Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (1936)

A golden age of travel writing

We’ve spoken about the 1930s as the Age of Auden, dominated by the left-wing politics of most of the young writers and poets, who were responding to the Great Depression (1929-33) and then stricken by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

But it was also a golden age of travel writing. Posh Brits could wave their distinctive British passport and travel anywhere they wanted in what was, between the wars, the largest empire the world had ever seen, at its largest extent. There was a boom in high-end travel writing to cater for the well-heeled tourists who could travel in the new passenger planes or enjoy the new leisure concept of luxury cruises.

Almost by definition, though, the really adventurous types wanted to go beyond the usual itineraries and explore unknown parts. It’s no coincidence that they were buoyed up by the confidence of having gone to a jolly good public school, having networks of contacts and connections everywhere, and so knowing they could probably get themselves out of most scrapes with a quick phone call to cousin Algy at the Foreign Office.

Hence the ripping travel adventures of Peter Fleming (Eton and Oxford) in Brazil, Russia and China, or Robert Byron (Eton and Oxford) in Russia, China, Afghanistan and Tiber, or Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor (King’s School Canterbury) who, aged 18, decided to walk from London to Constantinople.

Hence the journeys Graham Greene (Berkhamsted and Oxford) undertook to Liberia and Mexico, or Evelyn Waugh (Lancing and Oxford)’s jolly journeys to Abyssinia, the Belgian Congo and British Guiana.

(Peter Fleming is actually name-checked twice in this book as the intimidating ideal of the modern travel writer who the authors are haplessly trying to live up to, p.159)

Taking the mickey

In the spring of 1936 a chance conversation with one of his former pupils at the private school where he’d taught in the early 30s revealed that he and friends and a teacher were going to Iceland that summer. Auden was instantly excited at the prospect and suggested to his publishers, Faber & Faber, that they fund him to go there and he’d write a travel book for them. Auden leapt at the chance of going to one of his childhood holy places. His family had Nordic ancestry, his father had read him all the Norse myths, and as a boy he had read lots of Icelandic sagas with their stern unforgiving heroes.

So he made his arrangements – to go by himself for a month or so, then rendezvous with the party of former schoolboys, and he persuaded one of the gang, the Ulsterman Louis MacNeice, to also make the sea voyage and meet him there. So in June 1936 he set off, and spent a little over a month travelling round Iceland, mainly by local bus with jaunts on horseback thrown in, hiring local guides and staying at whatever accommodation existed, often local farmers.

He’d been in the country for some time, fretting about how he was going to write something to repay his publishers’ advance, when he suddenly had the bright idea of making the entire book a collection of letters, letters to friends, containing appropriate content for them (‘so that each letter deals with its subject in a different and significant way’, p.140) – sending some friends straight travelogue, some jokes, some a selection of historic writing about the place, and so on.

And once MacNeice arrived (they rendezvoused in Rejkyavik on 9 August 1936), they developed the idea of poetic letters and of deliberately experimenting with different types of poetic genre (lyric, epic, eclogue etc). Once the third element, the four schoolboys and their master arrived, the party set off for a riding tour of Iceland’s central mountain range, and MacNeice had the idea of describing their rather bizarre party (two scruffy poets, a bespectacled teacher and four keen young boys) into a satirical diary of the trip as if written from one jolly upper-class girl guides leader to another (Hetty to Nancy), complaining about the bullying leader of the trip, and the other teachers and the girls, my dear, the girls! This is either very funny or revoltingly cliquey, according to taste.

Thus the idea evolved to make the book deliberately bitty and fragmented, a collage of different types of text, an anti-heroic travel book, in that it wouldn’t hold back on the realities of the trip i.e. runny noses, smelly barns, recalcitrant ponies and so on.

The original mish-mash effect was enhanced by the authors’s photos which were deliberately amateurish and scrappy, as Auden gleefully points out:

Every exciting letter has enclosures,
And so shall this – a bunch of photographs,
Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,
Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;
I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.
I’m going to be very up to date indeed.
It is a collage that you’re going to read.

There’s even a passage where Auden gives us his thoughts on photography, namely that it’s the most democratic art form, specially given all the technical advances of his day (what would he have thought of today’s camera-phones?) (p.139). Alas the authors’ photos aren’t reproduced in the rather cheap-feeling modern Faber paperback version, though you can glimpse them online.

The Letters from Iceland format allowed them to get away from the pompous smoothness of traditional travel writers, although it did tend to add fuel to the fire of the large number of critics who accused the Auden Gang of being a self-satisfied clique of insiders. This is particularly obvious in the Last Will and Testament with its references to their chums:

Next Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood
I here appoint my joint executors
To judge my work if it be bad or good…

To our two distinguished colleagues in confidence,
To Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis, we assign
Our minor talents to assist in the defence

Of the European Tradition and to carry on
The Human heritage.

For my friend Benjamin Britten, composer, I beg
That fortune send him soon a passionate affair.

Item – I leave my old friend Anthony Blunt
A copy of Marx and £1000 a year
And the picture of Love Locked Out by Holman Hunt.

