Njal’s Saga: an introduction

Njal’s Saga. 13th c. manuscript page. Public domain.

Those who follow this blog have seen messages and photographs from Iceland over the last two weeks.  Mary and I spent a week there with Robert Bella Wilhelm and two other storytellers.  Several decades ago, Robert and his wife, Kelly, created “Storyfest Journeys” to lead small groups of people on “storytelling travel seminars.” http://www.storyfestjourneys.com

We discovered Storyfest Journeys in 1991 and spent a memorable week in west England and Wales on a themed trip, “The Quest for Arthur’s Britain.”  Since then we’ve joined the Wilhelms in Arizona and New Mexico for seminars on the folklore of the southwest and on desert spirituality while their trips to Iceland remained a “someday, maybe” fantasy.  Someday arrived this year.

This was Robert Wilhelm’s  seventh trip to Iceland.  Past seminars have focused on Icelandic and nordic storytelling in general, but Robert had always wanted to lead a seminar on Njal’s Saga.  He knew that such a specialized theme would result in a very small group, which was even smaller, because Kelly, who was teaching, couldn’t come.

Imagine a small group of lovers of myth and folklore, staying in a comfortable guesthouse with great food and lots of coffee, meeting to discuss a unique, 700 year old piece of literature, and then touring places where the events took place.  If that kind of travel appeals, check out the Wilhelm’s website.  In the first half of 2013, they are planning story-related trips to Hawaii, Arizona, the Orkneys, and Iceland again in May.

I tried to show some of the visual richness of Iceland in previous posts.  Now it’s time to focus on the saga.


The Icelandic word for saga means both “story” and “history.”  Forty Icelandic sagas are known, and Njal’s is the longest and most popular.  The events took place roughly between 970 and 1020 and were written down in the 13th century.  Njal’s Saga brings The Illiad to mind, but unlike the epic poetry of the ancient world, Icelandic sagas were literary creations from the start.  Single authors gathered the threads of shorter stories and oral histories and wove them into something new.  The sagas were read to an audience from manuscripts that were prize possessions of certain well to do families.  Nineteen early copies of Njal survive.

Several features resulting from the sagas’ origin and intention can surprise a 21st century reader.  Nail biting action adventure scenes are mixed with long genealogies and descriptions of who sat where at a certain banquet.  There are far too many characters and subplots for a contemporary novel.

The 13th century, when the sagas were created, was a period of strife for Iceland, with pitched battles that only ceased when the country submitted to Norwegian rule.  The sagas were written, in part, to affirm the Icelanders’ personal and national identities.  Many living then could trace their origin back to one of the first 400 settlers, so detailed accounts of the doings of their ancestors were always of great interest, in a way that won’t be clear to us at first.

Winter is the traditional time for stories, and in the depth of winter, southern Iceland gets only four hours of daylight.  In the northern part of the country, it’s three.  In the times described in the sagas, families and friends would gather to spend the winter together.  It’s not hard to imagine a dark hall, with people huddled around the charcoal fires, following the reader’s voice into another world, and as the narratives pace became familiar, I found myself settling into the story and understanding why Tolkien borrowed from the sagas in his creation of Middle Earth.

Here is what Robert Cook, translator of the Penguin edition, says in his introduction:

“In Njal’s Saga we read of battles on land and sea, failed marriages, divided allegiances, struggles for power, sexual gibes, malicious backbiting, revenge, counter-revenge, complex legal processes and peace settlements that fail to bring peace, not to mention dreams, portents, prophecies, a witch-ride and valkyries.  Behind all this richness lies a well-crafted story of decent men and women struggling unsuccessfully to control a tragic force propelled by persons of lesser stature but greater ill-will.”

Next: The characters, the structure, and the events of Njal’s Saga

More photographs from Iceland

Here are a few more photographs from the week we spent in Iceland. In a few days I’ll write about our discussions of Icelandic sagas in general, and Njal’s Saga in particular, which framed and guided our travels through the countryside.


Farmhouse, Hlidarendi

Kerio, a collapsed volcanic crater

Volcanos Eyjafjallajökull (right) and Katla (left). Mary’s photo.

Bridge to nowhere, Skalholt

Guesthouse, Skalholt

Shore of Lake Thingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland

Another bridge to nowhere – the metaphorical possibilities are endless.

Skalholt Cathedral from the river path

Churchyard at Oddi


Yours truly by the statue of Saemundur the Learned.

Next: The sagas

Photographs from Iceland

We are back from a week in southern Iceland, which we spent studying one of the great sagas with a small group of storytellers.  We also visited places where this thousand year old drama unfolded. I’ll speak of Njal’s Saga in future posts, but here are a few pictures of the striking Icelandic autumn.

Pool at Thingvellir

A thousand years of volcanic eruption and cutting trees for heat stripped most of the native birch and willow forests.  A joke we heard several times is, “If you get lost in a forest in Iceland, stand up.”  Reforestation efforts are underway, but meanwhile shrubs and even some of the lichen that covers the boulders provide dramatic fall colors.

