Iceland: legends of the north

 

NOR Nordmennene lander på Island år 872

Oscar Wergeland (1877), The Norsemen landing in Iceland [not an archaeologically accurate depiction, but still rather wonderful]

According to the Old Norse Landnámabók – ‘the book of settlements’ – the first Scandinavian settlers to make their home in Iceland were Ingólfr Arnarson, his wife Hallveig Fróðadóttr and his brother Hjörleifr. According to the legend, they left Norway in 874 after a violent feud, sailing west towards a land of which they had heard rumour. The story goes that when he first sighted land Ingólfr tossed his ‘high-seat pillars’ into the sea and followed them as they drifted towards the shore. They washed up in what is now known as Faxa Bay, in the south-west of the island, and there the family built their farmstead – the first settlement on Iceland, chosen by the tug of wind and tide. Ingolfr watched the smoke, risen from hot springs, drifting low over the water and named his farm Reykjavík, the smoking bay. Continue reading

The Tale of King Harald is a true story…

But what does it mean for a story to be ‘true’?

The first versions of this tale were written down in in the middle ages in a number of different hand-written texts. The oldest of these was compiled in around 1220 in a manuscript called Morkinskinna, which means ‘mouldy skin’ (the parchment it was written on was made of vellum, made from the stretched and dried skin of a calf). The most famous version, however, was written by an Icelandic chieftain and historian called Snorri Sturluson around 1230. Snorri was a remarkable man. As well as twice being elected to Iceland’s highest official post – Lawspeaker (Lögsögumaður) – he wrote a number of works about traditional Scandinavian poetry and mythology, but also a sprawling compendium of King’s Sagas (tales) called Heimskringla (the circle of the world). Harald’s Saga forms a small part of this great work. Snorri was very careful to present what he thought were true accounts of the lives of the kings of Norway. He made great use of earlier histories – like Morkinskinna – and often used fragments of poems (called skaldic verse) which were written during the lifetime of the Norse kings, and remembered long afterwards.

In the case of King Harald, we have a little more to go on. He was mentioned in histories written in the Byzantine Empire where he was described as a Varangian with a prominent rank in the Imperial army. His invasion of England is also described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. So we know he existed, and the broad outlines of his life as presented by Snorri seem more or less accurate. However, poems in praise of kings are rarely even-handed, and some of the details seem improbable and are rather similar to folk-tales told about other kings. Most telling of all is that some of the stories sound very much like the boasting of a man in later life about the glories of his youth, at a time when no one could contradict his version of events. If this is so, we can expect some of these stories to contain a degree of exaggeration.

Audun

Audun and the polar bear in the hall of Harald Hard-ruler

 

The version of Harald’s story that is written in this book [The Tale of King Harald] is fairly true to Snorri’s account of Harald’s life in Heimskringla. In some places I have added details taken from earlier sagas, especially Saint Olaf’s Saga (the tale of Harald’s half-brother who died at the Battle of Stiklestad). The tale of Audun and the polar bear is taken from a short story written about Harald and preserved in Morkinskinna, and a few details have been added from other sources that mention Harald and the period in general. Much of the dialogue is adapted from the saga, but by no means all of it. The biggest changes I have made are to the length of various sections of the narrative. In Heimskringla, Harald’s time with Yaroslav is told on a single page, and much of chapter 2 has therefore been fleshed out with other details of the period taken from other sources. On the other hand, chapters 3 and 4 present a greatly compressed version of Snorri’s story-telling. In particular, the politics of Norway and Denmark during Harald’s reign have been simplified.

I don’t think Harald would have minded these minor changes. For a Viking, the most important ambition was to live long in memory; I am sure he would be pleased to know that his legend continues to be told.

[This post is an extract from The Tale of King Harald: The Last Viking Adventure, which is available from Amazon and The British Museum]

Vikings: hearts of darkness?

The tidal current runs to and fro […] crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899).

Here, surely, we have a passionate and evocative description of the Vikings: bold adventurers stepping forward onto the world stage, ready to set a blaze on four continents and pave the way for the nations that would rise in their wake. In fact, this passage, taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, describes the explorers, buccaneers, settlers and merchants – ‘the dark ‘interlopers’ of the eastern trade, and the commissioned ‘generals’ of the East India fleets” – who had set out from the Thames from the 16th to the 19th century, laying the foundations of the British Empire and changing the world forever. But striking similarities between the Vikings and the British of the early modern and modern age underlie this coincidence of images: societies alienated in politics and religion from their closest neighbours and rivals, possession of a technological edge at sea, bravery, curiosity, a lust for gold and a willingness to use violence and brutality to whatever end. It was a comparison that the Victorians were not slow to identify, though they saw the comparison in a generally positive light.

