Why Iceland?

I get asked this question quite frequently, and I'm never quite sure how to answer, but in case any of you are wondering: "So why did you want to come to Iceland, of all places?” or some variation on this theme, I will try to explain it here. The real answer is I don't really know how this happened. It just sort of crept up on me, and it’s quite difficult to retrospectively piece together. Also, I feel awkward talking about it because it requires me to be borderline earnest, and I’m not much good at that. Be warned: because this is a pretty unfocused treatise on things I’m really interested in, it’s going to get rambly. Seriously, don’t bother reading this unless you are ready for a lot of bollocks ideas about the importance of mythology and how I had an epiphany about dwarfs. If you weren’t already aware of how deeply uncool I am, this should leave you in no doubt.

So, although I can’t exactly say, there are a few milestones along the way which I can identify. The earliest is probably The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, which was my favourite book as a child, and would still make my top ten. Whilst it has nothing specifically to do with Iceland (or rather, it does, but I didn't know that it did when I was eight), I'm sure it had the effect of priming my young brain for Norse culture. Dragons, dwarves, elves, goblins, trolls - the whole world of Middle-Earth is so deeply rooted in Scandinavian myths and legends.


The next thing really is the mythology itself. I was really into mythology as a child, mostly Greek mythology at first because it was the most familiar and easily accessible. I had an illustrated children's Odyssey as well, which I was very fond of. And then I got a brilliant Dorling Kindersley book called The Illustrated Book of Myths. It’s full of myths from all over the world, and the illustrations are superb. It was this book that first introduced me to Norse mythology, or it is so far as I can remember.

And it was then that I decided that not all mythologies are created equal. I think of them as a special sort of literature, special because some people, somewhere, at some time, believed that they were true and used them to explain this perplexing world we find ourselves in. They tell you so much about how those people thought and how they saw themselves. These days, ever-expanding scientific understanding of the world has removed the need for belief in mythology, which I would say is a very good thing. OK, so this is up for debate, depending on what you mean by the word. But let’s say that we’re defining mythology as stories about supernatural beings that provide some sort of explanation for why the world is the way it is. We no longer need a myth to satisfy our curiosity about lightning or rainbows, for example, because we know what they are now. That said, this doesn’t mean that mythology can’t teach you anything about the world, simply because it isn't true. You just have to turn it around and accept its limitations – like all literature, it can only tell you about humanity. It is man’s comment on himself, some of which will be universal and some of which will be culture specific. And some mythologies, just like some novels, are richer and of a higher value than others – a judgement which is of course subject to personal taste. This is a bit misleading to write about mythologies as if they are like novels and to ignore the temporal aspect, how they borrow from each other and converge and diverge and evolve. They behave quite a lot like languages, really. But let’s not worry about that now (even though it is super interesting, and I think I need to finally get around to reading The Golden Bough).

Why Norse myths are my favourite

Personally I find the Norse myths to be the most enthralling, awe-inspiring and just plain entertaining of them all. Not but that the Greek myths aren’t superb. They just don’t grab me in the same way. I always imagined the Greek myths taking place in a sort of honey-coloured glow, with bright sun and olive groves and everyone wearing white robes. The Norse myths, on the other hand, were all ice and fire, full of darkness contrasted with vivid colours. They exercised a far more powerful grip on my imagination, and years later (I think when I was around fifteen or sixteen?) I got a book of retellings to explore the mythology in more detail. Like, much more detail. Like, I memorised the names of all the characters, places, objects in all the stories. I’ve forgotten some of it now, but I still know stupid things like the names of the dwarfs who made Þórr’s hammer.  

The thing I love most about Norse mythology is that the gods are not really gods at all – they are more like super-humans. I find mythologies in which the deity/deities is/are ‘perfect’, all-knowing, all-powerful, completely infallible, pretty unsatisfying. In my opinion there’s nothing to learn from such a character because it can’t possibly tell you anything about yourself – it can only encourage you to compare yourself with perfection, which is not a healthy thing to do. Most mythologies (excepting some younger ones still in currency) don’t have perfect gods, and they’re far more interesting for it. Obviously a lot of people get something out of this ‘perfect god’ sort of mythology, but not me. Not that there aren’t loads of good bits in the Bible, I do like the Bible. I just think the whole omnipotence / onmiscience thing was an artistic error, and Jesus gets on my nerves. The whole ‘died for your sins’ thing seems a bit psychologically damaging to me as well. But the bit where God conjures a bear to rip apart some teenagers who were teasing his prophet, that's funny stuff.

