The sagas are “our nationwide identification”, says Icelandic actor Oddur Júlíusson. Based mostly on historic occasions that principally happened between the ninth and early 11th centuries, they’ve been narrated within the farmsteads of Iceland because the Center Ages. Júlíusson performs the Icelandic Sagas Best Hits in Reykjavík, a comedy model in each Icelandic and English of all 40 of the “household sagas” – tales of feuding, romance, surprisingly intricate authorized processes, sorcery and sea battles. “We’re consistently reminded of those tales,” he informed me, “and we title youngsters after characters in them.”
The sagas are the report of how Iceland was settled by refugees and migrants from (primarily) Scandinavia: how they divided the land, established clans and household alliances, constructed their very own authorized system and ditched the outdated Norse gods for Christianity. So excessive are passions round these tales that, within the wake of Iceland’s independence in 1944, the repatriation of the unique saga manuscripts from Denmark grew to become a matter of diplomatic urgency. After a lot wrangling, these medieval calf-skin parchment began to be returned from 1971: the Danish navy frigate that carried again the primary vellum was greeted by flag-waving crowds in Reykjavík harbour.
Travelling the routes of the sagas took me throughout Iceland, however some episodes are simpler to position than others. Relating to the favored Grettir’s Saga, I wasn’t assured about emulating the cantankerous hero’s battles with a ghoul and a she-troll, however there was one fail-safe option to copy his adventures: by moving into sizzling water. Roaming throughout northern Iceland, I hiked from the port city of Sauðárkrókur, previous sheep farms and pony fields, and slid right into a stone-lined “hot-pot” at Grettislaug, heat with volcanically heated water, the place the medieval hero is alleged to have bathed.

Actors within the Iceland Sagas Best Hits present in Reykjavik.
“It’s a real story,” insisted the location supervisor, Ingi, who periodically dips a thermometer to examine the temperature. “And we nonetheless learn it, even now!” Behind the bathtub, campers bustled in a wood kitchen and arrange their gear between the webbing of guy-ropes, able to seize the northern lights as quickly because the early night cloud caul dispersed. I arrange my tent alongside them.
Panorama performs a serious function in Icelandic sagas. Hitch-hiking throughout the west of the nation, I crossed dramatic plains of lava rock mantled in moss that characteristic within the Eyrbyggja Saga. Within the story, a farmer units his antagonists the duty of constructing a go by way of the lava plain, anticipating them to fail – once they succeed, he murders them in a shower home.

Moss-covered lava fields in western Iceland. {Photograph}: Alamy
I made my means right down to the fishing port of Borgarnes, the place a museum has been opened in honour of the favored Egil’s Saga, with scenes from the story reimagined utilizing recycled fishing gear. And I rambled across the windswept hills and heaths of Laxardal, the place the sagas’ biggest heroine, Guðrun, experiences a number of the many reverses of her tumultuous life. Generally I wild camped, pitching my tent by roadsides and on the perimeters of fields, however principally I stayed in campsites, that are plentiful in Iceland (and infrequently well-equipped with kitchens and electrical energy hook-ups).
Within the Laxdæla Saga, Guðrun ends her life on Helgafell, the “sacred mountain”. As I hitched there, I used to be scooped out of rain squalls by a Polish resort employee after which by an area goose hunter, whose computerized rifle bounced on the again seat. From the principle highway the place I used to be dropped off, the mountain loomed behind pastures and peat bogs, its form suggesting a burial mound, as if it had been sculpted to evoke the numerous pagan heroes it reportedly entombed, earlier than being rebranded as Christian Iceland’s most hallowed place.
Right here, Guðrun grew to become “the primary girl in Iceland to develop into a nun and anchoress”, in keeping with the saga. On the foot of the seamy mountain, a rock is engraved with Guðrun’s most well-known saying: “To him I used to be worst who I beloved greatest.” A path winds between bushels of crowberry and spongy moss, and wind roars throughout the hilltop like a Nordic god on a day journey from Valhalla. The panoramic scale is breathtaking – lakes and marshland, skerries (rocky islets) brooding within the firth, drumlins powdered with glacial flour, pastures dotted with sheep. Downhill from the mountain, a church spikes over a graveyard, the place the heroine’s title is inscribed beneath welts of lichen on the tomb historically ascribed to her.

