THE BOOK AND THE RADIO SERIES
IN 2015 I TRAVELED TO ICELAND with my friend Kári Gíslason to make a radio series and write a book together.
Our plan was to travel right across that impossibly beautiful island to record stories from the sagas of Iceland. These are the true tales of the early Viking settlers who sailed from Iceland in the Middle Ages. The sagas contain stories of blood feuds, of dangerous women and doomed warriors; of men and women, brothers and sisters, who are forced to kill the ones they love the most.
The sagas are among the greatest stories ever written and are regarded as classics of world literature. Icelanders grow up with them and even today they love to debate their meaning.
Kári and I travelled for a month across Iceland to tell some of these Viking stories in the places where they actually unfolded a thousand years ago. We thought that going there would take us deeper into the minds of a people living in a faraway land operating under a moral code that looks quite strange at times to us.
We also set out to solve a family mystery. Kári only ever met his Icelandic father four times in his life. His complex family story was the subject of a beautiful and moving memoir The Promise of Iceland. At their last meeting, his father told him they shared a bloodline connection to the greatest of the saga authors. We wanted to find out if was true, and whether that would actually mean anything to Kári.
And so, in the high summer of 2015, when the temperatures reached into the teens, we began to follow the coastline—leaving the small, funky capital Reykjavík to wind our way around to the most remote fjords, valleys and farmland of the most beautiful country in the world.
We travelled to a gorge named Thingvellir and Hliderendi, a farm in the southwhere we told the story of Gunnar the warrior, who marries the most dangerous woman in Iceland. In the rolling green hills of Laugar we found the tale of Gudrun, the courtly woman who loses everything that matters to her, and in response sets the two men she loves the most against each other. We journeyed right out to a remote, rocky fjord in the north-west for the story of Gisli the fugitive, who was brought down by an ideal of honour that only he could live up to. And finally we came to a farm called Borg for the tale of Egil, the ugliest Viking in Iceland, who is tricked into singing his way out of his grief.
Along the way Kári and I set out to reconnect his name to his ancestors in the Book of Icelanders, the massive genealogical record that enables Icelanders to trace their ancestry all the way back to the first Viking families. Only then could we find out the truth about a possible connection between Kári and the greatest of the Saga authors, Snorri Sturluson.
THE RESULT of that journey was Saga Land, a four-part series for ABC Radio National. We came up with the title ourselves, but were delighted to discover that 'Saga Land' was a nickname given to Iceland by the English poet W.H. Auden, who loved the sagas and made several pilgrimages to Iceland.