Too chummy by half, it’s the one part of the book I didn’t like (and not just for this reason; it’s also just boring).

The most impressive letter, and binding the book together, are the five parts of a long poem by Auden titled Letter to Lord Byron. Again he explains his through processes in the text itself, telling us that he’d taken a copy of Byron’s immensely long rambling verse diary of his life, Don Juan, and had the inspiration of writing an updated version for his times. He liked Byron’s free and easy style, his ability to incorporate everything from thoughts about the meaning of life to the fact that he had a hangover that morning. He liked him because he was a townee i.e. urban, and heartily agreed with Byron’s dislike of the Wordsworth, nature-worshipping tradition which Auden cordially detested.

Part one of Letter to Lord Byron is the first thing you read and immediately establishes the chatty, witty tone of the book, starting by apologising to the shade of Lord Byron for bothering him.

Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take
In thus addressing you. I know that you
Will pay the price of authorship and make
The allowances an author has to do.
A poet’s fan-mail will be nothing new.
And then a lord – Good Lord, you must be peppered,
Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard,

With notes from perfect strangers starting, ‘Sir,
I liked your lyrics, but Childe Harold’s trash,’
‘My daughter writes, should I encourage her?’
Sometimes containing frank demands for cash,
Sometimes sly hints at a platonic pash,
And sometimes, though I think this rather crude,
The correspondent’s photo in the nude.

Light verse is difficult to bring off, but to sustain it over the 160 stanzas of the finished Letter To Lord Byron is a quite staggering achievement. Has anyone else in the entire twentieth century brought off such a sustained comic achievement in verse?

Besides this epic achievement, the book also contains quite a few other poems by Auden, including:

  • Journey to Iceland
  • a poetic letter to Richard Crossman (b.1907: head boy at Winchester then New College Oxford, went onto become a Labour MP and then cabinet member)
  • Detective Story – a sort of verse explanation of why we like and read thrillers
  • ‘O who can ever praise enough’ – a verse meditation on childhood books (note the characteristic us of ‘O’ starting a poem, a really characteristic Auden tic)
  • a free-verse letter to William Coldstream (painted, born 1908: private school, Slade Art School, met Auden at the GPO when they were making documentary films)
  • and a collaboration with MacNeice, ‘W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament’

MacNeice’s contributions include:

  • a verse letter to Graham and Anne Shepard
  • an Eclogue from Iceland which contains lines describing the bitter enmities of MacNeice’s native Ireland and why he has fled them, along with speeches by Grettir which capture the spirit of the saga hero, bloody-minded and doomed, and who tells the poets that their task is ‘the assertion of human values’ (p.134)
  • a verse Epilogue

In between all this poetry there are chunks of prose, namely:

  • a prose section ‘For Tourists’, which is quite thorough and might actually have been useful to contemporary tourists
  • a sardonic selection of writings on Iceland by other authors, ‘Sheaves from Sagaland’, addressed to John Betjeman, chosen for their odd surrealist details, the best of which is a page-long description of a huge feast endured by one William Jackson Hooker in 1809, and an eye-witness account of the eruption of an Icelandic volcano in 1727 (incidentally, we learn that the title Letters From Iceland had already been used by Joseph Banks in 1772)
  • Saga Laws, the Formula of Peacemaking, the Law of the Wager of Battle, the Viking Law
  • two prose letters from Auden to ‘E. M. Auden’ (E.M. was Erika Mann: it needs to be explained that Auden – who was gay – agreed to a marriage of convenience with Erika Mann who was the eldest daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, cabaret actress and racing driver, in order to give her a nationality when the Nazis cancelled her German nationalist because of her writings against them: they were married on 15 June 1935, the only time they ever met) – these are some of the most chatty and candid pieces Auden ever wrote, joking about the appalling food but explaining some of the Icelandic verse forms, his dislike of modern art, his fondness for caricatures
  • a prose letter to Kristian Andreirsson, Esq.;

The longest single section is a series of supposed letters sent by the fictional ‘Hetty’ to her friend ‘Nancy’. These were written by MacNeice in a lampoon of contemporary posh girls’ fiction, wherein Hetty moans endlessly about the jolly hockeysticks enthusiasm of the leader of the exhibition, Miss Greenhalge, and her tent-mate, the insufferable Maisie (a girl guide version of Auden) and makes campy comments:

The road to Kleppur suffers from ribbon development and nothing, my dear, can look worse than a corrugated iron suburb if it is not kept tidy.

Letters from Iceland is still hugely enjoyable after all these years, mainly because of the infectious good humour of both the protagonists. The advice for travellers is actually useful, albeit 84 years out of date. Auden says he paid 10 kroner for three days board and lodging and hire of horse at a farm in the north-west, but elsewhere tells us the exchange rate is 24 kroner to the pound sterling. So… did he get all that for 50p! Hiring a horse for the day costs 3 kroner i.e. 12.5p!

Last time I looked at a holiday in Iceland it was ruinously expensive, and packed with pre-arranged tours and photo opportunities by gushing geysers or bathing in hot springs i.e. it has been totally commodified.

