Iceland is a large island in the North Atlantic Ocean (see map).10 It is volcanic in origin and still highly active geothermically.11 Its first settlers arrived in the ninth and tenth centuries, mostly from Norway. Their descendants speak Icelandic, a Germanic language which is in some respects quite archaic and thus of considerable interest to linguists.12 Since the country is relatively small, it is quite easy to familiarize oneself with it and to get around in it. It is also exceptionally beautiful, containing spectacular and dramatic natural scenery — volcanos, glaciers, waterfalls, seacliffs — as well as scenery of the more human kind described so movingly by the English traveller John Coles, en route to Hekla in 1881:
As we came in sight of Hruni, the weather cleared up, and the sun shone out brightly, lighting up the green hills on which a party of men and women were hard at work haymaking. We could just hear their voices, singing at their work; and I think that, with the little church and homestead close to us, the sheep on the hills, and the cattle in the valley, it was as charming a picture of peaceful rural life as I have ever set eyes on, while the surrounding verdure seemed to protest against this country being called by such an uninviting name as Iceland. (STI36-7)
In Iceland today the haymaking is mechanized and people travel by car along excellent roads, not on horseback over the miserable tracks (sometimes tracklessnesses) cursed so roundly by Coles and his companions. But it is still the same beautiful country, and the same beautiful people.
During the first three hundred years of its history13 Iceland was independent, self-governed by an oligarchy of chieftains who settled legal disputes at meetings of the Alþing (National Assembly) held every summer at Þingvellir, northeast of Reykjavík. During the early part of this long period of independence occurred the actual events that were later recorded in semi-fictionalized form in the Icelandic family sagas. One of the most important of these historical events was the conversion of the country from Germanic heathendom to Christianity, by act of the Alþing in 1000 A.D.
Large-scale competititon among the Icelandic chieftains led in 1262-4 to the loss of national independence and submission to the king of Norway. The covenant of union (Gamli sáttmáli, "The Old Pact"), made by the Alþing with the king, established a personal union between Iceland and Norway. Later, in 1380, when the Norwegian and Danish monarchies were united, the Icelandic/Norwegian union transferred to the crown of Denmark. Iceland's association with Denmark was to last for over 550 years (1380-1944) and to have important implications for Icelandic culture and the Icelandic economy. The Reformation reached Iceland in 1550 and Lutheranism has been the state religion ever since.
The 14th through 18th centuries were a difficult time for the Icelanders, totally at the mercy of political and economic interests abroad, constrained by a very rigidly structured society at home, and "imprisoned by their own mentality" (as Kirsten Hastrup has argued), "entrapped by a particular vision of the world,"14 and thus unable to respond flexibly and innovatively to their situation.15 After the Reformation Iceland suffered in numerous ways from Danish Absolutism, coming to be viewed as little more than a source of income for the Danish crown. The idea took root that trading rights in Iceland should be restricted to merchants licensed by the king and in 1602 a complete monopoly was established (with implications not only for the country's economy, but its language and culture as well). This monopoly lasted until 1787, when the right to trade with Iceland was extended to all subjects of the Danish king.16
During this long period of political and economic oppression, the culture stagnated and ossified. The language had become so Danicized that in 1771 the director of the school at Skálholt recommended that Danish be adopted as the language of the country, "since it is not only unnecessary, but even disadvantageous for the Icelanders to retain their own language" (HHi20). Moreover the conservatism of the population, coupled with the relative isolation from European literary impulses, guaranteed that Icelandic writing would be limited in variety and firmly traditional in approach. Natural disasters — plagues and volcanic eruptions — contributed to the general misery, one of the worst episodes in the long saga of woes being the eruption of the volcano Laki in 1783-4 and the móðuharðindi ("famine of the haze") which followed. Ebenezer Henderson, a Scotsman who spent much of 1814-5 in Iceland and travelled widely around the country, provides the following effective and accurate account:
The eruption that took place in the year 1783. . . not only appears to have been more tremendous in its phenomena than any recorded in the modern annals of Iceland, but it was followed by a train of consequences the most direful and melancholy, some of which continue to be felt to this day. Immense floods of red-hot lava were poured down from the hills with amazing velocity, and, spreading over the low country, burnt up men, cattle, churches, houses, and every thing they attacked in their progress. Not only was all vegetation, in the immediate neighbourhood of the volcano, destroyed by the ashes, brimstone, and pumice, which it emitted; but, being borne up to an inconceivable height in the atmosphere, they were scattered over the whole island, impregnating the air with noxious vapours, intercepting the genial rays of the sun, and empoisoning whatever could satisfy the hunger or quench the thirst of man and beast. Even in some of the more distant districts, the quantity of ashes that fell was so great, that they were gathered up by handfuls. Upwards of four hundred people were instantly deprived of a home; the fish were driven from the coasts, and the elements seemed to vie with each other which should commit the greatest depredations; famine and pestilence stalked abroad, and cut down their victims with ruthless cruelty; while death himself was glutted with the prey. In some houses there was scarcely a sound individual left to tend the afflicted, or any who possessed sufficient strength to inter the dead. The most miserably emaciated tottering skeletons were seen in every quarter. When the animals that had died of hunger and disease were consumed, the wretched creatures had nothing to eat but raw hides, and old pieces of leather and ropes, which they boiled and devoured with avidity.17 The horses ate the flesh off one another, and for want of other sustenance had recourse to turf, wood, and even excrementitious substances; while the sheep devoured each other's wool. In a word, the accumulation of miseries, originating in the volcanic eruption, was so dreadful, that, in the short space of two years, not fewer than 9,336 human beings, 28,000 horses, 11,461 head of cattle, and 190,488 sheep perished on the island! (IJR220-1)
Volcanic gas emitted during the Laki eruption was responsible for the haze of "noxious vapours" that caused such widespread suffering. The almost ten thousand human deaths represented 20% of the population. The disaster was so complete that the Danish government is said to have considered resettling some of the Icelandic population in Jutland.
