Read CHAPTER XLVIII of The Land of Thor , free online book, by J. Ross Browne, on ReadCentral.com.

THINGVALLA.

The extensive valley called Thingvalla, or the Valley of the “Thing,” lies at the head of a lake of the same name, some fifteen miles in length by six or seven in width. The waters of this lake are beautifully clear, and the scenery around it is of the wildest and most picturesque character. Rugged mountains rise from its shores in various directions, and islands reflect their varied outlines in its glassy surface. Cranes, wild ducks, plovers, and occasionally swans, abound in the lagoons that open into it from Thingvalla. The bed of this fine sheet of water corresponds in its configuration with the surrounding country. It is of volcanic formation throughout, and the rifts and fissures in the lava can be traced as far as it is practicable to see through the water.

On passing out of the Almannajau near the lower fall, where the river breaks out into the main valley, the view toward the lake is extensive and imposing. Along the course of the river is a succession of beautiful little green flats, upon which the horses and cattle of the good pastor graze; and farther down, on the left, lies the church and farm-house. Still beyond are vast plains of lava, gradually merging into the waters of the lake; and in the far distance mountain upon mountain, till the view is lost in the snowy Jokuls of the far interior.

Descending into this valley we soon crossed the river, which is fordable at this season, and in a few minutes entered a lane between the low stone walls that surround the station.

The church is of modern construction, and, like all I saw in the interior, is made of wood, painted a dark color, and roofed with boards covered with sheets of tarred canvas. It is a very primitive little affair, only one story high, and not more than fifteen by twenty feet in dimensions. From the date on the weather-cock it appears to have been built in 1858.

The congregation is supplied by the few sheep-ranches in the neighborhood, consisting at most of half a dozen families. These unpretending little churches are to be seen in the vicinity of every settlement throughout the whole island. Simple and homely as they are, they speak well for the pious character of the people.

The pastor of Thingvalla and his family reside in a group of sod-covered huts close by the church. These cheerless little hovels are really a curiosity, none of them being over ten or fifteen feet high, and all huddled together without the slightest regard to latitude or longitude, like a parcel of sheep in a storm. Some have windows in the roof, and some have chimneys; grass and weeds grow all over them, and crooked by-ways and dark alleys run among them and through them. At the base they are walled up with big lumps of lava, and two of them have board fronts, painted black, while the remainder are patched up with turf and rubbish of all sorts, very much in the style of a stork’s nest. A low stone wall encircles the premises, but seems to be of little use as a barrier against the encroachments of live-stock, being broken up in gaps every few yards. In front of the group some attempt has been made at a pavement, which, however, must have been abandoned soon after the work was commenced. It is now littered all over with old tubs, pots, dish-cloths, and other articles of domestic use.