There is a diagram of the highest mountains (we learn later that Auden pinched this postcard from an old lady who ran a home for decayed ladies, p.145); an extract from an 1805 parish register; bibliographies and suggested reading; there is a map showing new roads.

MacNeice struggles manfully to keep up with Auden’s super-abundant light verse:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais-je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air?
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness is beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth,
The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

(from Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard by Louis MacNeice)

10 out of 10 for effort, with some impressive hits:

The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

but Macneice can’t fully mask his more thoughtful approach which tends to make for slower reading, a slight air of puzzlement: it is Auden’s poetry which overshadows the enterprise, The Letter To Lord Byron whose five parts tie the ragbag together, but also the short but wonderful Journey to Iceland, which captures in just eleven stanzas the appeal of the cold and bleak north to some of us, so unlike the lotus-eating lure of the sunny Mediterranean where most travellers went.

And the traveller hopes: ‘Let me be far from any
Physician’; and the ports have names for the sea;
The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow;
And North means to all: ‘Reject’.

And the great plains are for ever where cold creatures are hunted,
And everywhere; the light birds flicker and flaunt;
Under a scolding flag the lover
Of islands may see at last,

Faintly, his limited hope; as he nears the glitter
Of glaciers; the sterile immature mountains intense
In the abnormal day of this world, and a river’s
Fan-like polyp of sand.

Wow! If you read my post about the monotonous diction of the poetry inspired by the Spanish Civil War, you can immediately see in these lines the use of novel vocabulary and uncannily imaginative phrasing.

In traditional poetry, birds do not ‘flicker and flaunt’; why are the mountains ‘immature’? why is the day ‘abnormal’? I don’t know, but it seems strange and true, the result of a disconcerted perception, appropriate to the cold and the bleak. And the simple statement that the bare North means to all Reject I find breath-taking.

In the short Foreword he added in 1965 Auden says:

The three months in Iceland upon which it is based stand out in my memory as among the happiest in a life which has, so far, been unusually happy, and, if something of this joy comes through the writing, I shall be content.

It does. It is a wonderful, funny, civilised book.

A few themes

In the pell-mell of poetry and comic prose it’s easy to overlook a couple of themes which emerge:

1. The He-man The concept of the ‘he-man’ was relatively new in pop culture – the muscley, Mr Universe types which came, like so much marketing bs, from America. Because they went to jolly good public schools and went on to have jolly successful careers, it’s easy to overlook how anxious these young men were, particularly about their masculinity.

Peter Fleming is referenced because he had already made a name for himself with his heroic account of his travels in Asia and his newspaper reporting for The Times, whereas Auden is all too well aware that he is short-sighted, he easily gets colds, he likes his creature comforts, and the first time he tries to mount a pony he galls right over its neck and onto the ground, in front of a party of picnickers. He is not made of heroic stuff.

The Auden Gang were, at the end of the day, bookish intellectuals, more at home chatting about Dante than building fires. They’d despised all that Officer Training Corps stuff they’d been forced to do at school and now found themselves having to take it seriously.

It can’t have helped that lots of them were gay or bisexual and so felt doubly alienated from the tough-guy, heterosexual men they saw up on cinema screens, always getting the girl. This helps explain why they couldn’t get over a permanent sense of feeling ridiculous. And then feeling anxious about feeling anxious.

It’s a small by symptomatic moment when Auden finally gets the hang of horse-riding and manages to stay on quite a frisky horse he’s been rented. ‘I was a real he-man after all,’ he says (p.142).

He says it as a joke, but it reveals an anxiety and a theme which crops up throughout his poetry of the 30s, another way in which he captured the anxiety of a generation.

(Similarly, when Auden and Isherwood travelled to China in 1938, Isherwood can’t sleep in a hotel near recently bombed ruins while he listens to Auden snoring ‘the long, calm snores of the truly strong’ – Journey To A War, p.75. The ‘truly strong’. It’s a joke, but still…)

2. Sensitivity Auden writes that traditional travel books are often boring but that there is a different thread to the genre, which consists more of essays on life prompted by things the traveller has seen. For him this is epitomised by the travel writing of D.H. Lawrence or Aldous Huxley, a style, writes Auden, which he is ‘neither clever nor sensitive enough to manage’ (p.140).

Now he’s being disingenuous when he says he’s not clever enough, he was a very clever man and he knew it. But I think he is being honest when he says that he was not sensitive enough. Sensitivity is not a word you associate with Auden. Cold, clinical detachment is his mode. He likes to categorise, he loves reeling off lists of things, from industrial equipment to types of civilian, from literary genres to psychoanalytical symptoms.

Thus it was Byron’s detached, urban and civilised irony which appealed to him, and when he deprecates Wordsworth he’s not joking.

I’m also glad to find I’ve your authority
For finding Wordsworth a most bleak old bore,
Though I’m afraid we’re in a sad minority
For every year his followers get more,
Their number must have doubled since the war.
They come in train-loads to the Lakes, and swarms
Of pupil-teachers study him in Storm’s.

