggested that Víga-Glúms saga was put together as a written narrative in the 13th century by someone attached to the monastery at Munkaþverá.

Thermos to hand and back up against a hay bale, wrapped up snug in outdoor kit (thank you 66 Norður, Rab, and Les at the Salvation Army shop in Cambridge) and with Fellshlíð horses peering at me curiously in the mane-whipping wind, there I was: sitting and reading about Glúmr's dream-woman and mapping out her path for myself, glancing across the valley, and north and south up and down it. The passage is a striking one wherever one is reading it; the immensity of the dream vision, and the significance of the event are further highlighted when one is actually in the landscape of the dream. This kind of experience is at the heart of what this project is about and the first glimmerings of the idea came to me while I was working on the farm here for the first time in 2008... reading Víga-Glúms saga then, I realised for the first time how remarkable it is to be able to locate this literature so precisely in the landscape as it is today. In the next instalment, more about Killer-Glúmr...and more about some of the specific places named in the saga and the people who live in these places now.

Víga-Glúms saga, ch. 9, ed. Jónas Kristjánsson in Eyfirðinga sǫgur, Íslenzk fornrit vol 9 (Reykjavík, 1956), pp. 30-31; my translation into English

Þat er sagt, at Glúm dreymði eina nótt: hann þóttisk vera úti staddr á bœ sínum ok sjá út til fjarðarins. Hann þóttisk sjá konu eina ganga útan eptir heraðinu, ok stefndi þangat til Þverár; en hon var svá mikil, at axlarnar tóku út fjǫllin tveggja vegn. Enn hann þóttisk ganga ór garði á mót henni ok bauð henni til sín; ok síðan vaknaði hann. Ǫllum þótti undarligt, en hann segir svá: "Draumr er mikill ok merkiligr, en svá mun ek hann ráða, at Vigfúss, móðurfaðir minn, mun nú vera andaðr, ok myndi kona sjá hans hamingja vera, er fjǫllum hæra gekk. Ok var hann um aðra menn fram um flesta hluti at virðingu, ok hans hamingja mun leita sér þangat staðfestu, sem ek em." En um sumarit, er skip kómú út, spurðisk andlát Vigfúss.

"It is said that Glúmr dreamed one night: he thought he was standing outside on his farm, looking out to the fjord. He seemed to see a certain woman walking from the sea through the district, and she headed thither, to Þverá; and she was so huge that her shoulders touched the mountains on both sides. And he seemed to walk from the yard out towards her and he invited her to his house; and afterwards, he woke. This seemed extraordinary to everyone, and he says then: 'It is a great dream and a significant one, and I interpret it thus, that Vigfúss, my maternal grandfather, is now dead, and that woman must be his guardian spirit, who walked taller than the mountains. And he [Vigfúss] was superior to other men in most matters of honour, and his guardian spirit must have been searching thither where I am for a resting place.' And during the summer, when ships came out [to Iceland], news of the death of Vigfúss became known."

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Komin til íslands...

Tórshavn, on departure
...And what an arrival! The adventures have truly begun. The boat from the Faroes (I was one of three passengers...) came into Seyðisfjörður in the east of Iceland yesterday morning on the stroke of 10am. The weather was perfect and the stretch from the open sea into the fjord breathtaking. Snow-covered slopes of the mountains, rising up either side of the water and broken by horizontal stripes of black rock; the morning sun coming up behind us over a pastel-tinted horizon; the brighter lights of the town of Seyðisfjörður drawing us in. 

Seyðisfjörður, upon arrival

With customs cleared, the first driving challenge  was to get over Fjarðarheiði, the heath or moor between Seyðisfjörður and Egilsstaðir. The climb up from Seyðisfjörður is fairly steep and -- this time of year -- icy, though in conjunction with the arrival of the boat, sand had been spread over the initial stretch. What a feeling driving up, up, and away, with the impossibly beautiful and stern winter landscape stretching for as far as could be seen in all directions!

