Emily Lethbridge

Memories of Old Awake

The title of this short documentary, “Memories of Old Awake”, is taken from animpromptu 4-line verse, originally in Icelandic. The verse was composed by an Icelandic man called Valdimarr; he recited it to me when I visited him last year to talk about the medieval Icelandic saga that is set in his local area. The film takes this saga, Gísla saga Súrssonar, as its subject and aims to show the kind of ‘literary fieldwork’ on the sagas that I carried out all around Iceland over the course of 2011.

I spent the year living in an ex-military Land Rover ambulance and travelling the country to read each saga in its physical setting, meet local people, and gain an understanding of how these stories still live in the landscapes all around Iceland,and the ways in which people such as the verse-reciting Valdimarr still engage actively with their local saga. I’m writing a book about my year of saga-siteor “saga-steads” travelling which is intended to introduce the sagas and Iceland to a general audience.

“Memories of Old Awake” is part of the “Cambridge Ideas” series which showcases research being conducted at the University of Cambridge. It was filmed and produced by Patrick Chadwick who came out to join me in Iceland for a week in May 2011. We were in the West Fjords of Iceland and the weather was quite harsh at times which made filming challenging; the bird-song in the audio signals that spring is on its way though. Patrick hadn’t visited Iceland before and had only been introduced to the sagas ahead of coming out to film. Filming was therefore an intense experience for him and it was an interesting exercise for me too, not least because it got me thinking about how to present these remarkable narratives to a general audience via the medium of film rather than prose.

The film was screened in April 2012 at the European Independent Film Festival in Paris (ÉCU). At a Q-and-A session after the screening, one member of the audience commented on the disjunction between the atmosphere of serene stillness evoked in the film and the graphic violence that the sagas often recount.

One of the intriguing insights that my saga-travelling of last year resulted in was the way in which exploring the landscapes that constitute the backdrop or stage of the sagas’ action often brought the dynamics of these stories to life in a very immediate way. But there were times too when it was difficult to visualise or superimpose the bloody detail of the sagas onto overpowering magnificence of the stern and sometimes very still Icelandic landscapes, despite the fact in someways (e.g. with regard to urbanisation), these landscapes have changed very little over the course of 1000 years or so.

It was the magnitude of the landscape that had the greatest influence on Patrick; the atmosphere he creates in the film communicates something of his wonder and is his response to the otherness of these northern landscapes. For my part, I hope the film illustrates something of the extraordinary power of the coming together of 1000-year-old story and physical place which is something that can be experienced all over Iceland.

Emily Lethbridge