…much of what is good and true in our laws and social customs, much of what is manly and vigorous in the British Constitution, and much of our intense love of freedom and fair play, is due to the pith, pluck and enterprise, and sense of justice that dwelt in the breasts of the rugged old sea-kings of Norway!

R M Ballantyne, Erling the Bold: A Tale of Norse Sea-Kings (1869)

But just as the legacy of Empire is constantly being re-evaluated, so too is the impact of the Vikings on the people with whom they came into contact, and the darker side of both has frequently been at the foreground of contemporary thought. The Vikings were happy to acquire goods by plunder and extortion when it was expedient, and to open up new markets for trade by the sword. Evidence from Viking military camps in Britain suggests that trade and manufacturing could go hand in hand with raiding and conquest: perhaps an early equivalent of ‘gun-boat diplomacy’. And just as the early wealth of the British Empire was founded on the horrors of the slave trade, so too were slaves a major trading commodity for Vikings. Written sources give a sense of some of the misery experienced by people subjected to early medieval human trafficking:

Stumbling the survivors
Scattered from the carnage,
Sorrowing they fled to safety,
Leaving the women captured.
Maidens were dragged in shackles
To your triumphant longships;
Women wept as bright chains
Cruelly bit their soft flesh.

Valgard of Voll, c. AD 1000–1100, quoted in ‘King Harald’s Saga’, Heimskringla (c.1230) by Snorri Sturlusson, 1179–1241; translation by M. Magnusson and H. Pálsson in King Harald’s Saga (Penguin Books, London, 1966, 2nd ed. 2005).

Viking slave shackles excavated in Dublin and Germany bear a startling similarity to those used in the transportation of Africans to the Americas and West Indies in the 18th and early 19th centuries by British slave-traders, such as these in the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool. But at the same time, the rapacity and technological edge that made the Vikings so feared were also to effect lasting change on a continental scale. Settlements in Ireland, Russia and Ukraine played a pivotal role in the development of urban civilisation in those regions, and the influx of trade goods and silver from the east contributed in no small way to the economic development of European markets. New settlements and cultures grew out of Viking exploration, sometimes where none had existed before. The birth of an Icelandic nation was to give Europe its oldest living parliamentary system and lead to an extraordinary flowering of medieval literature in the shape of the Icelandic sagas. The legacy of the British Empire remains highly controversial. But it is even more problematic trying to judge the Vikings by the standards of 21st-century morality. As with all stereotypes applied to large groups of people, labelling the Vikings as heroes or villains, raiders or traders, distorts history and oversimplifies complex phenomena. The Vikings were many things in equal measure, and their diversity of expression, activity and ethnicity is a defining aspect of what Vikings: life and legend seeks to explore.

slave-chain

Viking Age slave chain and collar from iron slave chain and collar found in Ardakillen Lake, Co. Roscommon, Ireland (© NMI)

[originally posted on the British Museum website in April 2014]

Journeys in the dark

When I was a small boy – probably I was eight years old – my grand-father produced for my birthday a board game. This was no ordinary board game, however; this was Heroquest. Opening the box was like opening a portal into another world, like lifting the lid of the Box of Delights. One of the most powerful and evocative smells I know, a smell familiar to anyone who has bought an expensive boxed game over the last twenty-five years, is the unique aroma of plastic and freshly cut card that I first experienced on entering that case of wonders.

heroquest-imageFor those who are unfortunate enough to have missed this foundational monument of modern western culture, Heroquest was a game produced jointly by Milton Bradley and Games Workshop. It is what, in the ugly jargon of the console age, would now be called a dungeon-crawler. And, like many who encountered it at roughly the same age, it profoundly and permanently altered the chemistry of my brain. To be fair, I was already precociously steeped in fantasy. My first literary memories (of books without pictures) are of my mother reading The Hobbit to me at the age of 5, and the first books I read alone were the Chronicles of Narnia. Around the same time, my father revealed to me the complete radio series of The Lord of the Rings which he had kept secreted in some arcane vault since recording it when first broadcast on Radio 4 in 1981 (these tapes – which still survive – were complete with the original synopses, cut from The Radio Times and inserted into the cassette boxes).

