A sublime search for the ancient sagas in Iceland

Epic stories of fairies, Vikings, battles and ghosts form a striking backdrop to a journey through modern Iceland, says novelist David Mitchell.

Icelandophilia is a rare condition, shared by figures as diverse as Joseph Banks, Joseph Goebbels and W H Auden – who claimed that while "he was not always thinking about Iceland ... he was never not thinking about Iceland".

The claim is a curious one (recorded by Simon Armitage on his 1994 visit to the country) but it strikes a chord with anybody whose imagination has also been captured by the Islendingasogur, the Icelandic sagas. This corpus of 40-odd narratives written between the 1200s and 1400s is a summit of medieval letters. Unesco underlined their importance by awarding to Reykjavik the status of City of Literature las year. (Dublin, Edinburgh, Melbourne and the Midwest college town of Iowa City are also members of this elite club, along with – as of May this year – Norwich.)

The sagas' subject matter is high protein: lust and love, outlawry, bloodshed, politicking and trickery, Viking voyages of looting and exploration, supernatural encounters, battles and vendettas.

Equally striking to a modern reader is their degree of narrative sophistication – the anonymous authors (moonlighting monks is a logical guess) deploy multiple points of view, chapters ending on cliff-hangers, bon mots, flashbacks and foreshadowing, metalapsis, and the cunning manipulation of the reader's expectations.

The case could even be made that the sagas are the world's first historical fiction. The Saga Age begins with the arrival of Iceland's first Norse settlers in the 870s and draws to a close after Christianity was adopted as the national religion in AD1000 – some two, three or four centuries before the Islendingasogur authors put quill to parchment.

Absent from the sagas, however, are descriptions of landscapes, weather, interiors. The novelistic tendency to record such things lay in the far future – the sagas' audiences were drearily familiar with such detail, so why waste the vellum?

Reading my cracked-spined Penguin edition of Njal's Saga in the 21st century, I felt a wide gap between how I "shot" the action in my head, and how an Icelander would imagine the same story. The purpose of my visit to Iceland, then, was to try to lessen this gap and better understand the terms of the world from which the sagas arose.

My first guide (and the first Icelander I've ever knowingly met) is Jon Baldur Thorbjornsson, a well-weathered and encyclopaediac-minded founding member of the Saga Trails Association. Jon Baldur talks about how the old stories preserved Iceland's sense of itself down the ages. "Here, we don't have pyramids, palaces, Eiffel Towers: our national treasures are manuscripts, the texts, they are the sagas. The sagas tie us all together, you know? Our ancestors in the past, us, people in the future, not born yet. Until radio in the 1920s, every farmhouse in the country used to own the sagas, and read them aloud for entertainment, during the winters. The sagas helped us endure the starvation periods, the Danish rulers."

Our first stop is the Vikingaheimar museum, whose light-filled atrium houses the Islendingur – a wooden longship that, in 2000, sailed to the site of the Norse settlement in Newfoundland. The vessel's beauty and the skill of its shipwrights are self-evident, but its modest dimensions (shorter than a National Express coach, and roofless) tell us much about the indefatigable seamanship of the Saga Age voyagers.

Afterwards, as Jon Baldur drives me across the sunlit moonscape between Keflavik airport and Reykjavik in his bio-fuel car, he describes how the accounts of the Saga voyagers have reminded generations of his countrymen that "Yes, you may be a hungry, tired farmer on a cold island at the edge of the world, but remember, you are descended from warriors from Norway; your ancestors voyaged to Rome, North America, Constantinople; they were heroes who met with foreign kings".

More so than ever since the krona-slashing crash of 2008, the promotion of tourism is a national priority – and saga heritage is high on the menu. Reykjavik's Saga Museum (a UFO-like building overlooking the city) involves a walk-through tour of 3D life-size scenes from the sagas. It's good, gory fun, and the children ahead of me love every minute. The Culture House Museum on Hverfisgata is older school, with pages of original saga manuscript on environmentally controlled display. It's a kick to be one sheet of glass away from vellum as old as our own Geoffrey Chaucer and the Gawain poet.

My "mission", however – to visualise the sagas more like an Icelander would – takes shape only when I leave Reykjavik behind and arrive at Eiriksstadir, the birthplace of Erik the Red, Europe's first recorded visitor to Greenland.