The interior of this strange abode is even more complicated than one would be led to expect from the exterior. Passing through a dilapidated doorway in one of the smaller cabins, which you would hardly suppose to be the main entrance, you find yourself in a long dark passage-way, built of rough stone, and roofed with wooden rafters and brushwood covered with sod. The sides are ornamented with pegs stuck in the crevices between the stones, upon which hang saddles, bridles, horse-shoes, bunches of herbs, dried fish, and various articles of cast-off clothing, including old shoes and sheepskins. Wide or narrow, straight or crooked, to suit the sinuosities of the different cabins into which it forms the entrance, it seems to have been originally located upon the track of a blind boa-constrictor, though Bishop Hatton denies the existence of snakes in Iceland. The best room, or rather house for every room is a house is set apart for the accommodation of travelers. Another cabin is occupied by some members of the pastor’s family, who bundle about like a lot of rabbits. The kitchen is also the dog-kennel, and occasionally the sheep-house. A pile of stones in one corner of it, upon which a few twigs or scraps of sheep-manure serve to make the fire, constitute the cooking department. The beams overhead are decorated with pots and kettles, dried fish, stockings, petticoats, and the remains of a pair of boots that probably belonged to the pastor in his younger days. The dark turf walls are pleasantly diversified with bags of oil hung on pegs, scraps of meat, old bottles and jars, and divers rusty-looking instruments for shearing sheep and cleaning their hoofs. The floor consists of the original lava-bed, and artificial puddles composed of slops and offal of divers unctuous kinds. Smoke fills all the cavities in the air not already occupied by foul odors, and the beams, and posts, and rickety old bits of furniture are dyed to the core with the dense and variegated atmosphere around them. This is a fair specimen of the whole establishment, with the exception of the travelers’ room. The beds in these cabins are the chief articles of luxury. Feathers being abundant, they are sewed up in prodigious ticks, which are tumbled topsy-turvy into big boxes on legs that serve for bedsteads, and then covered over with piles of all the loose blankets, petticoats, and cast-off rags possible to be gathered up about the premises. Into these comfortable nests the sleepers dive every night, and, whether in summer or winter, cover themselves up under the odorous mountain of rags, and snooze away till morning. During the long winter nights they spend on an average about sixteen hours out of the twenty-four in this agreeable manner. When it is borne in mind that every crevice in the house is carefully stopped up in order to keep out the cold air, and that whole families frequently occupy a single apartment not over ten by twelve, the idea of being able to cut through the atmosphere with a cleaver seems perfectly preposterous. A night’s respiration in such a hole is quite sufficient to saturate the whole family with the substance of all the fish and sheepskins in the vicinity; and the marvel of it is that they don’t come out next day wagging their fins or bleating like sheep. I wonder they ever have any occasion to eat. Absorption must supply them with a large amount of nutriment; but I suppose what is gained in that way is lost in the fattening of certain other members of the household. Warmth seems to be the principal object, and certainly it is no small consideration in a country where fuel is so scarce.

I can not conceive of more wretched abodes for human beings. They are, indeed, very little better than fox-holes certainly not much sweeter. Yet in such rude habitations as these the priests of Iceland study the classical languages, and perfect themselves in the early literature of their country. Many of them become learned, and devote much of their lives to the pursuits of science. In the northern part of the country the houses are said to be better and more capacious; but the example I have given is a fair average of what I saw.

The passionate devotion of the Icelanders to their homes is almost inconceivable. I have never seen any thing like it. The most favored nations of the earth can not furnish examples of such intense and all-absorbing love of home and country. I traveled with a native of Reykjavik some weeks after my visit to Thingvalla, and had an opportunity of judging what his impressions were of other countries. He was a very intelligent man, well versed in Icelandic literature, and spoke English remarkably well. Both himself and wife were fellow passengers on the Arcturus from Reykjavik to Grangemouth. I was curious to know what a well-educated man would think of a civilized country, and watched him very closely. He had never seen a railway, locomotive, or carriage of any kind, not even a tree or a good-sized house. We stopped at Leith, where we took passage by the train to Edinburg. As soon as the locomotive started he began to laugh heartily, and by the time we reached Edinburg he and his wife, though naturally grave people, were nearly in convulsions of laughter. I had no idea that the emotion of wonder would be manifested in that way by civilized beings. Of course I laughed to see them laugh, and altogether it was very funny. We took rooms at the same hotel, opposite to Sir Walter Scott’s monument. Now it is needless to say that Edinburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Even Constantinople can scarcely surpass it in picturesque beauty. The worthy Icelander, be it remembered, had never seen even a town, except Reykjavik, of which I have already attempted a description. It was night when we arrived at Edinburg, so that I had no opportunity of judging what his impressions would be at that time. Next morning I knocked at his room door. His wife opened it, looking very sad, as I thought. At the window, gazing out over the magnificent scene, embracing the Monument, the Castle, and many of the finest of the public buildings, stood her husband, the big tears coursing down his face.

“Well,” said I, “what do you think of Edinburg?”

“Oh!” he cried, “oh, I am so home-sick! Oh, my dear, dear native land! Oh, my own beautiful Iceland! Oh that I were back in my beloved Reykjavik! Oh, I shall die in this desert of houses! Oh that I could once more breathe the pure fresh air of my own dear, dear island home!”

Such were literally his expressions. Not one word had he to say about the beauties of Edinburg! To him it was a hideous nightmare. The fishy little huts of Reykjavik, the bleak lava-deserts of the neighborhood, and the raw blasts from the Jokuls, were all he could realize of a Paradise upon earth. Yet he was a highly-cultivated and intelligent man, not destitute of refined tastes. Truly, I thought to myself,

“The shuddering tenant of the frigid zone
Boldly proclaims the happiest spot his own.”

