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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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 which to jot down observations, meticulous descriptions of nature, and his own (lengthy) translations of the famous sagas of the Icelandic hero Grettir (years later he wrote a historical novel, Grettir the Outlaw). The modern reader might do best to skip the sagas, in which Baring-Gould’s prose is at its most purple, with much use of the word ‘quoth’. But his descriptions of the extraordinary, eerie topography of Iceland are marvellous. He conjures up a landscape that resembles a vast canvas by John Martin: glaciers, geysers, inky black seas and bottomless icy lakes; a massive, awe-inspiring region, sometimes heavenly, sometimes infernal, where humans are as insignificant as gnats. Here he is in the strange isolated region of the Jökulls:

The scene of desolation is quite indescribable: a vast trench between walls of rock and heaps of snow; the crags of great height and flat-topped, with bare precipices of green ice and snow resting on them, ready to topple over in avalanches with the least disturbing cause, and bury us under their ruins; here and there a cone of snow which has thus shot to the bottom and has not yet begun to melt; now a smooth sweep of undinted whiteness, rising to the Jökull top, or barred with black steps of rock glazed with frozen streams. Not a bird, nor insect, not a sound.

With these grand natural mysteries as their backdrop, it is little wonder the Icelanders had a rich mythology of ghosts, vampires and mermaids; Baring-Gould was in his element. He saw no inconsistency whatsoever in being a staunch High Anglican and a believer in fairies: it was a source of regret to him all his life that he never met a fairy himself. In Iceland, he includes a detailed account of the Icelandic counterpart of the Loch Ness Monster – a vast basking eel over fifty feet long called the Skrimsl. He was delighted to hear from locals that it had been sighted the day before he arrived. Baring-Gould had many engaging features and his earnest credulity was the most engaging of all.

He was as interested in ordinary domestic life as in supernatural splendours, and carefully noted down everything he ate on his trip – generally Icelandic moss stewed in milk or stringy whimbrel stew. The Icelanders as a race fascinated him though his interest was always in types rather than individuals, preferring people to conform to the national characteristics with which he endowed them, but he eschewed the gushy romanticism of many contemporary accounts of the rural poor. Baring-Gould may be credulous but he is never sentimental. He dismissed the popular image of Icelanders sitting round blazing fires playing rustic harps and telling sagas, and briskly reported that most of them lived in houses without a fire, and kept warm by piling on stinking sealskins over layers of protective grime. The stench of whale fat and old fish inside their houses was overpowering. The oily ptarmigan made a handy lamp when hung up with a wick threaded through its innards. On the advice of a travellers’ handbook he took with him pewter rings decorated with artificial diamonds to use as barter with the natives but he was embarrassed to find that they took them to be an offer of marriage.

There were several other English tourists plodding across Iceland’s blowy wastes in the mid-nineteenth century.Baring-Gould related a bizarre encounter with ‘a man in shabby garments rather lame’ who spoke English and had been travelling in the country for a year. This was Ralph Milbanke, grandson of Byron and later Earl of Lovelace, who had dislocated his thigh on a remote lava-field; he had been nursed back to health by a pastor’s daughter with whom he’d fallen in love but who had thrown him over for a local ostler. When the two men met in the bleak tundra of Grimstunga, Milbanke was on his way home to England broken-hearted.

But one of the most enjoyable aspects of Iceland, Its Scenes and Sagas is that it reveals a rare and unexpected comic strain in Baring-Gould. It is true that the humour creaks rather than sparkles, but in his travelling companion Mr Briggs (‘my portly friend’) he unwittingly created a perfect foil for his own patrician intensity. Poor Mr Briggs, athirst for pre-industrial authenticity, is disappointed to find signs of modernity in Iceland, and complains:

‘There is not the slightest use in coming to Iceland!’

‘How so?’

‘Why it is just like everywhere else! I have been looking in at one of the stores, and what do you think I saw? Crinolines, real crinolines, man! Crinolines! Is it not horrible? We are not beyond the range of fashion yet!’

On another occasion, Mr Briggs sees an Icelandic maiden, a model of the authentic peasant, approaching: ‘A houri! A tinted Venus! A Valkyri!’ Baring-Gould, ready with his notebook, slyly noted Briggs’s horror when she pulled out a dried stockfish and gnawed vigorously on its bones.

I was asked recently to write on Sabine Baring-Gould, among others, for a forthcoming exhibition on English eccentrics to be put on at the National Portrait Gallery. Baring-Gould would have been surprised, even slightly irritated, to have found himself classed as an eccentric, despite his interest in the peculiarities of other people. He appears rarely to have given a thought to how others saw him. His chief concern is to show us what he sees. Iceland, Its Scenes and Sagas may not be the most elegant or the most accurate of travel books, but it is an irresistible testament to boundless enthusiasm.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 11 © Lucy Lethbridge 2006


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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