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About the Author
About the translator:
Philip Roughton's translation of Iceland's Bell received the American-Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize in 2001 and second prize in the 2000 BCLA John Dryden Translation Competition. His translation of Halldór Guðmundsson's The Islander: A Biography of Halldór Laxness was recently released in the United Kingdom.
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By Halldór Laxness, Philip Roughton
Archipelago BooksCopyright © 1952 Halldór Laxness
All rights reserved.
TWO ARE THE heroes from the Vestfirðir that have gained the greatest renown: Þorgeir Hávarsson and Þormóður Bessason, sworn brothers, of whom, as we might expect, much is told in Ísafjarðardjúp, where they grew up, as well as in the Jökulfirðir and Hornstrandir. In all of these places they accomplished great feats. Not much time has passed since learned men there in the west, and women of good memory, could recount of these comrades tales that have never seen light in books – and many an excellent book has been written concerning these two Vestfirðir men. Most of the stories of these warriors we find so remarkable that recalling them once more is certainly worth our time and attention, and thus we have spent long hours compiling into one narrative their achievements as related in numerous books. Foremost among these, we would be remiss not to name, is the Great Saga of the Sworn Brothers. Then there are the edifying accounts recorded on Icelandic parchments and stashed for centuries in collections abroad, besides the scores of old foreign tomes containing various well-informed, detailed reports, especially concerning later developments in our tale. Moreover, many an anecdote has been shared with us by trustworthy people who dwelt in Hornstrandir before the district was abandoned, as well as in the Jökulfirðir to the west, which is emptying even as we speak – the harsh immensity of the landscape in those parts being too overwhelming for the feeble folk born today. Finally, we have drawn from numerous obscure sources information that seems to us no less credible than the tales that people know better from books, it being our goal, in the volume that you hold now in your hands, to highlight the heroism of these two men. We bid welcome to anyone, man or woman, who surpasses us in learning and memory and wishes to amend what we have put in letters on these pages, thereby bringing it nearer the truth.
When recounting histories, scholars have generally begun by naming the men in authority where events take place. Here we follow their example, to ensure a better understanding of the unfolding of events as described in this book.
In the days of this story, the southern part of the Vestfirðir, bordering on Breiðafjörður, was in the hands of Þorgils Arason. His estate was at Reykjahólar. As a youth, Þorgils had traveled and traded, producing great yield from the little that he initially had. He considered peace more profitable than war, and had purchased both his estate and his authority with silver. As is common among those who have traveled far and wide and encountered numerous gods, he was not much given to heathendom. When Christianity came to this country, he took out two treasures from his trunks: a fine cross bearing the crowned Christ, the friend of merchants, and a likeness of Christ's mother, the great guiding star of seafarers.
In the northern part of the Vestfirðir, in Ísafjarðardjúp, the Jökulfirðir, and Strandir, Vermundur Þorgrímsson held sway. He dwelt in Vatnsfjörður. He was old-fashioned, a heathen, and claimed descent from Norwegian chieftains. He took his revenue in kind from his tenants, and kept his larder well stocked. He was an industrious farmer and took on a large number of workers – an intelligent man, if somewhat formidable. He had taken many a woman into his bed, some under the pretense of nuptials. A number of them came in their spare time at holidays just to visit him, several of them quite good catches, yet best was the woman for whom he had paid the bride price, Þorbjörg the Stout, of whom far more can be read in other books than this.
As it happened, these two Vestfirðir chieftains came to power at the start of Jarl Haakon Sigurdarson's reign in Norway, and Þorgeir and Þormóður were but young lads in the Vestfirðir when the Danish king Sweyn took possession of Norway after the fall of Olaf Tryggvason.
