North African pirates, port towns, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar Islands, Icelandic slaves, cycling, dwarf men, sagas, supermarkets, Halldor Laxness, volcanoes, harbors, babies & Viking saunas.
North African pirates, port towns, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar Islands, Icelandic slaves, cycling, dwarf men, sagas, supermarkets, Halldor Laxness, volcanoes, harbors, babies & Viking saunas.
In the summer of 1627, North African pirates – primarily operating out of the port cities of Salé, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli – raided Iceland. They were after slaves, to sell in the markets back home.
Though it was unusual to come so far north, this kind of raiding party was nothing new. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, it’s estimated that North African pirates captured between 800,000 and 1.25 million people; their raids were so frequent they rendered long stretches of the Italian and Spanish coastline virtually uninhabitable. In the slave markets across North Africa, there were people of every European nationality for sale – English, Dutch, Norwegian, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and French.
In the slave markets across North Africa, there were people of every European nationality for sale – English, Dutch, Norwegian, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and French.
We only know about this particular raid in Iceland because one of their captives, the Reverend Ólafur Egilsson, wrote a book about his experience (the Reisubók sera Ólafs Egilssonar). There are also a handful of letters written by other Icelandic slaves that have survived, which were written in great secrecy and sent home, passed from one sympathetic hand to another, often taking years to arrive. Their accounts overlap in the main: when the fleet of twelve pirate ships reached Iceland, they split into raiding parties and traversed the southeastern and southern coasts. They had a routine. Once ashore, they sought out the farms, looted them, then set fire to the buildings, driving those who could move quickly enough down to the water’s edge to be sorted then loaded onboard. People who resisted or who moved too slowly were immediately killed.
The pirates didn’t mind much who it was that they caught, only that they caught something. In one harbor, they captured a Danish ship at anchor, putting the crew in fetters. A day later, when they came abreast of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, they surprised an English ship, but these sailors made a deal; their freedom, in exchange for directions to a landing on the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, off the southern coast of Iceland.
It was well known that the Vestmannaeyjar islands’ coastline was formidable, almost entirely composed of tall black cliffs that rose straight up from the sea and in which large colonies of seabirds roosted. There was only one easy landing on the largest island, Heimaey, and the pirates knew the harbor would be well defended; news of the raids travelled quickly among Icelanders, so when ships were sighted, the islanders could guess what was about to happen – though it must have had the remorseless quality of a nightmare, watching the boats tack this way then that, nosing out the wind, their interminable increase in size. In Heimaey, the canons were cleaned and loaded, and every able man was given a gun. Everyone was focused northward. No one expected that a captured sailor from the English ship would be Icelandic, or that he would know about a small rocky beach called Brimurd on the southern end of the island, which could be landed in a longboat. It’s called Pirates Cove now.
Heimaey, though the largest island in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, is quite small; it is about 5 kilometres end to end. So when the pirates landed, they came quickly, moving from farm to farm. Anyone who resisted was beaten or hacked to death. Contemporary accounts have the elliptical simplicity of a traumatised child. Women were found with ‘disordered clothing’, their dresses hauled up to their necks. One woman couldn’t walk, so she was tossed into a burning home, along with her two-year-old child. Another woman, pregnant, was cut in two. Pirates used ropes to scale cliffs to search in the caves where fishermen kept their fish, picking their way along the narrow paths. Those they found hiding up there in small cages and on ledges, who could not climb down quickly, were pushed to their death.
My father and I visited the Vestmannaeyjar this past summer, near the end of a month-long cycle tour of Iceland. By the time we caught the ferry there, we had cycled close to 2000 kilometres, and so we had seen mountain plateaus and fjords and countryside, and lakes and beaches and lava fields, had established a rhythm of seeing, and pedalling and camping and eating. We knew what Icelandic small towns were like, as a genus: the golf-course on the outskirts (an extremely pleasurable perversion, it appears, in such a rocky, windy country); the heated swimming pool complex next to the camping round; the one supermarket, staffed by noncommittal, polite, teenage guys; the petrol station, staffed by slightly older boys.
