List Of Contents | Contents of Letters From High Latitudes, by Lord Dufferin
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Soon after, the district we traversed became more igneous,
wrinkled, cracked, and ropy than anything we had yet
seen, and another two hours' scamper over such a track
as till then I would not have believed horses could have
traversed, even at a foot's pace, brought us to the
solitary farm-house of Bessestad. Fresh from the neat
homesteads of England that we had left sparkling in the
bright spring weather, and sheltered by immemorial
elms,--the scene before us looked inexpressibly desolate.
In front rose a cluster of weather-beaten wooden buildings,
and huts like ice-houses, surrounded by a scanty plot of
grass, reclaimed from the craggy plain of broken lava
that stretched--the home of ravens and foxes--on either
side to the horizon. Beyond, lay a low black breadth of
moorland, intersected by patches of what was neither land
nor water, and last, the sullen sea; while above our
heads a wind, saturated with the damps of the Atlantic,
went moaning over the landscape. Yet this was Bessestad,
the ancient home of Snorro Sturleson!

On dismounting from our horses and entering the house
things began to look more cheery; a dear old lady, to
whom we were successively presented by the Rector, received
us, with the air of a princess, ushered us into her best
room, made us sit down on the sofa--the place of honour--and
assisted by her niece, a pale lily-like maiden, named
after Jarl Hakon's Thora, proceeded to serve us with hot
coffee, rusks, and sweetmeats. At first it used to give
me a very disagreeable feeling to be waited upon by the
woman-kind of the household, and I was always starting
up, and attempting to take the dishes out of their hands,
to their infinite surprise; but now I have succeeded in
learning to accept their ministrations with the same
unembarrassed dignity as my neighbours. In the end,
indeed, I have rather got to like it, especially when
they are as pretty as Miss Thora. To add, moreover, to
our content, it appeared that that young lady spoke a
little French; so that we had no longer any need to pay
our court by proxy, which many persons besides ourselves
have found to be unsatisfactory.  Our hostess lives quite
alone. Her son, whom I have the pleasure of knowing, is
far away, pursuing a career of honour and usefulness at
Copenhagen, and it seems quite enough for his mother to
know that he is holding his head high among the princes
of literature, and the statesmen of Europe, provided only
news of his success and advancing reputation shall
occasionally reach her across the ocean.

Of the rooms and the interior arrangement of the house,
I do not know that I have anything particular to tell
you; they seemed to me like those of a good old-fashioned
farmhouse, the walls wainscoted with deal, and the doors
and staircase of the same material. A few prints, a
photograph, some book-shelves, one or two little pictures,
decorated the parlour, and a neat iron stove, and massive
chests of drawers, served to furnish it very completely.
But you must not, I fear, take the drawing-room of
Bessestad as an average specimen of the comfort of an
Icelandic interieur. The greater proportion of the
inhabitants of the island live much more rudely. The
walls of only the more substantial farmsteads are wainscoted
with deal, or even partially screened with drift-wood.
In most houses the bare blocks of lava, pointed with
moss, are left in all their natural ruggedness. Instead
of wood, the rafters are made of the ribs of whales. The
same room but too often serves as the dining, sitting,
and sleeping place for the whole family; a hole in the
roof is the only chimney, and a horse's skull the most
luxurious fauteuil into which it is possible for them to
induct a stranger.  The parquet is that originally laid
down by Nature,--the beds are merely boxes filled with
feathers or sea-weed,--and by all accounts the nightly
packing is pretty close, and very indiscriminate.

After drinking several cups of coffee, and consuming at
least a barrel of rusks, we rose to go, in spite of Miss
Thora's intimation that a fresh jorum of coffee was being
brewed. The horses were resaddled; and with an eloquent
exchange of bows, curtseys, and kindly smiles, we took
leave of our courteous entertainers, and sallied forth
into the wind and rain. It was a regular race home, single
file, the Rector leading; but as we sped along in silence,
amid the unchangeable features of this strange land, I
could not help thinking of him whose shrewd observing
eye must have rested, six hundred and fifty years ago,
on the selfsame crags, and tarns, and distant mountain-tops;
perhaps on the very day he rode out in the pride of his
wealth, talent, and political influence, to meet his
murderers at Reikholt. And mingling with his memory would
rise the pale face of Thora,--not the little lady of
the coffee and buscuits we had just left, but that other
Thora, so tender and true, who turned back King Olaf's
hell-hounds from the hiding-place of the great Jarl of