Concerning Hávar Kleppsson, the father of the champion Þorgeir, folk know mainly the following: he maintained a little croft at Jöklakelda in Mjóifjörður in Ísafjarðardjúp, a short distance from the chieftain in Vatnsfjörður, and upon his land. The early days of the reign of King Olaf the Stout saw a new wave of Norse Viking raids on the British Isles, after several generations of relative calm. For most men of the time, however, taking part in such pirating yielded little, and it was rumored that Hávar had returned penniless to Iceland from his Viking ventures. He and several dirt-poor companions of his had gone to see Vermundur to ask for his support, and Vermundur had opened his arms to the men, making one or two of them his farmhands and the others his tenants. Concerning Hávar's feats of prowess as a Viking, we have no report but his own, though the story goes that he felt farm work to be practically worthless compared to deeds of valor and courage, and that far more honor was to be gained by slaying men than by hauling in fish – yet he himself returned from his raids with no other weapon than a single cudgel. Hávar's wife was named Þórelfur, a close relation of Þorgils Arason at Reykjahólar. She was a shrewd and energetic woman, and so well-learned that she knew most of what is told of the North's old heroes, and of the kings that took countries by force.
Farmer Hávar's unruliness soon became known to his neighbors, striking down dead, as he did, others' stray livestock, hacking the heads off their hens and geese when he could, and brandishing his club when folk raised a fuss. Most would then flee to save their own lives, but many took their complaints to Vermundur. When Farmer Hávar was out working, his son Þorgeir sat at home listening to his mother's lays. Under her tutelage, his eyes were opened to the only world that could matter to a champion: where helmet-crowned heroes lord it over folk, serve noble kings, slay evildoers and sorcerers, and fight duels with their peers in courage and valor, their reputations remaining intact whether they stand or fall. In the evenings after the farmer came home, he would tell his son how he fought twelve berserkers single-handedly in Denmark, either slaying three before the others scattered or leveling them all with his sword – the tale varied from night to night. He also described how he killed the berserker Sóti in single combat to the east of Øsel, spinning out the tale as much as he could. What is more, Farmer Hávar had taken part in eighteen major battles in the British Isles with the army of King Adils of Uppsala – that too, was a grand chronicle. It was not long before Þorgeir placed his father on a pedestal with the greatest heroes in his mother's lore.
Of Hávar Kleppsson's wrangles with the men of Djúp no more will be told in this book, except to say that Chieftain Vermundur finally feels he can no longer turn a deaf ear to the complaints of his charges. He summons Þorgils Arason and says that his liegemen can no longer raise their hens in peace due to this kinsman of his, and recommends that he be provided an abode elsewhere. "It is a hapless situation," he says, "when men return weaponless from war, settle in peaceful districts and start slaughtering people's hens, to make up for feats they could not accomplish in other lands."
Þorgils Arason agrees with Vermundur, saying that he has heard more than his fair share about Hávar Kleppsson. "It is indeed the greatest misfortune," says he, "that such a clear-headed woman as my kinswoman Þórelfur should have been so badly wed."
Þorgils felt far from secure having his brother-in-law within his demesne by Breiðafjörður, so at the next Alþingi he purchased a little piece of land from some Borgarfjörður folk, built a croft there for Hávar, and supplied it with livestock. That same summer Hávar Kleppsson moved to Borgarfjörður, to the place that Þorgils had purchased, which was later called Hávarsstaðir, south of Hafnarfjall Mountain.
It soon became clear that the men of Borgarfjörður were none too thrilled by the arrival of Hávar Kleppsson. Borgarfjörður is a great, flourishing district, and was inhabited at the time by many a wealthy man. Folk there began discussing how they could stave off the calamity of having their fine farmlands saddled with disreputable riff-raff from other parts of the country.
Now we must mention that to the north of Hafnarfjall, at Skeljabrekka, there dwelt a man named Jöður. He was the son of Klængur. Of Jöður it is said that he was never far from any action in the district. He was overbearing and unfair to most people, was quick to the kill and slow to offer compensation, instead flaunting the backing that he had from chieftains. His croft was small and mean – others could only guess whence he got his daily bread – but he owned a remarkable stallion. Hávar Kleppsson had few farmhands and little livestock. He did, however, have a red packhorse that he had brought along from the west. This horse felt more at home on the fields and grassy slopes surrounding the farmhouse than on mountainsides.
