Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Icelandic horse and its home

Once out of Reykjavik and the lava fields, there are horses basically everywhere you look.

I felt like I was driving through Rohan as it is depicted in the film The Lord of the Rings. The horses grazed on the yellow grass on the flat plains, sometimes broken by ridges and large rocks, or small hills. Behind it all the blue mountains capped with white snow rose with majesty.


The plains

Driving through Rohan yet in Iceland
Rohan was shot in New Zealand. It's interesting how similar the landscape is.

Although the landscape is similar to Rohan, the horses are not like those in the book or film. The book says, "Their horses were of great stature, strong and clean-limbed; their grey coats glistened, their long tails flowed in the wind, their, manes were braided on their proud necks." -The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien 

The Icelandic horse is a short animal (extra shaggy in my photos because it is winter). Foreign horses are not allowed to enter the country and once an Icelandic horse leaves the country it can never return, so all horses on the island are purebred Icelandic horses.

The horses are generally friendly too. Whenever they saw us nearing the fences, a few of them would come over to it and let you pet them. Also, they seem to be kept in groups. I don't remember seeing a lone horse in a pen.

Coming to say hello
Shaggy coat

Iceland is my home

All photos are my own. Please give all photo credit to Edana A.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Þingvellir - That Great Wonder of Iceland

On my trip I visited Þingvellir. It was beautiful in the setting sun with the yellow grass, the rocks, the many branched river, and the distant snow capped mountains. Allen French's description of this place in The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow fit quite well with what I saw there. Granted there are some more recent buildings there now and the booths were gone, yet the landscape was the same. French calls the place "Thingvalla," and the parliament, "the Althing" instead of ingvellir" and the "Alþingi."  

"For from the plain on which they journeyed a large part had fallen clean away, many yards down, and it lay below like the bottom of a pan. The Great Rift was the name of the western precipice, and there was no way down save by one steep path....When Rolf had got down to the plain, he saw all the booths for the lodging of those who came to the Althing, ranged along the river....he went down to the Hill of Laws, where the Fifth Court sat to hear appeals. Now the Hill of Laws is cut off from the plain by deep rifts, and men showed Rolf where, to save his life, Flosi had leaped one rift at it's narrowest part and that was a great deed."  -The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow, page 94-95 
View from the plain above, overlooking Þingvellir 
This first picture is taken while standing on the Great Rift.
The Great Rift (western precipice) is on the left side of the picture below. The flag pole is rising from the Lögberg (Law Rock) which either is the Hill of Laws, or a part of the Hill of Laws.

Down beside the precipice   

The Great Rift.

In the photo above, the smaller rocks on the left is the back of the Hill of Laws.
In the photo below, you see the view if you turn and look the other way up the rift while standing the Hill of Laws.
The Rift

Snorri's Booth
Snorri's booth is on the hill, overlooking the river where the booths where located in the story. This, however is not an inconsistency. Since Snorri was a very important man at the Althing, his could have been located there while many others were situated along the river.

Hill of Laws

I believe this is the Hill of Laws spoken of. It is actually a long hill; this is just a portion of it, but you can see that it is near the western precipice.
The Rivers

Above are the rivers by which the booths stood; the view from the Hill of Laws. 
Above is a photo I took down on the plain after crossing the rivers. Here you see the Hill of Laws with the flag pole and the Great Rift behind it.

Allen French called this place, "that great wonder of Iceland." And it really is. The place is gorgeous, my pictures do not do it justice. In a sense it is the heart of Iceland, of both the land and the country. 

It is near the place where the tectonic plates collide, the volcanic activity caused by this collision is possibly responsible for the formation of this island, and the fact that the land sits where two tectonic plates meet is responsible for the many geological wonders of this country: the volcanoes, geysers, and hot springs.  Volcanoes have played a huge role in making Iceland the land it is today. Basalt is basically everywhere you turn. And other forms of volcanic rock are also abundant.

In this place so near the edges of the plates, the country was formalized. The Alþingi began in 930 A.D. and continued for many years and after an interlude of foreign control, Iceland was declared an independent republic in 1946. A ceremony was held at the Law Rock. From the start, Iceland was different from other nations. In 930, Europe was ruled by kings, yet Iceland was a republic. There were no kings or nobility. There were chieftains and some men had more power than others, but it was still different than the other countries of the the time.

All photos are my own.

Iceland and The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow

The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow has long been one of my favorite books. Allen French did a wonderful job when he wrote this book for just as The Secret of Kells really captures Irish history and lore, so this book captures many elements of Icelandic history, culture, and lore.

Just some notes on Icelandic letters that are not in our alphabet and on the Alþingi:

þ makes the "th" sound in "thing" (unvocalized "th").
ð makes the "th" sound in "that" (vocalized "th").
The Alþingi is the Icelandic parliament. It began in 930 A.D. and it was in session for many years until Iceland came under foreign powers. It was started again after WWII and is currently functioning, though it is now located in Reykjavik.
Þingvellir is a plain that is its historic location. 
Here is a list of common elements between the book and things I've learned about Iceland or experienced on my trip.