In order that you may understand why the forlorn barrack
we had just left, and its solitary inmates, should have
set me thinking of the men and women "of a thousand
summers back," it is necessary I should tell you a little
about this same Snorro Sturleson, whose memory so haunted

Colonized as Iceland had been,--not, as is generally the
case, when a new land is brought into occupation, by the
poverty-stricken dregs of a redundant population, nor by
a gang of outcasts and ruffians, expelled from the bosom
of a society which they contaminated,--but by men who in
their own land had been both rich and noble,--with
possessions to be taxed, and a spirit too haughty to
endure taxation,--already acquainted with whatever of
refinement and learning the age they lived in was capable
of supplying, it is not surprising that we should find
its inhabitants, even from the first infancy of the
republic, endowed with an amount of intellectual energy
hardly to be expected in so secluded a community.

Perhaps it was this very seclusion which stimulated into
almost miraculous exuberance the mental powers already
innate in the people. Undistracted during several successive
centuries by the bloody wars, and still more bloody
political convulsions, which for too long a period rendered
the sword of the warrior so much more important to European
society than the pen of the scholar, the Icelandic
settlers, devoting the long leisure of their winter nights
to intellectual occupations, became the first of any
European nation to create for themselves a native
literature. Indeed, so much more accustomed did they get
to use their heads than their hands, than if an Icelander
were injured he often avenged himself, not by cutting
the throat of his antagonist, but by ridiculing him in
some pasquinade,--sometimes, indeed, he did both; and
when the King of Denmark maltreats the crew of an Icelandic
vessel shipwrecked on his coast, their indignant countrymen
send the barbarous monarch word, that by way of reprisal,
they intend making as many lampoons on him as there are
promontories in his dominions. Almost all the ancient
Scandinavian manuscripts are Icelandic; the negotiations
between the Courts of the North were conducted by Icelandic
diplomatists; the earliest topographical survey with
which we are acquainted was Icelandic; the cosmogony of
the Odin religion was formulated, and its doctrinal
traditions and ritual reduced to a system, by Icelandic
archaeologists; and the first historical composition ever
written by any European in the vernacular, was the product
of Icelandic genius. The title of this important work is
"The Heimskringla," or world-circle, [Footnote: So called
because Heimskringla (world-circle) is the first word in
the opening sentence of the manuscript which catches the
eye.] and its author was--Snorro Sturleson! It consists
of an account of the reigns of the Norwegian kings from
mythic times down to about A.D.  1150, that is to say,
a few years before the death of our own Henry II.; but
detailed by the old Sagaman with so much art and cleverness
as almost to combine the dramatic power of Macaulay with
Clarendon's delicate delineation of character, and the
charming loquacity of Mr. Pepys. His stirring sea-fights,
his tender love-stories, and delightful bits of domestic
gossip, are really inimitable;--you actually live with
the people he brings upon the stage, as intimately as
you do with Falstaff, Percy, or Prince Hal; and there is
something in the bearing of those old heroic figures who
form his dramatis person, so grand and noble, that it is
impossible to read the story of their earnest stirring
lives without a feeling of almost passionate interest--an
effect which no tale frozen up in the monkish Latin of
the Saxon annalists has ever produced upon me.

As for Snorro's own life, it was eventful and tragic
enough.  Unscrupulous, turbulent, greedy of money, he
married two heiresses--the one, however, becoming the
COLLEAGUE, not the successor of the other. This arrangement
naturally led to embarrassment. His wealth created envy,
his excessive haughtiness disgusted his sturdy
fellow-countrymen. He was suspected of desiring to make
the republic an appanage of the Norwegian crown, in the
hope of himself becoming viceroy; and at last, on a dark
September night, of the year 1241, he was murdered in
his house at Reikholt by his three sons-in-law.

The same century which produced the Herodotean work of
Sturleson also gave birth to a whole body of miscellaneous
Icelandic literature,--though in Britain and elsewhere
bookmaking was entirely confined to the monks, and merely
consisted in the compilation of a series of bald annals
locked up in bad Latin. It is true, Thomas of Ercildoune
was a contemporary of Snorro's; but he is known to us
more as a magician than as a man of letters; whereas
histories, memoirs, romances, biographies, poetry,
statistics, novels, calendars, specimens of almost every
kind of composition, are to be found even among the meagre
relics which have survived the literary decadence that

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