Windblown sheep grazing on the slopes under Helgafell. {Photograph}: Sander Groffen/Getty Photographs
“The best saga is Njál’s Saga,” Júlíusson informed me. “It’s the massive one, the one everyone knows about.” It’s a sophisticated story, swinging from sea raids and storm-swept battles to intricately depicted authorized depositions. A part of the story takes place at Þingvellir, the “fields of parliament”, within the south-west. Right here, many of the key nationwide choices have been made, from the transition to Christianity in 1000AD to the declaration of independence in 1944.
After trying out a collision level of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, you possibly can comply with the trail beside moss-covered lava, right down to a lake populated by large trout (and within the course of go by way of the Gate of the Moon from the Eyrie in Recreation of Thrones). A flagpole rises from a ledge credited because the “rock of legislation”, over the pure amphitheatre by which medieval attorneys akin to Njál brokered their circumstances and established the world’s first elected parliament.

The parchment manuscripts of the sagas are held in Reykjavik’s Tradition Home. {Photograph}: Barry Lewis/Alamy
Njál’s Saga carried me down into the south of Iceland, the place the hero, Gunnar, lived. Within the story, his sharp-tongued spouse Hallgerda bickers along with her neighbours, and sends her slaves on missions of theft and homicide, and Gunnar is embroiled in feuds till he’s decreed an exile. However stumbling from his horse on his option to his ship, he seems to be again upon the gorgeous countryside he’s about to go away behind. “Honest is the Lithe,” he declares within the saga’s most iconic speech, “so truthful that it has by no means appeared to me so truthful; the corn fields are white to reap, and the house mead is mown; and now I’ll trip again residence, and never fare overseas in any respect.”
Mountaineering beneath black-bellied storm clouds, I tramped previous Gunnar’s Rock, a knobbly riverside prominence the place he fought off an ambush. Above bristling fields soars Þríhyrningur (Three Peak Mountain), plunging right down to slopes of tuff stone. Past an icy river, a path winds between beryl-green hills and waterfalls, an space recognized domestically as Flosi’s dale, after one of many story’s antagonists. I slept that night time in a hoop of corrugated iron subsequent to a church, and woke to a refrain of snipe.
This was Gunnar’s residence, Hliðarendi; wandering beneath whipped-cream clouds and riffling geese, previous the gleaming plunge-lines of waterfalls in direction of the ice-capped volcano of Eyjafjallajökull, I might recognize why Gunnar resolved to remain – although the choice value him his life.

Eyjafjallajökull volcano in southern Iceland. {Photograph}: Simon Lane/Alamy
About 20 miles additional south – reached due to lifts from a huntsman in quest of ptarmigan and a Scottish knitwear designer with a 4×4 – was BergÞórsvoll, residence of the lawyer Njál. There isn’t a lot to see, however there’s a guesthouse with communal kitchen (doubles from £60 room-only), which supplied a uncommon deal with – an evening indoors – to finish my saga journey. Sheep graze the fields, there are a couple of goats and a horse paddock. The realm remains to be recognized for its feuds.
“This place is cursed,” one native informed me, describing some current conflicts. “We name it a conflict zone,” her companion added. The flat, grassy fields with their shut entry to the ocean would have made for prime medieval actual property, and the identical pure benefits stay. Within the saga, the home is burned, Njál is killed and his son-in-law, Kari, units off in quest of revenge. The saga, nevertheless, manages to conjure a extra hopeful ending, with reconciliation and marriage between the feuding factions.
Iceland now boasts one of many world’s lowest crime charges, however these violent tales nonetheless resonate, partly for his or her drama and partly as a result of they replicate the specter of violence underlying all our societies. The ghosts of the previous proceed to hang-out this storied land, its rivers and hillsides, its dramatic mountains and its surreal lava plains.• Nicholas Jubber’s new e-book, Epic Continent: Adventures within the Nice Tales of Europe, is printed by John Murray, £20. To order a duplicate for £17.60 together with UK p&p go to The Guardian Bookshop
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