1. The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow was written in a saga style. Iceland has a collection of sagas called Íslendingasögur, and I am guessing that Allen French read those for he mentions some of the characters in his book. Grettir the Strong, and Njal, namely.

2. The names of at least two of the characters are/have been used recently. In the flea market I saw the name "Einar" as an author's name on a book. "Snorri" appeared on a building from the 18 or 1900s.

Location of Snorri's booth. The wall remnants date from a later time.
3. Snorri the Priest from the book was a real man. I saw the ruins of his booth at Þingvellir (the location of the Alþingi at the time of the story.) In the story, Rolf goes to the Alþingi at Þingvellir, and also to Snorri's booth there.
(See my next post for more on the Alþingi and what Allen French has to say about it.)

Allen French's description of 
Þingvellir fits with what I saw there. 

4. Rolf's family owned sheep. Woolen goods are a hot commodity in Iceland these days. They are in every tourist shop and the Icelanders themselves frequently wear woolen sweaters.

5. In the story the sheep were marked by cuts on the ears, and had to be sorted when they were brought down from summer pastures for the winter. This is still done today. Their ears are marked, the sheep are brought down according to customs set by the Alþingi (Althingi) long ago, and they are sorted using a sheep sorter.

Icelandic cliffs
6.  We are told that there was a great number of birds and that Rolf climbed the craggy cliffs for eggs and young birds. He also shot the adults with his bow. Iceland is still known for its abundance of bird colonies.

7. "Heimskur" is the Icelandic word for stupid and contains the image of one who sits at home and doesn't travel. In the book it mentions that young men would travel abroad and that it was an important part of their passage into adulthood.

8. Ghosts were treated as real in the book. Many Icelanders are a bit into mysticism and believe in ghosts or elves (short, invisible beings).

9. According to French, it was customary for men to keep whatever wealth the sea washed ashore from ship wrecks off the rugged coast. The Icelanders in Rolf's day were delighted with the goods that washed ashore. The same was true in the 1800s. People were glad to get the timbers and things from the shipwrecks, even though it was too bad about the sailors who drowned in the wreck.

One man in Reykjavik collects odds and ends from the sea and has quite a stash of large metal contraptions. The large silver object looks like a space escape pod, other objects stick up like odd towers and are gray and rusty.
What the sea brought

10. Icelanders have traditionally been farmers. Rolf and his family were farmers. Characters in the sagas and folklore were farmers too, even if they were also great warriors.

11. Fishing is also important to Iceland. In addition to his other skills, Rolf knew how to fish. In current day Iceland, dried fish is sold at the flea market and the grocery store. The story speaks of racks for drying fish in the Orkneys and also Icelanders having dried fish on hand.  They still use wooden racks for drying fish.

12. In the book, Grettir cooked his food in the geysers. A tourism video showed some people cooking food in a geyser for amusement.
Geysir (the geyser from whose name the word "geyser" is from.)

All photos are my own except the photo of the book.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Volcanoes, Geysers, and Trolls, oh my!

I was restless and then this opportunity came up for me to go to Iceland. So, I went. And what an adventure it was. I was excited to go and see the natural wonders there, but what I did not realize was how much it would embody my favorite books and movies and how much the land is steeped in lore.

I believe it will take me several posts before I'm finished. I'll try to stick to one topic per post, but I may get a little carried away.

The bay in Reykjavik.
Hmm, I think I will start with the trolls. I went on two excursions with different companies, yet both guides spoke of the trolls. Now I knew trolls were a part of Icelandic lore from reading The Story of Grettir the Strong, by Allen French, but I was surprised and delighted when the guides started talking about them.

The first guide told us that trolls were big, strong, stupid, and turned to stone when the light comes up. Check, check, check, check. Exactly how they are in The Hobbit.

Troll Couple with Boat
The next day, on the other excursion I had the opportunity to actually see some trolls, turned to stone off course.  The first two are located near Vík, a small coastal town (the southernmost town in Iceland). From the place where we stopped for lunch we could see them standing in the surf, frozen as they struggled to drag their three masted boat to shore before day dawned. There were two, a husband and wife troll. The interesting thing is that the bigger, wider one is the wife and the tall skinny one is the husband. The guide said this was so because just as women tend to outlive men, so this wider lump of rock would outlive the tall thin one as the elements beat upon them.

Lone Troll
As we stood on the outcropping near the third troll, we could see the two trolls with their boat in the distance. That's were I took the photo above.

 The third troll was located at the cape of Dyrhólaey. Here is a photo of him standing on the sand, the waves lapping at his feet. He's huge, over one story tall.

Here is another picture for size and location's sake.

Lone Troll

More on Iceland soon.

All photos are my own.