Showing posts with label Burnt Njal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Burnt Njal. Show all posts

28 February 2013

A Quarrelsome Lot...

by Eve Fisher

As I said before, we're in process of moving, and I am currently off-line until the 1st.  So I thought share with you some notes from a cruise my husband and I took in 2005.  It was called "Voyage of the Vikings" and we took it specifically because it took us to Norway via Greenland and Iceland.  How else, we figured, would we get there?  And let me tell you, both were spectacular.  So much so that I was disappointed in Norway.

Nuuk, Greenland
Nobody warned us about Greenland – how beautiful, how spectacular it was.  Stark mountains, with no trees, little runnels of snow in the crevices.  We went ashore and walked through the town and up a mountain – the rock was bare, grey, rough, lichen-patched, and in between the rocks was moss, so thick it sprang underfoot.  The view was breathtaking – one of the few times I wished I had a camera (in fact I bought one when I got back on ship), especially one mountain that was twin-peaked, and rippling between the peaks was a great curtain of granite.  I could swear I’ve seen it before, and probably have, in a photo or another lifetime.  I wish I could have done more hiking – the rock was so firm and rough underfoot, easy to cling to, and then the lichen…  But we only had until noon to explore.

Nuuk, with Whale
A very nice Danish man took us, for free, on a tour of the town.  Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, about 14,000 population, mostly in cinderblock apartments, many of which have a view of the sea.  It would be a hard place to live in, but also a hard place to leave, too, if you were from there.  So much space, so much hiking and fishing and hunting, all in amazing privacy and, undoubtedly, intimacy, at the top of the world.

Prince Christian Sound, Greenland
And then there was Prince Christian Sound, a fjord along the southwestern coast of Greenland – miles and miles of sharp-tipped mountains, tipped with arrows and points and flames of rock, hundreds of feet high, thin waterfalls falling down from crumbling blue glaciers.  Ice-bergs, white, carved in curves, with neon blue cracks, floated in the water.  The whole thing took about 4-6 hours to go through.  At one point there was a fishing village, of maybe 20 houses, tucked into one of the mini-fjords rivuleting off the main fjord.  So isolated:  to live there would be like living on another planet.


Gullfoss, Iceland
Iceland was amazing, too, and I really hope to go back there some day.  We went on the “Golden Circle” tour, which was all day.  Saw the geysers – Geiser itself, which rarely spouts after an earthquake in the 90’s, and its sister, which spouts every few minutes.  Geiser is THE geyser, from which we get the name. Then to Gullfoss, the Golden Falls – a spectacular glacier-melt waterfall that sent up tremendous veils and clouds of mist, thick as smoke, that fed a huge carpet of thick wet green moss.  And there’s a permanent rainbow – sometimes two – arcing over that green moss, shimmering in the spray.  Iceland’s a fairly dry country (especially when compared to Ireland), and you could tell how dry it is by how rich the moss, grass, ferns, and flowers were along the run and spray of Gullfoss, compared to the brown dry hillocks all around – old lava flows, cooled and crumbling to earth under the deceptive cover of moss and lichen.

Thingfeller (but it really doesn't do it justice)
We also went to Thingvellir National Park; and that landscape was all sweeping mountains, much like western Montana or Wyoming, only drier, barer, darker, sterner.  Snow patches in the heights and, in the distance, a great glacier that stretched for miles between two mountain peaks.  At first you thought it was clouds, but no cloud stays so white, so flat, so still, so perfectly held between two peaks.  And Thingvellir itself – well, it’s pretty obvious why the old Icelanders met there to do their lawgiving.  Great black basalt blocks stacked into pillars, in a long curved natural amphitheater (following one of the major geologic fault lines of the earth, between the European and American plates).  And from Thingvellir you look up at these pillars, and then out, away, at a blue, blue, blue lake, and the long sweep from valley to the tall dark mountains on all sides.  It would take a lot of something – honor, pride, hubris, holiness, justice, certainty – to speak out from there, but if you could summon your voice, I think you’d be listened to.

The old Icelanders were a quarrelsome lot – most humans are – full of blood feuds and exiles and sudden death.  So, in truth, was old Ireland, but it gets less play.  For one thing, the Icelanders wrote theirs down in the sagas, like Burnt Njal, which had their fanciful aspects, but were mostly fairly accurate accounts of who, what, where, how, and why.  Njal was a farmer who, with his wife, really was burnt to death, and his farmstead (not the house, of course) still exists.  The entire tale has no superheroes, and only a little sorcery, and even less deus ex machina.   (It's very good - but get the modern translation, which captures the dry wit.  "Is he home?"  "I don't know, but his axe certainly is," he replied, falling down dead.)

What's interesting is that the Irish have a lot of the same blood as the Icelanders, but in Ireland, the old stories have been transmogrified into myth to a point where it’s almost impossible to disentangle truth from hero-worship.  Cuchulain – who undoubtedly lived as a strong, young warrior of great renown in his own day – was turned into a demi-god of war in epic poems like the Cattle Raid of Cooley, and then transformed even further into Sir Gawain in the original Arthurian Tales, and transformed again, until today old Ireland is thought of as a gentle land of bards and poets, saints and maidens, as opposed to old Iceland, that grim and warring place.

Yet the grimness and fierceness of old Ireland can be seen in the tales of the early Christian Irish monks, with their tremendous asceticism, standing in icy water up to their armpits as they recited the whole Psalter, the war St. Columba started (over a book of the Gospels!) in which hundreds were killed, in the self-imposed exiles to forbidding rocks like Skellig Michael, in St. Bridget, “who never washed her face or her hands.”  

 The Celt is the Celt is the Celt. But it’s all in the telling. Isn't it always?