The sagas are the record of how Iceland was settled by deportees and settlers from ( substantially) Scandinavia how they divided the land, established clans and family alliances, erected their own legal system and dumped the old Norse gods for Christianity. So high are heartstrings around these stories that, in the wake of Iceland’s independence in 1944, the extradition of the original saga calligrapher from Denmark came to a matter of political urgency. Later much fighting, these medieval shin-skin diplomas started to be returned from 1971 the Danish cortège frigate that carried back the first vellum was saluted by the flag- signalling crowds in Reykjavík harbour. Travelling the routes of the sagas took me each over Iceland, but some occurrences are easier to place than others. When it comes to the popular Grettir’s Saga, I wasn’t confident about emulating the dyspeptic idol’s battles with a cacodemon and she– comb, but there was one fail-safe way to copy his adventures by getting into hot water.
Roving across northern Iceland, I hiked from the harbourage city of Sauðárkrókur, once lamb granges and pony fields, and slid into a gravestone-lined “ hot- pot” at Grettislaug, warm with volcanically heated water, where the medieval idol is said to have bathed. Actors in the Iceland Sagas Greatest Hits show in Reykjavik. Actors in the Iceland Sagas Greatest Hits show in Reykjavik. “ It’s a true story,” claimed the point director, Ingi, who periodically dips a thermometer to check the temperature. “ And we still read it, indeed now!” Behind the bath, RVs brimmed in a
rustic kitchen and set up their outfit between the netting of joe– ropes, ready to capture the northern lights as soon as the early evening pall caul dispersed. I set up my roof alongside them. Landscape plays a major part in Icelandic sagas. Hitch-hiking across the west of the country, I crossed dramatic plains of lava gemstone muffled in moss that feature in the Eyrbyggja Saga. In the tale, a planter sets his antagonists the task of erecting a pass through the lava straight, awaiting them to fail – when they succeed, he murders them in a bathhouse. Moss-covered lava fields in western Iceland Moss-covered lava fields in western Iceland. Snap Alamy I made my way down to the fishing harborage of Borgarnes, where a gallery has been opened in honour of the popular Egil’s Saga, with scenes from the tale reimagined using recycled fishing gear. And I rambled around the windswept hills and leas of Laxardal, where the sagas’ topmost heroine, Guðrun, gests some of the numerous reverses of her tumultuous life. Occasionally I wild camped, pitching my roof by roadsides and on the edges of fields, but substantially I stayed in campgrounds, which are generous in Iceland (and frequently well-equipped with kitchens and electricity hook-ups). In the Laxdæla Saga, Guðrun ends her life on Helgafell, the “ sacred mountain”. As I hitched there, I was dipped out of rainstorms by a Polish hostel worker and also by an original goose huntsman, whose automatic rifle bounced on the aft seat. From the main road where I was dropped off, the mountain impended behind ranges and peat bogs, its shape suggesting a burial mound, as if it were carved to elicit the numerous pagan icons it reportedly tombed, before being rebranded as Christian Iceland’s most hallowed place. Then, Guðrun came “ the first woman in Iceland to come to a nun and anchoress”, according to the saga. At the bottom of the seamy mountain, a gemstone is engraved with Guðrun’s most notorious saying “ To him, I was worst who I loved stylish.” A path winds between bushels of crowberry and spongy moss, and the wind roars across the hilltop like a Nordic god on a day trip from Valhalla. The panoramic scale is stirring – lakes and marsh, skerries (rocky islands) incubating in the cove, drumlins pulverized with glacial flour, ranges dotted with lamb. Upwardly from the mountain, a church harpoons over a graveyard, where the heroine’s name is inscribed under welts of lichen on the grave traditionally credited to her.