Journey’s end

As I settle in on my Icelandair flight from Reykjavik on my final journey home, I am happily surprised to discover a new series on the in-flight entertainment system (watching tv while flying is peculiar pleasure for me.) It wouldn’t take much for a Saga enthusiast like me to get excited by the very notion of such a documentary series but the lively intro to Ferðalok (or Journey’s End in English) provides a compelling contrast to most other historical documentaries. The gripping musical score immediately transported me into a world of stunning Icelandic characters captured with hip cinematography, where sweeping views of the Saga landscapes provide the setting for reenactments of events we may have read and imagined but have never witnessed with such vividness.

Produced in Iceland, Ferðalok endeavors to compare the literal events of the Sagas with contemporary archeological research and interpretation. By exploring how the Sagas can be directly linked with a tangible environment, this new mini-series will undoubtedly reawaken an interest in these old heroic stories, which have defined the culture of a nation where almost all of the citizens can retrace their family lineage back to the first settlers.

Besides being fashionable and entertaining, Ferðalok is smart. Combining English and Icelandic narration, the program is written and hosted by the young and stylish lady archeologist Vala Gardarsdottir, who guides the spectator to various significant Saga sites and discusses the course of events and their analysis with other professionals in the field. The on site archeological explorations are assembled with reenactment scenes of the Sagas and studio interviews with even more experts who provide a vast spectrum of scientific, literary and sociological interpretation.

As of yet, six episodes have been released. Without going into too much detail about each one, I will disclose what is predicable: half of the episodes deal with the Islanders’ favourite – Njal’s Saga. Granted this story has been deemed to be the most sophisticated in terms of its narrative complexity and style of writing, I hope that a continuation of the series will move on to look at events from the less popular Sagas. I am however very pleased that episode 3 was dedicated to examining the persona of Auð the Deep Minded, the most prominent woman of the settlement age. Auð was not only the leader of one of the most successful settlement expeditions, but she is mostly known as a historical figure rather than a Saga character – her character positions the series smack in the middle of a world which oscillates between history and mythology, archeology and storytelling.

Although it is not necessary to read the sagas before viewing Ferðalok, I highly recommend it to feel like a participant in unraveling these stories.

View the trailer here but note that the musical score of the trailer is outdated and differs from that of the show, which was a change for the better.

Hildarendi 001

I photographed this Njal’s Saga site in 2011 – the infamous hillside of which Gunnar of Hlidarendi says “lovely is the hillside – never has it seemed so lovely to me as now, with its pale fields and mown meadows, and I will ride back home and not leave.” Episode 2 of Ferðalok features this consequential scene that leads to the demise of a beloved Saga hero.

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On filling in the gaps

The two sagas that make up the Vinland collection recall the Norse discovery and attempted settlement of ‘Vinland the Good’ in North America. Like the other sagas, this tale was first conveyed through storytelling and then written down hundreds of years later. Interestingly, two separate authors chronicled the expeditions to Vinland, but their versions of events rarely correlate. Many of the characters overlap but play incongruent roles and describe entirely different details, emphasizing the problem of regarding the sagas as legitimate historical references. Where one saga may be correct, the other must be false, therefore tasking historians and archeologists with the mission of sifting through possible truths or fictions.

One of the most puzzling of the sub-stories is that of the final expedition to Vinland led by Freydis Eriksdottir and recounted in The Saga of the Greenlanders. Narrated in less than four pages, this story tells how Erik the Red’s daughter quarrels with  and deceives the Icelandic merchants who were supposed to share in the profits of the voyage. After a hostile winter in Vinland, Freydis incites the massacre of the entire Icelandic crew and when others refuse, she executes five unarmed women with an axe. Upon returning to Greenland, she lies to her brother Leif Eriksson by telling him that the Icelanders stayed in Vinland. He later discovers the truth.

Perhaps the story of the massacre is based on fact, or perhaps Freydis’ character is used as a literary device to contrast the other heroine of The Vinland Sagas, Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, discussed in an earlier post. Either way, the ambiguity of this tale leaves plenty of room for interpretation and was picked up by Canadian author Joan Clarke in her 1993 novel Eriksdottir.