For, oddly enough, although he spent three months travelling round one of Europe’s most unique landscapes, Auden doesn’t like landscapes. He likes people. He likes people and their cultures and ideas and attitudes and minds and histories and cultures. For him the landscape is just a backdrop to all this much more interesting stuff.

To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.

It may be worth pointing out that Honoré Daumier (1808-79) was a French artists and printmaker most famous for his caricatures of urban life. The Royal Academy had an exhibition on him not so long ago:

Several other anecdotes reinforce your sense that the human subject came first, second and third with Auden. On a trivial level, he quotes a well-known clerihew in a letter to a friend he’s made on the island, to clarify his position:

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

Or take a longer anecdote: After quite a gruelling bus journey (Icelanders always seemed to be sick on bus journeys, Auden was told by a bus driver) he arrives at Akureyri to discover all the hotels are full. Fortunately, the young guide he’s travelling with, Ragnar, has a friend who has a brother-in-law who’s a butcher who happens to be out of town, so they’re put up at his house for the night. Next day Auden goes swimming at an open-air pool heated by geysers. So far, so touristy. But that evening, he tells us, he hunkers down for the night with two books.

Borrowed two volumes of caricatures, which are really my favourite kind of picture, and spent a very happy evening with Goya and Daumier and Max Beerbohm.

While others are trying to work themselves up into poetic visions worthy of Wordsworth, Auden doesn’t bother. He’s much more interesting in the sight of the driver of the bus struggling to change a tyre. In the evenings he doesn’t go out roistering like Ernest Hemingway, he much prefers to be snuggled up with books of entertaining cartoons. It’s very sweet and very honest.

I’ve learnt to ride, at least to ride a pony,
Taken a lot of healthy exercise,
On barren mountains and in valleys stony,
I’ve tasted a hot spring (a taste was wise),
And foods a man remembers till he dies.
All things considered, I consider Iceland,
Apart from Reykjavik, a very nice land.


Credit

Letters to Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice was first published by Faber and Faber in 1937. References are to the 1985 paperback edition.

Related links

1930s reviews

Reviews of Icelandic sagas

The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Grettir is one of the last of the great Icelandic sagas, set down at the end of the fourteenth century by an unknown author, some 350 years after the events it describes. The sagas are divided into categories and Grettir belongs to the ‘Icelanders’ sagas (Íslendinga sögur), heroic prose narratives written between the 12th and 14th centuries about deeds of the great settler families of Iceland from the period 930 to 1030, the period actually known as the söguöld (Age of the Sagas) in Icelandic history.

Grettir is not mythical; it references to no Norse gods. Instead it is firmly rooted in historical events and mentions many historical figures: the historical jarl (earl) Eirik sails off to join his brother-in-law Knut, who was king of England from 1016 to 1035; three real bishops are mentioned (Fridrik, Isleif, Thorlak) who, along with references to churches and mass and priests, demonstrate the diffusion of  Christianity throughout Icelandic society only a few years after its arrival in 1000 CE; late in the book Grettir journeys to petition Olaf, king of Norway 1015 to 1028, and so on. Instead of myths, the narrative is overwhelmingly made up of small-scale fights and feuds, ambushes and long-harboured grudges. Which makes the two key moments in the narrative – Glam’s curse half way through, and the sorceress’s spell at the end of the saga – powerfully compelling irruptions of the supernatural into the otherwise wholly naturalistic.

Editions I read the Everyman edition which consists of the 1913 translation by G.A. Hight garnished with a 1965 introduction and notes by Peter Foote. The Hight translation is available online. Hight wrote: “My aim has been to translate in the colloquial language of my own day, eschewing all affectation of poetic diction or medievalism,” and he succeeds very well. Hight’s prose is brisk and clipped:

The following summer jarl Eirik the son of Hakon was preparing to leave his country and sail to the West to join his brother-in-law King Knut the Great in England, leaving the government of Norway in the hands of Hakon his son, who, being an infant, was placed under the government and regency of Eirik’s brother, jarl Sveinn. Before leaving Eirik summoned all his Landmen and the larger bondis to meet him. Eirik the jarl was an able ruler, and they had much discussion regarding the laws and their administration. It was considered a scandal in the land that pirates and berserks should be able to come into the country and challenge respectable people to the holmgang for their money or their women, no weregild being paid whichever fell. Many had lost their money and been put to shame in this way; some indeed had lost their lives. For this reason jarl Eirik abolished all holmgang in Norway and declared all robbers and berserks who disturbed the peace outlaws. Thorfinn the son of Kar of Haramarsey, being a man of wise counsel and a close friend of the jarl, was present at the meeting.

Or take this specimen of dialogue when Thorhall, son of Grim, hires big Glam to be his shepherd:

‘What work can you do best?’ he asked.

Glam said it would suit him very well to mind sheep in the winter.

“Will you mind my sheep?” Thorhall asked. “Skapti has given you over to me.”

“My service will only be of use to you if I am free to do as I please,” he said. “I am rather crossgrained when I am not well pleased.”