While I waited outside the pastor’s house, enjoying the oddity of the scene, Zoega busied himself unsaddling the horses. I sat down on a pile of fagots, and, with some trouble and a little assistance from my guide, succeeded in getting off my overalls, which had been thoroughly drenched with rain and saturated with mud. The occasional duckings we had experienced in crossing the rivers did not add to my comfort. I was chilled and wet, and would have given a Danish dollar for the privilege of sitting at a fire. All this time there was no sign of life about the premises save the barking of an ill-favored little dog that was energetically disclaiming any acquaintance with Brusa. I regret to say that Brusa lost much of his bravado air in the presence of this insignificant cur, but it was quite natural; the cur was at home and Brusa wasn’t. At first our dog seemed disposed to stand his ground, but upon the near approach of the house-dog he dropped his tail between his legs and ingloriously sneaked between the legs of the horses, which of course gave the gentleman of the house a high opinion of his own prowess so much so, indeed, that the craven spirit of Brusa never before appeared in such a despicable light. He cringed and howled with terror, which so flattered the vanity of the other that a ferocious attack was the immediate consequence. Fortunately, a kick from one of the horses laid Brusa’s aggressor yelping in the mud, an advantage of which Brusa promptly availed himself, and the pastor’s dog would have fared badly in the issue but for the interference of Zoega, who separated the contending parties, and administered a grave rebuke to the party of our part respecting the impropriety of his conduct.

Though it occurred to me that I had seen the retreating figure of a man as we rode up, I was at a loss to understand why nobody appeared to ask us in or bid us welcome, and suggested to Zoega that I thought this rather an unfriendly reception. Now, upon this point of Icelandic hospitality Zoega was peculiarly sensitive. He always maintained that the people, though poor, are very hospitable so much so that they made no complaint when a certain Englishman, whose name he could mention, stopped with them for days, ate up all their food and drank up all their coffee, and then went off without offering them even a small present. “No wonder,” said Zoega, “this man told a great many lies about them, and laughed at them for refusing money, when the truth was he never offered them money or any thing else. It was certainly a very cheap way of traveling.”

“But what about the pastor, Zoega? I’m certain I caught a glimpse of him as he darted behind the door.”

“Oh, he’ll be here directly; he always runs away when strangers come.”

“What does he run away for?”

“Why, you see, sir, he is generally a little dirty, and must go wash himself and put on some decent clothes.”

While we were talking the pastor made his appearance, looking somewhat damp about the face and hair, and rather embarrassed about the shape of his coat, which was much too large for him, and hung rather low about his heels. With an awkward shuffling gait he approached us, and, having shaken hands with Zoega, looked askant at me, and said something, which my guide interpreted as follows:

“He bids you welcome, sir, and says his house is at your service. It is a very poor house, but it is the best he has. He wishes to know if you will take some coffee, and asks what part of the world you are from. I tell him you are from California, and he says it is a great way off, clear down on the other side of the world, and may God’s blessing be upon you. Walk in, sir.”

Pleased with these kind words, I stepped up to the good pastor and cordially shook him by the hand, at the same time desiring Zoega to say that I thanked him very much, and hoped he would make it convenient to call and see me some time or other in California, which, I regret to add, caused him to look both alarmed and embarrassed. A queer, shy man was this pastor a sort of living mummy, dried up and bleached by Icelandic snows. His manner was singularly bashful. There was something of the recluse in it a mixture of shyness, awkwardness, and intelligence, as if his life had been spent chiefly among sheep and books, which very likely was the case. All the time I was trying to say something agreeable he was looking about him as if he desired to make his escape into some Icelandic bog, and there hide himself during my stay. I followed him through the passage-way already mentioned into the travelers’ room, where he beckoned me to take a seat, and then, awkwardly seating himself on the edge of a chair as far away as he could get without backing through the wall, addressed me in Danish. Finding me not very proficient in that tongue, he branched off into Latin, which he spoke as fluently as if it had been his native language. Here again I was at fault. I had gone as far as Quosque tandem when a boy, but the vicissitudes of time and travel had knocked it all out of my head. I tried him on the German, and there, to use a familiar phrase, had the “dead-wood on him.” He couldn’t understand a word of that euphonious language. However, a slight knowledge of the Spanish, picked up in Mexico and California, enabled me to guess at some of his Latin, and in this way we struggled into something of conversation. The effort, however, was too great for the timid recluse. After several pauses and lapses into long fits of silence, he got up and took his leave. Meantime Zoega was enjoying himself by the fire in the kitchen, surrounded by the female members of the family, who no doubt were eagerly listening to the latest news from Reykjavik. Whenever their voices became audible I strongly suspected that the ladies were asking whether the steamer had brought any crinoline from Copenhagen.