A reconstructed settlement-era farmhouse now stands at Eiriksstadir. One glance is enough to realise that my notion of a medieval farmhouse (the two-storey wattle-and-daub affairs from the likes of Brother Cadfael) was comically different from the turf-built tumulus I now stooped to enter.

This difference matters: Njal, for example, the beardless hero of Njal's Saga dies when his enemies burn him alive in his own house. Why hadn't Njal tried to leg it, I'd wondered, or gone down fighting? Might it have been a semi-chivalric death, like a captain going down with his ship?

The true reason is architectural. The farmhouse's single "window" is as wide as a sheep's stomach can be stretched and is more of a skylight, three metres above the hearth. Once on fire, the place would have become a slow-burning crematorium, and Njal would have died of asphyxiation before the flames got to him.

Seeing the farmhouse also corrects misconceptions about the slaves who populate sagas. In my ignorance, I had imagined an American South set-up, with separate slave quarters. The museum curator (dressed in AD1000 clothing sans iconic Viking horned-helmet, which she attributes to "excited historians in the 19th century") shows me where the slaves would have slept, just a midnight sword-thrust away from their masters' shin-high raised "sleeping stalls".

Cruelty would have been counterproductive. "Well-treated, well-fed slaves made better workers," the curator tells me. "Slaves were too difficult to replace [for them] to be beaten until they died."

My definition of "bleak" undergoes an upgrade during a 30km short cut on an unasphalted pass between Kvingindisfell and Skjaldbreidur, a conical volcano north of Thingvellir – the site of the Saga Age legislative of chieftains from around the island. To talk of a "tree line" in a country only 1 per cent forested is meaningless, but there is a "grass line" and I am soon high above it. The road becomes a rocky track and even a 4x4 is reduced to crawling along at 30km/h. (So much for my short cut.)

The landscape of Iceland's uninhabited uplands invites comparison – the Cuillins on Skye, New Zealand's South Island, Mordor, Mars – but really I've never been anywhere so remote, so visibly and so freshly sculpted by volcanic and tectonic forces.

By one stone cairn (only ever add a stone – if you remove one you might release an evil spirit) I get out of the car and listen. There's nothing – no distant motorway drone, no aeroplanes, no birds, no sheep – just the wind in my ears and my pulse, and the bass growl of the mountains themselves.

The highest visible form of life is lichen. Without my North Face gear and the rented Hyundai, how long would I last? I think about the outlaw Sagas of Hord, of Gisli and of Grettir which follow the struggle for survival faced by heroes whose cunning enemies or their own vices get them banished from society. Saga Age Iceland had no prisons, sheriffs or standing government, so for crimes too serious for monetary compensation, the general assembly at Althing (arguably the world's first parliament) handed down sentences of outlawry.

An outlaw could be killed with impunity by his enemies, and friends who assisted the outlaw exposed themselves to the same punishment. On the road between Kvingindisfell and Skjaldbreidur, without even a carcass-foraging crow for company, I realise that outlawry in the Icelandic environment was less a Dick Turpin deal and more a de facto drawn-out death sentence.

The Vatnsdaela Saga is a five-generation narrative about the family who owned the Hof farmhouse in Vatnsdalur, a steep-sided, long valley flattening into a fjord on the Arctic Sea coast. It reminds me of the Pennines, but more so. Dense mist roofs the valley on the day I visit, but visible on the GPS are many Vatnsdaela Saga toponyms: the lagoon Hunavatn (Bear Cub Lake) where the chieftain Ingimund found two polar bear cubs marooned by ice floes; the wooded rise Thordisarholt (Thordis's Wood) where Ingimund's daughter was born; Stigandahrof, where a boat shed was built for the ship Stigandi, a gift from the King of Norway; and, way up at the highest throat of the valley, a drizzly hike that takes the true saga-nerd to Grimunstungusel. This is a truly haunted place (even by Icelandic standards) where Ingolfur killed five sheep-rustling outlaws.

Encountering names from the Saga Age endows the stories with delicious added reality; it's like driving past a matter-of-fact road sign saying "Narnia 15km". You experience an uncanny sensation that the landscape itself is the parchment on which the sagas were inscribed.

Eleven centuries after Ingimindur built his heathen temple at Hof, a working farm still stands on the site, albeit one supported by farm-stay holidays. I'm happy to attest that foreign guests at Hof Farm enjoy much cushier hospitality than they would have done a millennium ago, and you can marvel at your hosts' eight-year-old daughter's command of English, as fluent as the CBeebies characters she learns much of it from.