One fine day in the autumn, Farmer Jöður from Skeljabrekka set out for Akranes with his grown-up son and a servant to purchase grain. As they were taking their rest near Hávarsstaðir, Hávar, who was in the farmyard, shook a rattle, making a terrible clatter. Before Jöður and the others could prevent it, the stallion broke loose and bolted up the mountain slope.
Red, Farmer Hávar's hack, idled disgruntledly by the homefield wall, its lower lip dangling. Jöður said: "Take this gelding and tie it to the end of the pack train. I shall have my grain from Akranes."
His son and servant did as he ordered.
That evening they transported their grain back to Skeljabrekka, past Hávarsstaðir. Farmer Hávar was standing outside. He immediately recognized his horse beneath the Skeljabrekka men's load of grain, took the cudgel that he had returned with from his warmongering days, and walked down the field toward the pack train. He said: "You shall now give me back my horse. What outrageous upstarts you are to take a farmer's things right out from under him, without leave or discussion! Never did I witness such shenanigans back in the Vestfirðir."
Jöður said: "Yet we have heard much about how you were driven out of the west for your wrongdoing and hen-thievery, and it is simply staggering that a newcomer to Borgarfjörður such as you should be so brash toward the men of these parts."
At that, Farmer Hávar laid his knife to his horse's rein and cut it free from the pack train, then led it with its load back to his croft. Jöður bade his companions follow him, telling them that he was going to see if he could curb this outsider's insolence, making as if he would steal their grain. They wasted no time, dropped the packhorses' leads, and as a man rode down Hávar. Jöður raised his ax and landed a blow on the back of the farmer's head, staggering him, just as Jöður's son Grímur thrust his spear into his side. There Farmer Hávar fell, leading his horse. Jöður Klængsson dismounted, and, like a true Norseman, hewed frantically at the man with his ax where he lay fallen, spattering blood and brains everywhere. Hávar Kleppsson was at death's doorstep long before Jöður Klængsson stopped hacking at him.
When Farmer Jöður had had enough hacking, he ordered his farmhand to take Hávar's horse and rope it again to the end of the pack train – a stouthearted man could hardly call it a killing if it came with no loot. "But I and my son," he said, "will go and announce our deed."
Þorgeir Hávarsson sat on the homefield wall and watched as his father was killed. The work completed, Jöður Klængsson rode up to the boy and said: "Go home, young lad, and tell your mother that your father won't be shaking any more rattles at the horses of us men of Borgarfjörður."
Then Jöður Klængsson rode away. It was near sunset. When Jöður was gone, the boy jumped down, walked over to where his father was lying across the path, and took a closer look at his body. The blow had disfigured his face, and blood and brains oozed like porridge from the crack in his head. One of his arms jerked at the shoulder before the man went limp and died – that twitch was his last. Þorgeir Hávarsson was astonished at how easily his father died, despite his having fought berserkers in Denmark and brought fire and slaughter to Ireland. He had always believed his father to be one of the greatest champions in the North. The boy stood outside for a long time before going to tell his mother. Finally he went in. He was seven years old at the time.CHAPTER 2
CHIEFTAIN KE had a kinsman named Bessi, the son of Halldór. He lived at Laugaból, a short distance from Vatnsfjörður. Bessi was highly versed in poetry and law and was popular with everyone, but not very well-to-do. He and Vermundur were not only related but also good friends – Bessi often accompanied Vermundur when he had business to attend to, either at the Alþingi or elsewhere. Bessi's wife had passed away before this story begins, but he had a young son named Þormóður. The lad soon proved to be quick-witted, if somewhat sharp-tongued. From his father he learned poetry and other arts, and even at an early age could relate much lore of the Northern kings and jarls most intrepid in war and other noble pursuits, as well as of the Æsir, the Völsungar, the Ylfingar, and the renowned heroes who wrestled with ogresses. In addition, the lad had excellent knowledge of the great passions men shared with women in the world's first days, when Brynhildur slept on the mountain, and he knew stories of the swans that flew from the south and alighted on the headlands, cast off their dresses, and spun men's fates. What is more, he was fluent in the uncanny lore predicting the end of the peopled world and the twilight of the Gods.
