“YOUR PRESENT JUST REAPPEARED ON THE GRID!!”
A gift can cause as much excitement for the giver as for the recipient, especially when the gift in question has been lost in transit for the better part of a month. Meg had intended for the present to reach me by Midsummer, my birthday, but the package had vanished from the tracking systems of postal systems in multiple countries, and we had both wondered whether or not it had been lost at sea, or perhaps been outlawed on account of its crimes and forced to eke out a living deep in the forest.
It finally appeared in Chicago on the penultimate day of the month, with a note that it would be delivered later that week. I spent the week in a state of anxious anticipation that only children awaiting Christmas Eve are supposed to know. I sent Meg curious texts (“Any word on our foreign friend?” “How are things in Chicago?”) as though she weren’t just as impatient.
On a Thursday morning, I heard the telltale beep of the postwoman’s scanner outside my front door, and I leapt up before she had even stepped off the porch. On the floor was the box, its corners a little worn, its sides covered in customs notices and bright red stickers of a cracking chalice: “FRAGILE.”
I called Meg on Facetime so she could watch me slice through the tape with a utility knife. Inside we found a thick roll of packing foam. “Oh, good,” she said, “it’s really secure.” (She had been afraid that it would get damaged along the way.) I pulled up the foam and, in unison, we sighed in relief and joy at what was beneath: a set of five books, hardback, blue-bound and richly textured, with gold writing on the spines: The Complete Sagas of Icelanders.
From the moment Meg had mentioned she’d ordered me something from overseas, I had suspected, though I never said so out loud. I had long desired a copy of the Complete Sagas for my own – I had kept the university library’s copy checked out for nearly three years straight while I was in graduate school. But I had never acquired them for myself because, frankly, they were expensive books that had to be imported from Iceland, and I could never justify the expense.
When I first realized that Meg had ordered them for me, I quietly rebuked her: “If it’s what I think it is, you really shouldn’t have,” I said.
To which she replied, rightly, that she could afford it, and if she wanted to give the people she cared about nice gifts, that was her decision. And besides, she added, it wasn’t like she was going to be spending any money on travel this year.
“When Gunnlaug was twelve years old, he asked his father for some wares to cover his traveling expenses, saying that he wanted to go abroad and see how other people lived.” That’s a line from The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpents-tongue, a poet who contends with another for the love of a woman named Helga, but statements to the same effect can be found throughout the family sagas: Egill Skallagrimsson asks his father’s permission to go abroad with his handsome brother Thorolf; Kjartan, Egil’s grandson, later asks his father for similar permissions. “It’s a shame you long to go abroad and learn of foreign ways,” his father says. “Your journey will likely prove to be of importance in more ways than one.”
Many of the family sagas revolve around these trips abroad, even if the majority of the action remains at home in Iceland; while they are away on their voyages, to Norway or Denmark, to Ireland or the Orkneys, to England or the Baltics, to Vinland or Byzantium, the saga heroes change, make decisions that will follow them back home, build the myths that shape their lives even once they return home. Many return as wealthy men, though some, to balance the scales of fate, never return home at all.
I have been reading through the sagas, and these passages keep sticking in my mind as they never have before. I find myself noting this formula reappearing throughout the sagas – “I can only understand too well your longing to go abroad and learn foreign ways,” another father says to another son in The Saga of the People of Laxardale – and find myself sighing with my own longing to do the same.
It has been my schtick for some years to think of myself as a Pagan pilgrim, and to frame my writing within that identity. (Long-time readers of this column may remember stretches of this column, sometimes lasting up to six months at a time, devoted to sketches of my own ventures abroad.) I never came back from any of those trips as a rich man, but I’ve often found that being in another country brings out the mystic in me, the part that relishes in contemplation of sacred places – places whose sacredness are, it seems, amplified because of their distance from my home. Those sublime feelings were worth a fortune in their own right.
So too were the “foreign ways” I learned, the best I could within the time allotted to me; nothing has ever taught me more about my own relationship to Heathenry, for example, than going drinking with Icelandic Heathens and learning about their relationship to the traditions we shared. I came into Iceland with the mind of a colonist, one I inherited from generations of English-speaking visitors, like W.H. Auden or William Morris, who came only to fulfill their romances of the Viking Age and cared little for any actual living Icelanders. But thankfully, I made friends who disabused me of that mindset and still welcomed me into their rites and traditions, for which I remain very grateful.
I had it in mind to go back to Iceland this year for my birthday. Fate, as we know, had other plans.
I admit, sometimes I despair of the notion that I will ever be able to travel outside the United States again, though the rational part of me reminds me of the refrain in “Deor”: “that passed away; this might also pass.” Things will not always be as things are today; and, I hope, it will not so long before I can make my pilgrimages again.
Until then, I have this lovely set of books, and a whole world of sagas to dream in.