Besides, we had already visited the Vestmannaeyjar before, 34 years ago. I remember nothing of it because I was seven months old at the time. We came by boat, at the end of a long journey from New Zealand, across the Pacific, around Cape Horn, then up the coast to Europe in a steel-hulled yacht called Kate that had taken my father four years to build. I was conceived half way through the journey and born in Bristol. The trip to Iceland was a holiday from the work my mother had found there as an ophthalmologist. Two friends of theirs, Penny and George, came along on the trip to Iceland too. It was a full boat; there are photos taken from the Bristol docks of the boat deck covered in nappies my parents were trying to cram in the hold. It was the only multi-day sailing journey we went on as a family. A year later, they sold the boat and flew back to New Zealand, to grandparents and houses with backyards to play in.
These facts are well established, nothing to dwell upon. And both my parents are taciturn about their achievement; they barely talk about it. From Britain, it took my parents the same amount of time to sail to Iceland (six days) as it took the Romans. The Vestmannaeyjar was the first Icelandic port of call that many sailing from the south would visit – just as it was for my parents.
From Britain, it took my parents the same amount of time to sail to Iceland (six days) as it took the Romans.
When we arrived in 1980, Heimaey was still recovering from an eruption fourteen years before, which had rendered the place nearly uninhabitable. The lava flow had eaten a third of the town’s buildings. Dad remembered houses partially caught like fruit flies in honey, the lava flow a good 50 feet higher than anything else, covering the eastern edge of the town. During the eruption, the direst moment for the island came not when the lava flow moved quickly (in one night, it destroyed seventy houses), but when the harbor’s entrance seemed likely to be blocked by the lava; without that entrance, the fishing industry would collapse. When we visited this past summer, Dad illustrated it to me on the ferry out there with his thumb and finger – the index finger lengthening, extending, closing in. The islanders tried to halt the lava’s approach, using fire hoses to spray the molten rock with seawater. Amazingly, it worked; or at least the eruption halted, six months later. The harbor entrance narrowed, but didn’t close.
My father is an aficionado of harbors. He loves to look at boats – admires grace, nearly always when it is paired with function – but there is something about a harbor and its massed shapes that thrills him to the core. A port town will arrange its structure, its streets, its houses, overlooking windows around naturally protected water like a conscientious lover, and my dad loves to notice the endlessly subtle variations of this attention. Everywhere we cycled in Iceland, the port was always the first place in a town he wanted to visit. It was as important to him as churches or gift stores or museums might be for others. And for once, as we entered Heimaey’s harbor, everyone else seemed just as excited. This drama of harbor as reprieve was clear. Dad strode from railing to railing, taking photos not only of the cliffs, but of the fishing boats, piers, the small wooden sailing boats moored off to one side. You could still see the old lava field distinctly – ten storeys higher than anything else, off to one side of the town, a black glacier bowing down to the sea.
We watched a documentary about the eruption in a café by the wharf. There was a gale blowing that first night, but the islanders had no idea how long they could stay, and so family after family was herded on to small fishing boats that bucked and rolled, even in the protected harbor. In the camera footage, their faces gave little away; they looked completely numb. Even the children weren’t crying. A woman recalled that by the time they reached the mainland, the decks were covered in vomit.
The men who stayed behind to fight the volcano were the same age as my father when he first visited the Vestmannaeyjar. They had the same look he did – that slight late seventies shag, the same woollen jerseys, lanky and serious-looking. They all also looked slightly stunned. But they fought the volcano for six months – day by day, inch by inch. I could feel my dad shaking his head in the darkness of the café, empathy emanating from him as distinctly as heat. He had forgotten how stubborn they were, he said. Six months was long enough for the seasons to change, for foot-long icicles to form on boat railings and on fire hoses and then to disappear again.
I sat there instead and thought of my father building the yacht for four years; how he cycled out to the boat yard every day and literally locked himself inside his shed so the other boat builders wouldn’t disturb him. My parents didn’t have a radio when they set sail from New Zealand in 1976. Another’s strength is always more apparent to you than your own.