This, of course, was fundamental and I was soon at home amongst dwarves and orcs and adventures undertaken in caverns deep beneath the mountains. It inspired a love of landscape, myth and fantasy which has endured to the present. What was different about Heroquest was that it opened doors that hitherto had been closed – it was sensory, tactile, inhabitable. It hinted at expansive worlds beyond the confines of the game, worlds populated by tangible sculptural representations of their myriad denizens. It affected me so profoundly at the time that I can still remember seeing the faces of weird creatures in the dark spaces between the trees. The night became alive with ideas that existed just beyond the limits of the real world and to me they seemed at the point of breaking through.

Sadly, modern fantasy has lost a great deal of its charm thanks to mass market commodification through online computer games, the rise of Games Worskhop as an aggressive share-holder owned business, and mega-budget Hollywood franchises. Back then, fantasy was weird and underground, unregulated and uncodified: spontaneous, creative and free. It is ironic that the success of Heroquest was partly responsible for that mass-marketisation of fantasy and the demise of the independent model shop. I often mourn those dark caves of mystery, their cabinets crammed with dusty miniatures whose obscure forms and inexplicable origins spoke to unfettered recesses of the imagination.

For many people, the love of archaeology was sparked by Indiana Jones or Time Team. For me and, I suspect, a surprising number of others, it was fantasy that first offered me my first glimpse of the inside of a hoary tomb, a ruined city, a forgotten mine shaft leading into the deep places of the world, a rusted blade, a mouldy manuscript.

Whether the mines of Moria or the Bastion of Chaos, these were the paths that led me down into the dark.

Autumn

On one of the first days of October I went walking with my wife. I found my first conker of the year, with the beautiful patina and texture of newborn wood. It’s already wrinkled,  like a hard shiny prune. After the walk I went shopping and bought a small collection of objects. I hadn’t intended them to be a collection, but when I looked at them together I was struck how my emotional response to the season was reflected in the things I had chosen. The warm, rich, smoked flavours of Beavertown’s Smog Rocket is full of the scent of bonfires and leaf litter.

Autumnal objects

Of course, mushrooms are a seasonal crop, so a mushroom themed notebook is perfectly appropriate for this time of year.

Autumn has always felt magical, partly because my birthday falls in October, but also because of other festivals – All Hallows’ and Guy Fawkes’ – and, especially, the build up to Christmas. Magical worlds feel closer, almost tangible, and the sights and smells of the season open seductive little windows to fantasy and fairy tale. Toadstools are very much a part of the mental furniture of fairy story. Sarah Maitland described this quality of fungi beautifully in her book Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of our Forests and Fairytales: 

“[fungi is a] phenomenon of the forests […] which can give me the same strange shiver of fear as the dream of wolves and as the fairy stories themselves, a sense of being in the presence of something eerie.” (p. 211)

“When you come upon fungi in the woods they have a magical otherworldly appearance, enhanced by the improbable variety of forms and colours: fungi like jelly, like coral, like brains, like tongues flickering out of alder cones, and even, with the weird earthstars (Geastraceae), like aliens from space.” (p.212)

The word toadstool is particularly pregnant with images of the fairy realm, as are many of the extraordinary folkloric names of fungi, names that have welled up from porous seams of folklore buried deep below: Wood Hedgehog, Velvet Brittlegill, Dead Man’s Finger…

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Ted Hughes has made an impact on my life in many ways. I read his poetry as a child, and the story The Iron Man had a profound effect on me when I was young. I was so enthralled by it that I made my own audio book version, sitting alone in my bedroom for hours, reading it out into the microphone of a cheap tape recorder. Why on earth I should have done such a thing is lost in time – perhaps by sounding it out I felt I could inhabit the story more profoundly than by simply reading it. The poems contained in Remains of Elmet are altogether of a darker hue, filled, like Autumn, with images of beauty, sadness and decay:

A wind from the end of the sky

Buffs and curries the grizzly bear-dark pelt

Of long skylines

Browsing in innocence

Through their lasting purple aeons

(Heather, 8-12)

The first edition of this volume of poems was conceived as a collaboration with the photographer Fay Godwin: her beautiful black and white images made a subtle counterpoint to Hughes’ dark and sometimes difficult text, sometimes softening, sometimes alleviating the bleakness of the words.

Shorn of those images the poems, though they lose none of their power and artistry, feel harsher and more alienating at times than they should. A reprint of the collection as it was originally conceived would be most welcome.