Iceland: Once upon a time in the West

The largely frozen waters of Kirkjufellsfoss, a waterfall that sits in the shadow of Kirkjufell mountain on the Snæfellsnes peninsula
Photographer: Jonathan Gregson

Iceland’s wild western coast has bred a long line of storytellers, who shared tales of super-human Vikings and meddlesome spirits across the millennia. We meet the people keeping the tradition alive and the landscapes that inspire them

WORDS: AMANDA CANNING
PHOTOGRAPHS: JONATHAN GREGSON

THE MAN WHO LIVES WITH TROLLS
It’s a clear day when the two trolls set out on their journey. Snow sits on the distant mountains, but the valley is green and full of summer. Frazzled hair running amok above pale faces, the pair bob merrily through the hills. Their journey soon comes to an abrupt halt – a giant hand swoops in from above and yanks them into the firmament.

“So this is my little theatre,” explains Ingi Hans, inspecting the wooden puppets in the playhouse he conjured up from bits of scrap and uses to entertain children in his hometown of Grundarfjörður. He wheels it across the floor of his workshop – a building known to everyone in the region as the Storyteller’s Lodge – to join the other paraphernalia he’s amassed over the years: old cash machines, ships’ lanterns, tin cars, leather-bound books, vintage Barbie dolls still in their boxes…

Ingi, the thin strip of white beard running down his chin lending him a faint air of wizard, has been collecting and telling stories his entire life. “My father was a fisherman and every day I would visit an old man at the harbour who was fixing the nets,” he says, hands clasped round a mug of coffee. “He was always telling stories. My father would come home from the sea and I would share them with him.”

The door swings open and his young grandson comes in, a whirl of snow blowing through behind him. He heads straight to the theatre and starts playing with the trolls.  “Here we are all storytellers,” says Ingi. “Maybe it’s our Celtic heritage, but our landscape and long winters also have an effect. We started to collect myths, to bring them back to life, to help us through the cold nights.”

I ask him if he believes in the huldufólk, the mysterious ‘hidden people’ often incorrectly translated as ‘elves’ in English. “I have not much experience of them,” he says, “but, if you reject everything you don’t know, you believe in nothing.”

He points out of the window to a dark mountain beyond the town. “And, of course, we have many trolls in Iceland and you see them everywhere.” He traces the craggy ridges of the rock’s upper reaches with his finger. “That’s a female troll right there.”

THE LADY AND THE MAGIC ICICLES
The road out of Grundarfjörður follows the coast west, slick and black and solid in a land of murk. Colour is hard to come by in the thick of winter on Snæfellsnes: stiff golden blades of grass rise through the snow on the black beaches ringing the peninsula; and metre-thick ice sheets dripping down rock faces glow turquoise, as if lit from within. At dawn, a stripe of electric pink momentarily enlivens the pallid sky above Kirkjufellsfoss, a stack of waterfalls guarded by a mountain in the shape of a witch’s hat.

Water emerges beneath a thick hood of ice at the falls’ edge, collecting in black pools below. Broken icicles litter the ground like abandoned swords. “In Iceland, we say icicles are Grýla’s candles,” says Ragnhildur Sigurðardóttir, picking her way over the frozen ground. “She was an ogre and her 13 sons, the Yule Lads, terrorised children for 13 days before Christmas. She ate her first two husbands.”

As manager of Snæfellsnes Regional Park, Ragnhildur is fascinated by the link between landscape and myth. Like many native Icelanders, she can trace her family tree back to the country’s first Viking settlers, who rowed over the ocean from Norway over a millennia ago. “Iceland doesn’t have an architectural heritage, but we do have a heritage of storytelling,” she says, flame hair riffled by the rising wind. “We can go to any place and know who lived there, who they loved, who were their enemies.”

Adventurers and pioneers, and often renegades and social outcasts, the people who made it to these shores had a natural propensity for hyperbole, and embellished their reputations with claims of super-human strength to keep their farms safe from marauders. Their legend grew more fantastical with every successive retelling through the generations. The saga of one of the region’s first settlers, Bárður Snæfellsás, was first written in the 15th century, and tells of a man whose father was half-giant and whose daughter was set adrift on an ice-sheet to Greenland. Bárður himself became a half-troll and is said to live in Snæfellsjökull glacier, atop the flat volcano that squats over Snæfellsnes peninsula.

“There is a lot of magic in our stories and in our nature,” says Ragnhildur, as a pale, part-time sun inches above the horizon. “It’s alive in all of Iceland, but especially here. On every farm, on every mountain, there is a story with some magic in it. People are reluctant to talk about it because they don’t want to look stupid… but the stories always come out eventually.”

To find out more about chilling in Iceland, check out LPMI’s October 2018 issue NOW. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.