The Hunt for a Lost Saga





I was on the hunt for a plausible lost saga. How did it get lost? Whom was it about?

Originally, the sagas were written down by monks on vellum (calfskin). They used quills from the left wings of ravens or swans better for right-handed scribes and ink made from willow or bearberry. There were hundreds, possibly thousands of copies of the sagas scattered throughout Iceland.

Árni Magnússon

By the eighteenth century, an Icelandic scholar who lived in Denmark named Árni Magnússon became worried that the stories might become lost, and travelled around Iceland for ten years collecting them. Iceland was poor, and he found scraps of vellum containing sagas repurposed for all kinds of everyday uses, such as shoe insoles or the back of a waistcoat. 

He gathered his collection together in fifty-five boxes, and took them all back to Copenhagen in 1720. He became the librarian at the Royal Library, and stored the sagas there. In 1728, a fire swept through Copenhagen, destroying the library. Árni saved what he could, but many sagas were lost. Which was bad for Norse literature, but good for me.

Gaukur's Saga

One of these lost sagas concerned a Norseman named Gaukur (or maybe Gauk? I call him Gaukur, breaking my own rule about Old Norse names. Oops). We know it once existed, because there is a gap for it in the Mödruvallabók, with the note ‘Insert here the saga of Gaukur Trandilsson’. It was never inserted.

So who was this Gaukur? He is mentioned in a couple of other sagas, as Gaukur of Stöng. According to Njal’s Saga, he was killed by his own foster-brother, Ásgrímur. Why, I wondered. And where was this place Stöng?

I checked it on my map of south-west Iceland and discovered that Stöng was very close to Hekla, the voluble volcano that has erupted many times over the centuries, and which became known as ‘the mouth of hell’. Indeed, in 1104 a Hekla eruption completely smothered Gaukur’s farm at Stöng, and the valley in which it was situated.

Perfect.

Thorsteinn, my helpful saga expert, listened to my outlandish ideas patiently and kindly, and suggested various improvements and modifications. The day after my meeting with Thorsteinn, I drove to Stöng. With some trepidation: Thorsteinn mentioned that he had been scared when he had driven there with his parents when he was twelve.

Seeking Stöng

Stöng is about 120 kilometres to the west of Reykjavík. After leaving the city, you drive up through desolate heath, stones, electricity pylons and steam from the earth bubbling beneath, until you suddenly arrive at the top of an escarpment with a dramatic view of a flood plain, dotted with farms and the odd town, sea and mountains in the distance. Mighty rivers such as the Hvítá and the Thjórsá bring meltwater from several glaciers churning through this plain down to the Atlantic. On the far side of the valley I could see Hekla, with its year-round white crown, a glacier.

I crossed the plain, Hekla growing ever larger, until I came to the River Thjórsá: wide, cold, the white-green colour of melted ice that had once fallen as snow thousands of years ago. As I drove upstream, ever closer to the volcano, the landscape became bleaker, the lava newer, twisted into pinnacles of frozen black trolls, heads of dogs and ravens. The higher I went, the more powerful the river seemed to become, and I wasn’t surprised to see pylons striding across the landscape from an unseen hydroelectric dam. There seemed enough force in that water to power the whole of Reykjavík.

I eventually came to a bridge over a narrow gorge through which the Thjórsá squeezed in a churning torrent and, just on the other side, the turn-off to Stöng. A rough track bucked and wove around a rocky cliff down to a partly visible valley of stone. A simple wooden fence bore a sign: ‘Lokad’. Closed.

For a moment I considered driving around it I had come all this way after all. But I resisted the temptation. May is early spring in Iceland. Snow is possible. Many minor roads remain closed until June. Even then it is unwise to drive on them in little cars like my rented Golf; you really need a four-wheel drive. Driving down that track, sustaining a puncture or a broken axle and walking back to the main road for help would be very stupid. (Sadly, it’s the kind of thing tourists in Iceland do all the time.)

Fortunately, higher up the road, I could look down on the valley of Stöng, which even nine hundred years after the eruption was a barren moonscape of stone, rock and dust. A thousand years ago, it would have been a lush green valley, with meadows, sheep and a Viking longhouse.

In 1939, archaeologists discovered the site of Gaukur’s farm at Stöng, and excavated it. A replica stands just off the main road, a long wooden building with a turf roof that reaches almost to the ground and no windows (see photo above). Hekla broods close by.

I had found my saga.

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