Icelandic Journals: Notes on 1871 Journey

Saturday, August 5, 1871

"Got up pretty early and walked about the stead and into the little turf-walled church that stands on a grassy knoll . . . our host followed us in, to show us what there was to see; it was all deal inside with a rather elaborate screen, a pretty brass chandelier and two old (17th century?) pictures, an altar triptych and painted rood: there were a good many books in it; among them a Guthbrandur Bible; a rather valuable MS. of ecclesiastical annals, and a handsomely written book of Sagas: Hrolf Kraki to wit, Volsunga, and Ragnar Lothbrok.”

Larger steads had small, one-room churches, green-walled from the verdant turf, with an altar and pulpit at one end, the entry door at the other, an aisle separating the six to eight benches where the congregants sat. Icelandic farms, in vast valleys, as well as the cruel weather for much of the year, made the travelling ministers--and parishioners--expedient. Along with the expected décor—the altar and cross, a few paintings, there are many books. The Bible and the annals MS. are proper here, in this Lutheran church, but the book of Sagas, “handsomely”copied out—and by a scribe certainly Christian, this book with its bloody and pagan tales might seem out of place, until we recall that these tales preceded the coming of Christianity, and indeed of writing, to these northern shores, and that such tales remained popular, well-known to all the Icelanders Morris encountered. The Saga of the Volsungs was among the first of the Morris and Magnusson translations and its heroes and themes are the basis for Morris’s long narrative poem, Sigurd the Volsung.

Fifty years ago, as one of a small group of foreign students studying Icelandic literature, I visited the site where Gunnar had lived, Hlitharenidii, a place so beautiful with vistas so grand, he decied to defy the council of friends that he leave Iceland for three years. [Njals Saga: 'They rode toward the Markarfljot river [[and the ship that would take him abroad]] and then Gunnar's horse slipped and he sprang from the saddle. He happened to be facing the hillside and the farm at Hlitherendi, and spoke: 'Lovely is the hillside--never has it seemed so lovely to me as now, with its pale fields and mown meadows, and I will ride back home and not leave.' After killing his hound, Samr, his enemies winch the roof off of his fortress-house and slay him; a skaldic verse puts it thusly: ‘Gunnar, greedy for gore / guarded himself with his halberd. / Wielding weapons against attack, / he gave wounds to sixteen / of the battle-bearers, / and brought death to two.’” Trans. Robert Cook, 2001, Penguin, 127-28).] This battle, the reason Gunnar cannot restring his bow [his wife’s revenge] are among the best known passages in all of the Icelandic sagas. The Grettla was one of the first sagas Morris and Magnusson translated, and Morris’s poem on Gunnar’s grave, “Gunnar’s Howe Above the Grave at Lithend,” is one of his best.

I was admiring the site, chatting with a resident farmer about the saga, and I commented on the size of a few boulders there on the slope, and said, it was one such boulder that Gunnar’s killers used, perhaps this one right here. The farmer got excited and shouted, “Nay NAY Nay. That var thessi stein.” He was very serious, concerned that I get the story right, pointing to another stone a few yards off. His dog was named ‘Samr’, certainly no surprise.

‘ . . . lies Statharbakki, a church and parsonage, not an historical place:’
         Many of the farms they passed or visited were ‘historical,’ that is they were mentioned in the sagas, in the Grettla so often as they move through these northern valleys. But the Family sagas are not histories, not factual like the tales of the Sturlungs, but much beloved, well-known to all, and thus deemed factual.   Grettir lived here; he did lift this stone, swim in this river, and the like. Morris notes the difference between saga accounts and the actual sites, as mentioned earlier, when he was musing over the meagerness of Njals stead, and the like.
 
‘ . . . lie the three heaps of turf and boarded gables of a poor house, which is Biarg, where Grettir was born;’
         Morris here adds a woefully short footnote: ‘Same as Burg, a castle.’ In the saga itself, Grettir’s birth-place is (***Add passage here, with further comment***)
 
and this they call Grettir’s “head-mound,” i.e. the place where his head was buried. After this we go up the hill that looks down on all this, where is a big stone (some twenty tons C.J.F. guessed it) . . . which they call a Grettir’s Heave’
         That Morris chooses to add Faulkner’s estimate of the fabled stone’s weight, an aside to Georgie, I find interesting
 
‘We buy a silver spoon and a piece of queer embroidery of the bonder’