The Real Game of Thrones

Iceland is hot, and for good reason—there's its trending music scene, like this indie artist Kaleo. Like this song, Iceland feels otherworldly. There are geothermal geysers, milky-blue hot springs, and fairy-sprinkled lava fields. I mean, you can snorkel in the continental divide. You can walk on glaciers where they film Game of Thrones. All these things connect travelers to a land I think of as the love child of the moon, the arctic and western Ireland. Today, though, we dig deeper, we look at the ancient Viking legends that connect Iceland to its mystical roots, but also seem to palpably swirl around and shape life there today.

Twenty-seven kilometres east of Selfoss, we find “the gas station in the middle of nowhere,” where our directions say to turn left. Our destination—a small timber cottage smack in the middle of a remote moss-and-heather-draped lava field. We're near Hella, Iceland.  

By the last kilometre, our two sons have evacuated the back seat and walk so our mid-sized hatchback doesn’t drag along the black volcanic dirt track. With every muffler scrape, we ponder the merits of this road less taken. But when the cottage’s door opens, thanks to a key found under an elf carving on the back deck, all reservations evaporate.

The snow-streaked peak of Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, dominates our 270-degree view. It’s a panorama untouched by progress since an unknown 13th-century writer inked the story of the first Vikings to settle here—that was about 900 AD. Long before J.R.R. Tolkien found inspiration for his fantastical middle earth here, just before Geoffrey Chaucer was penning The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, Njáls Saga, the jewel of the 40 Sagas of Icelanders, was being committed to parchment. We find a 1960s translation on the bookshelf.

Njála, or Burnt Njáll’s Saga, is really just a tragic story of friendship between prophet Njáll and the heroic chieftain Gunnar—mostly set in south Iceland. It's one of the most detailed and nuanced accounts of Icelandic life in the Viking age.

The Saga Centre near our cottage reveals more about sites around Hekla that figure in Njála. There’s the dramatic rainbows of Seljalandsfoss waterfall.  There's the silt-filled waters of the Markarfljót outwash plain, and the glacier-capped Eyjafjallajökull. That's the volcano that erupted and shut down transatlantic air traffic in 2010.

Still, Njála is just one of 40 ancient family narratives passed down orally from Viking times and finally written down in the 13th and 14th centuries. Others of note include the oldest, Egil’s Saga, and Gísla Saga, which was made into a film in 1984. The Saga of Erik the Red touches on the brutality of the warrior king. It touches, too, his son Leif making landfall in North America—nearly five centuries before Christopher Columbus. Some like Njála are touted as literary masterpieces, rivalling the epics of Homer or the genius of Shakespeare.

Outsiders might see all this as just a curious bit of local lore.  But for Icelanders, the sagas remain an important conscious part of present-day life.

I meet Lloyd Burchill at one of Reykjavík’s many trendy downtown cafes. Lloyd is a Canadian expat who married an Icelander and moved to Reykjavík a few years ago. He shares how there has been little foreign influence here before the boom in tourism over the past decade. That's why Icelandic lineage has remained remarkably clear. Official records are meticulous. And after all, there are only 320,000 souls who call this island home, with most descended from one small clan of Celtic and Viking settlers, depicted in the sagas.

The sagas may not be pure fact, but for many Icelanders, they're a vivid connection to traceable ancestors and ancient roots reaching back over 1000 years. Powerful stuff.

The woodstove is glowing now. My feet are on the coffee table and I'm diving deeper into Njála’s schemes of treachery and violence. There's family loyalty, unbreakable friendships, bloody feuds, reconciliation, and prophecies fulfilled—all playing out across this titanic panorama of south Iceland right outside our living room window. It's stunning, harsh, mercurial, ominous, uplifting—the sagas and this landscape both.