A Short List of Books about Iceland
by Nancy Marie Brown
Adventure, History, & Travel: my own books top the list, of course; the third is by my husband and makes a “he said, she said” pair with A Good Horse. The others are classics that give a portrait of the true Iceland: the one that existed before SUVs and ATVs invaded.
The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown (Harcourt, 2007). The review from Kirkus says it better than I could: “In July 2005, Brownjoined an archaeology crew from UCLA at a dig in Glaumbaer, Iceland, where legendary Gudrid might have lived later in life. It hasn’t actually been proven that the longhouse at ‘Farm of Merry Noise’ actually belonged to Gudrid, but the author, who has hungrily sought archaeological confirmation of the Icelandic legends for several decades, was thoroughly convinced. Here, she sets out to unravel her subject’s fascinating travels, recounted with slight differences in The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Eirik the Red. In Brown’s retelling, Gudrid sailed for Greenland on her father’s prosperous ship, got knocked around at sea and was eventually welcomed into Eirik the Red’s settlement at Brattahlid, where he had lived since being banished from Iceland 15 years before for murdering his neighbors. With her husband, Thorfinn Karlsefni, Gudrid followed Eirik’s son Leif to the fabulous Vinland (Newfoundland), where she bore a son, Snorri. After three years, the ferocious native Skraelings ran off the Vikings; Gudrid settled with her family at Glaumbaer, then later made a Christian pilgrimage to Rome. Into this saga Brown inserts a wealth of cultural history gleaned from archaeological finds at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, and elsewhere. She displays an impressive, detailed knowledge of shipbuilding, longhouse construction, language (words like ransack and brag come from Norse), cloth-making, farming practices, and gender roles. All this rich material accumulates to create a marvelously sneaky history of the Viking mind. A nimble synthesis of the literary and the scientific that will charm even readers who didn’t know they were interested.”
A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horseby Nancy Marie Brown (
Summer at Little Lava: A Season on the Edge of the Worldby Charles Fergus (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1997). The publisher’s introduction says: “In Summer at Little Lava, Charles Fergus tells how he fixed up an abandoned house on the farm and spent a summer there with his wife and their young son—living day to day in great simplicity, without heat, electricity, running water, or other conveniences. Inspired by Henry Beston’s classic book The Outermost House … Fergus sought a place at the outer limits of civilization, and on the coast of Iceland he found it.” As “the wife” of the book, I simultaneously love this picture of an Iceland summer—and hardly recognize it. I wrote A Good Horse partly to tell my side of what happened at Little Lava and to continue the story to the happy ending of the summer after, when we allowed a pair of horses to change our lives.
Iceland Saga by Magnus Magnusson (The Bodley Head, 1987). Chatty and idiosyncratic, this memoir by the Icelandic-born, but British-raised BBC personality is my favorite “history” of Iceland. Magnusson relies perhaps a little too much on the sagas, and is a little too speculative in places, but he’s always enjoyable. For a more scholarly and up-to-date approach, read The History of Icelandby Gunnar Karlsson (University of Minnesota Press, 2000), which packs an amazing amount of information into a small book.
The Iceland Traveller: A Hundred Years of Adventureedited by Alan Boucher (Iceland Review, 1989). If you think our summer at Little Lava was “roughing it,” these excerpts from the journals of 18th- and 19th-century expeditions—starting with Sir Joseph Banks in 1772 and including authors William Morris and Anthony Trollope—will convince you how civilized Iceland had become by 1996. For one thing, there are now roads.
Daughter of Fire: A Portrait of Iceland by Katharine Scherman (Little, Brown, 1976). As Stan Hirson says, anywhere you stand in Iceland, you’re standing on a story. Scherman uses this conceit as the frame for her travelogue, stopping to tell scenes from the Icelandic sagas in 17 spots around the country. Although I disagree with many of her interpretations, I find her descriptions of Iceland in the 1970s poignant and beautiful. Too many of the places she describes have now become popular tourist attractions.
