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Stories from a landscape

This August we were working on a cruise ship sailing round Iceland, literally singing for our supper with tales and songs from the Norse Myths and Icelandic Sagas -‘Tales of Ice and Fire’. It wasn’t a Viking longship - more a floating hotel - but being on the sea in the North Atlantic for two whole weeks and  setting foot in the very countries that gave birth to these myths and sagas was a great experience, adding to our appreciation and interpretation of those stories, and making us realise their continuing relevance.
Uncompromising sagas and history come from an uncompromising landscape.

Iceland is full of contrasts - raw, snow-topped mountain peaks, jagged and huge in the sky, with the ominous glint of glaciers high up, hot water and mud bubbling from the ground, or spouting up in geysirs, hissing steam smelling of sulphur. In  Norse mythology the world is created when heat and cold meet and mingle in Ginnungagap, the yawning void. 

There are wonderful wild flowers, fantastic lava formations - some definitely troll-like, lakes and majestic thundering falls of crystal clear water, endless rolling heathland, wide U-shaped valleys and sheer-sided fjords;  and surrounding all are the heaving waves of the North Atlantic, over which those tiny but perfectly made wooden  boats, the Viking Longships, made their way, first to Iceland itself, then to Greenland and even to America.

We travelled in the North through rolling heath with great bluffs rising to the high land all around, scattered isolated farmsteads everywhere, all made of corrugated iron painted in bright colours - the narrow road winding up over richly clad moorland and skirting placid blue lakes.
But I was remembering ‘Hrafnkel’s Saga’, when Sam and the brothers Thorkel and Thorgeir sit on their horses on the top of the bluff overlooking Hrafnkel’s farm far below in the valley in the early morning light and how they left their horses on the bluff and raced down the grassy slopes to the farm, to take their revenge on the stern and ruthless Hrafnkel.  I had now seen that bluff and those grassy slopes and that farmstead, even though corrugated iron had replaced the turf roof.

Further South we stood on the rocky gorge overlooking the plain of Thingvellir, where Sam and his uncle Thorbjorn met Thorkel and Thorgeir on an early morning walk by the Oxara river.
There too lie the remains of Snorri’s booth, now just a grassy mound. In this spot stood Snorri Sturluson, Lawspeaker twice in the Icelandic parliament but also Iceland’s greatest literary figure, who alone gave us the fragments of Norse Mythology that survive. Snorri himself stood here, reciting by heart the laws of Iceland in one of the first democratic political assemblies in the West.

Thingvellir is precisely on the rift between the Eurasian tectonic plate and the North American plate  - half of Iceland is now heading east; half heading west and the landscape is still constantly changing.

When the volcano erupted on Heimaey in 1973, it threatened to engulf the entire island and town. The whole population was safely evacuated without a single loss of life and many came back as soon as it was possible, to fight the lava with seawater - a technique scorned by experts, but which worked - and rebuild their town and their lives, aided by a massive increase in taxes for the whole of Iceland, which every Icelander was only too happy to pay. 
Wendy climbed the new  mountain Eldfell formed by that eruption, which still steams, and picked brilliantly coloured rocks too hot to hold from the side. A tiny, beautifully tended garden has been carved out in the heart of the lava field, under which lie dwellings buried overnight. Painted stones of the huldre invite the fair folk to the garden. 

As we sailed away from that rugged little town we passed the island of Surtsey, which only saw the light of day in 1963, again in a huge volcanic eruption from the sea-bed itself - a brand new land, some three kilometres long and a couple wide, curious spiral striations patterning its steep lava flanks and the green of life, new vegetation, appearing on its slopes, with sea-birds nesting on its guano-streaked cliffs.  It was awesome to be seeing a land that was younger than us, created in one fell swoop by a violent upheaval of the earth’s crust. 

In the Norse Myth of the end of the world - Ragnarok - the earth and the gods themselves are destroyed by the giant Surt, wielding his great sword of primaeval fire -  and there is his island, Surtsey,  proving that fire can create as well as destroy. A new world can arise from destruction; mankind can learn to live with violent change. 

We produced a CD “Tales of Ice and Fire” - the Norse creation and destruction myths -  for the cruise. Please order on the contact page.  



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