“Lovely are the slopes—never have they seemed lovelier—the pale cornfields and mown meadows.” So proclaims Gunnar, gazing upon his hillside settlement at Hlíðarendi in the south of Iceland. As recounted in Njáls saga—perhaps the most beloved of the medieval Icelandic sagas—the hero Gunnar faces a three-year sentence of outlawry after committing an ill-advised murder. Having arranged passage to Norway, he sets out riding through the Markarfljót river basin towards the coast. When his horse stumbles, he leaps from the saddle and lands, fortuitously, with an idyllic view towards his hilly home.
Taking this pastoral vista as a sign, he decides to defy his sentence, despite the fact that remaining in Iceland as an outlaw leaves him liable to be killed legally. “I’ll ride home,” he declares, “and I won’t depart.”
Although the sagas are more fiction than fact, Icelanders have diligently identified and preserved key settings in oral history and local lore for centuries—no less here. To this day, a site known as Gunnarshólmi (“Gunnar’s islet”) sits in the Fljótshlíð region of southern Iceland. Even as this location has remained alive in local memory, the landscape around it has changed significantly in the millennium since the events of Njáls saga are purported to have taken place. The Markarfljót river, which originates amidst the glaciers Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, has deposited sediment through the once-fertile region as its various tributaries have changed course, rendering the grassy farmland into a sandy wasteland. Still, one patch of grass remains amidst the eroded waste and it is here—so local history has it—that Gunnar’s horse stumbled.
The early nineteenth-century poet Jónas Hallgrímsson, whose romantic works frequently invoke Icelandic nature, found a certain poignancy in the literary and geological history of this site. In his poem “Gunnarshólmi,” he gazes broadly across the landscape, still verdant and fecund as it was in Gunnar’s days. Only after Gunnar rides across the world of the poem and, glancing back, decides to remain, does Jónas return to his present moment and portray the landscape as the wasteland that it is. But pondering the lush tract amidst the eroded terrain, he sees some “protective energy” conspiring to keep this historically charged spot as striking as it once was to Gunnar.
That Gunnar dies shortly after deciding to remain only amplifies the pathos of this episode. Jónas underscores the nobility of Gunnar’s decision to accept death in his native land—a fact which takes on tragic irony in light of the fact that Jónas himself died in Copenhagen and wasn’t reinterred in Iceland until 1946. Perhaps Jónas’s untimely death on foreign shores only deepens the sense of Gunnarshólmi as a symbol of unwavering devotion to one’s homeland.
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