Beginning in Greenland, where an underprivileged Freydis dreams of building a proper house with wooden beams and a real bed, Clarke delves into Freydis’ moral fiber as she begins to build her biography, from her illegitimate conception to her unhappy marriage. Then culling from the four pages of The Saga of the Greenlanders, the story of the fateful mission to Vinland begins to unravel. Clarke retains the original saga characters and then creates others, such as Freydis’ lover Hauk Ljome, a key figure within the complex plot that spans over 400 pages. Ulfar the scribe, another invented character, provides the fictitious documents from which the author draws out this saga. Eriksdottir retains the matter-of-factness of the sagas, but doesn’t give away any suppositions on the extent of Vinland, referring to their destination as Leifsbudir (today’s L’Anse aux Meadows.) As Leif Eriksson explains in the book “If you never go anywhere except Leifsbudir, then for you Leifsbudir is Vinland.” In the true saga-style, those who did venture into the heart of Vinland were fated with a dramatic demise.

Clarke’s reckoning for Freydis’ greed and wickedness (though less evil than in the original saga)  is drawn from her life’s circumstances, however the author offers a feminist viewpoint by simply presenting the double standard of Freydis’ adultery and violent acts with those of her male counterparts. It is interesting to note that Eriksdottir and the previously reviewed novel The Greenlanders, were both penned by women and cast women as principle characters, bringing a female perspective on an otherwise male-dominated Viking world.

Reading Eriksdottir while on a beach holiday gives a rather exotic impression of what Vinland the Good was like for Norse exploerers.

Reading Eriksdottir while on a beach holiday gives a rather exotic impression of what Vinland the Good may have been like for Norse explorers.

On Smiley’s Greenlanders

On my recent shooting trip to Sweden and Norway, I brought along Jane Smiley’s novel The Greenlanders, a work of fiction that traces the lives of a brother and sister, Gunnar and Margret, who were born and raised on a Norse farm in Greenland during the 14th Century.

Taking place generations after the time when Greenland was settled by outlaw Erik the Red, The Greenlanders retains the mood of an Icelandic saga. Smiley’s story is centered on recurrent themes such as the importance of social status and the struggle for order and survival, all of which characterized life during Viking times. Nevertheless, her characters do not possess the qualities that saga authors typically attributed to their ancestors. Gunnar and Margret are not beautiful, valiant nor affluent. In fact, we identify with them through their faults and weaknesses. It is through a strategy of borrowing the language of the sagas yet bringing the story down to earth, that Smiley has created a very contemporary historical epic.

Writers of historical fictions are tasked with endless research when it comes to understanding the time and place in which their novels are set. For Smiley, this must have been especially challenging. Historical accounts of Norse settlement in Greenland are vague. From the Vinland Sagas, we learn that Erik the Red discovered Greenland around 982 and colonized the country shortly afterward. At this time, two Norse Settlements were established along the island’s west coast, the northernmost one was called the Western Settlement, and the more southern called the Eastern Settlement. By the time the story of The Greenlanders opens, the Western Settlement has already been abandoned foreshadowing the eventual outcome of Norse occupation in this country. The reader is constantly made aware of the harsh and remote conditions of north, in which famine is capable of consuming the population and communication with the European world is close to non-existent. One is left to wonder if anyone from this era survived to tell his or her story.

Smiley is also a master storyteller, crafting stories within stories, and sometimes referring to Norse mythologies and earlier sagas with enough confidence and creativity to alter the original narratives. She reminds us that in difficult times, the sharing of tales is always accessible and can help to pass the long, cold winters, “for folk may not contemplate their fates all the time, and must play as well as work.”

I was turning the last pages of The Greenlanders on a flight home from Stockholm, as we flew over the southern tip of Greenland. Luckily the sky was relatively clear and we could see the landscape below. Photo by Jessica Auer.

On outlaws and landscape

If you were exiled from your home, where would you go? Oversees to stay with a distant family member or to Mexico where you could start over on a beach? Or would you go into hiding in the wilderness, perhaps retreat to a cabin in the woods, a cave in the mountain or an island in the sea?

In Iceland during saga times, those convicted of major crimes were outlawed, meaning they were banished from their country for a determined period of time. Like many others, Iceland’s most famous outlaw Grettir the Strong, refused to leave his country.

Grettir’s Saga is not just the biography of a man who was banished for 20 years, but also a crafted tale of an unpredictable hero whose physical strength and perseverance is unhinged by his fear of the dark. And though Grettir never leaves Iceland, he wanders throughout the country in an attempt to wait out his sentence, and with his travels a wonderful portrayal of the Icelandic landscape is rendered. Today the landscape across parts of Iceland is marked with several boulders that Grettir is said to have lifted, but more notably Grettir’s lonliness and suffering is echoed throughout the country.