In 1627, the pirate fleet anchored in Heimaey for three days, sorting out their prisoners, determining who would be transported back to North Africa. Even the most basic details seem astonishing. The three ships set sail on the 19th of July, with 232 people in chains. Ten days later, on the 30th of July, Reverend Egilsson’s wife gave birth on board. They named the child Jon. Egilsson blessed him, he wrote, ‘as if we were back on land, but my heart was filled with grief’. The pirates flocked around, and two donated old shirts to wrap the child in. On the 9th of August, they came within sight of the Spanish coast; on the 11th, they sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar. On the 16th or 17th of August they landed at Algiers. One month had passed.
We cycled to the other end of the island to Pirates Cove, watched the waves break on shore there and tried to imagine the longboats landing. It was remarkably easy. It is a small, lonely, windswept cove, and the houses in the hills beyond are still far and few in between. The road continued on, turning west and climbing uphill sharply, ending at a lighthouse. Locking our bikes, we wandered out on to the headland, following sheep trails, eventually lying down in a grassy hollow just out of the reach of the wind. One or two melancholic-looking hikers drifted in and out of view. I couldn’t stop thinking about the heat in North Africa, how it must’ve seemed a revelation to Icelandic people. No rain, little humidity. The light itself would’ve been different too. New gods.
We were off the Faroe Islands, my dad said, sailing here, when we hit terrible weather. It was at night, and he and knew we were near reef and rocks, but had no way of finding out exactly how close. That night was one of only two occasions in the four years of sailing, he said, that he vomited. It wasn’t from seasickness, but fear. Apparently, I slept the whole way through, only to wake in the morning when everyone was about to collapse from exhaustion. Each adult took turns to play with me while the others slept.
Lying in the grass, my dad told me how lucky I was: four adults, looking after one baby. It’s a propitious ratio, he said. He told me I was a confident child. He sees me as a confident adult. I thought of other babies on other boats, other ratios: Egilsson’s boy, who never touched this soil; other boat decks, slick with vomit.
In the photos my parents have of their sailing trip to Iceland, I am wearing, without fail, a bright red quilted jumpsuit. I am held up in front of icebergs, Icelandic ponies and other boats of note. I am hefty, casually gigantic; in harbours, my nappies drove away customs agents ten times my size. In these photos I grin, delighted to be alive.
Iceland is known for its lunar quality. Much of it is bare rock of every kind: mountain-sized slag piles of red rhyolite, sheared off into thin sheets; lava fields of scoria, black and cravenly sharp; cowpat eddies of cooled rock, running out to sea. The traces of various eruptions are layered on top of one another so visibly that the land has the comprehensiveness of a sufferer of terrible acne; you wince, sometimes, at how involved things have become. From vast distances, you can see the smoke of hot pools and geothermal vents, slowly shaking itself loose into the atmosphere. In those places, the rock is often stained beautiful colours from the mineral salts, blue and pink and orange. The water bubbles or sputters or spurts, making bodily noises. It is a land of dreams or nightmares or medieval landscapes where there is no discernible light source. Devoid of vertical growth, the shadows stretch in all kinds of directions.
When the Vikings first arrived, 70 percent of Iceland was covered in birch forest. In less than two hundred years, these forests were nearly all chopped down for fuel or building material. We know this because the sagas, written two-three hundred years after the events they describe, include sentences like ‘At that time [of settlement] Iceland was covered with woodland from fells to foreshore’. Iceland’s deforestation occurred because the topsoil was already thin, the wind constant. Individual seedlings couldn’t survive.
It is impossible to now imagine a forested Iceland. As we cycled along, I would often look at the view, and try to imagine it covered with trees. I could never get there; the change is too extreme. Those who settled it turned it into a place that did not look like home, into a country in which living will always be an effort.
Without trees, there is nothing to stop the wind. It roars across plateaus and plains, building strength, encountering no resistance. We realised we had cycled all our lives not knowing the actual strength of various wind speeds; even across farmland, there had been a buffer of grass. Now we knew. There were days when, even with a tailwind, we couldn’t cycle; with each huge gust, we kept on being tipped over our handlebars or off to one side. In the mornings, it was a race to pack up before our fingers grew useless in the cold. Cycling along one side of a fjord, we would watch the line of sunlight on the slope above, slowly dipping its way toward us, inch by inch, hour by hour, each silently taking bets on how long it would be before the sun finally reached us. Unless we were inside a heated building or in our sleeping bags, we were never really warm. And this was in summer. This is the panic of travelling through Iceland: without some kind of shelter, basic existence seems near impossible.
