Iceland: Saga sites

June 14

(Photos here.)

South Iceland is very much Njál’s Saga country, and early this morning we met Lárus, our guide (and a high school teacher), in Hvölsvollur for a tour of some Njála sites. From the start, his love of the saga was clear; he described it to us as “the greatest novel ever written in Icelandic.”

We may have been able to find the hillside in Hliðarendi easily enough, but some of the other sites we would never have found. In a few cases, we might not even have realized that the roads to get there really were passable. 🙂 I don’t know that a simple listing out of those sites would make for a very interesting travelogue–but it was fascinating to get a sense of how close many of the farms where Njála takes place were; many of the characters really were neighbors, living nearly within view of one another. All but Njáll, Gunnar’s friend and neighbor, who would have been 20 kilometers–a four hour ride by horse–away, and thus somewhat isolated from his friends.

We saw the forest–now a bare, low hill–where Gunnar and Njáll would have shared rights to the wood growing there–and also where their wives, Hallgerður and Bergþora, began their own feud, and the killing off of one anothers’ servants. Around the other side of that hill, we saw the area where Skarpheðin may have slid on the ice of the Markarfljót [River], taking Þráin’s head off with his axe as he slid on by. The Markarfljót itself had long since moved on; it tends to dance about, to reroute itself from one location to another over time.

We saw Gunnar’s green hillside, of course, and learned that no one knows exactly where on that hillside Gunnar’s farm was actually located. We saw, too, the area where Gunnar fell from his horse, and looked back at that hillside, and decided not to leave. The ripening hay Gunnar found so lovely was long gone, a field of volcanic gravel and brown grass in its place. Beyond the gravel, we saw another view of the hillside–the same view, perhaps, that Gunnar would have seen long ago. My breath caught at that thought. Caught, in spite of some more reasonable part of my brain still thinking Gunnar foolish not to leave.

We saw a view of a mountain where those who burned Njáll alive in his home hid when the burning was through. That burning is the central action of the second third of Njál’s Saga, in much the way Gunnar’s death is the central action of the first.

And of course we visited Bergþórshvöll, Njáll and Bergþora’s home, the place where the burning occurred. I’d been to Bergþórshvöll once before, on my first trip to Iceland. I’d found the place surprisingly peaceful at the time–but then, I’d also been alone in a rental car with a failing battery, afraid to turn the engine off for fear it wouldn’t start again. I’d been wondering whether, this time, with the car engine off, with some time to walk around, I’d might feel differently.

But no, I didn’t. I stood in a field of green grass, filled with dandelions, and if I didn’t feel any deep peace, neither did I feel any sense of deep tragedy. This was a pleasant place, the land where Njáll and Bergþora died. It was also once again a working farm, and had been for some time. A lot of life–hundreds and hundreds of years worth–had taken place on the site of this tragedy, and perhaps left impressions of its own.

In the distance, 3 km away, we could see the sea. Lárus pointed out a gray island rising out of the water. Surtsey, a new island created by a volcanic eruption in the 1960s–new land visible from the old. Njáll never would have seen that island; he died almost a thousand years too soon.


I did ask Lárus, during the tour, what he thought of Hallgerður. Like Kristín at Þingvellir, he hesitated a moment before answering. “She was a bad woman,” he told us then. “We don’t like her here. But some people feel differently.” People, I got the impression, who lived elsewhere, perhaps.

I remembered then that Hallgerður was not from the south, had not grown up among these close-knit farms. She came from the western Laxdæla Valley. Which meant Hallgerður really would have been something of an outsider when she came to Gunnar’s home. I began wondering, then, what role that might have played in the saga’s events.

After the tour, we returned to Hvölsvollur, where lnhammer spent a pleasant couple hours at the town’s Njála museum, then got sandwiches from the local grill and headed back to the hillside at Hliðarendi. As Lárus pointed out, once you’ve seen the saga sites, you want to go back to them, to just sit there and think for a while.

So I sat on Gunnar’s hillside, above a pleasant little church, eating my lunch while sheep grazed on the grasses above me. There was a graveyard beside the church, and looking down at it, I found myself thinking: This is a good place. Many people lived good lives here.

Again, if a great tragedy had taken place here, so many lives have been lived here since that the tragedy could no longer be felt. So much time, so much life. The saga stories aren’t the only stories that have taken place here, after all.

We eventually returned to the Fljótsdalur hostel for dinner and some reading and journaling time. While there, we learned that in the U.S. and England, horseshoes are placed above farmhouse doors open side up, to keep the good luck in; but in Iceland, they’re placed open side down, to let the bad luck out. The hostel, owned by an English couple, had one horseshoe facing either way, just to be safe.

We also got in a short hike to a nearby waterfall–volcanic stone crunching beneath our feet, bits of sheep’s fur caught on the rocks. Around midnight, we headed to bed. We were already learning to see twilight, rather than darkness, as a cue for sleep.

In the morning, we would leave the south behind, and head (indirectly, with a loop through the West Fjords first) toward Hallgerður’s country.

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