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Resurrecting a 13th-century Icelandic legend

The Ring Road traces Njál's Saga, passing Myrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull volcanoes. (ETHAN GILSDORF FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)

REYKJAVÍK, Iceland -- His bowstring broken, his house besieged by enemies bent on killing him, Gunnar asks his wife, Hallgeror , "Give me two locks of your hair." But she, remembering a time Gunnar once slapped her, denies him those locks to fix his bow.

"To each his own way of earning fame," says Gunnar grimly, too prideful to pluck her hair by force.

He dies.

Such are the cruel ruinations of heroes in Njál's Saga, among the most renowned Icelandic epics, written in the 13th century and narrating events that occurred between 930 and 1020. Modern homes and horse farms dot the saga's setting, the Rangárthing and Myrdalur districts about 60 miles southeast of Reykjavík. But not much else has changed in the intervening centuries. Visitors can still trace the fates of the two main characters: Gunnar, the fearless and cunning fighter, and Njál, the prudent and prophetic man "with no beard," but also doomed to death.

The word "saga" derives from the Old Norse verb "segja," to say. Told in matter-of-fact prose still intelligible to modern Icelanders, these tales of blood feuds, turf battles, and family vengeance in a heroic age are the backbone of Icelandic literature, much like Beowulf or Shakespeare for England. J.R.R. Tolkien partly based his "The Lord of the Rings" fantasies upon these stories and their elemental landscapes, and it's easy to see how he was inspired.

Iceland, more so than many lands, still brims with secrets and lost deeds. The very mountainsides and waterfalls seem to whisper "quest." One wants to tramp the tufted hillsides, scramble across the honeycomb of blasted rock, and race on horseback down the coal-black beaches. In the south, the volcano Hekla looms over the plains of Rangárvellir, and as recently as 2002, spouted flame. No wonder medieval settlers thought it the portal to hell.

A journey in the footsteps of the heroes of Njál's Saga should begin at The Culture House (National Centre for Cultural Heritage) in the capital city. Here, in dim rooms, tattered manuscripts scrawled on vellum lie preserved in glass cases. Sadly, only two pages from a 14th-century copy of Njál's Saga reside here. But the fragments are complemented by other , more complete manuscripts, like Egils Saga, The Book of Settlements, the Eddic poems, and a book of runic spells. Njál's Saga was first translated into English in 1861, as "The Story of Burnt Njal." Even then, it was used as a travel guide, prompting pilgrimages by continental Europeans to see the saga sites.

The legend is not full of magical deeds or mythical creatures. But still, only recently have Icelanders begun to doubt the details. "Even when I was in elementary school, in 1977, there were still teachers who believed you could take anything [in them] as history, as if it actually happened," said Jóhanna Bergmann , a Culture House guide. "It's been changing in the last 30 years."

Because the anonymous author recorded the exploits of Gunnar and Njál two to three centuries after they lived, poetic license -- Gunnar wounding 16 men and killing two, single-handedly -- was probably at work.

But Bergmann warned there would be scant evidence of the original medieval homes, barns, and battlefields. "There is nothing visible," she said to a hopeful adventurer, "only a sign that says 'This is the plausible site of such and such.' "

So be it. Armed with a copy of Njál's Saga, a visitor can still rent a car, head out of Reykjavík, and follow Route 1, the island nation's "Ring Road," east alongside power lines marching into a distant, gray cloud wall. An hour or so later, the sky glimmers silver-yellow and broad grassland opens up: Here, stocky Scandinavian horses graze beside brooks that rage and churn green and brown. The plains are upstaged by the abrupt, glacier-topped volcanoes of Myrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull. The land appears largely uninhabited.

But small towns do appear. First Hella . Then Hvolsvöllur ( population 850), with its lone attraction, the Saga Center. Inside, dioramas and mannequins crudely re enact Viking life and lore. The exhibit is organized chronologically, by saga chapter. The staff provides maps with key saga stops marked on road signs with a special symbol.

Just off the Ring Road is the farm at Keldur, once home of Ingjaldur Höskuldsson, uncle of Njál's illegitimate son (who played a part in defending Njál from an arson attack at Bergórshvoll , another saga site). The farmstead includes a circa 1875 church, and six turf-topped halls and a big turf lodge, dating as far back as 900.