Drangey Island seen from land at Reykir in the north of Iceland. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Grettir spent the last few years of his life living with his younger brother and a slave on Drangey Island, a plateau that provided him with plentiful resources and protection from his enemies. Today, a family-run operation brings tourists out to the island. Upon being ferried out and ushered up the 170 meter-high cliffs, Jón Eiríksson, grandson of the senior Jón who took the initiative to give these tours years ago, showed me the remains of Grettir’s lair, a tufted hole in the ground in the midst of a completely shelter-less environment. One would think that only sheep could live here and indeed they did until Grettir ate them, one by one.

Grettir’s lair. Scan from a 6×7 cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

The saga tells of the day Grettir’s fire extinguished on Drangey, and he swam over 7 kilometers through Skagafjördur to fetch a new light. Upon arriving on land at Reykir, he soaked his tired bones in a hot spring now named Grettislaug. After my tour of Drangey I did the same.

Skagafjördur with Tindastoll in the background, the setting of many myths and folktales. Scan from a 4″x5″ negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

Eventually after 3 years on Drangey and shortly before his sentence would expire, Grettir was killed. The local famers were indeed exasperated that he had taken their island and their sheep hostage. While Grettir may have been a major annoyance to the farmers at his time, today some locals thrive on the legacy that he left behind.

Climbing up a series of steps and ladders to reach the top of Drangey island. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

On female heroines

Many people have heard of Erik the Red and his son Leif the Lucky. Although these two men have been credited for establishing the Norse settlements of Greenland and Vinland, Gudrid Thorbjornardottir, also known as Gudrid the Far-Traveller, is the leading hero of the Vinland Sagas.

Perhaps the first European to give birth to a child in the New World, Gudrid may have also been the instigator of several journeys to explore Vinland, one that left her and her second husband floating about at sea for several months. And although some of Gudrid’s accomplishments may be legend more than history, it is very likely that she travelled more widely than any other woman during the Viking Age, from Iceland to the New World and back, and then on a pilgrimage along the eastern route to Rome. The life of this resilient and elusive lady is extremely well researched in the book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown.

A statue of Gudrid Thorbjornardottir with her son Snorri at Glaumbaer in the North of Iceland. Gudrid settled down in Glaumbaer after travelling to Vinland with husband Thorfinn Karlsefni. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Turf hut replicas at the living museum in Glaumbaer. Author Nancy Marie Brown assisted in the excavation of a viking-age farmhouse just meters from the Skagafjordur Heritage Museum grounds. Image scanned from a 6x7cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

In this book, Brown attempts to comprehend the meaning of the term skörungur used to describe Gudrid in the Sagas. Brown, not wanting to go much further than defining a skörungur as a woman of strong character, alludes to several other qualities these Saga Age women may embody; intelligence, independence and bravery.

Two more significant skörungur appear in another Saga, The Laxdaela Saga, a story that covers several generations of characters from the Dalir region in Iceland.

Most of the Dales were originally claimed by Aud The Deep Minded, who after being widowed by an Irish King , sailed via Norway to establish a new life during the settlement of Iceland. Bear in mind that a desolate 10th Century Iceland would not have normally been a great attraction for a Queen. Aud then divided and gave parts of her land to family, friends and freed slaves.

The main protagonist of the Laxdaela Saga is Gudrun Ósvifsdóttir, who like many saga characters, commits deeds that are as heinous as they are fascinating. After causing the deaths of two men who vied for her affection, she confesses to her son, “To him I was worst whom I loved the most.” She lived out the rest of her days as a nun in Helgafell.

View from the top of Helgafell facing east. A common belief is that those who climb to the top of this modestly-sized mountain will be granted three wishes, as long as they follow three simple instructions (which I managed to mess up!). Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

A stone marks the grave of Gudrun Ósvifsdóttir in the churchyard at Helgafell, Iceland. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Although all of the Saga authors remain anonymous, historians speculate that the Laxdaela Saga was composed by a woman, due to its feminist perspective and cast of exceptional female characters. I have an affinity for these women who were leaders of their time. Even in the 21st Century, landscape photography remains a male-dominated occupation, so trodding the same ground as these characters has been very inspiring.

There are two other modern-day women worth mentioning in regards to these sagas. Let us not forget Stine Moe Ingstad, the Norwegian archeologist, who along with her husband discovered the remains of the site at L’Anse aux Meadows and subsequently carried out the initial excavation. Finally, there is Birgitta Wallace a Swedish-Canadian archeologist who led more recent excavations with Parks Canada. I had the pleasure of meeting Birgitta at the latest conference for the Association for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies in Canada.