Monday, September 28, 2009

Sagas of Icelanders / Icelandic Odyssey

On a wonderful holiday in Iceland, I picked up the Penguin Classic “Deluxe Edition” of The Sagas of Icelanders – a tome of some 750 pages of stories about the settlement and development of Iceland and its people around 1,000 years ago – written down by various authors in remarkably similar styles some 800 years ago.

Having finished reading it recently, I can say it is one of the most remarkable and riveting pieces of prose I have ever come across: full of heroism, honour and courage, and gratuitous violence, cruelty and greed.

I was struck by the beautiful use of language, especially in early Icelandic poetry, remarkable physical endeavours of the Icelanders, and the cheapness of life.

Gaol was not a concept the Icelanders believed in.

If you had killed someone, you might be killed in revenge or outlawed (and then killed).

But, just as likely, you would simply pay compensation to the bereaved – and that would be that.

Young men would move up quickly in Icelandic society by sailing to Norway or Denmark to serve the king, gaining wealth from him, or plundering in Britain or what is now mainland Europe – and returning home to Iceland with riches aplenty.

Generosity and patronage are huge elements in early Icelandic society, with the legal system in such infancy that violence or bribery could readily put an end to any action against a wealthy man.

And the early Icelanders were incredibly hardy folk, farming much of the interior of the country, which I’d say, from my travels there, now goes largely unfarmed.

In many ways, the settlement of Iceland was a remarkable time.

The Norsemen who came there to avoid a troublesome king found abundant fertile land, despite the long winter.

Property prices were not a problem! Iceland was apparently uninhabited. They just took the land they wanted and started farming.

Although I enjoyed all of the sagas and tales, I think my favourite saga is the first, Egil’s Saga, which is believed to have been written by one of Egil’s descendants, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Egil was a psychopath and a poet – and not someone to get drunk!

After he asked for the hospitality of a man called Bard, who initially gave him no booze and then tried to get him horribly drunk, Egil thrust a sword “so deep into Bard’s stomach that the point came out through his back!”

But he did so only after composing the poem:

I’m feeling drunk, and the ale
has left Olvir pale in the gills,
I let the spray of ox-spears
foam over my beard.
Your wits have gone, inviter
of showers on to shields;
now the rain of the high god
starts pouring upon you.

“Ox-spears” refers to the drinking horns that Icelandic men were supposed to down in toasts, and “the rain” of the high god is possibly a reference to vomit!

Egil lived a hugely adventurous and poetic (and violent) life and died peacefully of an illness.

Then, as today, Icelanders take a surname reflecting their father’s (or mother’s) first name. So, Odinn, the son of Midders, would be called Odinn Middersson. But many in the Sagas are known by nicknames, reflecting some aspects of their characters, physiques or lives.

Just a few of the examples in The Sagas of Icelanders are: Thjodolf the Short, Thorarin the Evil, Thorgrim Skin-hood, Thorir the England-trader, Thorkel the Bald, Ref the Sly, Asgeir Audunarson Scatter-brain, Eyvind the Plagiarist (poet son of Finn the Squinter), Hallbjorn Half-troll, Hallbjorn Kotkelsson Slickstone-eye, Hallfred Ottarsson the Troublesome Poet, An Twig-belly, Gunnlaug Illugason Serpent-tongue), Halfdan Eysteinsson the Mild and Meal-stingy, and many more.

My favourite sagas were those about individuals, particularly The Saga of Ref the Sly (a kind of human fox with enormous cunning), Gisli Sursson’s Saga – about a super-brave outlaw – and The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi, a moralistic tale in which, methinks, evil ended up triumphing over good.

But the more generic sagas – such as the Saga of the People of Laxardal, The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal, and the Saga of the Confederates – are remarkable in their sophistication and wondrous use of language. The early Icelanders were - indeed, great writers and poets.

I picked up this magnificent book while on a short sojourn in Iceland – visiting my dear friend and erstwhile partner in crime Midders, a former Fleet Street reporter in exile.

My clan and I caught the big bird from the local village of Gatwick to Reykjavik to be met by our “Experience Midders” rep, Midders.

Landing on Icelandic soil, I was immediately struck by how different this land was from the many others I have visited: so less populated, so volcanic, so beautiful.

I stayed in Reykjavik for a couple of nights, in an attractive flat in embassy quarter – the Belgravia – of the capital.

You could not help but be struck by the tremendous difference between Reykjavik and London. . . in size and development.

Much as I loved Reykjavik, I never felt I was in a big city. It was more like a tarted-up fishing town like my beloved Kingston upon Hull!

My Experience Midders rep - Lord Midders, who you may remember from the Poet Chef blog in January - took to a most swanky restaurant, where all the forbidden fruits were being consumed.

I had the honour of dining with his teenage son, Odinn Middersson, who is a renowned "urban artist". Nuff said.

We then drove across Iceland in the Middersmobile.

It is remarkable how you can drive for eight hours and hundreds of miles - and every inch of it is beautiful.

We saw the place where the continents of America and Europe meet and the original geysir - not to be confused with Jamie Oliver (the original geezer)!

And then I stayed in Midders' home - Akureyi - which was even more homely than Reykjavik.

I bathed in naturally hot pools every day, rode Icelandic horses, with their unique gait, and caught fish.

And the bar never seemed to close: at the back of the boat, top of the volcano, in the Middersmobile, the Elephant beers kept appearing.

A great holiday. I would recommend Iceland to anyone, though I doubt you will be as fortunate as us in securing an Experience Midders rep.

It is also great for photography. I took plenty of pictures on slides, colour negative film, and digital. (Though my scanner is a disgrace!)

Since I have been back, it has been all work and other frantic activity.

What's happened?

* I promoted and compered a great gig starring John Agard who put in a superb performance to an audience of 70 crammed into the little top room at the Lewes Arms! There were so many people, some had to stand out in the corridor (although you can't see that from this image).

* Sadly, Keith Floyd has died. I liked the guy and have fond memories of him ringing me up for a chat when he was in drink.

* On a happier note, a former colleague, Bernard Longley, who was a wonderful priest, is to be Archbishop of Birmingham - a great decision by the Pope. I texted Bernard to congratulate him and he texted straight back: 'Thank you for kind message'.

* SalsaMagic has returned to the White Hart Hotel in Lewes - after a long break due to the promoter Miguel Angel's illness. It is great to see Miguel well again, but I have retired from the salsa world. During five years of trying to learn salsa, I never got the hang of it, due to a lack of logistical memory and two left feet. Salsa is no fun if you can't pick it up. All the same, I wish Miguel and the gang well with their comeback which I am sure will be a resounding success.

* I have gone for a Best Of approach for my blog, putting up the best of the last few years of entries, since I currently have little time for blogging. Many thanks to the lady who made the very kind comment about it all.

* Finally, I am to present a radio show, after having my proposal by Rocket FM accepted.

Timewarp - a mixture of generally seventies and eighties music - will go out from 7pm to 9pm on Sunday, 11 October and Sunday, 18 October.

You can listen on Rocket FM or or, if you are in Lewes, 87.8 FM.

Wish me luck!