"It's the oldest house in Iceland," said Eymundur Gunnarsson ("son of Gunnar," but no relation), tourist director for the region.

About a 45-minute walk from Keldur is the Gunnarsstein , a rock outcrop on the river Rangá, where Gunnar and his men were ambushed. The bloody battle is meticulously described in the saga. One combatant has his legs cut off and is shoved into the river to drown; in another scene, a man "ran at Gunnar in great anger and thrust his spear through the shield and through Gunnar's arm. Gunnar twisted the shield so hard that the spear broke apart at the socket." Injured, the warrior still manages to thrust his halberd through another man and toss him in the water.

In the end, Gunnar and his men killed 14 enemies, including Thorgeir Otkelsson , whose father he had previously slain. Because Gunnar had killed twice in the same bloodline, his punishment was to flee Iceland for three years.

Gunnar could have eluded his fate had he boarded a ship for distant lands. But the reader senses Gunnar can't help himself; his ties to South Iceland are too strong. It is said Gunnar declared, on the day of his intended departure, "Lovely is the hillside -- never has it seemed so lovely to me as now, with its pale fields and mown meadows, and I will ride back home and not leave." By doing so, he set in motion the events that led to his death, and Njál's as well.

The land is too lovely to leave: the bearded knobs of rock, the nearly tropical green prairie in springtime. Ten miles east of Hvolsvöllur, tracing a line of low hills, a valley road leads to Hlíoarendi, Gunnar's farm. Here, he was finally tracked down and killed in the famous bowstring incident. A placard details where Gunnar's hall might have been, and the saga describes it in detail: "Built entirely of wood, with overlapping boards on the outside and windows along the roof beams, fitted with shutters. Gunnar slept in a loft above the hall."

"I think they have located the farm," said Gunnarsson, who dreamed of an archeological dig and the artifacts that might be found beneath the sod.

Our second hero's account ends down by the black sand beaches of Landeyjasandur, which face the Atlantic Ocean where, perhaps, Gunnar might have fled. Here is the site of Njál's house at Bergórshvoll, burned down by raiders in the autumn of 1011, killing almost everyone, including the 80-year-old Njál -- everyone except a son-in-law who, of course, survives to seek revenge. And to continue the tale.

So there are no castles in Iceland. The sites are mostly fields and blank spaces. The elements beat down most traces of Njál's Saga, the wood and turf, the early settlers' building materials. Only memory and imagination remain.

Gunnar's wife, Hallgeror , is remembered as spiteful. Gunnar himself gets the accolades, forever eulogized by his enemy, Gizur the White : "We have now laid low a great warrior, and it has been hard for us. His last defense will be remembered for as long as this land is lived."

Ethan Gilsdorf, a freelance writer in Boston, can be reached at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com.

If You Go

The best way to trace Njál's Saga is to rent a car in Reykjavík and drive to the Rangárthing and Myrdalur districts. Rental outlets are based at Keflavík International Airport or in the city center.

In Reykjavík, to see the nation's treasured medieval saga manuscripts, visit The Culture House (Hverfisgata 15, 011-354-545-1400, thjodmenning.is ). To get an idea of Iceland's medieval heritage, also see "The Making of a Nation" exhibit at the National Museum of Iceland (Sudugata 41, 011-354-530-2200, natmus.is/english ). At "Reykjavík 871+/-2: The Settlement Exhibition" (Adalstraeti 16, 011-54-11-370, reykjavik871.is, reykjavik.com, arts & culture, museums) are the excavations of a Viking-Age longhouse found in the city in 2001.

In Hvolsvöllur is the Saga Center (open May-September, Hlídarvegur, 860 Hvolsvöllur, 011-354-487-8781, njala.is. ), which offers exhibits and information on sagas, the sites, and guide services.

Numerous hostels and bed-and-breakfasts are scattered throughout the Rangárthing and Myrdalur districts. A conservative option for meals and accommodation is Hótel Hvolsvöllur (Hlídarvegur 7, 860 Hvolsvöllur, 011-354-487-8050, hotelhvolsvollur.is). Doubles $125 with shared bath; $230 with private bath.

Other saga-related information at Saga Trails of Iceland (sagatrail.is). Reykjavik Excursions offers a Saga Circle bus tour in West Iceland (re.is).

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