Monday, February 10, 2020

IN THE LAND OF NJÁL’S SAGA IN ICELAND Guest post by Karla Chucsdottir (a.k.a. Caroline Hatton)

The author with an axe to cut quiche and a sword as a toothpick. Photo by husband Viljam Glennsson. Viking costume, weapons, and picnic table courtesy of the Saga Centre (Hvolsvöllur, Iceland).
My friend and fellow children’s book author Caroline Hatton visited Iceland in June 2019 with her husband Bill. She took all but one of the photos in this post. For more information about her, visit

Before my first visit to Iceland in 2007, I had long been fond of its first inhabitants, the Vikings—those formidable, endearing brutes. But I had not yet read their stories, the Icelandic Sagas, widely considered gems of world literature. They are set long ago when Iceland resembled America’s Wild West, and the Viking settlers’ idea of exercise was to go around skewering neighbors. The Sagas are family oral histories written down a few centuries after they had happened. Scholars speculate that following generations of deft storytellers, the anonymous recorders captured optimized history.
Today in the south of Iceland, the setting of Njál’s Saga.
After returning home in 2007, I learned that one of the most famous Icelandic Sagas is Njál’s Saga (Njála in Icelandic, also known as The Story of Burnt Njál [pronounced nyahl]). I devoured the English version and loved it. This epic lawyering novel is set around the year 1000 CE in the south of Iceland. It’s about Njál Þorgeirsson of Bergþórshvoll and Gunnar Hámundarson of Hlíðarendi, who were very good friends. Unfortunately, their wives were anything but. It was between them that the trouble began. One mean wife ordered the killing of a servant of the other wife’s, the other wife returned the favor, and the next thing they knew, the whole situation snowballed into decades of bloodshed.

The story delivers (in alphabetical order) affronts to family honor, ambushes, battles, betrothals, dead bodies, deceit, grievances, matings, mediation, revenge, and much, much more, against a backdrop of historic commotion—the conversion of Iceland from Norse paganism to Christianity. The English version of Njál’s Saga is available online, easy to read, fascinating, heartbreaking, and haunting.
The Viking world, the context of the sagas, as shown at the Saga Centre in Hvolsvöllur, Iceland. The Vikings sailed from Norway to Iceland, Greenland, and America.
A great way to learn more about Njál’s Saga is by visiting the Saga Centre in Hvolsvöllur in the south of Iceland where the story takes place. I jumped at the chance in 2019, during my second trip to Iceland. The Centre's exhibits introduce Njál’s Saga’s characters and plot in the context of the Viking world. Once educated, I borrowed a costume and toy sword, axe, shield, and helmet, to defend my picnic. The Saga Centre is located an easy hour-and-a-half drive from Reykjavik via the excellent Ring Road that loops all around Iceland. The Centre is one of the milestones on the multicountry Saga Trail .
Seen at the Saga Centre: Njala (Njál’s Saga) Tapestry design detail, as printed for display. This woman might be Gunnar’s wife, who was not a nice lady: “Hallgerda, the fairest of women, tall of stature, fair-haired, and had so much of it she could hide herself in it; but she was lavish and hard-hearted.”
The Saga Centre is also the home of the Njala (Njál’s Saga) Tapestry. Contemporary Icelandic creators dreamed it up. It is reminiscent of the world famous Bayeux Tapestry, which is a 70-meter long, 50-centimeter tall, embroidered cloth that depicts the conquest of England in the year 1066 by William, Duke of Normandy. The Njala Tapestry, which depicts Njál’s Saga, consists of 90 meters by 50 centimeters of linen in the process of being embroidered with Icelandic, plant-dyed wool yarn.
As a horse lover, all the photos I took of the Njala Tapestry designs were of horses, until I caught myself doing it. Then I made sure to take this photo of something else. It’s not my fault if there are horses in this ship.
The project is unusual in that anyone can pick up a needle and help. I would have loved to learn the Bayeux stitch used to embroider the tapestry, but we visited on a Sunday when the sewing room was closed. Before leaving town, I consulted a map highlighting nearby locations identified in Njál’s Saga.
Njál and his friends and foes bonded and bled in settings like this one.
The saga’s characters lived on farmsteads spread across a landscape that looked much as it still does today.
Njál’s Saga mentions Keldur where this farm, now a museum, is located. In 2019, drought associated with climate change killed roof sod that had naturally stayed lush for centuries.
One character, an uncle of Njál’s illegitimate son, lived at Keldur, where the Keldur Farm Museum  is located, a 15-minute drive from Hvolsvöllur. The turf buildings are the oldest of their kind still standing in Iceland. They were lived in, added on, and “updated” into the 1900s, though they remained rustic.
Inside the medieval part of the Keldur Farm building: cow’s stomach windows panes (not in photo) let daylight in near the cow dung fire (not lit) used to cook cow soup (not on the day I took this photo).

Some seven hundred years ago, Vikings were immortalized in the Icelandic Sagas. Today, you can visit many of the sites where their lives unfolded, and stand where they once fought literal and legal battles. Of all the sagas, Njál’s Saga is the only one set in the south of Iceland, where I can’t seem to get enough of the stunning, dramatic scenery.



Caroline Hatton said...

The contemporary Icelandic women who dreamed up the Njala Tapestry project are Gunnhildur Edda Kristjánsdóttir and Christina M. Bengtsson. They contacted Kristín Ragna Gunnarsdóttir, an artist and literary scholar, who designed the pictures.

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Fascinating read. . .inspiring me to travel more. . .if only in my imagination for a while. Thank you, Caroline

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