Saturday, 28 May 2011

GUEST BLOG: Berserkjahraun - Michael Ridpath

Here at Falcata Times, we love it when one of our author friends takes time out to write a special guest piece for ourselves. Here Michael Ridpath, author of the Fire and Ice Series writes about the special are he visited on his last trip that he brings to life for the readers within his second book, 66 Degrees North.


Well, he was very happy with the plot, which revolves around a disparate group of Icelanders who are angry at the credit crunch and want to take revenge on the people they feel are responsible. But he wanted a bit more myth, a bit more history, a bit more atmosphere. That was what he had liked about Shadows, which featured an ancient saga that had inspired Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and he wanted more.

Now, I am quite capable of standing up to editors when I disagree with them: but it’s a lot harder when secretly you know they are right. My problem was that a bunch of Icelanders upset at their modern bankers did not lead itself to much history or myth. I mulled this over for a few days and realised that there was a sub plot concerning Magnus’s childhood and dark goings on in his own family that might provide me with the opportunity I was looking for. I needed somewhere atmospheric and full of myth and history for Magnus to be brought up.

I read through my notes and reread Magnus Magnusson’s book Iceland Saga. The Snaefells Peninsula looked like a good candidate. This is about 200km from Reykjavík as the car drives. At one end is an old volcano under an icecap, the Snaefellsjökull, which was Jules Verne’s entry point for his Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

I booked a flight to Keflavík, and a hired car for two days, and read The Saga of the People of Eyri on the plane. This recounts the adventures of the Viking settlers who arrived in the Snaefells Peninsula at the end of the ninth century. There was a particular story that intrigued me.

There were two brothers, Vermundur the Lean and Styr whose farms were separated by a frozen torrent of lava. Vermundur went “raiding and trading” as Vikings did in those days, and returned home with two Swedish berserker servants. Berserkers were powerful warriors who could whip themselves into a frenzy in combat whereupon they were almost invincible. Vermundur couldn’t cope with his new employees and passed them across the lava field to his brother Styr. Styr has trouble with them too, especially when one of them wanted to marry his daughter. He was frightened of the berserker, but said that he would allow the marriage if the berserkers cut a path through the lava field to his brother’s farm.

This they did, after working themselves into a frenzy. They returned exhausted to Styr’s sauna. He turned the heat up, and when they rushed out, he ran them both through with a spear. Then he buried them in the middle of the lava field.

A nice story I thought. So when I landed at Keflavík, I drove north through magnificent countryside to the Snaefells Peninsula. I crossed the Kerlingin Pass through the mountains that form the backbone of the peninsula and pulled over. In front of me was a view that took my breath away. In the background was Breidafjördur, “Broad Fjord” and the mountains of the West Fjords in the distance. To the right was the tiny Helgafell or “Holy Mountain”, and in the foreground was a tumult of stone, grey waves lapping around conical mountains of black and orange, a motionless torrent gushing about ten miles down to the sea. On the edge of the fjord on either side of the lava field were two white farms, Bjarnarhöfn and Hraun, the places where Vermundur and Styr lived. Over to the east were other farms that I recognized from the saga, where Snorri Godi and other warriors farmed, plotted and squabbled.

I drove down to the Berserkjahraun, or “Berserkers’ Lava Field”. I parked the car where the frozen lava tumbled into a small bay, right by the farm of Hraun. There was a little path, only about nine inches wide, but a couple of feet deep, cut into the stone. I walked along it until I came to a squat cairn, big enough to hold two bodies. I sat down on the moss covered rock, and surveyed the twisted silhouettes of lava around me. A couple of yards away were the bones of those men who had cut the path beside me a thousand years ago. It was completely quiet, save for the wind rustling the bilberry leaves and the odd cry of an eider duck.

I flew back to England the following afternoon, my mind teeming with ideas for Magnus’s childhood. Problem solved.

Michael Ridpath

1 comment:

Jessica Peter said...

I feel that Iceland is one of those places with an almost-magical history that still affects its modern people (Ireland being one of the others). Thanks for letting us see it through your eyes!