A Bookish Saga

On my first trip to Iceland, I naively bragged that I had read all the sagas. My listener was too polite to do more than quirk an eyebrow. Of course, I had not read all the sagas. I had read that giant paperback Penguin Classics Deluxe collection, The Sagas of Icelanders, plus The Saga of Burnt Njál. At the time, I didn’t know that more was possible.

For English speakers outside of academia, the ten sagas and assorted short stories of the Penguin compilation remains definitive. But there is another. Continue reading


Rocked by Disappointment

My family has a tradition of being disappointed by rocks.

Years ago, my mom watched a documentary on Ireland. In it, a little girl in a white dress walked in the sunshine to a human-sized boulder in the center of a lawn, where she leaned in and kissed the “Blarney Stone.”

When we traveled to Ireland together, my mom, already quite a talker, was determined to kiss the Blarney Stone. I was a cynical college student in those days, and thought it sounded like a lame tourist trap. But travel partners should indulge each others’ whims, so to Blarney Castle we went.

It was late June, so the weather was cold and threatening. We stood in line on a stone staircase to the top of the “castle” for over an hour. At the top of the stairs, the line wound around the parapet before we finally got to the stone, which served as the top of a scupper for draining rain from the roof. To kiss it, you had to sit with your back to the stone, hold onto a metal rail, and lean back into the arms of an attendant who squatted at the side of the scupper.

Blarney Stone picture from Wikipedia

Draped upside down in the gutter, the “Blarney Stone” loomed above your head in all its damp, algae and lipstick covered glory for about a second before the attendant pulled you up. A second attendant snapped a photo, which you could keep as a souvenir (for a fee) as you sat up.

Needless to say, my mom was disappointed.

Recently, I began reading the Sagas of Icelanders. So many events in the sagas take place at the Allthing (there should be a ‘thorn’ character in there, but I don’t have one on my symbol menu). The Allthing was/is the Icelandic parliament, and represents the longest running true democracy in history. For most of Iceland’s history, the Allthing was held on the plain at Thingvellir, a natural wonder of a valley where the European and North American continental plates meet. Before the laws were written down, there was an important official called the Law Speaker, who had to memorize the entire body of Iceland law, and recite one third of it each summer at the Law Rock during the Allthing. He performed this task at the Law Rock. Important decisions, like the decision to adopt Christianity as the national religion, were also announced at the Law Rock.

Just as you can visit Thingvellir and say, “That rock is in North America,” or “That rock is in Europe,” my reading led me to believe that you could look at a rift and say, “That is the Law Rock.”

These rocks are in America

My tour guide was more interested in history and Iceland’s status as an early democracy than he was in literature. So on the way to Thingvellir, there wasn’t much talk of its role in the sagas. I didn’t mind. I had done my research, and only wanted to see for myself. I wanted to picture the booths on the plain, see the river where men were ambushed, the island where duels were fought, stand in front of the law rock and say, “This is the Law Rock.” Maybe I would even get to fully geek out and have the retired soils professor who was also travelling solo and asking questions no one cared about to take my picture as I anachronistically assumed the Orator’s Pose in front of the Law Rock.

Alas, the tour guide never once mentioned the sagas at Thingvellir, and I had no idea how much of the plain the booths might have covered in Settlement Days. He did say, however, that there were several contenders for the claim of Law Rock, and gave half-hearted support for the official site, marked with a flag pole, because the acoustics might have been better.

The Law Rock

The rock itself was actually more of a ledge. You couldn’t stand on it, or even in front of it, because a platform and railing barred the way. The rain that had been threatening since Gulfoss Waterfall finally began to drop as we arrived at Thingvellir. I alternated between taking photos and trying to keep the camera dry. Although we had 30 minutes to explore, it was cold and wet and late in the day. Even the soils scientist was back on the bus in 25 minutes.

Needless to say, I was disappointed.