Why I Went to Iceland

The Geyser Strokkur at—Where Else?—Geysir in Iceland

The Geyser “Strokkur” at—Where Else?—Geysir in Iceland

My friend Catina Martinez wrote, “I’ve had lots of friends and family traveling to Iceland lately. I hope you’ll blog about how you chose Iceland. Sounds lovely.” Well, now that I’m back, I thought I’d start with a summary of why I went and answer Catina’s request.

I suspect my reasons will seem strange to many people, but then I am a strange person. It all started with my reading of the medieval Icelandic sagas, beginning with the Njals Saga and going on to the other four principal works: Grettir’s Saga, Laxdaela Saga, The Eyrbyggja Saga, and Egils Saga. At the time they were written in the 13th and 14th centuries, they were the best literature that was written anywhere at the time in Europe.

Now how could that be? The Icelanders were, after all, Vikings. Didn’t they wear helmets with bulls’ horns on them and inspire the other Europeans with fear? Wasn’t a standard prayer of the time “From the fury of the Norsemen, good Lord, deliver us”? And yet they also created a great literature.

Oh, and along the way, they discovered and settled America. (And also Greenland, along the way.)

Of course, their settlement didn’t last; but the Icelanders were definitely there: At L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, archeologists have discovered artifacts proving they had been there for a time.

Evidently, there’s something going on in that little island whose total population is less than that of a one-mile radius around my apartment in West Los Angeles. It is the most literate country in the world (100%), and I have heard a strange statistic that even I cannot believe: Namely, that 10% of adult Icelanders have written and published books.

At the same time, Iceland is a country of stark and eldritch beauty. Mostly volcanic in origin, some 18 volcanoes have erupted—some multiple times—since the island was settled by Norwegians late in the 8th century A.D. Some of them, especially Laki in 1783-84 were severe enough to have killed off a quarter of the population and imperiled agriculture throughout the island. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (bet you couldn’t say that ten times) in 2010 led to massive disruption of air navigation throughout Europe for months. And during the Middle Ages, Hekla was thought to be the gate of Hell.

The geysers at Geysir, the active volcanoes, the glaciers, the thousands of waterfalls everywhere, and the lovely green valleys of the south of the country make it a land of startling contrasts.

And so it was for me. The place takes my breath away.

In the weeks to come, I will keep coming back to these subjects, with supporting photographs I have taken during the last three weeks, such as the one above.