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A Yankee Notebook

June 8, 2014


MONTPELIER – King John, according to A.A. Milne, was not a good man. Egil Skallagrimsson, who preceded him by about 300 years, wasn’t very nice, either. We’ll be visiting his ancient farm at Borg, Iceland, in just a few days, and I’ll get to tell a few details of his colorful saga.

Tomorrow evening Mother and I will be leaving Boston with a New Hampshire Public Television tour group. But because editorial mills grind slowly (and because Mother doesn’t want anybody to know we’re gone till we’re back), you won’t be reading about it until the day we return.

Most Icelanders I’ve met have known their ancestry all the way back to early in the second millennium, when their ancestors arrived from Norway to get away from oppressive royal rule. It makes sense; their surnames are usually derived from their parents’ given names. Egil, for example, was the son of Skallagrim (“Bald Grim”) Kveldulfson; Skallagrim was the son of Kveldulf (“Evening Wolf”). Egil’s children’s surnames were either Egilsson or Egilsdottir. Icelandic phone books list people by their first names; so when you look up someone, you locate the first name, and then scan down to his or her patronym.

Egil’s grandfather was also a famous Viking, bigger and stronger than most men, and reputed to be a shape-shifter in the heat of battle. Egil carried on the family tradition: He occasionally worked himself into the frenzy of a berserk, which made him a bad man to try to kill either openly or by ambush He committed his first murder at the age of seven: Insulted and humiliated by an older boy in a game of Viking football, he went home, got an axe, came back, and split the other lad’s head down to the collar. Like many Little League parents today, the onlookers cheered; it was clear that he was going to be quite the Viking.

Which indeed he became. He had no reverse gear, which guaranteed him a life of conflict resulting in mortal combat. Quick-witted and articulate, he was a master of classical insult, especially regarding high and mighty personages. At the same time, he was probably the most talented poet the Viking Age produced, a master of the intricate skaldic form of verse who in one episode saved his skin by composing an ode to the king whose queen, with good cause, wanted Egil dead. His body and head, as he aged, grew more misshapen, probably the result of Paget’s disease, which often results in a thick, oysterlike skull. A sidelight: When after the introduction of Christianity to Iceland in 1000 AD, Egil’s bones were moved from a pagan burial site to a churchyard, the attending priest gave Egil’s long-dead skull a terrific whack with an axe, just to see what would happen. Nothing happened – just a whitish blemish. A second sidelight: If the conversion of the country to Christianity made any difference in the bloody, wild-West behavior of the early Icelanders, it’s hardly evident.

You can see what a pleasure it’ll be to visit the homes of the saga heroes. It’s like taking people on a tour of Paul Bunyan’s logging camp. And lest you find the stories incredible, remember that we Americans have our own tales: like that of a future President who chops down a cherry tree and claims he cannot tell a lie. Egil, frankly, is a lot more fun.

There are others, too – the saga of the wise man Njal, whose whole aim is to keep peace among the aggressive settlers competing for Iceland’s resources and personal power, and who ends dying in his house with his wife, Bergthora, when his envious enemies set it afire. Grettir the Strong, whose very strength makes him the Viking equivalent of the fastest gun in the West and the target of everyone out to make a name for himself. As in Greek tragedies, the hero’s greatest strength is his undoing.

We’ll visit the home and natural outdoor hot tub (connected to his house by a tunnel for security) of Snorri Sturluson, a descendant of Egil, powerful politician and landowner, historian, writer of many of the sagas, assassinated at last in his own cellar by the thugs of his rivals.

Natural history is a big part of any trip to Iceland. It’s located right athwart the mid-Atlantic Ridge, a seam in the earth’s crust where two tectonic plates are pulling apart. As the seam opens, lava bubbles up , and there are spots on hillsides from which you can imagine you are looking down into the mantle of the earth. All around are bubbling mud pots, steaming fumaroles and fissures, and eruptions of boiling water, including one with the ancestral name Geysir.

The stratovolcano Hekla, once thought the gate to Hell, Snaefellsjökull, the volcano that inspired Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth; and Eyjafjallajökull, the one that so disrupted northern air traffic in 2010 – they’re all there. There are the remains of two huge trolls rising from the sea, where they were caught by the rising sun and petrified. Just beyond is Drangey, the almost inaccessible island where another saga hero, the outlawed Grettir the Strong, was wounded by witchcraft and finally killed by his enemies. North of that lies the island Grimsey, the little piece of Iceland touched by the Arctic Circle.

We’ll have a talk about whaling with Niels Einarsson at the Stefansson Arctic Institute; another with a woman who has crossed the Atlantic in a Viking ship replica, a few hours with a Vermont woman who writes about women in Norse society. We’ll visit the site of the world’s oldest parliament, and Myvatn, “Mosquito Lake,” where birds gather by the millions. And if anybody has anything left at the end of the day, he can read outside in the midnight twilight.

Photo by Willem lange