In Norse mythology, on the other hand, the gods are cursed with all the human weaknesses (lust, jealousy, greed, stupidity, pride, occasionally cruelty), as well as kindness, wisdom, humour – they are real, complex characters. Apart from Baldur, who is pretty much a blonder Jesus. And what’s more, what is really incredible, is that these gods are not even immortal. They’re superficially immortal, as long as they keep eating Iðunn’s apples, but they all know they are doomed to die when Ragnarök comes. In the cosmic struggle between good and evil, evil will eventually triumph, order will be overcome by disorder and the world will crumble into ruin (and then be made anew, admittedly, but Óðinn and co don't come back to life). It’s such a gloomy worldview, and yet also strangely inspiring I think. Living with the knowledge of your own doom, and yet not despairing, facing your fate with courage - it’s known as ‘Nordic fatalism’ and I find it a very powerful poetic idea. They’re funny as well – laughter is so highly valued that it’s the only thing Skaði will take in payment when the Æsir (the main bunch of gods) kill her father. Incidentally, the only one who can pay the debt is Loki; he makes her laugh by tying a goat to his testicles. Which, come on, I think we would all find that amusing. Deities should have a sense of humour.

OMG dwarfs

One day I decided I'd like to have a look at the actual source material for these stories, so I bought myself the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson (which I had actually already dabbled in online), and now we come back to Tolkien. I was absolutely astonished to come across this, which Snorri quotes from 'Völuspá', a poem from the older Poetic Edda:

Then all the powerful gods went
to their thrones of fate,
the most sacred gods, and
decided among themselves
that a troop of dwarves
should be created
from the waves of blood
and from Blain's limbs.
There in men's likeness
were made many
dwarves in the earth,
as Durin said.

And these, said the prophetess, are the names of these dwarves:

Nyi, Nidi,
Nordri, Sudri,
Austri, Vestri,
Althjolf, Dvalin,
Nar, Nain,
Niping, Dain,
Bifur, Bafur,
Bombor, Nori,
Ori, Onar,
Oin, Modvitnir,
Vig and Gandalf,
Vindalf, Thorin,
Fili, Kili,
Fundin, Vali,
Thror, Throin,
Thekk, Lit, Vitr,
Nyr, Nyrad,
Rekk, Radsvinn.

But these, too, are dwarves, and they live in the rocks, whereas those mentioned before live in the ground:

Draupnir, Dolgthvari,
Haur, Hugstari,
Hledjolf, Gloin,
Dori, Ori,
Duf, Andvari,
Har, Siar.

Not a particularly exciting bit of poetry, in fact one of the most boring bits of the whole Völuspá, which is otherwise genuinely thrilling. But to see these characters from my favourite childhood book appearing in a book written in the thirteenth century was a pretty odd sensation. One of the amazing things about Tolkien is how real it feels, like an alternate history, even though it’s all about mythical beings. This was when I realised that it really was, at least partly, based on real cultural history. There were real people living in medieval Scandinavia for whom Bifur, Bofur and Bombur were minor characters in the stories they told to explain the world. After that, I discovered more and more little bits that had obviously inspired Tolkein, and this definitely fuelled my interest.

A trip to Iceland

So although at this stage I wasn’t really much interested in Iceland specifically, although more so than the rest of Scandinavia because Snorri Sturluson was Icelandic, I was still pretty excited when my family decided to go there for our summer holiday. I was seventeen at the time. We were no doubt your typical túristar (or túrhestar as my Icelandic family calls them). In fact, I know I was one of those people I laugh at these days wearing walking boots around Reykjavík, because immediately I stepped outside Keflavík airport into a puddle it came to my attention that there was a hole in one of my normal shoes. We also all wore waterproof jackets everywhere and took a lot of pictures of waterfalls.

Norse mythology usually plays second fiddle to classical mythology in British culture. This is related to the general historical trend of wanting to be on the “right” side in the Romans vs. Barbarians narrative – the same trend which led absurd nineteenth-century grammarians to try and impose Latinate rules on English, a Germanic language, and is the reason why some people still think that “splitting the infinitive” is even a thing, let alone a thing to be discouraged. English literature is absolutely crammed with references to Greek mythology, but before the nineteenth century you hardly see anything mentioning Norse myths, and even then it was mostly a small band of eccentric enthusiasts (see stars of my dissertation, William Morris and Sabine Baring-Gould). I was taught about The Iliad and The Odyssey and the stories about Theseus and the Minotaur, Perseus and Medusa, etc when I was in primary school, but nothing about the Norse myths. Everyone knows about Pegasus, very few about Sleipnir. Actually, writing this I just got a flashback to colouring in a picture of Sleipnir back in Court-de-Wyck (my primary school)... I’d forgotten that, guess I’m being overly dramatic. But anyway, as a general rule it’s still true and probably another reason I was attracted to the whole thing in the first place, because I am quite contrary. Then when I was in Iceland, suddenly Norse mythology was the mainstream. The street names in particular really excited me – Óðinsgata, Njarðargata, Týsgata, Freyjugata, Þórsgata. I know it’s kind of played up for tourists, but still, it’s not like everyone in Britain is thinking about Greek mythology a lot; it’s just part of the cultural landscape. Also, Iceland is just stunningly beautiful, even if it does rain an awful lot.