Þormóður Bessason found life at home with his father dreary. Early on, he made a habit of visiting places where things were more lively: feasts, weddings, wakes, Yule gatherings, or else he went to join the men at the fishing huts or other places where people gathered for work. At such times, it fell to him to cheer up folk with his lays, since winters in the Vestfirðir are long and tediously dark. Soon, when pressed for fresh verses, Þormóður began composing his own. Even as a youth he had such a gift for verse that his poems were on a par with those of other skalds.
At Vatnsfjörður, Chieftain Vermundur had numerous domestics and a good store of slaves. Both poor men and criminals made their way there, in addition to invited guests and visitors from all over the Vestfirðir who would come to speak to Vermundur and ask his advice. It was not long before Þormóður became a frequent visitor to Vatnsfjörður, finding it much more entertaining there than at home in Laugaból. Many in Vermundur's household welcomed his visits warmly, though the householders themselves were not quite so open-armed. Folk there had no end of amusement listening to the lad's tales in the hall at the close of day.
A woman from the Jökulfirðir, Kolbrún by name, was visiting Vatnsfjörður with her young daughter, Geirríður. Kolbrún was from Norway. She had sailed for Iceland along with her husband, the ship's skipper, and taken winter lodging with Vermundur. That same winter, her husband, the Easterling, died suddenly, and it was rumored that Kolbrún had devised his death. Then for a time she and Vermundur carried on quite a torrid affair, but when another young woman caught the aged chieftain's attention, he broke off their relationship and sent her to dwell in Hrafnsfjörður, one of the most desolate areas in all the Jökulfirðir. Vermundur sent a Norwegian slave, named Loðinn, with Kolbrún to serve her. Loðinn was a hawkish man who kept mainly to himself; he was very hairy, bearded, and bushy-browed – hence his name. He kept his eyes lowered most of the time, though those who claimed to have seen him look up said his eyes gleamed like a snake's. During haymaking, mother and daughter would pay visits to old acquaintances in Djúp, the slave Loðinn leading their horses. The housewife had a good short sword that she entrusted to Loðinn's keeping, though she would take it from him during boisterous, drunken gatherings. Kolbrún was so robust that few could match her in tests of strength. She was quite portly, yet had a good-looking face, and the best eyes of any woman, dark beneath her brow. She was known to be rather pettish if displeased and harsh to people whom she did not like – or, folk said, even moreseo to her lovers. For this reason, more men preferred to jest with her than try for her hand – and besides, she had very little to show for herself.
Once at day's end when folk were gathered in the hall at Vatnsfjörður, Þormóður sat for a long time singing verses, regaling the company with lays on noble kings, famous battles, and many a valiant slaying. As is wont when evenings draw on, calls came for tales of the love that men won from shieldmaidens of yore.
One man said: "What a rotten scandal, to be forced to listen over and over to the story of when Lady Sigrún trod the road to Hel to kiss the dead Helgi, or of when Freyja clamped her thighs around Loki, or yet again of when Sigurður came upon the armor-clad maiden asleep on the mountain, slit her byrnie down to her crotch, and ravaged her before she woke up, while nobody ever sings love-verses on the noblest women in the Vestfirðir in our day and age. What would suit us all better is a lay about what is on everyone's lips: how the housewife in Hrafnsfjörður beds her slave Loðinn twice a year; first when only nine nights of winter remain and the ravens have laid their eggs, and later when summer begins to fade and the hay has been gathered from the homefields."
Excerpted from Wayward Heroes by Halldór Laxness, Philip Roughton. Copyright © 1952 Halldór Laxness. Excerpted by permission of Archipelago Books.
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