Thingvellir Park. Photo by Mary

Pines are not native to Iceland, but this stand, planted by the government at Thingvellir Park, made a welcome spot for a picnic.

Thingvellir from the cliffs above.

The Law Circle, where the National Assembly met every summer, stands behind the church (a later addition).  Beginning in 930, the Icelanders’ efforts to govern by rule of law was key to the life of the nation and to Njal’s Saga as well.

Njal’s Saga, like The Illiad, is based on historical incidents and people.  This historical marker, along the Ranga River, marks the spot where a key character, the consummate warrior hero, Gunnar Hamundarson, was attacked by 30 men while riding home with his two brothers. The Hamundarson’s killed 14 attackers, but Gunnar’s youngest brother, Hjort died in the battle. In a nearby burial mound, archeologists found a ring engraved with a stag; the name Hjort means “stag.”

Hlidarendi with Eyjafjallajökull in the background

Gunnar lived and died at a farmstead in Hlidarendi, a name that means “Hill’s end.” This is where the highlands slope down to the coastal plain. The green area with a pine border in the middle ground is Nina’s Grove, a park and sculpture garden in honor of Nina Saemundsson (1892-1965), a world-renowned Icelandic sculptor who was born in Hlidrendi, but also spent 30 years in the US. Her statue, The Spirit of Achievement was placed over the entrance of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York.

In the distance is Eyjafjallajökull (Icelandic for “Island, mountain, glacier), which erupted in 2010. An explosion of lava blasting through a 700 meter thick glacier created tons of ash that blew toward the continent and stopped European air travel.

View from Nina’s grove over the coastal plains, to islands (on the right horizon) in the Atlantic

This view over the coastal plains shows a view of Nina Saemundsson’s sculpture of a mother holding two children.

The church at Hlidarendi and a view of the little green van we toured in. Much of the information here came from our driver, who spoke excellent English. He tried to teach us how to pronounce “Eyjafjallajökull,” with little success.

To be continued.

Saemundur the Learned

Saemundur Sigfusson (1056–1133) was an Icelandic scholar, priest, and according to legend, sorcerer, who founded an important center of learning at the southern costal town of Oddi. He was known to have studied abroad, and many said he’d been at “The Black School,” though no one quite knew where it was. People said the headmaster was the Devil.

Seamunder and his fellow students received a fine education in witchcraft and sorcery, but graduation was iffy. The Devil would grab the last student out the door, and that soul was lost for eternity. Seamunder told his classmates not to worry. He told them to file out first, and then he donned a large overcoat. When the Devil reached out, he caught the coat.  Seamunder slipped free and ran out the door, though as it closed, it injured his heel.

The Devil had it in for Seamunder after that, always trying to trick him. Once Seamunder told the Devil he’d give him his soul in return for a voyage to Iceland in which he never got wet. The Devil took the form of a large seal and told Seamunder to climb on his back. The Devil was careful – not a drip of water touched his passenger. Seamunder spent his time on the Devil-seal reading his psalter, and as they neared the shore, he began to beat the seal with his prayer book. Startled, the seal dove under water, Seamunder got dunked, and made his way to the shore near Oddi, a free man.

Seamunder beats the seal with his psalter – statue in the churchyard at Oddi

Legend has Seamunder playing numerous other tricks on the Devil, who is always portrayed as honest and not quite the sharpest tool in the shed.

This information comes from a pamphlet designed by the Oddi Society. Founded in 1990, the Society’s goal is to make Oddi a center of learning again, this time with an emphasis on the environment as well as Icelandic heritage and culture.

A visit to Iceland continued

Gullfoss (Goldwater) falls, southern Iceland

It’s hard to pack for cold weather when it’s 90 degrees, as it was at home before we left. We did pretty well, but today was a challenge. Snow ringed some of the nearby hills as we left for the Gullfoss falls – not the largest in Iceland, but the largest that is easily accessible. The temperatures were below freezing as we climbed down the stairs from the overlook to the level where I took this picture. Rain, wind, and frozen spray from the falls drove us into the heated gift shop, where “California Girls” by the Beach Boys played on the radio.

We stopped down the road at Geysir, home of the geyser named Geysir that gave geysers their name. Is that clear? Geysir itself has grown quiet, erupting only infrequently, but there are many other geysers there, including Strokkur, which erupts at five minute intervals. In the cafe at Geysir, the Stones and the Doors were playing.

Strokkur quiescent

Strokkur erupting

According to Wikipedia, Iceland has about 23 days of rain in September, which fits our experience. Our one sunny day came during our trip to Thingvellir, which not only gave us a chance to admire spectacular autumn colors, but also to explore a spot that is key to Icelandic sagas and to the history of the nation.

Iceland was settled in 870. Sixty years later, the settlers, mostly vikings, formed a national assembly at Thingvellir, on land that was confiscated from a man who was outlawed for murder.

In the best known Icelandic saga, Njal (pronounced NEE-ahl, from Neal, an Irish name) says, “With law our land shall rise but without law, it will perish.” The assembly moved to Reykjavik in 1798, but a quarter of the population met at Thingvellir in 1944 to declare independence from Denmark.

