Words Could Not Fell Me


Best of 2015

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

All photos by Karl Steel

Reciting sagas in the Westfjords of Iceland.

Haymaking time had come, warm, dry, and cloudless, on a late summer’s morning roughly a millennium ago. All the men had gone out to mow, except for Thorkel, who lingered in bed, eavesdropping on the women in the next room, digesting his breakfast, and, with less composure, the revelation of his wife Asgerd’s infidelity. At last Thorkel roused himself, to speak a verse:

Hear a great wonder,
hear of peace broken,
hear of a great matter,
hear of a death
—one man’s or more.

Thorkel’s prophecy came true with the help of a big spear. After an anonymous assailant stabbed Asgerd’s lover, Vestein, Vestein’s and Thorkel’s brother-in-law, Gisli—“a man of great prowess, [yet] fortune was not always with him”—initiated the obligatory, inexhaustible cycle of revenge killings. Honor and familial chore-shirking would doom Gisli to a life of feud, outlawry, and death by mob, but not before he, too, had seized the chance to speak a great many verses.

When I first heard the medieval Icelandic Gísla saga Súrssonar, I was sitting on a mound where archaeologists had excavated a Viking-era burial site, where Gisli might very well have buried Vestein, in the Haukadalur valley, on the banks of Dýrafjörður, in the Vestfirðir, or Westfjords of Iceland. It was July, and the grass grew high, spangled with toadstools, wildflowers, and dried sheep dung, but it wasn’t haymaking weather. Under a gray, drizzly sky, beside the subarctic waters of the fjord, I huddled with my husband, Karl, on a gray wool blanket. Read More >>