This is the panic of travelling through Iceland: without some kind of shelter, basic existence seems near impossible.
In the northern part of Iceland, at a place called Laugarhóll, on the grounds of a hotel, there is a re-creation of a peasant’s cottage. It’s actually advertised as a sorcerer’s cottage, which is one way for tourists to be intrigued by the misery of poverty.
The structure is built into the hill. The roof and walls are made of turf, a mixture of mud and grass, supported and framed by a few choice pieces of wood. Inside, the only illumination comes from the doorway and the open chimney. You can dimly sense a series of interconnected rooms that run parallel to the hill’s slope, divided by the ominous angles of beams overhead, but there are no doors, only framing posts. It’s only by identifying the tools hanging in each area that you understand what that space was used for. Here is where the goats were kept for seven or eight months a year, because there is rope. Here is the place to use saws and knives. Here is the hearth, with three large pots, excessively large, the thimbles of a giant. There are no beds, no chairs, and no sense of leisure.
You couldn’t survive outside, but it also seemed impossible to survive in that cottage for months at a time, through the long winters, the near-endless darkness, without going mad; or at the very least, losing hold of any recognisable shape of one’s psyche. There was a limit to my empathy, a phenomenological modernity in me, in my optic nerve and fingertips, in the proportions I named home. When I traced my fingers over those runes I spooked myself – not because it felt like magic, but because I felt it had failed. In the darkness, I could barely see the carvings. It was a bodily relief to leave.
On their arrival, the Vikings disrupted or enslaved small settlements of Gaelic monks there who, since the seventh century, had been crossing the North Atlantic in their tiny skin boats called curraches in search of ever more remote places to live and worship their God. (One group from Ireland landed in Iceland in 795; in summer, they later told a monk in France, they could see well enough at midnight to pick the lice from their shirts.) Archaeologists have found these monks’ few possessions, books, bells and croziers, tossed aside, in disarray. These were precisely the same objects that would have been impossible to replace without embarking on a sea journey of weeks. In other words, they were forced to abandon what was necessary. The men were likely told that their lives would be different now, that they were men of labour. They would be put to work in farms, raiding parties, exploring new coastlines.
In the novels of Halldor Laxness, Iceland’s most well-known novelist and Nobel Laureate, the word ‘Irish’ and ‘slave’ is interchangeable.
Icelandic saga literature – a remarkable body of more than forty fictionalised accounts of the Viking age of exploration and settlement in Iceland that began in the ninth century – describe this age of settlement in detail. In general, Icelandic people were (and are) proud of their Viking heritage. Egilsson, for instance, would likely have been proud to be descended from ‘pastors and sheriffs’ rather than ‘Irish slaves’. It was obviously enough of a linguistic tic for him to repeatedly parody.
Slaves only appeared in Icelandic history when they revolted. In 975, for instance, a group of Irish slaves in southern Iceland rose up against their owner, Hjörleifur Hródmarsson, killing him and taking his women and possessions, and fleeing to the Vestmannaeyjar islands. They began a community there. Children were born. The following spring, Hjörleifur’s foster-brother, Ingólfur Arnarson, avenged his death by sailing to the Vestmannaeyjar and killing the male slaves, and taking back the women. This is how the Vestmannaeyjar got its name; it is the island of the ‘West Men’ (Vest mann) because Ireland was to the west of Norway, even if was more generally to the south of Iceland: Arnarson named it for his old homeland’s comprehension, not the new one.
These little slips remind you of the prevailing wind: the men who settled Iceland, who named it – Egilsson’s ancestors – were pirates too. I’m descended in part from Irish immigrants to New Zealand. Go back far enough, and we’ve all been pirates, all been monks. We’ve wandered like albatrosses through the world.
