The Land of Fire, Ice, annoying volcanos…and a great literary tradition

Now I know that Iceland isn’t massively popular at the moment. For one thing, they’ve just banned lapdancing clubs full stop, so that’s another load of stag parties’ plans scuppered, then they go an elect a woman as Prime Minister who is not only a massive environmentalist and feminist (you’d have never guessed by the attitude to stripping!) but is also a *gasp* lesbian.

And then they personally are responsible for blowing up the sky. The whole sky has been destroyed. There is no more sky, and the world is over…bring on the locusts Lord the End is Nigh…

…but I don’t want to talk about that because I think Iceland is amazing. I have been once (when it was a lot more expensive) for a long weekend (because I literally couldn’t afford to be in the country for a longer period of time) and completely fell in love with the place; granted I was only in Reykjavik and the surrounding areas, but the people are lovely, friendly, scarily cool without being unwelcoming and self-involved like the cool kids in Britannia. The country is just so beautiful it has to be seen to be believed, and the history of the country, the language, the customs that hearken back to the fist Viking settlers are just so quaint and yet so utterly relevant, oh I would move there tomorrow if I could!

Icelanders, for a start, are bonkers. 67% of them truly believe in elves. Elves are a Big Thing in Iceland: the main motorway connecting the capital city to the major airport was re-routed by about four miles because they realised that the original, straight, road would go through a rock where an elf lived. This all harks back to the glorious Icelandic oral folk tradition, that is partly responsible for the countries independence.

Iceland was discovered in about 870 AD by Viking from Norway. And I don’t mean ‘discovered’ in a America way, there was literally no one there. The land was completely virgin, a real New World of the dark ages. The Norwegian Vikings that settled there were lords of their own farms and vales, they fished, farmed (there are no indigenous trees in Iceland, and indigenous plants are few and far between so the first few winters must have been tough) and fought over a island that is covered in natural disasters waiting to happen. The people had no over-all ruler, one of the earliest Parliaments, the Althing, was held once a year to share news, bring criminals to justice, and decide on new laws for the whole country.

This is the time of the Sagas. Icelanders hold their ancient legends in the highest regard, as well they should. As part of the ‘Once Upon A Time’ Reading challenge, I have been reading the Laxdale Saga, a great historical romantic epic that tells the story of the people of Laxriverdale, inpaticular two families, that originating for Dalla-Kollson, and that originating from his brother Bjorn the Easterner (its all a bit confusing because Icelanders don’t use family names, your father’s name (or your mother’s if you don’t have a dad) forms your surname, and you are known by your first name- so I am Ms Michaelsdottir, which I quite like. This does, however, make the Sagas quite hard to follow, I did find myself jotting down a little family tree as I went along). The story is a sweeping epic that follows the fortunes of the families, from their first settlements in Iceland to the tragic love-triangle that surrounds Gudren Ostif’s-daughter (possibly one of the earliest romantic heroines) who is forced to marry the best friend of the man she loves. The two rivals end up killing each other, destroying the happiness of their father/ foster father Olaf Hosskuldson, who is the ‘hero’ for the first part of the book, as was cursed by a Norwegian wizard. This is their literary tradition; Shakespeare eat your heart out.

The Sagas were composed in the early half of the 11th century, and are studied and more of less worshipped by Icelanders and Icelandophiles today. Modern readers who are not that into Viking history will find them not so easy going, but as an example of the history of a people they are fascinating and highly recommended (especially Laxdale Saga and Njal’s Saga, which features one of my favourite historical characters, the nymphomaniac Gunhild, wife of Eric Bloodaxe (and sister of Harold Bluetooth, who united Denmark) who seduces the gorgeous (and much younger) Hrut Herjolfsson (who is Olaf Hosskuldson’s uncle…I think..told you it was complicated!) and then curses him when he goes homes to his prissy wife Unner.

The Icelandic language has not changed that much in the last 1500 years, teh original transcripts of the Sagas are kept in Reykjavik University and can still be read by the modern Icelander. Icelandic language, and its lack of evolution, is one of the key points in Icelandic nationalism. The country was taken over by Norway when internal politics between the farmer-lords resulted in a weak economy. This was not helped by the Little Ice Age that fell over Europe in the 14th century (read Company of Liers and The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland for really good books set in England at this time), though the expansion of the cod industry after Church rule dictated that fish should be eaten on the Friday helped a lot. Denmark then took over, and ruled Iceland for 500 years before the Independence movement, led by Jon Sigurdsson became popular in the 1880s and Iceland regained some of its powers to rule itself. Full independence was granted in 1944.

Jon Sigurdsson used the Icelanders nationalism, their attitude towards their history and their Sagas especially, to round up support for his independence cause. Especially important to this was the promotion of the Icelandic Oral Tradition- which exploded from myths passed down from the mother’s telling stories round the fire at night to a publishing phenomenon in the same way Grimm’s Fairy Tales did. Icelandic fairy tales features elves (the little people, who often interact with humans whilst having their own political system underground), ogres, who might lurk under bridges and near fjords, ghosts, giants and other supernatural elements, but also mix religion with the supernatural. A priest is often called for to get rid of a problematic ghost, for example. This comfortable relationship that the ‘new’ religion of Christianity has with oral traditions shows how Iceland is a nation of people who are quite happy to worship God, but will still leave offerings to the little people, just in case…or, in the modern world, will re-route a motorway, just in case…

Iceland also has it’s fair share of excellent modern literature. Although, most people will know Iceland for it’s music, Haldor Laxness won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955 (The Atom Station is brilliant, a story of the old Iceland of Sagas vs the New Iceland of nuclear power and political intrigue- the old Icelander comes out on top for me every time!). Another highly recommended Icelandic text is 101 Reykjavik, set in the capital of 25,000 people in the early naughties. The dark, funny novel of a man-child living with his mother and her girlfriend in the coolest postcode in the world rings so true with the state of mind of the wonderful, if tragically so, people that I met (the world is dying, the winters are hard, I am a mortal, so lets drink some more vodka and dance! To really great music! That we make! Seriously, a man tried to chat me up after puking on my boots- apparently this is completely normal. I have never met so many people who can drink as much as the Icelanders do!)

If you have spent the last week sitting in an airport, or an empty Book Fair, then I understand you quite hate the place right now, but please don’t judge a book by it’s country- it’s not their fault! It’s the elves! They wanted the motorway all along, it would has brought prosperity to the area! They could have set up a little cafe by the side of the road..little Bobby could have sold apples..they could have afforded shoes this year..think of the elves, won’t someone please think of the elves!

Ahem, sorry about that…

This month, I’ve tried to read Shirley by Charlotte Bronte but gave up after 70 pages because it was just so endless. Also reading the fantastic Bess of Hardwick biography by Mary Lovell, which I am loving. Highly recommended of those of you of a history-buff persuasion.

Happy Reading!


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