Queen of all our country's mountains,
Bound for Broadshield, I am riding
Baldur, nostrils briskly steaming,
Broadshield's icecap opens! brawling
Fiery surges snarl and thunder,
Playful brooks that once went plashing
Later Broadshield's leashless violence
Thus did fierce resistless forces
Who unleashed such lethal power?
Eastward, stony steeps are leaping
Highland powers, approve my lonely
Fanna skautar faldi háum
Ríð ég háan Skjaldbreið skoða,
Vel á götu ber mig Baldur,
Titraði jökull, æstust eldar,
Belja rauðar blossa móður,
Vötnin öll, er áður féllu
Kyrrt er hrauns á breiðum boga,
Svo er treyst með ógn og afli
Hver vann hér svo að með orku?
Hamragirðing há við austur
Heiðabúar! glöðum gesti
|Date:||Probably 14 July 1841 (at least in its earliest form).|
|Form:||Eleven stanzas of four-stress lines, firmly trochaic in rhythm, with the rhyme-scheme AbAbCdCd and the alliteration pattern 2222.|
|Manuscript:||JS 129 fol., where it has the title "Fjallið Skjaldbreiður" and the subtitle "Ferðavísa frá sumrinu 1841" (altered in the manuscript from "Ferðakvæði frá 1841") (facsimile KJH240-6; image).|
|First published:||1845 (8F50-3; image), with the subtitle "Ferðavísur frá sumrinu 1841."|
|Sound recording:||Þorleifur Hauksson reads "Fjallið Skjaldbreiður." [4:18]|
Commentary: Mount Broadshield (Skjaldbreiður), some 25 kilometers northeast of Þingvellir and clearly visible from there on a fine day, has the profile of a shallow cone and resembles a gigantic shield viewed edgewise. It has given its name to all so-called "shield volcanoes" or "lava shields" in the world: volcanic mountains built up slowly by repeated outpourings of highly fluid basaltic lava from their summit craters. Skjaldbreiður and the vast lava field which surrounds it were formed some nine to ten thousand years ago, after the retreat of the last great ice-age glacier (Weichsel). They contain some 15-17 cubic kilometers of lava and occupy an area of more than 200 square kilometers.
According to his travel journal, Jónas spent 13 July 1841 at Þingvellir,
partly to make myself better acquainted with this site which plays so remarkable and honorable a role in our country's history, but also because it was essential for me to gather reliable information about local features in the vicinity of Skjaldbreiður, since I had long determined to travel the region in order to study the mountain's geological structure as closely as possible. (3D147)
Presumably Jónas spoke with Rev. Björn Pálsson, the minister at Þingvellir, who was extremely knowledgeable about the terrain near Skjaldbreiður, as his parish description, written the previous year, testifies (ÁSs173-92).
Early on the morning of Wednesday, 14 July, Jónas set out with his pack train to ride around Skjaldbreiður in a counterclockwise direction, travelling via Hofmannaflöt and Goðaskard to Gatfell. He was accompanied by two companions; one was Páll Eyjólfsson, the farmer at Skógarkot, who was naturally very familiar with the area and its place names.
Jónas reports that as one rides eastward from Gatfell toward Klukkuskarð (Bell Pass),1
the track lies for the whole distance across the great stream of lava that once flowed southwestward from Skjaldbreiður and is known as the Þingvellir Lava Field. Seen from this vantage point, the whole enormous plain lies spread out before one's eyes, broken only by a little row of tuff hills that rise like islands above the sea of lava.2
Some 3-4 kilometers east of Gatfell the party approached Sandgígur, "the first of the little hills that surround Skjaldbreiður and go by various names." Jónas decided to stop and investigate it: "I rode on ahead, then, with the pack train following along behind." (3D148)
When I had finished examining Sandgígur, I started looking about for the train. But it was gone — and gone it remained, no matter how much I shouted and rode around and climbed up onto the highest pinnacles of lava. It must have missed the route I took, heading across the lava in a different direction.3 I devoted nearly two hours to this futile exercise, exhausting both myself and my horse.
