Thursday, October 12, 2006

Michelle Styles: research trip to Iceland

One of the great parts about being a writer is being able to do research. For my Roman set novels, I have been to visit Italy and Rome, learning lots in the process, and now for my Viking novels, I have been able to explore new places. One of the best places in the world to learn about the Viking culture is Iceland. Luckily for me, we were already stopping in Iceland on the way to the US this past summer. Icelandic Air does a marvelous service from Scotland to Reykjavik and then onwards to the US. Passengers are able to stay in Iceland for up to three nights, and still have it considered to be a direct flight.
Why is Iceland so great for the Vikings? Most of what we know about the Vikings comes from either the archeological record OR the Icelandic Medieval Manuscripts. The Manuscripts while written in the 12/13 century are the simply the retelling of oral history. Most of the sagas deal with the settling of Iceland during the Viking period. The Poetic and Prose Eddas give the basis for Norse mythology. The sagas have inspired writers such as JRR Tolkien and composers such as Wagner. The remaining original sagas written on vellum are kept in the Culture House Museum.
Iceland was first settled in around 847 AD by Vikings from Norway. The Viking Age is traditionally held to be from 8 June 793 (date of the raid on Lindisfarne) to 1066 (defeat at Stamford Bridge). Because Iceland is so isolated, it retained many of the traditions, culture and even animals of the Vikings. The Icelandic Horses are direct descendants of Viking Horses.

While I was in Iceland, I was lucky enough to be able to ride one of the Icelandic horses. I went through Ishestar Riding stables which offers riding excursions through the lava fields. Icelandic horses have five different speeds as opposed to most horses who have 3. Icelandic horse have walk, trot, canter, tolt and flying pace. Tolt is found in only a few breeds around the world and is when a horse has only one foot on the ground at any one time. It is a very smooth and the rider can carry a full glass of wine and not spill a drop. Flying pace is just that. The horses are beautiful animals as well as having a very friendly temperament. Unfortunately for me, my horse decided to go a bit fast at the end and after two hours in the saddle, my thighs refused to hang on. I fell off, but luckily received only a few scrapes and bruises. The bruising to my ego was perhaps the worst.
There is a new museum in Iceland 871+/-1 It contains displays about the longhouse that was discovered when the new Hotel Centrum was built. The multimedia displays help bring the period to life -- detailing people's lives and the sorts of animals they encountered. The dating is fairly precise as there a volcanic eruption.
The other important museum is the National Museum and it houses artifacts from the Viking period. The museum was recently redone and provides a hands on multi-media experience that held the attention of my family -- not just me. My children enjoyed trying on the chain mail and helmets for example.
We also took a trip into the interior.-- the so called Golden Circle which includes the Thingvellier National Park. Thingvellier is where the Eurasian and American tectonic plates meet, creating a rift valley. It is also where the Icelandic Vikings had their assembly -- the Althing. The oldest Christian church is built on the site and dates from 1000 AD when Norway (and Iceland) officially adopted Christianity. On the tour we were also treated to geysers (including Geysir which all geysers take their name from), and Gullfoss, a truly spectacular waterfall that was saved by the efforts of one lone woman.
Iceland is a fascinating place and well worth exploring. There is a tremendous amount of building work going on in and around Reykjavik and how unspoiled it remains is an open question. But if you are interested in the Vikings and their way of life, Iceland is a must visit.


Ali said...

Michelle, it's nice to read that you get to do research like that, instead of just from reading other books :-) I'm jealous, lol

Michelle Styles said...

I love to travel, and it was very much serendipity, BUT I do think you get a much better sense of place for having been somewhere. I have also visited Norway in the past.
When I was writing my Rome set historicals, I was lucky enough to be able to visit there as well as going around all the Roman sites on Hadrian's Wall which is about a mile from my home. There is a difference.