In the sagas, narrative voice is plain; the stories are preoccupied with where, what and how, rather than why. And yet they are also stories of bloodlines and exceptionalism. This, for instance, is how Egil’s Saga begins: ‘There was a man named Ulf, the son of Bjalfi and Halbera, the daughter of Ulf the Fearless. She was the sister of Hallbjorn Half-troll from Hrafnista, the father of Ketil Haeng. Ulf was so big and strong that no man was a match for him; and he was still only a youth when he became a Viking and went raiding.’ The why of raiding was so obvious it was barely worth a mention. You made your fortune, quite literally.
In 1627, in the market place at Algiers, investors and authorities took their cut of those Icelandic slaves. First, the fleet’s commander selected two slaves for himself. Then, the local sheikh had the right to select every eighth prisoner brought to the market – and the first he selected was Reverend Egilsson’s eleven-year-old son, who, as he was led away, cried out scripture to comfort his parents.
The remaining prisoners were then divided into two groups: those to be sold by the ship’s owners, and those by the pirates themselves. Over the next few weeks, one by one, each Icelandic person was auctioned off. Some sold quickly. Others obtained high prices. There were those whose owners lived in Algiers, but others just vanished – sold, then immediately transported out of the city. The group of 232 was winnowed down as expertly as a side of beef.
In his account, Ólafur Egilsson focused on these cuts, these divisions – in part, perhaps, because he was the remainder. Sixty-five years old, and probably deemed fairly useless as a worker, he was separated from his wife and remaining children, summoned to court, and told that he was free to go, but only to raise ransom money (twelve hundred dollars) for his family from the king of Denmark, who was then the ruler of Iceland.
These ransoming expeditions were nothing new. Egilsson was given a letter of safe passage, in case he was ever on board a ship that was captured by pirates, and on the 20th of September, he was placed on a ship bound for Italy, with no money, only the clothes he had been wearing the past two months, and no real idea how to make a journey of 2500 kilometres north.
On the 20th of September, he was placed on a ship bound for Italy, with no money, only the clothes he had been wearing the past two months, and no real idea how to make a journey of 2500 kilometres north.
Extraordinarily, he made it to Copenhagen. It took him six months. On the way, he found sympathetic men – sea captains, mostly, from Norway, Holland and Denmark (in other words, his Nordic brethren) – who took pity on him, who granted him passage on their boats and fed him, who gave him new clothes. He was ashamed of his poverty. In harbour, he sometimes chose not leave the boat because he was not dressed decently enough. Meals were rare enough for him to take note on when they happened. He slept on piles of ropes because he had no bedding.
In 1627, what is noteworthy to a man exhausted by grief, who has scripture to comfort him and little else?
He noticed the livestock. The donkeys in North Africa were small, but very strong. He noticed the camels, dwarf men and dwarf women, building materials (limestone) and defensive structures (or the lack thereof). He noted what windows were made of, basic crops, whether sheep and cattle were ever housed, how frequently they lambed or calved a year, if their tails were cropped. As he travelled north, he described what kind of cloth men and women wore, how big each city’s walls were, the numbers of churches, how ships were built, how good the water was to drink. He noted the cost of a pound of birds, what the dishware was made of, how people sat down, and what kinds of hinges there were on doors. In Italy, he watched families in small boats fish in the harbour – how the wife rowed, and the husband stood at the bow with a long pole that had a net attached to the end. ‘My brothers,’ he wrote, ‘there is poverty in more places than Iceland.’ He described buffalo, and in Genoa, three reindeer and a bear that walked on its hind legs. Not surprisingly, he had an eye for the defensible. At some city gates, the severed heads of pirates were placed on pikes. Holland, he wrote, ‘will always be invincible because the sea shoals so gradually from the shore. There were more than 100 ships stranded there, stuck immovably.’
Though he did not refer to saga literature, a generally taciturn tone persists in Egilsson’s account; it may be why he is so concerned with accounting for possession, for external feats of strength or finery rather than internal ones. It is his own saga of disruption, and grief is not the point. Grief is never the point in any of these stories.
I can understand the approach. Taciturnity runs like a thick vein through my family too. As Dad’s brother likes to say, things are only so bad as you admit them to be.