The pastor’s family appeared to be composed entirely of females. Like all the Icelandic women I had seen, they do all the work of the establishment, attend to the cows, make the cheese, cut the hay, carry the heavy burdens, and perform the manual labor generally. This I found to be the case at all the farm-houses. Sometimes the men assist, but they prefer riding about the country or lying idle about the doors of their cabins. At Reykjavik, it is true, there is a population of Danish sailors and fishermen, and it would be scarcely fair to form an opinion from the lazy and thriftless habits of the people there. But I think the civilization of Iceland is very much like that of Germany in respect to women. They are not rated very high in the scale of humanity. Still, overworked and degraded as they are, the natural proclivities of the sex are not altogether obliterated. In former times their costume was picturesque and becoming, and some traces of the old style are yet to be seen throughout the pastoral districts; a close body, a jaunty little cap on the head, with a heavy tassel, ornamented with gold or silver bands, silver clasps to their belts, and filigree buttons down the front, give them a very pleasing appearance. Of late years, however, fashion has begun to assert her sway, even in this isolated part of the world, and the native costume is gradually becoming modernized.

The pastor having joined the more congenial circle of which Zoega was the admired centre, I was left alone in the chilly little room allotted to travelers to meditate upon the comforts of Icelandic life. It was rather a gloomy condition of affairs to be wet to the skin, shivering with cold, and not a soul at hand to sympathize with me in my misery. Then the everlasting day when would it end? Already I had been awake and traveling some fourteen hours, and it was as broad daylight as ever. Nothing could be more wearying than the everlasting daylight that surrounded me not bright and sunshiny, but dreary and lead-colored, showing scarcely any perceptible difference between morning, noon, and night.

The coffee soon came to my relief, and the pastor followed it to wish me a good appetite and ask if I wanted any thing else. I again renewed the attempt at conversation, but it was too much for his nervous temperament and shrinking modesty. He always managed, after a few words, to slip stealthily away up into the loft or out among the rocks to avoid the appearance of intrusion, or the labor of understanding what I said, or communicating his ideas I could not tell which.

After a slight repast I walked out to take a look at the Logberg, or Rock of Laws, which is situated about half a mile from the church. This is, perhaps, of all the objects of historical association in Iceland, the most interesting. It was here the judges tried criminals, pronounced judgments, and executed their stern decrees. On a small plateau of lava, separated from the general mass by a profound abyss on every side, save a narrow neck barely wide enough for a foothold, the famous “Thing” assembled once a year, and, secured from intrusion in their deliberations by the terrible chasm around, passed laws for the weal or woe of the people. It was only necessary to guard the causeway by which they entered; all other sides were well protected by the encircling moat, which varies from thirty to forty feet in width, and is half filled with water. The total depth to the bottom, which is distinctly visible through the crystal pool, must be sixty or seventy feet. Into this yawning abyss the unhappy criminals were cast, with stones around their necks, and many a long day did they lie beneath the water, a ghastly spectacle for the crowd that peered at them over the precipice.

All was now as silent as the grave. Eight centuries had passed, and yet the strange scenes that had taken place here were vividly before me. I could imagine the gathering crowds, the rising hum of voices; the pause, the shriek, and plunge; the low murmur of horror, and then the stern warning of the lawgivers and the gradual dispersing of the multitude.

The dimensions of the plateau are four or five hundred feet in length by an average of sixty or eighty in width. A diagram, taken from an elevated point beyond, will give some idea of its form. The surface is now covered with a fine coating of sod and grass, and furnishes good pasturage for the sheep belonging to the pastor.