The sagas are “our national identity”, says Icelandic actor Oddur Júlíusson. Based on historical events that mostly took place between the ninth and early 11th centuries, they have been narrated in the farmsteads of Iceland since the Middle Ages. Júlíusson performs the Icelandic Sagas Greatest Hits in Reykjavík, a comedy version in both Icelandic and English of all 40 of the “family sagas” – tales of feuding, romance, surprisingly intricate legal processes, sorcery and sea battles. “We are constantly reminded of these stories,” he told me, “and we name children after characters in them.”
The sagas are the record of how Iceland was settled by refugees and migrants from (mainly) Scandinavia: how they divided the land, established clans and family alliances, built their own legal system and ditched the old Norse gods for Christianity. So high are passions around these stories that, in the wake of Iceland’s independence in 1944, the repatriation of the original saga manuscripts from Denmark became a matter of diplomatic urgency. After much wrangling, these medieval calf-skin parchment started to be returned from 1971: the Danish navy frigate that carried back the first vellum was greeted by flag-waving crowds in Reykjavík harbour.
Travelling the routes of the sagas took me all over Iceland, but some episodes are easier to place than others. When it comes to the popular Grettir’s Saga, I wasn’t confident about emulating the cantankerous hero’s battles with a ghoul and a she-troll, but there was one fail-safe way to copy his adventures: by getting into hot water. Roaming across northern Iceland, I hiked from the port town of Sauðárkrókur, past sheep farms and pony fields, and slid into a stone-lined “hot-pot” at Grettislaug, warm with volcanically heated water, where the medieval hero is said to have bathed.
“It’s a true story,” insisted the site manager, Ingi, who periodically dips a thermometer to check the temperature. “And we still read it, even now!” Behind the bath, campers bustled in a wooden kitchen and set up their equipment between the webbing of guy-ropes, ready to capture the northern lights as soon as the early evening cloud caul dispersed. I set up my tent alongside them.
Landscape plays a major role in Icelandic sagas. Hitch-hiking across the west of the country, I crossed dramatic plains of lava rock mantled in moss that feature in the Eyrbyggja Saga. In the tale, a farmer sets his antagonists the task of building a pass through the lava plain, expecting them to fail – when they succeed, he murders them in a bath house.
I made my way down to the fishing port of Borgarnes, where a museum 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 heaths of Laxardal, where the sagas’ greatest heroine, Guðrun, experiences some of the many reverses of her tumultuous life. Sometimes I wild camped, pitching my tent by roadsides and on the edges of fields, but mostly I stayed in campsites, which are plentiful in Iceland (and often 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 scooped out of rain squalls by a Polish hotel worker and then by a local goose hunter, whose automatic rifle bounced on the back seat. From the main road where I was dropped off, the mountain loomed behind pastures and peat bogs, its shape suggesting a burial mound, as if it were sculpted to evoke the many pagan heroes it reportedly entombed, before being rebranded as Christian Iceland’s most hallowed place.
Here, Guðrun became “the first woman in Iceland to become a nun and anchoress”, according to the saga. At the foot of the seamy mountain, a rock is engraved with Guðrun’s most famous saying: “To him I was worst who I loved best.” A path winds between bushels of crowberry and spongy moss, and wind roars across the hilltop like a Nordic god on a day trip from Valhalla. The panoramic scale is breathtaking – lakes and marshland, skerries (rocky islets) brooding in the firth, drumlins powdered with glacial flour, pastures dotted with sheep. Downhill from the mountain, a church spikes over a graveyard, where the heroine’s name is inscribed under welts of lichen on the tomb traditionally ascribed to her.
“The greatest saga is Njál’s Saga,” Júlíusson told me. “It’s the big one, the one we all know about.” It’s a complicated tale, swinging from sea raids and storm-swept battles to intricately depicted legal depositions. Part of the story takes place at Þingvellir, the “fields of parliament”, in the south-west. Here, most of the key national decisions have been made, from the transition to Christianity in 1000AD to the declaration of independence in 1944.
After checking out a collision point of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, you can follow the path beside moss-covered lava, down to a lake populated by giant trout (and in the process pass through the Gate of the Moon from the Eyrie in Game of Thrones). A flagpole rises from a ledge credited as the “rock of law”, over the natural amphitheatre in which medieval lawyers such as Njál brokered their cases and established the world’s first elected parliament.
Njál’s Saga carried me down into the south of Iceland, where the hero, Gunnar, lived. In the tale, his sharp-tongued wife Hallgerda bickers with her neighbours, and sends her slaves on missions of theft and murder, and Gunnar is embroiled in feuds until he is decreed an exile. But stumbling from his horse on his way to his ship, he looks back upon the beautiful countryside he’s about to leave behind. “Fair is the Lithe,” he declares in the saga’s most iconic speech, “so fair that it has never seemed to me so fair; the corn fields are white to harvest, and the home mead is mown; and now I will ride back home, and not fare abroad at all.”
Hiking under black-bellied storm clouds, I tramped past Gunnar’s Rock, a knobbly riverside prominence where he fought off an ambush. Above bristling fields soars Þríhyrningur (Three Peak Mountain), plunging down to slopes of tuff stone. Beyond an icy river, a path winds between beryl-green hills and waterfalls, an area known locally as Flosi’s dale, after one of the tale’s antagonists. I slept that night in a hoop of corrugated iron next to a church, and woke to a chorus of snipe.
This was Gunnar’s home, Hliðarendi; wandering under whipped-cream clouds and riffling geese, past the gleaming plunge-lines of waterfalls towards the ice-capped volcano of Eyjafjallajökull, I could appreciate why Gunnar resolved to stay – though the decision cost him his life.
About 20 miles further south – reached thanks to lifts from a huntsman in search of ptarmigan and a Scottish knitwear designer with a 4×4 – was BergÞórsvoll, home of the lawyer Njál. There isn’t much to see, but there is a guesthouse with communal kitchen (doubles from £60 room-only), which provided a rare treat – a night indoors – to end my saga journey. Sheep graze the fields, there are a few goats and a horse paddock. The area is still known for its feuds.
“This place is cursed,” one local told me, describing some recent conflicts. “We call it a war zone,” her partner added. The flat, grassy fields with their close access to the sea would have made for prime medieval real estate, and the same natural advantages remain. In the saga, the house is burned, Njál is killed and his son-in-law, Kari, sets off in search of revenge. The saga, however, manages to conjure a more hopeful ending, with reconciliation and marriage between the feuding factions.
Iceland now boasts one of the world’s lowest crime rates, but these violent tales still resonate, partly for their drama and partly because they reflect the threat of violence underlying all our societies. The ghosts of the past continue to haunt this storied land, its rivers and hillsides, its dramatic mountains and its surreal lava plains.
• Nicholas Jubber’s new book, Epic Continent: Adventures in the Great Stories of Europe, is published by John Murray, £20. To order a copy for £17.60 including UK p&p visit The Guardian Bookshop
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