“That will not hurt me,” said Thorhall. “I shall be glad if you will come to me.”

“I can do so,” he said. “Are there any special difficulties?”

“The place seems to be haunted.”

‘”I am not afraid of ghosts. It will be the less dull.’

Prior to Hight, this saga had been translated by the enthusiastic medievalist William Morris, aided by Eirikr Magnusson, back in 1869. Morris’s translation of Grettir’s Saga is available on Project Gutenberg and also on The Icelandic Saga Database. Morris’s Victorian patiche of medieval style is as dated as  his chintz wallpaper, but it has an interesting introduction and a handy chronology dating all the events: 997 Grettir born, 1012 slaying of Thorir Paunch, 1015 burning of the sons of Thorir, 1016 Grettir meets king Olaf but fails to bear iron, 1031 Grettir dies.

Contrast Hight’s crispness with Morris’s style:

But before Earl Eric went away from the land, he called together lords and rich bonders, and many things they spoke on laws and the rule of the land, for Earl Eric was a man good at rule. Now men thought it an exceeding ill fashion in the land that runagates or bearserks called to holm high-born men for their fee or womankind, in such wise, that whosoever should fall before the other should lie unatoned; hereof many got both shame and loss of goods, and some lost their lives withal; and therefore Earl Eric did away with all holm-gangs and outlawed all bearserks who fared with raids and riots.

It’s quite hard to read the Hight for any length; it would be impossible to read the Morris. There are also a Penguin translation and an OUP edition.

Medieval manuscript picture of Grettir the Strong

14th century illustration of Grettir the Strong (by Haukurth, from Wikimedia Commons)

Plot summary The plot is more a long sequence of events, though there is skill in the way the story detours to follow one thread then returns a few chapters later to pick up the main plotline of Grettir’s life. Only towards the end do you see the way various threads have been prepared right at the start to bring the narrative to a climax. Only when it’s completely over does the figure of Grettir emerge much bigger and more moving than at any one place in the text.

The saga is divided into 93 short chapters. Some are only a few paragraphs long.

  • Grettir is a disappointment to his rich successful father, Asmund Longhair, but his mother Asdis dotes on him, giving him her grandfather Jokull’s sword,  when he leaves home.
  • Grettir is a difficult antisocial child, prone to irritate people with smart oneliners and biting lampoons: “The likely may happen – also the unlikely.” “Work not done needs no reward.”
  • Grettir has red hair and freckles.
  • On a voyage with Haflidi he alienates the whole crew by doing no work, until the boat is in peril of sinking when he suddenly bales out with the strength of ten men.
  • At Vindheim Grettir breaks into a howe (from the Old Norse haugr meaning hill, knoll or mound) and fights the demon howe-dweller to win the treasure buried here with the dead king Kar.
  • Grettir is a guest at Thorfinn who is away at the Yule Feast when a boat of vikings lands and threatens to rape and carry off Thorfinn’s wife and daughters. Grettir fights them off, killing no fewer than ten including the leaders Thorir Paunch and Ogmund the Bad.
  • Grettir kills in single combat the troll who has been ravaging Thorfinn’s land.
  • Grettir kills Bjorn who had been teasing him.
  • Grettir kills Bjorn’s brother, Hjarrandi after the latter ambushes him.
  • Grettis kills Hjarrandi’s brother, Gunnar, after being ambushed by him and five assistants. What surprises about this is not the anarchy of these death; the opposite, it’s the way Grettis is hauled before jarl Eirik and Gunnar’s relatives argue on one side and Grettir’s supporters on another and the jarl speak openly of his anger at these deaths and is only just persuaded to let Grettir go free.
  • A whale washed up on the beach prompts a fight between Thorgils Makson and the twins Thorgeir Havarsson and Thormod Coalbrow-Skald. Thorgeir kills Thorgils. Again what’s interesting is this leads to a lengthy case at the annual Thing or court where both sides make cogent arguments; Thorgils’ relatives win and Thorgeir is banished and Thormod ordered to pay blood money to Thorgils’ family.
  • Grettir wins a horse fight at Langafit. Apparently the Icelanders made pairs of stallions fight each other by goading them with sticks.
  • Thorhall, the son of Grim, the son of Thorhall, the son of Fridmund, needs a shepherd and hires an enormous man called Glam, warning him his homestead is haunted. Glam is big and surly and refuses to fast on Christmas Eve. He stuffs his face and goes out to mind the sheep in a big storm. Later the men find his corpse and signs of a big struggle. He has been killed by the spook. Although they bury Glam he rises from the grave to haunt the neighbourhood, riding on people’s rooftops, scaring and sometimes killing men.
  • Grettir comes to the neighbourhood of Vatnsdal and ends up confronting Glam’s ghost and killing him. But not before the spook curses him, predicting that he will never be stronger than he is now, and will be followed by bad luck. Glam’s Curse:

“Hitherto you have earned fame through your deeds, but henceforward there shall fall upon you exile and battle; your deeds shall turn to evil and your guardian-spirit shall forsake you. You will be outlawed and your lot shall be to dwell ever alone. And this I lay upon you, that these eyes of mine shall be ever before your vision. You will find it hard to live alone, and at last it shall drag you to death.” (chapter 35)

Compare with the William Morris translation:

“Hitherto hast thou earned fame by thy deeds, but henceforth will wrongs and man-slayings fall on thee, and the most part of thy doings will turn to thy woe and ill-hap; an outlaw shalt thou be made, and ever shall it be thy lot to dwell alone abroad; therefore this weird I lay on thee, ever in those days to see these eyes with thine eyes, and thou wilt find it hard to be alone and that shall drag thee unto death.”