My situation was now extremely precarious. It had been my intention to ride around Skjaldbreiður and then descend, north of it, to the nearest baiting-place on the highland route, which is called Efribrunnar.4 I had neither provisions nor protective outer clothing with me. Even so, I was reluctant to give up my adventure. So I decided to put my trust in the excellence of my horse and proceed with my geological survey of the mountain, riding around behind it and acting as if my train was still following me.
Jónas's horse was named Baldur after the most attractive of the old heathen gods and had been given to him by his mother. Confidence in the horse's sure-footedness was essential as Jónas set out to ride alone across this vast landscape of jagged lava, accompanied only by his dog Kara.5
If I met up with the pack train that evening at the baiting-place we had agreed upon, fine and good. If I didn't, I counted on reaching some inhabited farms by nightfall on the following day — provided I didn't meet with any disaster. And so I continued the journey on my own. (3D149)
Some six kilometers beyond Sandgígur, Jónas reached the point from which he obtained the view described in the second stanza of "Mount Broadshield": Skjaldbreiður rising due north of him, Lambside (Lambahlíðar) emerging into view from behind it, and massive Barn Crag (Hlöðufell) standing a little to the south (actually southeast) of the latter.6
Jónas's journal for 14 July describes in detail the results of his geological study of Skjaldbreiður (see the caption of the third illustration for extracts). He concludes:
When I had finished my investigation, I proceeded to Efribrunnar, the nearest baiting-place, where my horse found the available refreshment much more to his taste than I did. Since I was dead tired, I even managed to fall alseep in the grass, though it was cold and wet with dew. I did not find my lost pack train again until next morning, some distance off. It too — per varios causas — had managed to make its way around the mountain. And the men who accompanied it were in a state of considerable anxiety about their missing geologist. (3D151-2)
It is not clear whether "Mount Broadshield" should be dated "summer 1841" or "late winter/early spring 1845" or regarded as a poem that evolved between those dates. On the whole it seems likely that Jónas composed the bulk of the poem, or at least the earliest version of it, on 14 July 1841,7 in his head, while actually riding through the landscape it describes (see 2NH118-21). On the other hand, the surviving manuscript of the poem is believed to date from March or early April 1845.8 Since this manuscript once belonged to Brynjólfur Pétursson (see 4E92), it is likely to be the very one from which he read the poem to the Fjölnir Society at its meeting on 10 April (barely six weeks before the accident that resulted in Jónas's death), and there is a good chance that it is also the manuscript that served as the basis of the copy text from which the poem was printed with a few trifling changes (none of them substantive) in the eighth issue of Fjölnir.
In the poem itself, after a brief introduction and a description of the lonely, majestic scenery through which he is riding at dawn, Jónas peers far into Iceland's prehuman past. He uses his knowledge as a professional geologist and his enormous powers of imagination to reconstruct the events that occurred during what he understood to be the second eruption of Skjaldbreiður. In Jónas's view, this eruption had formed the Þingvellir Lava Field (Þingvallahraun), the huge plain of lava stretching south from Skjaldbreiður to the north edge of Lake Þingvellir (Þingvallavatn). Later, when the lava cooled, the local rivers, after flowing through a hollow vault beneath it, emerged to form Lake Þingvellir. Later still a portion of the lava field collapsed into this underground vault, thus producing the rift valley delimited by All Men's Gorge (Almannagjá) to the west and Raven Gorge (Hrafnagjá) to the east and creating an appropriately impressive setting for the Alþing or national assembly. The Alþing was established at Þingvellir on the recommendation of Grímur geitskór ("Goatshoe"), who had been commissioned to scour the country in search of an appropriate site (see 1Ífr7). It met here annually throughout the Commonwealth Period (930-1262), and Jónas and his Fjölnir colleagues had hoped to see it reestablished there (which is why, of course, the Þingvellir scenery plays such a central role in Jónas's poem).
