20 March 2013

Coursing Through the Deepest Snow

It's nearly the end of the cross-country skiing season. I used to indulge in this wonderful sport but lack of time, snow and other things have intervened these last few years. Nevertheless, frequent visits over the last few months to my family where they have Eurosport on the telly have enabled me to indulge vicariously by watching the racers, whose technique is lightyears ahead of anything I could once produce. I particularly enjoyed the many successes of the Norwegians, with their fetching red outfits and stars like Therese 'Duracell Bunny' Johaug, with her amazing performance in the Holmenkollen 30 km last weekend. That did make me nostalgic, since many years ago I lived up on Holmenkollveien and skied around those same tracks myself.

Of course the Norwegians should be best at skiing since they seem to have invented it, as suggested by Stone and Bronze Age rock carvings. Adam of Bremen, from whom the title quotation comes, associated skiing with the Scritefingi, the northern neighbours of the Norwegians and Swedes, or Saami as we might call them. He doesn't seem to have associated the Norwegians themselves with skiing, but then what do you expect, as his information mostly came from the King of the Danes, and when were they ever any good at skiing? (See my comments on Danish eminences in one of last year's blogs, and they don't get that much snow, either.)

Another non-skiing nation appears to have been the Icelanders. Clearly, they were familiar with the concept of skiing, from their regular trips to Norway, but they don't seem to have indulged in it themselves. Skiing gets a mention in ch. 163 of Sverris saga when King Sverrir sends a company of lads from eastern Norway to spy on his opponents because 'there was a lot of snow and good skiing conditions, while walking conditions were so bad that one would sink into deep snowdrifts as soon as one left the track' - an exact description of why skiing is necessary in some places, possibly written by an Icelander who, lacking skiing skills, had tried the walking in the snow lark. A slightly odd skier is Earl Rögnvaldr of Orkney who famously boasts in his poetry of his nine skills, one of which is skiing. Orkney doesn't get that much snow and when it does, it mostly blows away! But of course Rögnvaldr grew up in southern Norway, near the mountains of Agder, perhaps even in Telemark, that real home of skiing.

My favourite skiing anecdote is from Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla, where he has a  bit of a cheerful dig at his own countrymen. In ch. 141 of the saga of St Óláfr, we're told of an Icelander called Þóroddr Snorrason who, along with a companion, comes across an archetypal Norwegian backwoodsman, Arnljótr gellini, who helps them to escape after many adventures on a tax-collecting expedition to Jämtland. Trouble is, it's winter, and he's hoping to help them escape by skiing, but they just can't do it. So in the end he puts both Icelanders on the back of his own skis and, we're told, 'glided as fast as if he were unburdened', as wonderfully illustrated in Halfdan Egedius' woodcut interpretation (pictured) for the 1899 Norwegian edition of Snorres kongesagaer.


  1. Anonymous21/3/13 19:35

    Commuter skis! I love it.


  2. Oooh, lovely. I was just looking at Arngrímur Jónsson's account of Iceland in Hakluyt's Voyages (from the end of the C16th), and got lost amid all the other gems -- not least the references to Konungs skuggsjá, and the 'miracles of water and aire this master of fragments hath gathered together into his looking glasse'. Hakluyt's slightly sniffy rendering of the description of skiing in his medieval source is wonderful:

    'The hunters of Norway ... are so expert to 'tame' wood (for so he speaketh very improperly, whereas vnto wood neither life nor taming can be ascribed) that wooden pattens of eight elnes long being bound to the soles of their feet do cary them with so great celeritie euen vpon hie mountaines, that they cannot be outrun, either by the swiftnes of hounds and deere, or yet by the flying of birds'.

  3. That's lovely too, thanks, JPG!

    1. See http://www.egil.nottingham.ac.uk/texts/milp9/view.php