  • And thereafter Grettir is afraid of being in the dark, because it is then that Glam’s eyes appear to him and terrify him.
  • Grettir, like many others, seeks employment under the new king of Norway, Olaf, and sets sail. But on the boat Thorborn Slowcoach insults his now-dead father, Asmund, and Grettir slices his head off at a stroke.
  • The trading boat Grettir is on moors off the coast of Norway in a blizzard. The traders see fire across a river and Grettir swims there to ask for some but the men in the house attack him when he lumbers in looking like a troll, so he fights back, seizes some burning brands and flees back to his ship. The next day they discover the house burned down killing everyone in it. They were the sons of Thorir an important man. Grettir is shunned.
  • In Trondheim, Norway, Grettir seeks an audience with king Olaf. He says burning Thorir’s sons was an accident. The king him the ordeal of holding iron. This was the practice of holding iron bars which have been heated in a furnace a) you have to be inured to pain to hold them b) afterwards, if the wounds heal you are innocent, if not you are guilty. A crowd gathers in the church for the liturgy which precedes the ordeal but an adolescent taunts Grettir so much he strikes him and the king calls the ceremony off. Grettir’s impatience is harming him.
  • Grettir is staying with Einar, a wealthy man in Norway. Robbers led by the berserk Snaekoll, ride down out of the forest and threaten to carry away his daughter, Gyrid. After a laconic exchange Grettir rams the berserk’s shield into his mouth breaking his jaw, pulls him off his horse and decapitates him with his axe.
  • Meanwhile in Iceland Grettir’s father dies a natural death, leaving his holdings to his son Atli. But Atli is murdered by Thorbjorn Oxmain. Meanwhile Thorir learns about his sons who were burned to death by Grettir and takes a large force to the Thing or court, where he gets Grettir proclaimed an outlaw. Grettir’s ship form Norway arrives in Iceland and he learns these three facts in one blow.
  • He steals Sveinn’s horse, saddlehead and rides it a long way in the rain stopping to speak verses to the people he meets. When Sveinn tracks hi down, instead of fighting, they end up swapping verses and becoming good friends.
  • Grettir surprises Thorbjorn Oxmain and his son in the fields as they are gathering in the hay. He shatters Arnor’s skull with a side blow of his sword, then embeds his axe in Thorbjorn’s head. He knows he is outlaw so bids farewell to his mother, still grieving for the loss of her son, Atli, and rides west.
  • Grettir winters with Thorgills at Reykjaholar; two other guests, Thorgeir and Thormod, attack him. They are in mid-fight when Thorgils appears and tells them to stop. Which they do, like naughty schoolboys.
  • A long account of the All-Thing or court where Skapti the Lawman and Snorri the Godi adjudicate the case of Atli’s murder and Thorbjorn’s murder. The remission of Grettir’s status as outlaw is mooted but firmly rejected by Thorir of Gard whose sons were burned in the house. Thus Grettir’s status as outlaw is confirmed, though with misgivings.
  • Grettir roams the westlands taking what he wants from farmers and shepherds. Eventually a posse of 30 men surround and ambush him and tie him up and have a lengthy debate about what do with him, which was turned into a separate humorous poem. At which point the lady of Isafjord rides up and has him released on his good behaviour.
  • Grettir is a plague on the land, stealing from all passersby. He builds himself a hit by the sea and tries to earn a living fishing. Grettir’s enemies, the men of Hrutafjord, hire a mercenary, Grim, to kill him. But Grettir kills Grim.
  • Thorir of Gard commissions Thorir Redbeard, another outlaw, to kill Grettir. For two years he lives and works with him on Arnarvatn Heath. One day, as a storm blows up over the lake and Grettir is repairing the boat, Thorir grabs his sword to kill Grettir who leaps back into the lakewater, swims behind Thorir, dashes him to the ground and cuts his head off.
  • Thorir of Gard attacks Grettir in a narrow pass with 80 men and yet Grettir fights them off. After Thorir withdraws grettir discovers his back had been covered by a strongman named Hallmund. For a while Grettir lives in Hallmund’s cave along with is daughter.
  • Then Grettir confers with Bjorn and goes t olive in a cave overlooking Fagraskogafjall. Bjorn and Grettir are both superstrong and have contests such as swimming the river Hitara from lake to the sea, and creating vast stepping stones.
  • A big man much given to ornaments, decorations and boasting, Gisli, arrives with three helpers to kill Grettir at his mountain fastness. Grettir fights off the assistants then chases Gisli all down to the mountain to the river as the coward strips off all his clothes one by one. At the river Grettir beats Gisli with a tree branch then lets him go free, returning up the hill and collecting all Gisli’s abandoned gear.