When he finally reached Copenhagen, Egilsson found a king who had just finished the Thirty Years War, whose coffers were exhausted, who had no money to give. Other men he met in the city were able to give him a few dollars here or there, but after a few weeks, he was only able to raise nineteen of the twelve hundred dollars he needed, and staying on, paying for board and food, only meant he would spend that money and more. There was nothing to do but return to the Vestmannaeyjar – which he did, almost a year to the day when he was taken, minus a family.
Egilsson appears to barely register the failure, and ends the book as he did every chapter, with a sermon that offered scriptural homilies about sacrifice and suffering. The will of God apparently decided everything, including the loss of his family. Reading the book, my father was frustrated by Egilsson’s passivity. Why notice these things, and not others? Why never explain how he felt? ‘He doesn’t know how to tell a story,’ he said. But what would my father have done had we foundered on the Faroes 34 years ago? How would he have accounted for that loss? There is no way to really bear a rupture like that. And even if he had – or has – would I know about it?
In preparation for our cycling trip, Dad transcribed various entries from the ship’s diary that he kept on his first trip to Iceland. These words were brief: wind speeds, dates of harbour, lists of activities (walking, boat maintenance). He had also reprinted a few select photos of the harbours they visited. So at Patreksfjörður, Ísafjörður and Suðureyri, we cycled around the docks of each town trying to find exactly the same spot where he took the photograph, 34 years ago.
It was always possible. The houses had barely changed or increased in number. The ships, brightly painted, looked the same. In Ísafjörður, there was a clump of pine trees up the hill that barely seemed to have grown at all. He had me pose in place of Kate, the yacht.
I never fully understood Dad’s ritual of photo taking. We happened to visit Suðureyri 34 years later, to the day. This couldn’t have been an accident, but Dad didn’t really want to talk about it either. His sentimentalities are private things.
One day, as we were cycling along, I asked my father what he was thinking about. ‘Boat designs,’ he said. ‘New ones.’ He is the same age as Egilsson when he was captured. He has a growing sense of finitude. More than once, he has talked about not having enough time, about having to pick and choose what he will do. And yet silently, instinctively, he plans. He cannot help himself. His imagination will not stop churning. And this, I recognise. We each, in our own way, plot with the ceaseless chirruping of crickets, barely articulating any of this to anyone else, especially to those who love us. If I cannot know what he is thinking, I recognise – the way you do a certain birdcall – the incessant quality of his consciousness. I suppose I have my own cry too.
Twenty metres up the hill past that cottage in Laugarhóll, there is a small natural hot spring set into the ground. The water is clear, the rock walls neatly constructed. It’s big enough for one person to stand in – though no one would, because this is holy water. This pool was once blessed by Gudmundur Arason (1161–1237), one of Iceland’s first bishops.
Iceland is littered with places Arason visited and made sacred; the man had a yen for blessing things, and particularly liked dangerous roads and wells. This water here was so holy there were rules about which vessels could be used to carry it to the afflicted (hand-knitted woollen socks). I dipped my finger in the water, tasted it. A little salty, a little tepid.
Arason was once summoned to the island of Drangey, which lies off the northern coast of Iceland. The people on the mainland made their living from fishing and harvesting eggs from nesting bird colonies in Drangey’s cliffs. Just as on Heimaey, every summer, men would gather eggs by ascending and descending the cliffs on ropes. It was perilous work; the rocks were sharp and the ropes corroded by salt. Men frequently fell. But in the past few years, even the more experienced and well-equipped climbers seemed to be falling as frequently as beginners did. Upon investigation, the ropes appeared to be cut, rather than frayed. The mainlanders decided that a supernatural force was living in the rocks, and that it was unhappy with men poaching the birds. The bishop was called on to exorcise the place.
According to the story, Arason circumnavigated the island by boat in a counter-clockwise fashion, addressing the cliffs with benedictions, chants and holy water, but when the boat couldn’t get close enough, resorted to being raised and lowered by ropes. He had made it to the northern corner of the island and was hanging half way down the cliff, when a large grey hairy hand in a red sleeve emerged from the rock wall. It held a wicked-looking sabre to Arason’s rope, and from deep within the cliff, a voice issued forth: ‘Bless no more, Bishop Gvendur. The wicked need a place of their own, too.’