It is known today that Jónas the geologist was in error on a number of points.9 But this hardly invalidates or diminishes his accomplishment in a poem that shows — better than any other poem in Jónas's oeuvre, perhaps better than any other poem in the world — what a poet sees when he looks through the eyes of a scientist.
At the end of "Mount Broadshield," Jónas asks the beings who inhabit the Icelandic highlands (heiðabúar) to prosper his journey and (since he envisions the possibility of spending a night sleeping outdoors in the lava) expresses his enlightened, scientific confidence that no evil being (vættur) is going to molest him. The following remarks by Ólafur Sveinsson from Purkey (1762-1845) are illuminating in connection with this passage:10
I noticed when living at Stapa and in the vicinity of Hellna that there were elves everywhere in the nonvolcanic cliffs but I was never aware of them in volcanic rock or lava. I incline to the view that a different sort of beings live in lava, notably the sort of land-spirits [landvættir] who infuse themselves into the ghosts of the dead and frequently molest and terrorize timid humans travelling routes that pass through such landscapes. There are many instances of this, both old and new, and many individuals have lost their lives as a result of this kind of haunting. (1Íþs28)
Bibliography: For a full and clear account of the relevant geology, see Kristján Sæmundsson, "Geology of the Thingvallavatn area" (ETh40-68). Figs. 5 (p. 46) and 15 (p. 63) make instantly clear the geological relationships of the various landscape features mentioned by Jónas in the travel journal and the poem.
1 Klukkuskarð is located "between Tindaskagi and the foot of Skjaldbreiður," according to Jónas, "and has taken its name from a little conical mountain or hill that stands on the edge of Skjaldbreiður" (3D148; see also ÁSs186). This hill is known today as Kerling (Old Lady). Less than a kilometer away, at a slightly higher elevation, is a companion peak known as Karl (Old Man). Both formations are high points of a hyaloclastite ridge, i.e., a ridge of móberg (consolidated tuff) produced by a volcanic eruption beneath the ice of the Weichselian glaciation and later surrounded and islanded by the lava flow from Skjaldbreiður. In Jónas's day, Kerling was known as Klukka (Bell) and was an important landmark, giving its name to the lava field directly south of Skjaldbreiður (Klukkuhraun; see ÁSs143). On Björn Gunnlaugsson's 1848 map of Iceland, the place name Klukka appears SSW of Skjaldbreiður. (The mysterious place name Kluka, appearing SW of Skjaldbreiður on Bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson's map of 1590, probably also derives from this important landmark on the old Eyfirðingar horsetrack.)
2 The Saddle Hills (Söðulhólar). They actually are islands: high points (like Karl, Kerling, and Sandgígur) of the hyaloclastic ridge that was subsequently engulfed by the lava flow from Skjaldbreiður.
6 Matthías Þórdarson speculated (1D345) that in the fourth line of this stanza the word intended by Jónas was not "reiðarslóðir" ("tracts of land being traversed on horseback," "horse-trails"), which seems perfectly logical and appropriate in the context (see 2NH120), but "reyðarslóðir" (either "whale tracts" or "trout tracts"), i.e., a kenning for a body of water. Jónas's most recent editors find this suggestion appealing enough to say: "This is an excellent point, and it is certainly conceivable that Jónas devised the kenning 'reyðarslóðir' to describe Lake Þingvellir" (4E157). However as these editors are quick to acknowledge, the spelling "reiðar-" in both manuscript and first edition of the poem militates strongly against this interpretation. Note especially that whereas MS reini- in stanza 5 of the poem was altered to reyni- when it was printed in Fjölnir, MS reiðar- (in stanza 2) was allowed to stand (and was also retained when the poem was republished in A), clearly indicating that reið and not reyður is the word Jónas intended. Moreover from the point along the old Eyfirðingavegur at which the view described in stanza 2 of "Mount Broadshield" becomes possible, with the mountain itself due north ("Beint í norður") and the summit of Lambahlíðar ("leiti Lambahlíða") in sight (having just emerged from behind Skjaldbreiður), it is not possible to see either the ocean (the "reyðarslóðir" par excellence), or Lake Þingvellir, or Hvalvatn (Whale Lake), or Reyðarvatn (Whale/Trout Lake) — both of the latter being large lakes to the west of Skjaldbreiður. In dealing with the work of other poets, one might not be inclined to read topographical statements very literally. But in the poetry of a professional geographer and geologist, it is wise to accept them at face value unless there is strong evidence that they are unreliable or fanciful.