  • Grettir is attacked at a narrow spit between forks in a river by two coordinated bands but fights them off with two helpers.
  • Grettir migrates to a secret valley below a glacier which he believes to be protected by a blending, a giant named Thorir, and his daughter, so he called the valley Thorisdal.
  • Another grim takes over Grettir’s abandoned hut by the sea and catches fishes. On two successive nights Hallmund steals the fish laid out to dry. On the third night Grim catches him in the act and chops his neck with his axe. Hallmund flees back t ohis cave and recites the lay of his lifestory to his daughter, dying just at the end. Grim arrives and he and his daughter mourn together and become friends.
  • Grettir outwits another expedition Thorir sends to kill him, outflanking them and stopping to recite verse to Thorir’s daughter.
  • At Eyjardalsa in Bardardal dwells Thorsteinn the White and his wife Steinvor. One Yule she travels to church for mass and when she comes back her husband has vanished. The next year she travels to church leaving her servant behind. Once again he is gone when she returns. Grettir hears of the disappearances and arrives under the alias of Gest. First he carries Steinvor and her daughter across a flooded river so they can go to church. When he returns he builds a barricade in their house and sure enough in the middle of the night a troll appears and there is a massive fight. Some say Grettir hewed off her arm and she ran for the rocks, some say they were fighting when day arose and she turned to a woman-shaped stone which can still be seen. He rests form his fight then the priest tells Grettir of a cave behind a waterfall. Grettir dives into the water, climbs up into the cave and fights an ugly giant. When he has killed him he explores the cave and finds the bones of two dead men, obviously the missing men from Bardardal. He carries them to the church (v Christian) and writes the story of the giant-battle in runes on a staff (v pagan).
  • On advice Grettir journeys to the isle of Drangey. He goes with his younger brother, Illugi, just 15. Their mother Asdis is tearful at the parting.
  • Grettir squats on the isle of Drangey, living with Illugi and a servant, off seabird eggs and the sheep there. In fact the island belongs to some 20 freemen, chief among them Thorbjorn Angle, but they can’t dislodge him, Grettir lives there 2 years. Once when the fire goes out he swims a nautical mile to the mainland, secures fire and a boat back.
  • Thorbjorn persuades a young man called Haering to climb up the cliff while he and his men distract Grettir form the boat. Haering climbs up and is sneaking up on the brothers when Illugi turns and spots him and gives chase. They chase all over the island until Haering jumps over the cliff and breaks every bone in his body. At the spot known ever since as Haering’s Leap.
  • At that summer’s All-Thing Grettir’s supporters claim his 20 years outlawry is expired. His enemies say he should be outlawed all over again for the wicked things he has done. the Lawgiver decides he has not completed the full 20, but that twenty is the maximum any man can have. Grettir will be freed the following summer.
  • Desperate to get his island back Thorbjorn Angle takes a boat out to it with his foster mother Thurid, an old woman and a witch and heathen from the old times before Christianity came. She listens to Thorbjorn shouting up at Grettir on top the cliff, and Grettir refusing to discuss leaving and then shouts out a curse at Grettir, that his doom is sealed and his days will grow worse. Grettir throws a huge stone out into the boat which breaks the old woman’s hip. But she is confident her curse will work.
  • the sorceress performs a strange rite on a log on the beach and sends it off, against the current, to Grettir’s island. Here it bumps against the cliff and Grettir rejects it twice. But on the third day the servant Glaum brings it up and to the hut. Unaware Grettir goes to chop it up with his axe which slips and badly injures him in the thigh. The wound festers.
  • Then Thorbjorn assembles a gang of men and goes back in the boat. The useless thrall Glaum has left the ladder down and Thorbjorn’s men easily climb to the top, overpower Glaum, and launch a massive attack on Grettir’s house. His brother Illugi defends him bravely but he is pinned down by all the shields while the others kill Grettir. Although he is said to be already dead from the festering wound. they cannot free his sword form his grip until they cut his hand off. And then Thorbjorn ruins the sword by cutting off Grettir’s head which he packs in salt.
  • Thorbjorn rides with the head to Bjarg to confront Grettir’s mother Asdil who conducts herself with dignity.
  • At the next All-Thing it is decided that all feuds around Grettir are ended; but instead of getting the price on the head of the outlaw Thorbjorn finds himself exiled for using sorcery in this increasingly Christian culture. His relations go recover Grettir and Illugi’s bodies and bury them in Bjarg church.

