Iceland, where elves and volcanoes meet a high-tech viking society with a history that blends into myth. I visited for 4 days, and I was enchanted.
I went to Iceland because my partner has always wanted to go to Iceland, and I was in London for two weeks for work so it seemed like a good idea for us to go. Of course, I’d also heard things about Iceland as inspiration for myth and legend, and as perhaps the last living repository of the kind of stories that inspired Tolkien. Iceland is a christian society, but it’s clear as well that the Icelandic people retain a strong connection with their folklore, and like all successful implementations of christianity, the Icelandic church has made sure that it appropriates, or deals flexibly with, the pre-christian forces in Icelandic culture. I don’t think you can go past the excellent documentary Screaming Masterpiece as an example of the careful blend of the fantastic and the religious in shaping Icelandic culture (in this case, their music), and the result of all this blending is a fascinatingly different island that on the surface is completely accessible to your average uncultured Australian – everyone speaks English, the place looks and behaves like a chilly version of an Australian country town, even the landscape is strangely familiar – but is at the same time intoxicatingly different.
Here are a few of my observations on Iceland, based on four days in the country (and thus thoroughly authoritative) with pictures.
Icelanders do Churches Better than You
The Churches in Iceland are amazing. I’m guessing this is a unique combination of the nordic sense of design, the Pagan sense of the joy of devotion (as opposed to its dour protestant alternative) and a peculiar Icelandic appreciation of the joys of light and airy spaces. The main church in Reykjavik is a joy to behold, and also has an amazing organ; but I passed many other beautiful churches in Iceland during my brief time there. The stained glass depicted below is from Skaraholt, the church that the bishop of Iceland occupied for many years before he moved to Iceland, and this is now rebuilt as a cultural monument; it is designed in every way to maximize the light available to its worshippers.
When I go to London I’m always struck by the difference between Britain and other Northern European countries – British people squat in the cold dark eating their own young, while Scandinavians build houses with enormous windows to catch every bit of available light, and also make good coffee by default – and Iceland has extended this tradition to churches. British churches are splendid in their architecture, but dark and cold and silent (and sometimes grim) inside; Icelandic churches are not so splendid (though their design is beautiful) but they are brilliant and airy inside. I blame this on the elves.
A Land on the Edge of the Earth
You genuinely feel, in Iceland, that you are on the edge of the world. You could go the same distance away from the equator in the opposite direction, to New Zealand, and you will feel like you’re in a country that isn’t, to quote a great man, on the raggedy edge. But Iceland is a country where you really feel like civilization stops beyond your porch. It’s the kind of country where anything imported is genuinely expensive, where the population is so small that they endure monopolies (including import monopolies!) on products we take for granted. A country that could not grow its own fruit until the 1930s, when they designed their first geothermally heated greenhouses. This is a country that has traditionally eschewed the death penalty, because the worst possible penalty to an Icelander is exile – in Iceland, exile means you take ship for a new land or you die.
A Parliament So Old it is Myth
Iceland’s parliament, the Althing, was formed in 980 AD, and is the oldest extant parliament on earth. The early years of the parliament are recorded in the Book of Settlements, a book so unreliable that scholars have rejected its description of Iceland’s natural environment; the parliament itself is so old that no one is 100% sure of where the famous Law Rock was placed, though they have a good idea. For the rest of the world, this is like not knowing where the Speaker of Parliament sits, or where the president lives. And democracy was no easy task for the early Icelanders, either: the parliament was held every year in the gap between the Asian and American tectonic plates, in a gradually sinking zone called the Thingvellir, which was in the geographical centre of Iceland but was a good two weeks’ march from many communities. How’s that for getting out the vote!
A Land of Astounding Vistas
The countryside in Iceland is breathtaking, and very changeable. It has deserts of volcanic rock, plains of lichen, little forests of stunted and hardy trees, mountains, glaciers, farmlands and waterfalls all in a few hours drive. The open spaces, compounded by the clear air, give the feeling of vast openness that all Australians are familiar with, and some of the colours are the same; but it also reproduces the russets, yellows and reds of a British autumn in its mosses and lichens, with mountains, glaciers and volcanoes glittering icily on the far horizon, further than you’ve ever seen in your life before. This is countryside to inspire legends.
Environmental Purity is Underrated
I had never experienced an environment as pure as Iceland’s before. With such a low population density, and entirely renewable energy, as well as Atlantic winds to carry away vehicle fumes, Iceland’s air and water is clean in a way that most of the rest of the world has probably forgotten is possible. You can see further than you thought possible on a sunny day, and the rivers and streams are so clear they’re almost not there. There’s also very little noise in most of the country I explored – just you and the sky, and the ever-present wind. I think until you experience a genuinely pure environment, you don’t realize what you’ve been missing – just as, until you experience a genuinely low-crime society you don’t realize how horrible living with the threat of crime really is.
All of these properties make Iceland a really inspiring place to visit for your average nerd, and also a very useful source of ideas and source material. I’ll be revisiting this in a subsequent post…
fn1: minus the restrictive gender stereotypes and dogs called “blue,” of course
fn2: I should do a blogpost on my Australian Deliverance moment, really