7 This is asserted by its subtitle and strongly suggested by the immediacy of its eyewitness account of the activities of a single day, beginning at dawn and ending with the approach of bedtime. Furthermore there is evidence to suggest that a central conception in the poem can only be accounted for if it was composed in July 1841. Describing Skjaldbreiður's appearance in his travel journal, Jónas refers to the "unbroken glacier-belt at the top of the mountain" ("sammenhængde Jøkelbælte paa Bjergets Top"). Consistent with this description, he says in the first stanza of the poem that the mountain wears "a towering headdress of snows" ("Fanna skautar faldi háum"), and in the fourth stanza he describes how this "glacier shuddered" ("titraði jökull") at the beginning of the eruption. However after viewing the mountain again in September, Jónas wrote: "I noticed, this autumn, that almost all the snow was gone from Skjaldbreiður. Therefore the mountain is not a true glacier" (4E466). The descriptions in the poem seem to reflect Jónas's interpretation of the snow on Skjaldbreiður when he travelled around the mountain in July, not his revised interpretation of September.
8 Since the manuscript text is written on a page torn from Jónas's 1841 travel journal, Matthías Þórðarson conjectured (reasonably enough) that it must be roughly contemporaneous with the journal itself and must therefore represent the earliest written form of the poem (probably jotted down at Húsafell, where Jónas stayed for three nights after his adventure near Skjaldbreiður). It is extremely unlikely, however, given Jónas's usual habits of composition and revision, that the text of so complex and ambitious a poem should remain essentially unaltered for the next three-and-a-half years and then be submitted to Fjölnir in this unaltered form. Ólafur Halldórsson has shown that the calligraphy and orthography of the manuscript conform to Jónas's usage in the winter of 1844-5, furthermore that there is no evidence that he began writing poems on pages cannibalized from the 1841 travel journal earlier than March/April 1845 (when he did so on a number of occasions). The important point is not that the poem is written on a page of the travel journal, but that it was written on that page after it had been torn out of the journal and refolded (see KJH315).
9 He was mistaken in thinking
(1) That the entire Þingvellir Lava Field was laid down by Skjaldbreiður (a view common in his day; see ÁSs176-7) and that this occurred in three separate eruptive episodes. The lava field consists of three flows, all right, but from three different sources (the Eldborgir and Þjófahraun crater rows in addition to Skjaldbreiður). Moreover the flow from Skjaldbreiður is likely to have occurred during a single eruption lasting as long as 50-100 years.
(2) That Lake Þingvellir was formed in the way described in stanza 6 of the poem. The actual story is much more complicated.
(3) That the entire rift valley between Almanna Gorge and Raven Gorge was formed by a sudden cataclysmic collapse of the lava field (as described in stanza 7). It has actually been formed in bursts, accompanied by earthquakes, sinking at an average rate of 4-5 millimeters a year. (There were, however, cataclysmic lurches: in the well-documented rifting episode of 1789, the valley sank as much as 1 meter along its margins and 2 1/2 meters at its center. Jónas is certain to have known about this episode and it probably explains his statements in the poem.)