Giants, witches, spirits, astral-projecting Lapps, berserkers and seers populate the sagas as densely as happy-drunk kids on Saturday night Laugerstraat, Reykjavik's main drag. Some scholars note a drift from the earlier, almanac-like sagas to later more fantastical productions, where a hero might slay 100-odd warriors and where the supernatural dial gets cranked up to 11.

One of the best-known "facts" about Icelanders is their alleged belief in fairies. Drive through Iceland's back-country, however, and the cuteness of talk about elves and trolls begins to wilt. Stare for long enough at Icelandic rock faces, and faces are what you start seeing. Places like the eerie Lake Lagarfljot (home of the Wyrm, a sort of carnivorous Nessie) and the other worldly Asbyrgi (a horseshoe-shaped ravine and one capital of the Hidden People) take the imagination hostage, and the way I read the dark magic sections in the sagas won't be the same.

"She's one of ours," says Agusta Thorkelsdottir, slowing down her car and pointing at a sheep munching grass by the side of the road near Vopnafjorour in the north-east of Iceland. The local Vopnfiroinga Saga isn't translated into English, so Agusta talks me through the plot using pictures drawn by local primary schoolers. Her lively tour of the sites has taken us past her family's farm, and I ask Agusta if she identified the sheep by its ear tag. "No, no, I recognise her face."

My guide is a farming-family matriarch with an impish sense of humour, and I wasn't sure she wasn't having me on (irony not being the best pole-vaulter of language barriers). Agusta tells me that she recognises the ewe from its mother – "or, more probably, grandmother" – from a few years ago, before Agusta's son took over the farm.

The rural year is bookended by spring lambing and the autumn round-up, when the ewes and their summer-fattened lambs ("Two lambs to one ewe works the best," says Agusta) are gathered up for the van to the abattoir. Until the recent invention of geothermally heated greenhouses, agriculture in Iceland was sheep-farming, so it's little wonder that many a saga vendetta is sparked by sheep-rustling or grazing disputes. An attack against your sheep wasn't just antisocial behaviour: it was a direct attack on your chances of surviving through the next winter.

Today, the isolation of many towns such as Vopnafjordur (especially in winter, when roads can be closed for months) means that the population largely has to police itself. This engenders – to borrow the title from Iceland's Nobel laureate Halldor Laxness's masterpiece – a highly independent people. "There's only one cop in town," says Agusta with a glint in her eye, "and we all know when he's on his holidays."

The antiquarian and artist Reverend William Collingswood visited Iceland in 1897, and his competent landscapes pop up in hotel lobbies all over the country. His Icelandophilia was sourced by the sagas, and upon his departure he asked: "'[Was] it worthwhile, our pilgrimage to the Saga-steads? We have missed, we must confess, nearly all that attracts the tourist'. To which there can only be one answer: 'We have seen the homes of the heroes … it is as if a curtain had gone suddenly up: as if our eyes were opened, at last, to the glory of the North'."

Not being a Victorian reverend, I can't quite get away with that, but I can attest that even a fortnight in Iceland affords an enriching view of the Saga Age. It isn't the landscapes, buildings, museums or original vellums that enhances my understanding so much as the modern-day Icelanders I met. Their pride, their humour, their easy to romanticise but very real resilience in an environment where Nature herself finds it hard to scratch a living; and most of all, their literacy. (One of Iceland's numerous per-capita world records is its literacy rate.)

A poetic bent and a gift for wordplay seem to be cool rather than nerdish in Iceland, and I was told that Icelandic neologisms coined to replace loan-words are warmly adopted. (Telephone is simi, an old word for wire.) The medieval sagas feed this legacy, just as they feed Icelandic with proverbs, similies and phrases. The Saga Age is still visible because the sagas still survive. The sagas survive because this is what Icelanders want.

David Mitchell is the author of five novels, including 'number9dream' and 'Cloud Atlas', both shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His most recent book is 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' (Sceptre, £7.99).

Visiting there

David Mitchell travelled as a guest of Iceland specialists Discover the World (01737 214291; discover-the-world.co.uk) which offers a wide range of self-drive, independent and escorted holidays. A 14-night Around Iceland self-drive holiday following the same route as David's, or tailor-made to suit your preferences, costs from £1,300pp and includes Icelandair return flights from London, Manchester or Glasgow, accommodation with breakfast, and car hire.

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