The Icelandic Sagas and ‘Iron Man’

Culture House

The mighty edifice that is Culture House.

We were permitted to tour the Culture House, after all that hubbub with the royalty and the government and the hey-hey-hey. We locked up our belongings and headed downstairs to the chambers of the historical artifacts.

The layout was really compelling, enlarged illustrations from the traditional texts, the sagas. They broke down what each figure represented in various illustrations: priests, warriors, wives, merchants, etc. The floor featured large amulets and carvings, the walls were similarly adorned: the point was to impress you with an atmosphere of viking culture. I was quite impressed.

As we moved through the rooms, we experienced the accouterments of centuries-old Icelandic life, as well as recount the visitations of other countries like Norway and Denmark. One room highlighted the use of vikings and Norse gods in popular culture, such as Marvel’s creation of the super-hero Thor. I recognized the source for a large painting one artist rendered: one of the most dramatic scenes in Njarl’s Saga, the bit where this one dude is separated from his tribe by a broad river. In the middle, floating on a broad ice floe, is a clutch of enemy tribesmen who are all set to kill him if he should attempt to cross. So the guy takes a running leap, lands on his own shield, skids across the ice like on a snowboard, cleaves a man’s head in two with his ax, and leaps once more to the far bank before anyone else can get to him. One of his tribesmen congratulates him and calls it “a manly feat!” I have a terrible head for names, but no one could easily forget a scene like that.

We entered the room wherein are stored the Sagas. This was tantamount to treading on holy ground for me. Each saga was originally a record of land ownership: as people settled Iceland’s shores, they kept track of who claimed what patch of land. As time went on this record expanded to include large incidents such as murder or marriages, and then smaller incidents like town gossip. Sometimes a scribe could find himself executed for recording embarrassing information that such-and-such didn’t want recorded, or for recording it in a sarcastic or unflattering tone. Plenty of room for editorializing in these sagas. Well, time goes by and this one man, Snorri Sturluson (Latin for “knows which side his bread is buttered on”) decides to travel the country and collect all the sagas for posterity. He hand-wrote his collection in two large tomes of calfskin pages. The very picture of “savvy” (nothing less from the twice-elected lawspeaker at the Alđing), when everyone else was running out and grabbing land and declaring themselves king, Snorri opted instead to court each of these kings and pay them homage, for which brown-nosing he was rewarded most handsomely. He was invited to stay wherever he liked and enjoy lavish feasts with the various and sundry powers that be. They offered him a retinue to tour with him as bodyguards, for currying such tremendous favor naturally put one’s life at risk with other political scamblers.

Much later, Denmark occupied Iceland and, not unlike cutting off a man’s balls to prove ownership over him, removed the sagas and stored them in Copenhagen. As you might imagine, this was a tremendously sore point for the Icelanders for centuries. The handiwork and labor of their boy Snorri was languishing in foreign lands! One of the rooms of the Culture House was dedicated to a tremendous celebration: I watched a black-and-white TV broadcast of huge naval ships in a harbor, officers in full dress uniform carrying two huge books draped in cloth, and every Icelander in the country crowding the streets, perched on rooftops, all cheering their hearts out as the sagas were returned to their homeland. It really was moving to see: they all deeply cared about this national treasure, both written and removed long before any of them were ever born.

And there they were, the original texts (well, not the original HEIMSKRINGLA, the record of the Norse kings, which was destroyed in the Copenhagen fire of 1728. Good job, lads. After losing the first page of this text during transport, you destroyed the rest of it and only two copies exist), in a thick glass case with dim protective lighting. Pages spread open for display, calligraphy from the 12th century—with commentary running down the sides—telling the history of this nation and a couple others. I was in awe and I think even Rebecca was a little impressed.

The room after that was modeled to resemble a typical calligrapher’s office, and my soul nearly left my body in delight to be here. There was a large, sturdy, ancient wooden cabinet whose shelves bore powdered dyes stored in scallop shells. There was a jar of quills to be stripped, quills that had been cured, quills that had been carved into pens. Here was a writing desk with a thin, heavy chain sheathed in cloth: the better to hold pages down for reading or writing. My heart beat faster as I studied the props and learned how they remedied the problems that arose during calligraphic writing, how they resolved these issues with their level of technology, the ingenious solutions upon which we have found no room to improve for centuries. …Well, except for pens. Pen technology has shot through the roof, of course. And inks. But everything else! There was also evidence that this room was a popular spot for school field trips: pamphlets that described everything in basic English, exercise tablets, calligraphic lines written on strips of printer paper in a child’s shaky hand. I found a stack of souvenir bookmarks and helped myself to one. Oh, such was my thrill!

Then it was time to leave because the museum was about to close. We started to gather our stuff when one of the curators came over. “Have you seen the Surtsey exhibit?” she asked us.

We replied we hadn’t, but we knew they were about to close so maybe we’d come back.

“Oh, no! You must see it!” she said, smiling with some enthusiasm. “It’s amazing! It cannot be missed.”

We thanked her very deeply—they were keeping the museum open later so we could see this exhibit, all for the low-low admission of 300 kronur (about $3.36). We wondered what this could possibly be about, that it was so important to see.

Walking from the basement to the 3rd floor (the 2nd floor was dedicated to theatrical performances), we were greeted by a tremendous panoramic display of churning, frothing lava, surrounded by speakers roaring with volcanic activity. Striking!