Seyðisfjörður to Egilsstaðir
From Egilsstaðir I continued north along the ring road up to Mývatnssveit. It was tempting to set off without delay on the trail of two eastern sagas, Hrafnkels saga and Vápnfirðinga saga. The plan, however, is to spend a few weeks in the north at Fellshlíð, a farm in Eyjafjarðarsveit, while I read and work out what is feasible..and what foolhardy...for now. And so I drove on to Mývatn, arriving there as darkness drew in; and drove on to Akureyri this morning after a very comfortable night in the Embulance. Again, clear and calm weather, breathtaking views of mountains and moors, and stretches of road that were pure icerink. But all was well...until I reached the home straight, with over 500 miles covered from Cambridge. Driving south with Eyjafjörður on my right and Akureyri directly across the fjord, a change of gear to accommodate a hill resulted in a horrible crunch...and pulling over to the side of the road, it was clear that I wasn´t going any further on my own.

Seyðisfjörður to Egilsstaðir
Much as my time at the garage taught me before my departure, dealing with the inner workings of the gear box on my second day in Iceland is a little beyond my competence. Horror at first. And a fleeting thought that perhaps I would be better on a horse... But help was at hand. Friends came from the farm with a pickup and the Embulance and I were towed first to a garage in town for an informal professional opinion, and then down south to a neighbouring farm. It seems that the coupling in the gearbox has, to general amusement, I haven´t exactly arrived at my first destination quite as I intended. But repairs should be possible, and I will learn from the experience...and I´m not lacking in sagas or other material to read in the meantime.      

Sunday, 16 January 2011

All aboard the goodship Norröna...

A few lines from the North Sea...and nearly the Atlantic Ocean. I am currently somewhere north of the Shetlands en route to the Faroe Islands, due to put in at Tórshavn (the capital of the Faroes) at 05:00 tomorrow morning. The journey so far has proceeded without a hitch...touch wood this luck stays with me and the Embulance for the final stretch of the journey out to Iceland!

After landing at Thursday lunchtime in Esbjerg in Denmark, I drove across and up Jutland/Jylland to Aarhus, continuing up through Aalborg on Friday where, after overcoming the challenge of centre-of-busy-town parking, I looked into the pretty cathedral, and lost and found my purse (my guardian angel appears to be on full-time duty). I continued to head north and eventually arrived in Skagen (the northernmost point of the Jutland peninsula) where I spent the night by the sea with the beam from the lighthouse flashing over me, the snow swirling in great gusts outside, and the North Sea waves crashing on the shingle.

Then it was on to Hirtshals on Saturday morning after a first camping breakfast of coffee and home-baked maternal banana cake. After a bit more repacking, the Embulance and I checked in (photo to right by Axel Steuwer) and finally we were on our way. Not that anything of Hirtshals could be seen, due to a thick fog... So all is well: the company aboard is excellent and the weather is very fair. The reading -- naturally -- for this voyage is Færeyinga saga. More on this to follow once I reach the Islands of Sheeps themselves...

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The adventure begins...

This post has been a rather long time in coming... but finally, I´m off and the saga-steads adventure begins for real!

I popped over to Qaanaaq in the far north-western corner of Greenland in mid-December for Christmas (a couple of pics will be posted here soon). And couldn´t leave on account of the weather, which meant that the one weekly plane in and out of the place was cancelled. So I danced the Greenlandic polka on New Year´s Eve and marvelled at a spectacular 360 degree firework display, and had the chance to enjoy the 24-hour darkness for an extra week...

But now the Embulance is packed up and ready to go (I´ve been sleeping very comfortably in her the past few nights) and I hit the road headed to Harwich in a matter of hours. From Harwich I´ll sail to Esbjerg in Denmark, getting in at lunch time tomorrow. Then I´ll jump on the ferry from Hirtshals in Denmark over to the Faroes on Saturday. The beauty of this journey is that because Smyril line (the Denmark-Faroes-Iceland service) operates their winter timetable until April, I can´t buy an onward ticket from the Faroes to Iceland until I actually get to the Faroes. Wonderful! If all goes well though, I could be on Icelandic soil (or rock) next Wednesday...I will try to keep you updated with my progress where I can.

Finally, a short BBC Look East interview with some shots of the back of the (very spartan looking, pre-loading-of-kit) Embulance and a bit of chat about the project is to be found here -