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Beauty and brutality: Iceland’s literary landscapes

Dr Emily Lethbridge is breathing new life and understanding into the centuries-old Sagas of Icelanders (Íslendingasögur) during a unique year-long research trip – conducted in 2011 from the back of a decommissioned Land Rover ambulance.

The beauty and brutality of Iceland‘s breathtaking landscapes, so closely linked to the stories in the sagas, has been captured in a stunning new documentary film released entitled Memories Of Old Awake. The sagas were copied in manuscripts in Iceland from the medieval period until the early 20th century, and the stories were passed down from one generation to another over many hundreds of years..

Dr Lethbridge criss-crossed the Icelandic countryside to investigate the deep-rooted significance of the sagas to Icelanders today, visiting the actual settings in which each is based. By the time her research trip comes to an end in December this year, she hopes to have visited most of the 30 plus Islendingasögur sites.

The film demonstrates how one saga has a continuing hold on local people’s imaginations with Icelanders describing the characters as friends and talking of the ongoing pride they have in both the protagonists and the landscapes in which the sagas take place.

Memories Of Old Awake focuses on one of the most famous of the Islendingasögur – Gísla saga – which tells the story of a family man, Gísli, who is driven to murder to avenge the death of his brother-in-law and close friend. The tragic, honourable hero Gísli is outlawed and spends 13 years on the run before finally being hunted down and killed.

Emily said: “While the stories are rooted in the landscapes all around Iceland, there is little description of them in the sagas. I decided to spend a year travelling around the country exploring the settings of each saga and meeting the people who, remarkably, still live today in places named in the sagas.”

One of the Icelanders interviewed, Þórir Örn Guðmundsson, said: “If you go there [the valley where the saga is set] with the book in your hand, you can turn directly to the places which the saga describes. It’s as though the earth is talking to you and telling you the story. Gísla saga is part of our inheritance.”

Another, Valdimar Gíslason, said: “I think about him (Gísli) as I do contemporaries and I think it’s the same for many people who live here. They look upon Gísli as an acquaintance or friend. People are proud of him.”

Added Emily: “The sagas have always been more than words on a page to Icelanders. And through exploring how the stories and places in them are so intertwined, even in modern times, my understanding is deepening.”

“The sagas occupy a central place in local and national consciousness. The past can feel extraordinarily close to the present. The sagas live on, beyond the printed page, in the Icelandic landscapes and in the imaginations of the people who live there.”

See her blog: The Saga-Steads of Iceland: A 21st-Century Pilgrimage and her website Mapping the Icelandic Sagas

Emily Lethbridge now teaches at the University of Iceland – click here to see her page of

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