What could a university course called Game without Thrones be about? It turns out that it’s about the social history of medieval Iceland, a society famously without a king, hence without the need for thrones. It turned out, too, that this year the students on this module were offered a trip to Iceland. Thanks to financial support from the School of History and Cultures, the students got to see the landscape which helped create the society they’d studied. The trip took place in the Easter vacation, the ideal time for an entertaining revision session and some entertaining Icelandic weather.
Iceland has become famous for many things in recent years but has been famous for longest for its sagas. The Sagas of Icelanders are the best-known ones, set in tenth-century Iceland, and these were the ones the students were trying to understand better through their visit. The group followed in the footsteps (literal and literary) of the likes of William Morris and J.R.R. Tolkien who were inspired by the laconic stories of bloodfeuds and the supernatural which sagas record. More importantly, the students followed in the footsteps of the likes of Njal and Gunnar from Njal’s saga, saw the picturesque site of Iceland’s medieval assembly, the Althing, and the site of the cathedral at Skálholt.
No trip to Iceland would be complete without seeing other famous natural phenomena such as the original geyser, Geysir, and the waterfalls of Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss. Venturing further along the south coast of Iceland also meant the group to see a variety of Iceland’s many landscapes (and many weathers) and the site of the 2010 volcanic eruption, Eyjafjallajökull. Time in Reykjavík meant we could visit Iceland’s National Museum and The Settlement Exhibition, both excellent places to learn about the archaeological remains of key sites in Iceland’s early history, and useful reminders of what we’d discussed in class and seen at the Althing and in “Njal’s saga country”.
Visits to other museums and sites helped to round out the students’ understanding of Iceland’s history in more recent centuries (with special thanks to the outdoor museum at Árbæjarsafn in particular for a guided tour). Other local customs were also partaken of. The group survived outdoor swimming in geothermal pools (air temperature, -3°C, windchill factor, considerable) and local delicacies such Icelandic hotdogs, dried fish and the local beverage, brennivín. They ‘missed out‘ on tasting the semi-legendary rotten shark so will have to wait until next time…