Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Iceland Effect

I am writing this post in Vopnafjördur, a village on the northeast coastline of Iceland. My friend Richard Fidler and I are about half way through a round trip of the country, and also about half way in making a radio documentary on Iceland, its sagas, and that most confusing and beguiling of things, the Iceland effect.

Along the south coast

For me, the effect comes on in different ways: through the landscape; language; the sudden impressions of travel that overlay the memories of childhood; but, perhaps most importantly on this trip, the way this island, isolated and wild and filled with ghosts and apparitions, forces a certain kind of storytelling.

During our travels, we're going to tell four medieval sagas of the Vikings who lived here - Njáls saga, Laxdæla saga, Gísla saga, and Egils saga - and along the way something of my own saga. Once, when my father and I were talking, he told me the reason I wanted to be a writer was because I was descended from Snorri Sturluson, a saga author who died in 1241.

In one way, every Icelander is descended from Snorri -- it's a small country, after all. But I think my father was trying to give me something more specific than that. He was claiming for me a direct line of descent that influenced who I was, and who I might become. An influence that is as difficult to express as landscape, language, or memory. Or indeed the Iceland effect, and the way a story can have great power if it's told in the right way, at the right moment.

We are going to see if we can find out: something more about Snorri, and along the way something more about the way Iceland makes us into stories of our own.

Thingvellir, site of the old parliament (established in 930)

At Reykholt, Snorri Sturluson's farm