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On the Wings of History

KARIN ALTENBERG

I recently found myself in the excavated ruins of Stöng, a chieftain’s farmhouse in the Icelandic valley of Þjórsárdalur. The manor, along with many neighbouring farms, was abandoned when the volcano Hekla erupted in 1104, covering this Icelandic Pompeii in pumice. Stöng is the best preserved early medieval farmhouse in the Nordic area, with massive turf walls still standing waist-high and a remarkable double-drained social lavatory, which would have accommodated a large gathering. In the main hall the cold slabs of the large central fireplace are visible and I was reminded of the appropriateness of the word ‘window’ – from the Old Norse vindauga, ‘the eye of the wind’ – where the smoke would escape through a single slit in the turf roof.

As I was standing there, imagining the densely walled, fire-lit hall, something stirred in me – a familiar sense of wonder and curiosity about the people who once made their lives here; who created culture in an unforgiving world, charged with the magic that stalked the borders between paganism and Christianity. An image formed in my imagination of a sleeping household, flea-ridden and night-barricaded against the battleaxe-wielding and torch-carrying neighbours of the Icelandic sagas, or perhaps against more unknown, Grendel-like monsters of the mind.

Kristin Lavransdatter, the Nobel Laureate Sigrid Undset’s most celebrated work, brings the medieval North to life in an unparalleled

Sigrid Undset’s trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter (1920–3) is out of print in English but we can obtain second-hand copies of a Penguin edition translated by Tiina Nunnally.

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