Arason paused, considered, and agreed. He asked to be lowered back to the boat, and told the crew to set sail back to the mainland. From that point on, men did not catch birds from the northern end of the island and in return, their ropes were not cut.
This story about Arason was one of sixty or so I read in a collection often stocked in many information offices and ferry buildings throughout Iceland. The cover has a bland red and white design; it resembles a textbook. The book’s sections are entitled ‘Elves and Trolls’, ‘Ghosts and Sorcerers’, ‘Saints and Sinners’ and ‘Miscellaneous’. This is the literature that evolved in this land; it is a feature, as much as lava fields are. It may have been the translation, but the tone was not fearsome; the stories’ climaxes were a little too smooth, worn down in the way of river rocks. Any conflict is usually about limited resources: birds, humans, gold, and livestock, and Christianity and paganism are casually mashed together like two people sitting companionably on a too-small sofa. And because each belief system is treated like a method rather than a world-view, the stories often read like theological fan-fiction. (Look! The devil! Appearing as a cow in Vik!) Evil has a right to exist, to be left undisturbed. The otherworldly in Iceland is a surpassing result, like a child is to a parent; we birthed it, and it outruns us.
This equableness should not be mistaken for mildness. Arason is remembered in part because he was so at odds with his own church. He disagreed with the practice of tithing (begun in 1097), and with it, the church’s increasing economic power. He also set himself against the ruling families who through marriage and war were concentrating their strength in ever tightening circles of power and privilege. Eventually deposed, he roamed the country until he starved. His kindness and asceticism is remembered because it was so rare among men of power. More monk, less pirate; it is an equation that poor people remember. Grief is never the point in any of these stories either. They have been created in the same way the treeless landscape has; they are a remainder, the trace of a deprivation, of something being removed.
In the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik, there is an example of a nineteenth-century Icelandic baðstofa on display. A baðstofa is a living room in its most literal sense. When the Vikings first arrived, they built heated sauna rooms for bathing, but as the decades passed, more and more living was done in there until the stofa became a baðstofa, a collective living room and bedroom. This was an architectural response to the world outside.
In the large exhibition hall, you stand at the window at one end of a replica A-frame building, peering in as if you were floating outside the upper window of a small barn. The space is perhaps 10 metres long and 4 metres wide. On either side there are beds with high sides that resemble boxes or adult cots, each headboard flush against the foot of the next bed. Each alcove has a shelf or a cupboard above it for that person’s possessions. At the far end, there is a small wooden desk below the window. Socialising and work must have been done in the aisle; in the museum’s re-creation, there was a spindle and a few stools, small whittling tools. Everything – ceiling, floor, walls, windowsills and roof-beams, all of the furniture, spindle, stools, chairs, work basket – is made of unpainted, untreated old wood. It took a month’s cycling for us to see this wood as the most visible sign of wealth, to understand how lovingly it had been carved. There was a sense of completion to it. Even when these rooms were first made, the wood would have been scavenged from the rest of history.
Laxness describes the baðstofa in loving detail in The Fish Can Sing. The young narrator Alfrigrimur describes the household sleeping arrangements; his grandmother sleeps down in the kitchen, upright on a stool, his grandfather sleeps out on the fishing ropes, and three boarders share the loft together along with Alfrigrimur, who sleeps alongside Captain Hogensen, a man who used to sail ships for the Danish but who is now blind and makes ends meet by spinning horsehair into ropes. The boy grows up comforted by others’ snoring, by the quiet comings and goings of others, night-time conversations, the quieted, individual, sounds of grief. He learns what is private by what others hear, but will not comment on.
The dream of survival was a well-appointed ark. Standing in front of the baðstofa, my father and I could sense the hard-won certainty of this fantasy: the long winter nights, the women spinning, the men mending; the sound of sleeping, the breath whistling in and out of a ribcage of forest. It looked like the cabin of an ocean-bearing yacht.