Sagas and so forth

Whilst I was in Iceland, I had a look at some of the sagas in one of those tourist shops, or possibly the tourist section in a bookshop. I got Egil’s Saga, and I read it when we got home. I don’t think it’s possible to read Egil’s Saga and not love it. Maybe it is, but clearly not if you’ve have the sort of priming that I had (see above). The Icelandic sagas are mad entertaining, once you get past all the genealogy, and also at times genuinely moving, because of and not despite the extremely understated style. They’re quite a different experience to modern literature, because they’re so sparse. Once you get used to it, though, they’re vastly more readable than most other medieval literature, because they are full of melodrama and black humour and mercifully free of religious piety. They’re really just novels over an unusually extended time-span with all the description and characterisation shorn back to a bare minimum. I would definitely recommend that you give one a go if you haven’t before. My favourite is Laxdæla Saga - start with that one.

On a side note, before I went to university I always sort of thought I would be a medievalist. I actually applied to study Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Studies at Cambridge, but I didn’t get in because I wasn’t able to satisfactorily define the location of my village - also because I’m probably not clever enough, and I definitely wouldn’t have worked hard enough. However, I came to realise that modern literature is, in general, much better. Twentieth-century novels win hands down, even though the nineteenth century is supposed to be my speciality. And, ignoring for one minute the fact that I entirely chose my history modules based on who the lecturer was, post-French-Revolution history is properly much more interesting. But anyway, that’s not really here or there. The point is that the Icelandic sagas are amazing, and not at all what you might expect from something written in the thirteenth century. I love them, and to love the Icelandic sagas is to love Iceland, isn’t it? In a weird, literary way, I mean. I wrote my MA dissertation on British people in the nineteenth century who travelled to Iceland inspired by the medieval literature, and it occurred to me at the time that I am sort of like a modern equivalent of my dissertation subjects, which is probably why I was drawn to them in the first place. Although in no way do I have anything approaching the skill set of William Morris – seriously, what couldn’t he do?


At first I didn’t care much at all about modern Iceland. Maybe I am more of a Baring-Gould than a Morris, although that would be kind of depressing. What brought my interest in Iceland more up to date (although only twentieth century up to date) was the author Halldór Kiljan Laxness. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955, and richly deserved it. I read what is probably his most famous work, Independent People or Sjálfstætt folk, after coming back from Iceland and it was the finest novel I had ever read.

Oh, I’ve tried and tried to write about Laxness, and I’m beginning to think I just don’t have the discipline for it. For serious, it gets more convoluted than when I was writing about mythology, because my interest is far more strongly emotional, as well as intellectual. Let’s just say here that there’s some magic in the way he writes that just floors me completely. Independent People, in particular, is just jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and I can’t even describe my love for it. Actually, something I was reading the other day, something Proust’s narrator says about his favourite author, sort of captures part of it:

"Whenever he spoke of something whose beauty had until then remained hidden from me [...], by some piece of imagery he would make their beauty explode and drench me with its essence."

If there’s one thing Laxness knows how to do, it’s making the beauty of things explode and drench me with their essence. I started writing about some examples of this, but I had to delete it because I was going on and on and on without actually saying anything except, “Wow, I love Laxness”. Which I’ve already said. So, time to move on.

Lærum íslensku!

I had toyed with the idea of learning Icelandic before, and made a few half-hearted forays. But in the spring semester of my second year at University (when I was nineteen years old), I decided to throw myself into it properly. I got a book for Christmas, Colloquial Icelandic by Daisy Neijmann, a little dictionary (which turned out to be quite dated – it had ‘smallpox’ but not ‘computer’), and started working through the exercises on the wonderful, free online course from the University of Iceland. I’ve written on the subject of learning Icelandic in the main blog; here I’ll just say that I love Icelandic, although it frustrated me no end when I was just beginning. I love finding all the cognates that it has with English, and especially archaic English. I love all the words that don’t have an English equivalent. I love the way it sounds. It’s a fun language to learn, once you manage to struggle past the beginner’s stage. My ambition remains to be good enough to read Independent People in the original, although that really is pretty advanced stuff. I tried to once, shortly after I got here, and there were loads of words that the Icelanders I live with had to look up in the dictionary. My other ambition is to get good enough to translate from Icelandic to English, which I’d say will take a fair bit more work, but is not impossibly distant on the horizon.

Etc, etc

And so it continued. I read a collection of Icelandic folktales. I put my savings in an Icelandic bank (subsequently forcibly removed to a Dutch bank). I read a few books about Icelandic history (and discovered my hero Jørgen Jørgensen). I read some not-Laxness Icelandic literature - some of it in Icelandic. I wrote a dissertation on what some British people thought about Iceland in the nineteenth century. I applied to be an au pair in Iceland, mostly because I wanted the chance to practice and improve my language skills, not because of my love of housework. I met some real Icelandic people and lived in Iceland and now I don’t want to go back to Britain.

Congratulations/commiserations if you made it to the end of this. The word count says it’s just over 3,000. That’s essay length, although this is nowhere near as structured as an essay. Now you understand why I am unable to answer the question, “So why Iceland?” I think to summarise the answer is "books"? At least I think I did a slightly better job here than I consistently do on the “Why Laxness?” question.