On my way to Tallinn Estonia to give a paper on the Ponnivala Animation Project my husband and I stopped in Iceland for a week of camping and exploration. We planned to search for old Icelandic legends, known as Sagas. Could we find something resembling South India’s Legend of Ponnivala, that huge oral folk epic so close to our hearts? Iceland might seem an odd place to search; a land so cold and so isolated. How could it hold stories similar to one we had found in the hot, tropical and densely populated land sitting so near the world’s equator, a land that has never known glacial ice or deep snow?
Our instincts proved right! There are some surprising and deep similarities. We chose one old story to look at in detail, The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal. In the next few weeks I will recount our impressions of the land called Iceland and then turn to what we discovered behind those lovely vistas, volcanic gardens and magic geysers; some key Icelandic folk memories of this land’s founding peoples. In a subsequent series I will do the same for our one week adventure tour in Estonia. There, too, we discovered an ancient legend that informs a lovely landscape. This is Estonia’s national folk epic, the Kalevipoeg. More about that later. But first, Iceland!
Iceland is a sparsely populated country, even today. There are beautiful vistas, tidy villages and many, many sheep farmers. Most also keep horses, and indeed Iceland is famous for its unique horse breed which they guard jealously, forbidding the import of foreign stock. Nowadays these horses are mainly used for herding the island’s many sheep. Most of what is grown is food for these numerous animals. We were there in late July, the baling season. Field after field is dotted by neat bales of straw or fodder, all wrapped in tidy plastic.
This is also a land close to the sea and its people have always depended on the ocean depths for much of their food. Evidence of fishing activity is everywhere. These lost fishing nets, swept ashore by heavy seas, are reminders of Iceland’s many fierce storms. They also hold many sad tales of the brave men here who once set out to fish but never came back. A stunning Sea-Ice museum reminds the visitor that much of Iceland is surrounded by frozen sea water in winter which can be very dangerous indeed!
Even Iceland’s churches have a surprisingly uniform and tidy look. And drivers must take care to dodge sheep on the roads. Fencing is minimal and sheep are not very bright when it comes to avoiding traffic hazards!
The evidence for the ancient importance of sheep here is clear. Here are some very old sheep-herding and sorting corals. These animals are iconic and they are everywhere.
There are amazing mountains in Iceland, capped with permanent glacial ice (at least for now). Contrasting with such lovely vistas are the bright colors found in the wild flowers.
Canada’s classic arctic tufts also grow abundantly here, in this wind swept land. (Steven can you find the name for this “flower”?)
The coastline of Iceland is very jagged and most of it is characterized by deep inlets known as fjords. This is part of the land’s beauty but also a challenge for drivers. In many cases one must cross a finger of land that juts way out into the sea to reach the other side. Otherwise one is in for a drive that could involve hours of twists and turns on a minimally maintained coastal road.
Crossing between fjords always involves a climb that takes one through the unpopulated highlands. The landscapes change dramatically during such a passage and often become quite barren, but also very beautiful.
Most significant for the Vatnsdal tale, to come, are the valleys that lead up from the fjords towards the highlands. These are the valleys where the early Icelanders settled. They were habitable and inviting. These are the places that speak out most strongly with their tales of Iceland’s heroic past!