[ A NOTE TO THE READER: Look closely, and you will find I have borrowed 10 lines from a towering giant of a travel book, Travels with a Donkey by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s like a word find, only with sentences. If you find them all, write to me at: email@example.com. ]
Up Highway 1 out of Reykjavik, east and north past Mount Esja at Mosfellsbaer, across Hvalfjordur by a tunnel going under it, and then to Borgarnes, break east toward the Interior on Highway 50 to Reykholt. The road follows up the river Reykjadalsa above its confluence with the river Hvita, the white river, named for its milky waters which flow from the second largest glacier in Iceland, Langjokull. This quiet, fertile valley, which narrows between barren lava fields on the north and the ramparts of the glacial plateau on the south, is the place to find Snorri’s pool, a small, stone-lined hot spring where the man, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), one of Iceland’s great poet chieftains, soaked his bones.
I arrived here with my old traveling companion, Scott, to stand before the white massif that is Snorrastofa, the modern medieval study center celebrating Sturluson’s life and work. It was a glorious summer day near the Arctic Circle. Highs in the mid-60s, light winds, partly cloudy with lovely rays of light coming through. The valley is green like England this time of year, and on up the hill is green Reykholt Forest, a few hectares of planted conifers (dwarf mountain pine, bristlecone pine, Russian larch, and Norway spruce), an attempt to restore a little piece of this land to conditions before the settlement age, the Age of the Vikings.
Snorri was a Viking, though technically he lived later during a literary Golden Age, marked by Iceland’s transformation from oral to written culture. Like many great Vikings, Snorri was a poet and scholar, a chieftain, a wealthy landowner, a politician, a husband and father, a traveler, and a philanderer. Apparently he was susceptible to the charms of beautiful women (though beautiful women were unlikely susceptible to him, but for his status and wealth—images of him recall Santa Claus, a face capable of strong emotion and the promise of delicate sentiment). When trouble came his way, he usually opted for diplomacy, though when he got cross-wise with his onetime ally, King Haakon IV of Norway, he was murdered in his cellar not far from the famed pool. He wrote, among other things, one of the great texts of his age, the Prose Edda, a guidebook for young poets lest they forget to pay attention to the old masters. The earliest extant source is a book of 45 vellum leaves, now on display in the Culture Center in Reykjavik, the Codex Regius, which dates to the 1270s. The book was lost for some centuries until it came into possession of the Danish king, Frederick III, in 1662. It remained in the Royal Library in Copenhagen until 1971 when it was returned to Iceland (Iceland was under Norwegian and Danish rule from 1266 to 1918). So important is this book to Iceland that it came by ship with a military detail. It is worth arguing that Sturluson and his Prose Edda lifted Iceland out of obscurity, and made it one of the most literate and well-read nations in the world, which it remains to this day. This is a nation of the book, and of the sentence, and of the word, a nation of storytellers, of readers and writers, writers who are loved and respected here, which explains why there are so many. One in ten of Iceland’s 330,000 people, so the BBC has reported, will publish a book.
“What’s so great about Snorri?” Scott said, as we made our way across the gravel parking lot.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I guess he’s one of the greatest figures of medieval Europe. Wrote the book that changed a nation. A Viking first rate,” I said. “He’s kinda like Iceland’s Homer.”
“Snorri,” Scott said. “Snoooorrrriii. Oh look. There’s his statue. Have to get your photo.”
“Yeah, great,” I said, posing beneath the towering figure, bundled in Gore-Tex against the wind.
“And you say he’s got a pool around here?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I did the reading. The stones are original. Maybe some of them were laid by the man himself.”
“Probably not,” Scott said. “That shit happened a long time ago. And since he was rich, he probably had poor people do it. Nice to think of it that way though. Let’s go for a walk up in those trees.”
On the way, we stopped at the museum. We were eerily alone but for the woman at the desk.
“What can we see if we go inside?” I asked her.
“Exhibits,” she said. “You can read about Snorri on the walls. One thousand krona for entrance.” Her unfriendly voice did not imply that she thought she was speaking to a criminal, but merely to an inferior.
“Do you want to go in?” I asked Scott.
“Now you know I ain’t gonna to do that,” he said. “I can read about Snorri online for free. Or in a book.”
It was then that I felt a little cross with my buddy Scott. Sure, the museums we’d seen so far in Iceland were costly and only modestly interesting, mostly dioramic displays and sign-boards—each time we left feeling dissatisfied—but I knew too that if we didn’t have a look this time, we’d not have a look ever. What if we missed something? You know how that goes? You were right there, but you decided not to, and later you learn it was the chance of a lifetime. Yet Scott wasn’t bothered at all, content to wait for me, while the situation drew out a central anxiety that comes each time I leave home.
All travel, at least for me, feels hurried and a little desperate, and in returning from a journey, I often feel worried and ashamed that I did not see deeply enough, did not feel completely enough, did not find an original moment by hunting the edge of experience. And I often feel ashamed that I did not regard my companions—those who traveled with me and those who stayed behind—with enough kindness and patience and grace, and with enough love. And so in returning from a journey I feel a lingering anxiety that drives me to desire, above all things, to depart, again. If I leave home once more, I imagine, I just might get it right. Yet I know that it will probably be like before, and if I do go, I am merely one journey closer to being imprisoned in a distant, confused and shaggy country for the rest of my life.
We turned and walked back out the door.
Up in the planted forest, we rose above the village on a wood-chip path to see the steeple of the new church, the steeple of the old church next to the cemetery, a complex of greenhouses farther off, and the green sweep of the valley leading away into the mountains. A pretty scene, but a pretty empty scene too, cold, naked, and ignoble, scant of wood, scant of heather, scant of life. A road and some fences broke the varying waste. Nothing much was happening except a little brown bird twittering on a branch. We were in this place, in a moment in time, and the quiet and cool skies of Iceland told none of the stories of events that unfolded here. We had to look more closely than we were, and I feared we were not going to, feared I would wake in the morning to find we had traveled very far to see very little.