Evidently there was an eruption off the coast of Iceland that formed a small island, SURTSEY. Occurring only a few decades ago, scientists flocked to the location to track the progress of the island. Graphic displays showed the shape of the island as it changed during this time, growing, breaking off, receding, falling back into the ocean. Scientists also took this opportunity to track how the various forms of life made their way to the island. Lichen grew upon the shores, seeds floated across the ocean to plant in the soil and spread, other seeds flew tremendous distances through the air and took root on Surtsey. Eventually, insects and birds arrived, and once in a while some plant or animal turned up for no good reason the scientists could conceive. Just some freak accident brought it there. This also was terribly fascinating and we were grateful they insisted on us seeing it.

Naked girl in ad

Iceland has its own attitude toward advertisement.

We left the Culture House museum and went back to the center of town, this time to visit a tourist gift shop. I took to a certain tarot deck with stark illustrations inspired by an ancient form of art. Rebecca found some nice cards she would incorporate in a triptych of marital life. We admired various t-shirts (a favorite in the city was “ICELAND: Great Weather and Cheap Beer—What More Could You Want?”), noting that very ancient runic symbols were popular motifs for shirts, pins, courier bags, lots of things. I found an interesting set of toys, marketed as an early viking toy set. The pieces were modern representations of original toys that viking children would have played with on their farms: pieces of animal bone and thread bobbins from their mothers’ sewing kits. Knuckles, vertebra, teeth, and jaws all represented different things. The lesson is that kids were determined to play, even with pieces of animals, and why not? Cheap, durable, requiring an active imagination: these things were fantastic. I was fascinated by the set but didn’t pick it up, for unlike its source material it was quite pricey.

Travel journal

Carefully recording all my adventures.

Then we went to Segafredo where I indulged in an Irish coffee (how many coffee shops in the States serve alcohol?) and we shared a lemon pie. I also came up with a little joke: “Don’t let the door hit you in the nose on your way out.”

This is because the doors to their businesses swing inward, rather than outward like in the States. Funny, how you can use all sorts of doors that swing in either direction in your home country, and your mind subconsciously adjusts to each of them in their unique contexts, but you go to another country where they do something differently and it’s just jarring and it takes a while to figure out why. When I leave my house, my door swings in, so why should it disrupt me so much to leave a coffee shop and have the door swing in? It just threw me.

Little boy statue

What is that little boy doing to that fish?

We returned to our room at Gastafell and rested, watching American Dad. We left, walked to that gas station with the crazy quesadillas from Serrano, to make some change for the evening’s activities. Another booth at the gas station makes hot dogs, so I picked up the bacon-wrapped foot-long dog. At this point I was really becoming attached to how Icelanders have their hot dogs and I requested the fried onions, dark mustard, and the mysterious “hot dog sauce.”

Foot-long hot dog

Bacon, mustard, and hot dog sauce.

We caught the 3 bus with uncharacteristic success and rode out to a large mall, KRINGLAN. There was another Café Paris at the mall, so of course we had to go there. As I’d been feeling stronger in my interpretation of Icelandic phonetics, I attempted to recite my menu choice in Icelandic and the waitress seemed to understand, largely. I had a honey lemon crepe and an energy drink, CULT. Rebecca ordered a chicken Greek salad that seemed to come with only four cubes of feta.

CULT energy drink

CULT Light: It’s Danish.

Eventually it came time to see Iron Man, the purpose of this little trip. We enjoyed the film tremendously. It’s a great movie! I was also just really grateful to see Robert Downey, Jr., cleaned up and acting again. I’ve always been rooting for him.

There was an intermission in this showing, which surprised Rebecca. She looked around in amazement as everyone else got up and started to leave. In this day and age, I suppose, one just does not expect intermissions… or we from the States do not, and these kids here all took it for granted. It takes you out of the movie, I suppose, but they did stop at a good spot and it was a welcome break for anyone who really had to use the bathroom.

I went to the concession counter for some water, thinking I’d get a bottle of something vaguely fruit-flavored and carbonated. You know, a splurge because we really had not been spending enough money this week. The kid behind the counter, however, asked me, “What size?”

Reflexively I said large, though most of me was wondering what size had to do with water. He pulled a large soda cup from the stack, went off to a little side room and filled the cup with water drawn from the tap. In the States that might be an insult, since municipal water is various degrees of nasty no matter what the city officials try to insist, but in Iceland this is a special treat. The cold water is runoff from their glacier and it is clean, pure, and delicious. The kid gave me a large cup of this glacier water and when I pulled out my wallet he insisted it was free.

Now I was completely floored. I thanked him profusely, confusing him, and went back to my seat to share this story with Rebecca. She laughed and said, “You should have told him that this would have cost us four dollars in the States!” It’s funny because it’s true. It was a jarring contrast, to get this free water and see that amazing museum for 300 kronur, after everything else was two to three times as expensive as in our country.

The movie ended and we asked some emo-looking kid directions back to the bus stop. So glad these guys are (at least) bilingual; no Icelander could have done in Minnesota what we did in their country. Fluently he reoriented us and we ran across the parking ramp, down two flights of stairs, up the sidewalk and over the pedestrian bridge spanning the highway, in plenty of time to catch the 3 bus in the other direction. We rode off into the sunset—the movie got out at 11:30 p.m. but the sky looked like it was 9:00 p.m. Another thing we couldn’t get over.

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