Arctic Livingby Robert Jack (Ryerson Press, 1955). Robert Jack didn’t rent a jeep, hire a translator, and drive along the roads, as Scherman did; he learned Icelandic, was ordained as a Lutheran minister, and accepted a posting to Grimsey, an island off the northern coast of Iceland. His detailed descriptions of making hay, collecting birds’ eggs, playing chess, riding a horse through an icy river, and surviving through the winter capture the Iceland of long ago, when the horse truly was “man’s best friend.”
The Icelandic Sagas
Anyone who wants to understand Iceland needs to read at least one of the medieval Icelandic sagas. Here’s how I describe them in The Far Traveler:
…These forty-or-so tales of glory, love, hard times, and strife are Iceland’s claim to literary fame. Scholars have called them “muscled, powerful narratives” that are surprising in their “seductiveness” and whose “artistic effects are often very finely calculated.” They have inspired countless authors, from Kipling and Longfellow to Milan Kundera. J. R. R. Tolkien found much of his Middle Earth in Icelandic literature; he and C. S. Lewis started a saga-reading club at Oxford University and translated the texts from Old Norse, the Viking language. Another saga translator was the Victorian writer and designer William Morris. Asked once if he was going on a trip to Iceland, he replied, “No, I am going on a pilgrimage to Iceland.” Quoting Morris, the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges said, “This is also my answer. Any specialist in Anglo-Saxon literature is sooner or later drawn to Icelandic literature. It is like admiring a sunset or falling in love.” The American novelist Jane Smiley ranks the sagas beside the works of “Homer, Shakespeare, Socrates, and those few others who live at the very heart of human literary endeavor.”
Written in Iceland in the 1200s, the sagas tell of the Viking Age, particularly that part of it, between 870 and 1030, in which Icelanders played a starring role. Much of what we know otherwise about the Vikings was written by their enemies, by monks and clerics who—in spite of the fact that some Vikings were Christian—cast the “terror from the north” in the role of Antichrist. The Icelandic sagas do not deny that warriors from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland terrorized the coasts of Europe for hundreds of years, beginning with the sack of the English monastery of Lindisfarne in 793. But the sagas put that bloodshed into context from the Vikings’ point of view. We learn what it was like to be one of those brash, blond-headed swordsmen embarking from a dragonship itching to steal the chalice from a English church or the chest filled with silver from a French merchant’s loft. We sail on their swift ships to the white-marbled cities of the East, and farther west than West to Wine Land. In the sagas, we meet men who will recite a poem or tell a joke while succumbing to mortal wounds, men who excel at drinking bouts, wrestling, ball games, swimming, oar-walking, and horse fights, but enjoy nothing so much as sitting around a longfire listening to tales of heroes like themselves.
We also see the less sexy side of Viking life. A warrior hides in a tub full of whey when he’s outnumbered. An old Viking, blind and shaky on his feet, hunches by the fire, ridiculed by his womenfolk for always being in the way. There’s the strong man who’s afraid of the dark and his neighbor who has bad dreams. There are years when they run out of hay, and the sheep all starve. There are shipwrecks and landslides and general bum luck, hopeless love affairs, and the tragic drowning of a beloved young son. And there are countless mothers and wives holding the farm together while their men mope and quarrel and fight and kill each other and take off overseas…
As historians routinely remind their scientific colleagues, the sagas made Iceland a nation. They were penned, the story goes, to prove to the Norwegian overlords that Icelanders were not the sons of slaves and should be treated as equals. It took a while for that message to be heard. From the 1200s until well into the 1800s, Iceland was of little interest to its rulers (first Norway, then Denmark). The Renaissance did not find Iceland. The Reformation tore it apart: Before he was beheaded in 1550, Bishop Jon Arason unilaterally declared Iceland free of Danish control. The Icelandic church’s rents and properties were then seized by the Danish crown, which established a monopoly over all trade with the island. That trade did not prove profitable. By the late 1700s, after a prolonged and poisonous volcanic eruption had killed off one-fifth of the human population and half their cattle, the Danish king suggested the island be abandoned and the remaining forty thousand Icelanders resettled in Jutland. Throughout centuries of want and despair, the sagas and the Golden Age of independence and valor they painted kept the Icelandic nation alive. The sagas were the tool patriots used to bring the island to the world’s attention in the 1800s, and the cause of its ultimate independence in 1944. Iceland had a language and a story: Therefore, it was a nation. …
In the 1990s, a team of Icelandic scholars did us all a great favor by translating most of the sagas into English. Sagas of Icelanders: a selectionedited by Robert Kellogg, with introduction by Jane Smiley (Viking Penguin, 2000) contains many of the best. Horse lovers should begin with The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi, and be prepared to cry over the fate of the stallion Freyfaxi. The shorter tales, especially “The Tale of Audun from the West Fjords,” also give a flavor of saga style without too much of a commitment in time. Of the longer sagas in this collection, the best are Egil’s Saga—which is beautifully told in a 30-minute museum exhibition in Borgarnes, Iceland, if you’re traveling there—and The Saga of the People of Laxardal, which may have been written by a woman.