Postscript The saga doesn’t end with Grettir’s death and burial. Blood feuds weren’t optional in Icelandic society, even after Christianity was established, and how they played out, how the relatives of those killed bore their responsibility for revenge, were as much a source of interest in this kind of prefeudal society as the finest details of their genealogy. And so Grettir’s half-brother pursues his murderer all the way across Europe to take his revenge. What is extremely odd is the way this brutal saga then turns into a medieval Romance of love and adultery – and then again turns into a Christian tract preaching ideal repentance and holiness, all in the last 30 or so pages!

  •  Thorbjorn sells his goods and takes ship to Constantinople where he becomes a warrior in the emperor’s guard. But he is tracked there by Grettir’s quiet half-brother Thorsteinn Dromund who also joins the Varangian Guard and takes the first opportunity to kill Thorbjorn and is thrown into prison.
  • At this point, surreally, the saga turns into a medieval romance as the lady Spes walks past the dungeon and hears Thorbjorn singing. She pays for him to be released and they become adulterous lovers behind the back of her ineffectual husband Sigurd. They conspire to get Sigurd to falsely accuse her so that he can be disgraced and forced to divorce her and they get married and have sons and move back to Norway.
  • From here, in old age, they decide to atone for their youthful sins and travel to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope, and then to live out their days in separate holy retreats. And thus they die reconciled to God.

CHAPTER XCIII. THE TESTIMONY OF STURLA THE LAWMAN

Sturla the Lawman has declared that no outlaw was ever so distinguished as Grettir the Strong. For this he assigns three reasons. First, that he was the cleverest, inasmuch as he was the longest time an outlaw of any man without ever being captured, so long as he was sound in health. Secondly, that he was the strongest man in the land of his age, and better able than any other to deal with spectres and goblins. Thirdly, that his death was avenged in Constantinople, a thing which had never happened to any other Icelander.
Further, he says that Thorsteinn Dromund was a man who had great luck in the latter part of his life.
Here endeth the story of Grettir the son of Asmund.

I was moved to learn that there is a memorial to Grettir the Strong near his legendary homestead of Bjarg in Iceland:

Photo of the memorial to Grettir the Strong at Bjarg in Iceland

Memorial to Grettir the Strong at Bjarg in Iceland (Image: Bromr under Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons)

Understatement The saga has some examples of the famous Norse understatement:

  • Grettir counted the men. There were twelve in all, and their aspect did not look peaceful.
  • ‘I shall come again, and it is not certain that we shall then part any better friends than we are now.’
  • Thorbjorn sidled round to the front of the door and thrust his spear with both hands into Atli’s middle, so that it pierced him through. Atli said when he received the thrust: ‘They use broad spear-blades nowadays.’
  • ‘Have you not heard that I have not proved a mound of wealth to most of those who have had to do with me?’ said Grettir.
  • He said: “Here is a man coming towards us with his axe in the air; he has a rather hostile appearance.”

But, to be honest, not as many as you’d expect.

Naming legends There are references to the contemporary present of the author, and a number of naming stories of the kind you commonly find in oral literature. (They litter the early books of the Bible.)

  • “The spear which Grettir had lost was never found until within the memory of men now living. It was found in the later days of Sturla the Lawman, the son of Thord, in the very marsh where Thorbjorn fell, now called Spearmarsh. This is the proof that he was killed there and not in Midfitjar, as has been elsewhere asserted.”
  • Grettir went up to the Arnarvatn Heath and built himself a hut there of which the remains are still to be seen. (chapter 55)
  • Grettir and Bjorn swam in one course the whole length of the Hitara from the lake at its head down to the sea. They brought the stepping-stones into the river which neither floods nor freezing nor icedrifts have since moved from their places. (Ch 58)
  • “Grettir fell back a little and reached a stone which is still standing by the side of the way and is called Grettishaf, where he stood at bay.” (Ch 59)
  • The place where they fought is now called Grettisoddi. (ch 60)
  • They laid Grettir’s head in salt and put it for the winter in the out-house called Grettisbur in Vidvik. (ch 82)
  • Angle let him take the head and bury it in a sand-hill, which is now called Grettisthuf. (ch 84)

Lovely words

  • a bondi is a class of warrior freeman
  • holmgang (meaning “walk on an island or small place”) is a Viking duel.
  • a jarl is a leader or chieftain, next in line to the king. Origin of our word “earl”.
  • luck, from the Dutch apparently, and cognate with modern German Glück.
  • thing is a meeting to administer and decide cases; the All-Thing was the annual meeting of Iceland, held every Summer
  • weregild – a value placed on every human being and piece of property under Salic Law. If property was stolen or someone was injured or killed the guilty person would have to pay weregild as restitution to the victim’s family or to the owner of the property. Weregild is composed of were, meaning “man” (as in werewolf), and geld, meaning “payment or fee”, as in Danegeld; Geld is modern German for ‘money’.
  • berserker (from the Icelandic for “bear-skin”) is a fighter capable of working himself up into a homicidal frenzy. In their delirium they sometimes bite their own shields and I was delighted to learn that the Lewis chessmen include just such knights in the act of biting their shields!

“The berserk thought they were trying to get off by talking. He began to howl and to bite the rim of his shield. He held the shield up to his mouth and scowled over its upper edge like a madman.” (chapter 40)

Other sagas

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