Lucy Lethbridge on Sabine Baring-Gould, Iceland, It's Scenes and Sagas.

By the Light of the Ptarmigan

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When I was a teenager, prowling voraciously round my parents’ bookshelves looking for something to read, I found a row of old books that hadn’t been looked at for at least fifty years. They were all by Sabine Baring-Gould, polymath, squarson, folksong collector, novelist and possessor of an infectiously insatiable curiosity about pretty well everything from esoteric customs to ways in which to save fuel. Among those dusty Baring-Goulds were novels such as The Broom Squire and Mehalah, his Reminiscences of a ninety-year life, The Book of Werewolves, several collections of sermons, English Folk Songs (compiled with Cecil Sharp), Curious Myths of the Middle Ages and lots of travel books including Cliff Castles and Cave Dwellings in Europe, guides to the Riviera and the Languedoc, and Yorkshire Oddities and Strange Events. Best of all was Iceland, Its Scenes and Sagas.

Baring-Gould spent two months in Iceland in 1862. He was 28, not yet ordained, and teaching in a boys’ public school, Hurstpierpoint. He had developed a passionate interest in the Norse sagas – a craze that had just begun to grip his contemporaries, though it was nine years before William Morris undertook the same journey and made Norse mythology fashionable. In the sagas Baring-Gould thought he had found an untainted oral storytelling tradition that stemmed directly from a peasant people – a direct link with an ancient and magical past for an industrial world from which the magical was disappearing fast. Many in the nineteenth century, watching the smokestacks of the new age, thought they could see it disappearing before their very eyes: a parson gloomily reflected on the first railways, ‘It will be the end of stories.’

Baring-Gould embarked on his tour with characteristic energy, teaching himself along the way to read Old Norse and to speak some Icelandic. He took several notebooks in whi

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About the contributor

Lucy Lethbridge’s Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-Century Britain was published by Bloomsbury in 2013. She is distantly related to Sabine Baring-Gould.

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