As we left the cafe at Geysir, “Aquarius” came on the radio. “No way!” one of us said, but there it was…

Skalholt, Iceland

The view out my window is Skalholt Cathedal and this reconstructed chapel which is part of an archeological dig at one of Iceland’s key historical sites.  On the horizon behind the chapel likes Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes.  In the middle ages, Europeans called it the Gateway to Hell.  Hekla last erupted in February, 2000, but with luck, it will continue to sleep through the rest of the week.

Mary and I are here for a different type of archeology – a dig into an ancient tradition of story.  We are here with three other storytellers to explore Njal’s Saga, the account of a feud with tragic consequences, not unlike the American tale of the Hatfields and the McCoys.  In both cases, events are based in history; we’re visiting some of the key locations mentioned in the saga.  Njal was shaped by an anonymous author into the masterpiece of a unique tradition that influenced Tolkien, among others.

Meeting of the continents: the North American tectonic plate (left) meets the Euro-Asian plate at Thingvellir, Iceland.

This week of the equinox, the temperature drops to freezing at night, but the guesthouse where we are staying is warmed by geothermal energy, by water bubbling up from hot springs that is shipped through pipes to cities and settlements throughout the island. Iceland is 99% energy independent.

I’ll have more to reflect on in future posts, but meanwhile it is seven hours later than west coast time – tomorrow is almost here, so it’s time to log out.  Please enjoy your week and stay tuned for future posts.

Great Info on Charles Dickens From a Reader

I enjoy all the comments I receive, and sometimes they lead me down the trail to another post. One like that came in this morning, when blogger, Nixy43 (aka, Helen Nix) left a note on my recent post, Humbug Revisited:  http://wp.me/pYql4-1sF.

Ms Nix, a Londoner, is compiling a detailed list of 1000 interesting things to do in London for less than a tenner.  Any idiot can enjoy London on a large bankroll, she says, but it’s not so easy for the frugal tourist or people who live there.  She sent me a link to her marvelous post, “Thing 86:  Enjoy a literary evening at Foyles and bond with Dickens at Christmas.”  http://wp.me/p1I6Mp-5m

There is much information about Dicken’s, about changing attitudes to Christmas when he wrote A Christmas Carol, and links to much information about this classic.  London is gearing up for an all out celebration of Dicken’s in 2012, the 200th anniversary of his birth, so if there is any chance you will visit next year, this post is a must.

Stop by, enjoy the story, and thank Helen for posting it!

Charles Dickens

Robinson Jeffers: An American Stonecutter

My previous post, on the restoration of a medieval Chapter House, reminded me of two renowned people who worked in other fields but turned to stonework for renewal.  One was the great Psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, who viewed stone as a symbol of the True Self, and carved stone as a means of self-discovery.

Jung’s Bollingen Stone

The other was the renowned poet, Robinson Jeffers (1887 – 1962), who studied geology in college, and worked in stone all his life.  In 1914, Jeffers and his new wife, Uma, moved from Los Angeles to Carmel, CA.  To build a home, Jeffers first hired a local builder and then worked alongside the man, learning the art of stonemasonry.  By 1919, Jeffers was hauling  boulders up from the beach, shaping them, and using them to add rooms to the home, which he named Tor House.  Later, he built the four story, Hawk Tower, as a gift for his wife, who loved Irish literature and stone towers.

Tor House and Hawk Tower, built by Robinson Jeffers in Carmel

The tower was named for a hawk that appeared while Jeffers worked on the structure, and disappeared the day it was finished.  After his death, Jeffers’ oldest son finished the construction then deeded the buildings to the Tor House Foundation, which was formed by Ansel Adams for their preservation.  The Foundation maintains the grounds and offers excellent guided tours.  You can even climb by a secret stairway to the very top of the tower.  There’s a wealth of information on Jeffers and Tor House at the Foundation website, where you can also schedule tours in advance:  http://www.torhouse.org/.

Jeffers work with stone is central to his austere poetic vision of a human spirit that longs to fly like a hawk and find something that lasts, but must finally acknowledge that in this life, it can do neither.


To the Stonecutters
by Robinson Jeffers.

Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you fore-defeated
Challengers of oblivion
Eat cynical earnings, knowing rock splits, records fall down,
The square-limbed Roman letters
Scale in the thaws, wear in the rain. The poet as well
Builds his monument mockingly:
For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth dies, the brave sun
Die blind, his heart blackening:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey peace in old poems.


Robinson Jeffers


Rock and Hawk
by Robinson Jeffers

Here is a symbol in which
Many high tragic thoughts
Watch their own eyes.

This gray rock, standing tall
On the headland, where the sea-wind
Lets no tree grow,

Earthquake-proved, and signatured
By ages of storms: on its peak
A falcon has perched.

I think, here is your emblem
To hang in the future sky;
Not the cross, not the hive,

But this; bright power, dark peace;
Fierce consciousness joined with final

Life with calm death; the falcon’s
Realist eyes and act
Married to the massive

Mysticism of stone,
Which failure cannot cast down
Nor success make proud.


Hawk Tower