Sagas on Horseback

Dr. Emily Lethbridge

Over 1000 years ago, when Iceland was a newly-settled country, travel around the country was conducted by boat, horse, or Shanks‘s pony – that is, on foot... The medieval Icelandic sagas, which were written down on parchment in the 13th century and portray the lives of the early settlers in the late 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, include descriptions of countless journeys around local areas and longer ones too, from one end of the island to the other. 

The sagas are rooted in the dramatic and endlessly varying Icelandic landscape and the experience of situating or contextualising them in the landscapes in which their action unfolds is a means of appreciating this great literature in a very physical and immediate way. It is possible to visit many saga-sites by driving from one place to another but the chance to explore a single saga and its locations on horseback, accompanied by guides who know the local area and the sagas set there, is not one that a tourist will generally come by. This however, uniquely, is exactly what Siggi Björnsson and Riding Iceland offer – and the saga in question is the greatest of all Icelandic sagas, Brennu-Njáls saga, ‚The Saga of Burnt Njáll‘. 

Njáls saga is the longest and most majestic of the Icelandic sagas, and the part of the country in which much of its action is set has a grandeur matching that of its powerful narrative. The saga begins at a place called Vellir in Rangárvellir in the south, where a man called Mörðr gígja (‚Fiddle‘) and his daughter Unnr lived. Fittingly, this is precisely where the four-day Riding Iceland tour of Njáls saga sites begins too. A mound in a field at Vellir is said to be where Mörðr was buried, though there‘s nothing about this in the saga itself which just states that Mörðr became ill and died. Rather, this is one of countless examples of local traditions attached to saga-characters and events: traditions that have grown up around and beyond the written texts of the sagas from medieval times, and that have been passed down from one generation to the next; traditions that one will only come across if one asks, or is with an Icelander who knows about these things. 

The tour itinerary takes the Njáls-saga-enthusiast to many of the key sites in the saga, often following ancient routes around the district. By this means, one acquires a very tangible sense of place, a strong feel for how individual episodes in the saga played out over and around this space, and a deeper appreciation of the dynamics of the narrative overall. The two protagonists of Njáls saga, the eponymous Njáll and the heroic Gunnarr, lived at Bergþórshvoll and Hlíðarendi respectively. A central part of the saga is concerned with how Njáll and Gunnarr‘s steadfast friendship is sorely tested by their feuding wives (Bergþóra and Hallgerðr); despite the escalating consequences, the two men do not let their wives destroy their relationship. 

The saga describes how the two men visited each other on a regular basis; the saga does not note how far each would have had to travel to reach the other‘s farm or how long this journey would take – partly because the Icelanders who were the first audiences of the saga (and those from later times too) would have been familiar with the geography of the area, and thus this information would have been redundant. For a modern reader, however, and especially a foreign one, the significance of the bond between the two men is highlighted when one understands the physical distances and the demands this journey would have made on the traveller: the distance is around 22 kms as the crow flies, around 30 kms on horseback, which takes approximately 4 to 5 hours with good horses and good travelling conditions. 

Beyond gaining a feel for pragmatic aspects of the saga, the touch-paper of the saga-reader‘s imagination is truly lit when the sites of the most dramatic episodes in the saga are visited at first-hand. Gunnarr‘s decision not to leave the country after he has been outlawed -- his horse stumbles as he rides to a waiting ship and he looks back and declares that „Fögr er hlíðin, svá at mér hefir hon aldri jafnfögr sýnzk, bleikir akrar ok slegin tún, ok mun ek ríða heim aptr ok fara hvergi“ (‘The slope is beautiful and seems more lovely than I have ever seen it, golden fields and mown hay-fields; I shall ride back home and I will not travel away’) – has an additional poignancy when, on horseback, one looks back oneself at the very landscape Gunnarr loved so dearly with these words ringing in one‘s ears. 

It‘s a remarkable experience to arrive on horseback at Hlíðarendi having ridden down from the mountain passes and plateaus above. And then, to sit on the ruined foundations of the modern farm at Hlíðarendi listening to the passage from the saga that narrates how Gunnarr was subsequently attacked in his wooden house there, and how his wife Hallgerðr coldly denied him a lock of her hair when his bowstring breaks, thus hastening on the moment of his death. Similarly, when one stands on the exposed mound at Bergþórshvoll and – looking out over the exposed plain all around the site -- listens to the passage that describes the brutal burning of Njáll and his family in their house by Flosi Þórðarson and his men, the power of the episode and the momentousness of the event hit home in a way impossible to imagine when reading the saga anywhere else. 

Evenings spent at Breiðabólstaður (accommodation/general base for the tour and itself a saga-site) have something of the spirit of the traditional Icelandic ‚kvöldvaka‘ – though the food is without doubt universes away. There are further readings from the saga and discussion about different aspects and themes of the saga gets underway. Jón Karl Helgason shares his knowledge about all kinds of retellings or reworkings of the saga in recent centuries – broadly, the reception of the saga – and talks about the saga‘s significance and place in modern-day Iceland. This is a tour that brings Njáls saga to life in many different ways; for anyone who has read and enjoyed the saga, or even for anyone who just has a general interest in the sagas, it is an unmissable experience. I find it difficult to think of many things that have a more mind-blowing physical and metaphysical impact than the combination of the Icelandic sagas and the Icelandic landscape.