A Land Of Superlatives
Strange Isle! A moment to poetic gaze
Rise in thy majesty of rocks and bays
Glens, fountains, caves, that seem not things of earth
But the wild shapes of some prodigious birth,
As if the Kraken, monarch of the sea
Wallowing abroad in his immensity
By polar storms and lightning shafts assailed
Wedg’d with ice-mountains here had fought and fail’d,
Perish’d—and in the petrifying blast
His hulk became an island rooted fast;
--Rather, from ocean’s dark foundation hurl’d
Thou art a type of his mysterious world
Buoy’d on the desolate abyss to show
What wonders of creation hide below.
James Montgomery in 1819.
That Moment of Poetic Gaze
It greets you around every crook in the road and every turn of the lane. This is a nation of such dramatic landscapes that only a poet could capture its truth. Geysers spit forth their steamy clouds. Glaciers grind their icy paths to the sea. Lacy waterfalls drape the rocks in gossamer veils. Volcanoes now stand silent, their power temporarily arrested. And cooled lava deserts crawl toward the horizon. This is the land of superlatives. This is Iceland.
Curiously, it is a true land of fire and ice. Glaciers and dark lava beds, no longer hot, cover ten percent of the island. And Iceland contains one of the world’s most active volcanic regions. The glaciers serve as a reminder of Iceland’s closeness to the Article Circle. At the same time, the volcanoes are evidence of the submerged Mid-Atlantic Range. Astoundingly, for the last 500 years, Iceland’s volcanoes have accounted for nearly one-third of the total lava flow for the entire world. In fact, some 200 volcanoes dot the landscape. In March 2012, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano began to rumble and spew. The following month, it literally blew its top sending volcanic ash into the air with such a vengeance it disturbed air travel for thousands. Europe and Iceland seemed to suffer the worst of it, stranding travelers everywhere. Today, the volcano is a popular tourist destination, a quiet popular tourist destination.
The Soul And Inspiration
Perhaps it is just this landscape, or moonscape as the case may be, that stirred the poetic souls of early Icelanders. Historians believe that the first literature written by the Icelandic people was poetry. In fact, they cite literary masterpieces dating back to the 12th century. For the next 250 years, these authors penned the sagas of Iceland’s first two and one-half centuries.
There are two basic categories of poetry: Skaldic, which was the work of court poets; and Eddic poetry reflecting a type of free-metre prose. The latter often revolves around heroic and mythical tales. Of these, the Eddas evolved from German folk tales and Gothic legends. Those that are mythical in subject are believed to celebrate the tales of Norse gods.
You may already know about something called the “sagas.” The closing days of the 12th Century as well as the entire 13th Century are identified as the Saga Age. During this period, authors captured romantic tales and chronicled the events associated with the early settlers. A fellow named Egill Skallagrímsson became rather famous. This Skaldic poet’s Egils Saga, considered biographic, was written by Snorri Sturluson. The Sagas make good reading and reflect the early experiences of those who called Iceland home. They’re witty, laced with complex plots, heroism triumphing over evil, and reminiscent of a social system nine centuries ago that served its people well. The Sagas remain best sellers some 700 years after they were written!
If you’ve still time for some more reading, consider something by the modern writer Halldór Laxness, a 1955 Nobel Prize winner for Literature. His works let you peek into the daily life of the local people. Select perhaps The Fish Can Sing, Independent People, or The Atom Station.
Contemporary music fans can pick up something by Bjork, the Icelandic singing sensation. There are others on offer, as well, at the local music store. Be sure to turn the volume way up.
Some Other Iceland Facts And Stats
Iceland is the second largest island in Europe.
More than half the country lies above 400 meters.
Ms. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was the first democratically elected female head of state serving four terms (1980-96).
70% of Iceland’s export income is derived from fishing.
Roughly 120,000 citizens live in Reykjavik.
Iceland’s total population is 313,000.
Iceland enjoys nearly a 100% literacy rate.
Iceland’s average life expectancy is in the world’s top ten.
Family names are illegal if given AFTER the 1925 Personal Names Act.
Reykjavik is the world’s most northerly capital, established in 874.
Iceland’s Parliament is considered one of the world’s oldest.
Lief Ericson (Erickson, Ericsson) was expelled from Iceland in 985.
There are no snakes in Iceland.
Glima, a remnant of the Viking past, is a sport resembling wrestling. Try to avoid taking part.
But do remember the words of William Morris who wrote about Iceland in 1873, “Surely I have gained a great deal, and it was no idle whim that drew me here, but a true instinct for what I needed.” Mull that over with some local pickled herring and schnapps while watching Prometheus, shot right here in Iceland .