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Cambridge academic follows ancient sagas around Iceland

Dr Emily Lethbridge talks to Look East reporter Anna-Marie Lever about her trip to Iceland

For the next year Dr Emily Lethbridge will travel around Iceland in pursuit of its ancient sagas, in a specially converted ex-RAF ambulance.

To prepare for the adventure she has learnt basic first aid, fishing and vehicle maintenance.

The Cambridge academic explained: "I want to read each one of the 30 medieval Icelandic family sagas in situ."

At the end of the process she plans to write a book about the experience.

Viking era

Emily is an expert in The Íslendingasögur, over 30 Icelandic sagas which were first written down in the 13th and 14th Centuries. They are still an important part of the island's culture and studied at school.

Even after the advent of the printing press, the sagas continued to be written by hand until the 20th Century and read aloud in the evenings. The introduction of radio finally killed the tradition.

People did not settle in Iceland until the Viking era, and the sagas initially developed orally. They focus upon both the everyday life of the first generations of settlers from the 9th to the 11th Centuries, and the conflicts which arose between them.

Emily said she wants to find out how the sagas fit physically into the landscapes in which they were first created.

Dr Emily Lethbridge and ambulance
The size of the interior will restrict what Emily can bring with her

"But that is quite difficult to appreciate when one's sitting in a library, at a desk, with a printed edition of one of these sagas," she continued.

"So what I want to do is see what new ideas and thoughts I might have about each saga when reading them in the landscape."

She is also keen to find out how much the sagas mean to today's Icelanders.

"I want to talk to Icelanders who are local to different sagas and get a sense of the extent to which there is still an oral tradition, or whether there are traditions outside the written texts attached to places," Emily said.

She will blog as she goes along and the combination of her travels, the ancient texts and the response from today's Icelanders will all be combined in a book.

Emily wants it to reveal to a wider public that there is more to Iceland than banks and volcanoes.

Extreme weather conditions

Because the journey will take her well off the beaten track, preparation for the undertaking has been pretty intense.

Emily did a two-day first aid course with St John Ambulance, focusing upon coping with the extreme weather conditions to which Iceland is prone.

Next she learnt to fish and how to drive off-road.

Most recently she spent several days with mechanics at Nene Overland in Peterborough.

"I knew nothing about engines or vehicle maintenance before spending a few days with the guys in the workshop," said Emily.

"The guys were incredibly patient. I pretty much know my way under the bonnet now.

"I wouldn't have the confidence to fix serious things but I know what to look out for, what might go wrong, and what temporary measures I can take to get me out of somewhere to where I can get help."

It helps that the Land Rover is a 1990 model, so dates to before electrics were introduced to the brand.

Emily sets off on her journey on 5 January 2011.

You can follow her here: The Saga-Steads of Iceland

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