“Well, that’s that,” Scott said. “I guess we might have a look at that pool.”
“Indeed,” I said. “That’s why we came.”
Iceland converted to Christianity in 1,000 AD, and Snorri was a Christian, but in his seminal work, the Prose Edda, he is pagan in his heart. Part one, “Gylfaginning,” or “The Delusion of Gylf,” upon which the book’s reputation is founded, instructs young poets through the tale of a Swedish King, Gylfi, who is deluded into believing in the Æsir, the pantheon of pagan gods, especially Odin, the wanderer. As one scholar has written, Gylfi disguises himself and takes on the name Gangleri, which means “the Wayworn,” another name for Odin. He appears before the gods in Asgard unaware that his true identity is already known, which only underscores his delusion. His assumed name also points to wisdom acquired through travel, but because he has no wisdom, he is a symbol for all pagans who blindly believe in the Æsir and so deny the Christian God. But the human spirit is a thing strangely put together, and the book reads more like a celebration of Norse mythology than a cautionary tale. Beyond the book’s poetic instruction, I take to heart not Gylfi’s delusion, but the story’s central wisdom, a pagan ideal: evil was present before the gods created the universe, and in creating it they gave evil a place to be. The story recognizes that the created world is fragile and temporary, and this is right and good, and one day, at the time of the Ragnarok, the world will be destroyed and a new world order will rise in its place. Despite this dark ending, the scholar writes, “the temporality of [the gods’] achievements does not flaw the glory of their accomplishments.” A comforting thought for an agitated traveler like me.
We walked out the grassy field before Snorrastofa near a little pond where the ground was tractored and tilled up like some great beast had been at work with its claws. I noticed a section of black pipe cast aside on the hummocky ground near the water’s edge, a few deciduous trees, recently planted. Was this Snorri’s Pool?
“Is this Snorri’s Pool?” I said dumbly. It didn’t occur to me to look at the map.
“I don’t know,” Scott said.
“I know you don’t know,” I said.
“Then why did you ask?” he said.
“I wasn’t asking,” I said. “I was commenting.”
“Sounded like you were asking to me,” he said.
“This can’t be it,” I said, trying to move on.
“Maybe this is it,” Scott said.
“Surely not,” I said.
“Then where the hell is it?” he said. “Looks like a bomb went off.”
We wandered near the eastern edge of the field where we discovered a few volcanic vents, one with a section of broken, precast concrete pipe sticking upright out of the ground. It was filled with weird bubbling water, and sitting inside like a stirring spoon in pot of soup, an old rib bone, probably from a cow, or more likely a horse. A little shiver ran over me from the wind. It all came clear: a great troll was at work here, tearing up the place and killing horses, eating horsemeat in the night.
We looked at each other and shrugged, and with the glee of travellers who shake off the dust of one stage before hurrying forth upon another, we snapped a few photos and headed up the road to Husafell.
What had we come all this way to see, I asked privately of myself, if not to see Snorri’s pool, and now winding along this valley road, I concluded that we had not seen it, but some other strange water, the merit of which remained to be realized. What I wanted was to feel what Keats felt when he looked into Chapman’s Homer: the opening of a new world, a new universe, which kept him up all night foraging and tasting and dribbling over the sentences of the master, inspiring him to compose the most heralded of his early sonnets. I wanted to learn, as Keats learned in reading Homer, that Snorri, Iceland’s poet of poets, was a gateway to somewhere new, somewhere fantastic, and perhaps looking into that pool, into the dark waters bubbling up from the center of the earth, would lead me there. But, alas, we missed it.
In Husafell we walked a trail up Baejargil, a sharp-shinned gorge of razored rock broken and crushed asunder along the rushing byway of a glacial stream. Along this way we paused to admire stone faces carved into the rock by local artist Pall Gudmundsson: a woman’s face and her beehive hair, a wild man with a bird at his shoulder, a Roman-nosed face with vacuous eyes. The sky greyed and foretold rain, and when it came the rock went black and slick with water like the surface of an alien planet where little patches of white and purple flowers were all that returned us to the earth. I thought we were climbing up the canyon into the better part of our natures, and as the rain fell and so wetted our heads, all tensions and sins between us were forgiven. I noted in that variegated moment, the slow-paced way of every journey, the slow-paced grind of every life, and how it is possible to look into a distant past and condense that long time into a brief and beautiful story, to taste it in all its elevation and energy, to bring it back to life. And so here, in the cold, wet canyon of Baejargil, I felt free to wander, free to hope, and free to love whatever happened my way.
We ambled farther on, farther up, now walking along the frontier of hope, and discovered a series of cloven hoof prints in a spot of mud along a pile of rounded droppings. An ewe? A goat? A faun? The rain fell on as we reached the limit of the canyon to gaze upon the high cliff where coming over it fell in long tracks of lovely lines the soft waters of the glacial stream. This was the end. The stony skeleton of the world was here vigorously displayed, and turning back we made our way down in a hail of sunshine.
Back in Borgarnes, we stripped off our clothes for our swim trunks at the town pool, and dropped into the clear hot waters for a soak. As we let the day wash us out, let our muscles and bones drain of all considerations, I realized that I have been after an adventure all my life, a pure dispassionate adventure, such as befell early and heroic voyagers; and thus to be here in Iceland with my old friend, to have seen what we have seen, was to find a fraction of my dream realized.
An ending like this, I thought, makes all tomorrows possible.