In Saga Land, journalist Richard Fidler teams up with his friend, Kári Gíslason, a half Icelandic writer and academic, to travel across Iceland and gather fascinating tales that blend ancient and contemporary Iceland with a page-turning family mystery. We know it’s a bit early to be thinking about Christmas, but if you’re looking for a present to give yourself or someone you know who loves intrigue and travel, look no further than Saga Land – one of our top reads for 2017.
Better Reading: What motivated your first trip together to Iceland, and how did you come to realise that there was a book full of sagas waiting to be written?
Richard Fidler: Kári wrote a memoir some years ago about his Icelandic origins called The Promise of Iceland and he came on my radio show to talk about it. Eventually we became good friends. It was Kári who encouraged me to read the sagas of Iceland, the true stories of the first Viking families who settled there in the Middle Ages. I was astonished by their richness and intensity and I couldn’t help wonder: why were the sagas not better known? He and I had been talking for a while about taking on some kind of shared project, and so in 2015 we hatched a plan to go to Iceland to tell some of the saga stories in the places where they had unfolded a thousand years ago.
Kári Gíslason: We then travelled to Iceland in that summer of 2015 and spent three weeks driving around the country. To begin with, we concentrated on four sagas, or really the central parts of four of them – classic works that are very well-known and much-loved in Iceland. In telling these stories in the landscape of their setting, we realised they could be performed and treasured alongside a narrative of our travels. Over the centuries, the sagas had lost none of their urgency and power, and could be woven into book of stories.
BR: Do you feel as though there’s a special kind of fascination that Australians may have for Iceland, and vice versa, considering we’re islands at either end of the planet, with polar opposite landscapes? (sorry for the pun; couldn’t help it!)
R: Yes, definitely. Australians and Icelanders are very much aware that they inhabit a dramatically beautiful and dangerous landscape. We’ve always had a strong sense that we live far from the centre of things, and yet somehow believe the world revolves around us. Icelanders are just the same. Visitors tend to be asked ‘What do you think of Iceland?’ five minutes after disembarking from the plane.
BR: Could you tell us about the different faces of Iceland: the shining summers and the dark, icy winters. Do you think these contrasting environments play a role in the sagas of Iceland?
K: From my childhood in Iceland, I remember each year watching the first snowfalls on Esja, the table mountain that stands to the north of Reykjavik. The sight always filled me with a little dread, or grief that summer was coming to an end, for summers in Iceland are so lovely – never hot, but filled with the lightness of endless days. Around late September, the northern lights begin, and the world in Iceland turns inwards: towards the home, but also towards your own thoughts and reflections. Surely this inward turn influenced the development of the sagas, too: when farm work was set aside and people spent many hours inside beside the fire, telling stories.
BR: Apparently the Icelandic people have a firm folklore belief in the existence of elves – could you tell us a bit about that?
R: To be honest, I think most Icelanders see all the folklore about elves and trolls as charming nonsense they can serve up to amuse the tourists. However, when it comes to the supernatural, Icelanders have an amazing storehouse of ghost stories. There is the chilling tale of the utburdur, the ghost of an infant left out in the cold to die of exposure. There are ghosts that wanders the earth unhappily, looking for the money they left behind. And there is a particularly nasty kind of poltergeist called a draugur, which features in the book.
BR: Question for Richard: What was it specifically about Kári and his storytelling ability – both about Iceland and his own personal story – that drew you in?
R: Kári writes beautifully and he’s a natural storyteller, both on the page and in person. In a bar one evening, Kári recounted to me a tale from Njal’s Saga: the story of Gunnar the reluctant warrior and Hallgerd, the most dangerous woman in Iceland. He told this moving tale with a quiet intensity, and I could see how much the sagas mean to him. Kari says they helped him find a way back to the Iceland of his childhood, and eventually to his Icelandic family, whom he’d never known.
BR: Question for Kári: In Saga Land, you reveal some very personal realities involving the complicated, sometimes tragic, and ultimately triumphant resolution of your longstanding family mystery. Lucky Iceland is one of the most diligent keepers of genealogy, right?
K: Icelanders have always been obsessed with family relations and genealogy. You don’t get it so much these days, but in the past Icelanders would begin a new acquaintance by asking hverra manna ertu?, literally “whose are you?”, or what family are you from. In a small country, the question was a quick way of relating you to everyone else, a grid of family connections, and of course nowadays this can all be done digitally. There’s an online database called Islendingabok which connects the genealogies of everyone ever born in Iceland. You can type in any name from any time to see whether and how you’re related.
BR: But in all seriousness Kári, how did you feel now about many of your personal experiences – your father’s wishes to hide you and your mother from his existing family, your return to Reykjavik?
K: I think all families have complications, secrets, silences. But no, not everybody writes a book about these experiences. In one of our few conversations together, my father attributed my desire to write to the Icelandic sagas, and to one particular saga author, a man named Snorri Sturluson. I guess it’s as good an explanation as any for the need to write about your life, to think things through on the page. But, for me, that process of writing has helped me to clarify the place of my father in my life, even if we never got to know each other very well.
BR: What is your favourite thing about Iceland?
R: The strangeness of the landscape left me feeling awestruck and grateful to be in its presence. Most mornings I would wake up, step outside and draw in a deep breath as I took in the grandeur of the mountains, fjords and streams.
K: I love to swim in Iceland: the public pools are outdoors, as there is plentiful geothermal water to heat them. And a walk beside the Reykjavik seafront afterwards, to feel the sharp freshness of the Atlantic winds.
BR: Question for Richard: Just like Ghost Empire, you demonstrate a flair for unearthing the soul of a place through the stories it’s left behind. Why do you think stories from the past are important for understanding cultures of the present?
R: Winston Churchill was once asked why he was obsessed with history, and he replied, ‘The further you can see back, the further you can see forward.’
Iceland has shown me that when people come to a new land, the first stories they tell tend to embed themselves into the soil of the place. You can turn over the ground and plant new stories, but you’ll never eradicate the original crop. I think the sagas continue to shape the lives of Icelanders, whether they’re conscious of it or not.
BR: For any of our readers out there interested in visiting Iceland, if there’s one unmissable thing they must go and see, what is it? Could you suggest one for winter, and the other in summer.
R: For the summer I would recommend the stunning, epic landscapes of the northwest fjords. In the winter, there’s nothing like watching the northern lights stream across the sky from the rocky moonscape of the lava fields of Keflavik.
K: In summer, I would visit Thingvellir, a national park close to Reykjavik, but go late in the evening if you can, when the place begins to empty and the light is very soft. The Westfjords, which Richard recommends for summer, are also amazing in winter, especially if you can fly to the local capital Isafjordur on a clear day and experience the breath-taking landing into the fjord there.