Arason died in 1237, less than thirty years before Iceland, facing a civil war between ruling families, ceded its sovereignty to Norway. Most historians tend to characterise the centuries between then and 1944 (when Iceland regained its independence) as an intrinsically darker time. Volcanic eruptions blanketed the country with ash, and crops failed. Infectious diseases swept through the population; the Black Plague alone killed between one third and one half of the population. People couldn’t sell enough to buy what was needed – Norway and Denmark set both the export price of fish and import taxes – and so the population starved. Poverty jumped bloodline: many people, regardless of their heritage, lived in cottages like the one at Laugarhóll. Children died. Families fled, in desperation, to Europe, then to America. There are photographs of Icelanders leaving in the late nineteenth century, standing on the deck of their ships, looking at the camera with the bleak patience of those operating so far beyond their natural limits they seem unaware of even where they are. They are waiting to wake up: to a life, to food, to warmth.
The baðstofa must have been a consolation in a time of darkness. It was a container for living that centred itself, like a pot on a wheel, over hundreds of centuries.
The baðstofa must have been a consolation in a time of darkness. It was a container for living that centred itself, like a pot on a wheel, over hundreds of centuries. The sight gave me comfort. All that misery, and here was a form that had evolved in spite of it, even because of it – like a sonnet or a symphony. This was an addition, not a reduction. It was the most beautiful I saw in Iceland. It was here I sensed the proportions I name home; the threshold, repeated at differing levels of magnitude, a sense that you are living beyond or outside the earth. Here was a deliberate separation of space, an ordering logic that says that this place is not that place. This space made a ritual of rest. This, perhaps, is a tipping point for modernity. This kind of living made the past intelligible to me, turned incomprehension into taciturnity. I sensed the silences of the room, rather an absence.
Each night in Iceland, my father and I would pitch our tents. We each had our own timing, rituals when we would inflate the air mattress, pull the sleeping bag out to loft; what possessions we would have to hand, whether we would keep our panniers in the vestibule or outside. I would read into the night, long after Dad had fallen asleep, my headlamp angled just so, cocooned in my sleeping bag, eating liquorice, absentmindedly listening to the tent fabric snapping and rustling with each gust of the wind. I had a little mesh window at one end of the tent, where I could look out on the world. I had a warm woollen sweater next to me that seemed to mysteriously radiate warmth like a pet. It’s a normal pleasure – many travellers know the fastidious pleasure of ordering and reordering a miniaturised world of comfort – but throughout the month, as I read Icelandic fiction (from Laxness to Indriðason), all I kept on seeing was baðstofa. The drama of home as reprieve was clear. I look at living rooms the way my dad looks at harbours.
All the things that daughters do not say to fathers. All the things that fathers do not say to daughters. We cycled behind one another, for a month, hour by hour, watching one sheep after another, their eyes bulging in their sockets at our approach, remarking at the Icelandic ponies whose gallop is stiff-legged and in double-time. We plotted our course by a particular brand of supermarket called Bonus (every time the pink pig on the yellow flag fluttered into view, we would spontaneously compose a song, warbling along and picking up our pace). We watched teenage boys scan our grocery items very closely, tried to sense the limits of their boredom. Our horizon line lowered and lowered until, some days, it seemed to dip beneath us; cycling across mountainous plateaus, we were surrounded in blue, floating in it. We whooped at the glory of descents; the road that wound its way through a range, each angle adding on to the previous one until you could cry at the beauty of it, the way the world could so simply unfurl.
It is, of course, the horror of tourism; that you cannot escape the remorseless drive toward your own comfort, no matter the pretence. We spent what amounted to hours selecting the most windless campsites. We talked about blessings and piracy and noticed the lives we were lucky to not live ourselves. And this was enough. This contained the world that wasn’t said. We were not disrupted. In the photos Dad took of me in the harbours of Patreksfjörður, Ísafjörður and Suðureyri, I smile anxiously. I have wrinkles, and grey hair. There is no getting around it; I am reduced. There is fear in my eyes, because in this moment I am smiling back at the one person I am terrified to lose. I am looking at a disruption that will come and tear me off of my feet like a tornado, hurl me out into space. He is going to make me understand what it means to abandon what is necessary.
But enough. Things are only so bad as you admit them to be.
Jenni Quilter teaches at New York University. Her most recent book is New York School Painters & Poets: Neon in Daylight.