Njal’s Saga, translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson (Penguin Books, 1960),
is probably the most significant of all the sagas. This story of Burnt-Njal and the hero Gunnar of Hlidarendi wasn’t included in Sagas of Icelanders because it was too long and too well-known. In the saga, the outlawed Gunnar of Hlidarendi speaks the most influential lines in all the Icelandic sagas—lines that awakened the independence movement in the19th century and resulted in the country’s break with Denmark: “Fair are the hillsides, so fair as I have never seen them before, the pale meadows and just-mown hayfields. I am going home and I will never leave again.”
Another important saga missing from the Kellogg collection is Grettir’s Saga, translated by Denton Fox and Hermann Pálsson (University of Toronto Press, 1974). The overarching theme of Grettir’s Saga is that the Viking Age is over. The Viking values that Grettir embodies no longer apply: He was stronger than anyone, courageous to a fault, even a good poet, but his tragic flaw was hubris. Only when he learned to live humbly and love his brother was he happy. Until then he had no luck. This saga is of special interest for horse-lovers, as it centers on the horse-loving region of Skagafjord: Grettir spends his last days as an outlaw atop the island of Drangey, which dominates the fjord.
Books About The Sagas & Icelandic History
If the sagas excite you, welcome to the club! Here are a few recent books that will add to your enjoyment:
A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Cultureedited by Rory McTurk (Blackwell Publishing, 2005) is a collection of scholarly papers on every topic you’ve thought to ask about the sagas. Some of the entries are too technical, others are too superficial, but it’s the latest thinking on the subject. Viking Age Icelandby Jesse L. Byock (Penguin Books, 2001) is a more compact approach to many of the topics covered in A Companion. Although not all scholars will agree with Byock on every point, for the general reader, it’s a handy introduction that’s readable and enjoyable throughout.
The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Traditionby Gísli Sigurdsson (Harvard University Press, 2004) is brilliant. The introduction explains the long and neverending battle between the scholars who look at the sagas as history (and therefore more-or-less true) and those who consider them imaginative fiction. In the rest of the book, using concepts drawn from oral literature, Gisli proves that it’s not an either-or choice. I’ve read many books about the sagas over the years, and this is the only one that understands how a writer uses his or her sources.
Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, edited by William Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), is a museum catalogue produced for the Smithsonian’s splendid Vikings exhibition. The photographs are marvelous. The historical entries are all by noted experts in the field and (although again, I could quibble with a few of the entries), they are in general reliable. I found the archaeological entries, however, to be the most exciting. The amount scientists have learned about the Viking Age in the last 20 years is astonishing—and much of it has not been published, as I found when I interviewed many of the contributors to the exhibition catalogue for my book The Far Traveler.
Iceland’s Nobel Prizewinner
No list of books about Iceland would be complete without mentioning the novels of Halldor Laxness. These are my three favorites of those available in English. Taken together, they provide a fine introduction to Iceland’s history, culture, and struggles for independence. Set in the 18th to 20th centuries, they’re a necessary antidote to the sagas’ portrayal of Iceland’s Golden Age.
The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness (Harvill Press, 2001).
Independent Peopleby Halldor Laxness (Knopf, 1946; reprint Vintage, 1997)
Iceland’s Bell by Halldor Laxness (Vintage, 2003)