The cultural situation in Iceland began to improve toward the end of the eighteenth century. Sigurður Nordal writes of the period 1750-1830, the period preceding the appearance on the scene of Jónas Hallgrímsson and his colleagues:
It is an age when it is difficult to assess fairly what is to be credited to the old and what to the new. These generations are characterized by their faith in their country and people, their hopes of national resurgence, their immersion in all kinds of 'projects' for the improvement of the nation's lot, which foreboded our modern conditions of life, even though their originators saw none of them brought to fruition. This period has, however, left us little literature of enduring worth; in any case, the interest of the age emphasized scholarly achievement and practical affairs. . . .
The eighteenth century is usually considered above all as the Age of Enlightenment: rational, practical, international and popular. The aim adhered now, for example, to giving the common people a broader education than hitherto. The first printing-press in Iceland under secular control was established in 1773. Icelanders in Copenhagen founded a society, Lærdómslistafélag, which from 1780 to 1798 published a good annual periodical; besides dealing with practical subjects, it was also intended to spread general knowledge. Magnús Stephensen (1762-1833), Chief Justice in Iceland and the chief representative of the typical Enlightenment Age, published many books of popular educational content, including the first Icelandic monthly magazine. Great work was done in historical and national studies. . . . Great and rapid advances were also made in the publication of Old Icelandic texts in Copenhagen, most of them edited by Icelanders. (IHP78-9)
All these seeds sprouted in the early nineteenth century, when the goal of restored political independence first took on palpable form, nourished by the idealism of Jónas Hallgrímsson and his circle, who published the journal Fjölnir between 1835 and 1847, and by the far-seeing pragmatism of the scholar-statesman Jón Sigurðsson (1811-1879), the most outstanding figure in Iceland's modern political history and the architect of the nation's independence.18 It is very important to understand (as Nordal has emphasized) that in Iceland — unlike much of the rest of Europe —
there occurred no real collision between the Ages of Reason and Romanticism. In the controversy as to whether the National Assembly should meet in Reykjavík or at Þingvellir, Jón Sigurðsson followed in reality the same path as Magnús Stephensen, who had warned against a blind glorification of the past. The romantic poetry of Iceland never fell into the same excesses as at times only too prominent elsewhere; its popularity and value have always remained fresh. (IHP79)
In the early nineteenth century the government of the country was organized as follows (this description is from the pen of a Munich geologist who visited Iceland in 1858):
The island, which is part of the kingdom of Denmark, is divided for purposes of governance into three administrative regions (ömt). One is in the south, another in the west, and the third in the north and east.
The heads of these three regions, the amtmenn (deputy governors), are entirely independent of one another. The deputy governor of the southern region is distinguished from the others only by virtue of the fact that it is he who — in concert with the Bishop of Iceland — is responsible for managing the spiritual affairs of the whole island. For this reason he is known as the stiftsamtmaður (governor general).
Each administrative region is divided into smaller districts called sýslur (counties or prefectures). The officer in charge of such a district — known as a sýslumaður — is judge, police chief, and tax collector all rolled into one. Each sýsla is further subdivided into smaller units, hreppar (poor-law parishes), the heads of which — the hreppstjórar — are elected by the farmers themselves.19
Iceland in Jónas's day was a society of independent farmers who either owned or rented their land (but were totally autonomous in either case). The rural economy was based on sheepherding and all farms in Iceland were self-supporting. Summer was the time of most intense activity. Winter activities revolved around the domestic wool industry and taking care of the livestock, which could sometimes graze outdoors when weather permitted but generally had to be foddered in barns.
Every farm was "a total social universe" (in Kirsten Hastrup's phrase).20 The average farm household consisted of a couple with two or three children, and two or three hired hands (both male and female). Children naturally shared in the farm work as soon as they were old enough to do so. The character of Icelandic agriculture meant that most men and boys spent a good deal of time outdoors, and seasonal weather conditions — which can vary a good deal from year to year — were always a critical factor in farm prosperity.
To conclude the larger political story. The Alþing, which continued to meet at Þingvellir in a token way after the nation's loss of independence, was discontinued in 1801, only to be replaced in 1843-5 by an elective consultative body bearing the same name and meeting in Reykjavík (which was by now considered to be the capital of the country). In 1874 Iceland was granted its first constitution, which gave the Alþing legislative authority and control over the country's finances. In 1904 the Icelanders achieved Home Rule (in the form of a native Icelandic Minister who lived in Iceland and was responsible to the Alþing). Finally in 1918, by the Act of Union, Iceland became an autonomous state in monarchical union with Denmark; Denmark continued to control its foreign affairs. On 17 June 1944, with Denmark occupied by Nazi Germany — and in response to the people's will as determined by national plebiscite — the Union with Denmark was dissolved and Iceland declared a republic.
10 For a comprehensive introduction to all aspects of the country and its culture, see Iceland 1986: Handbook Published by the Central Bank of Iceland, ed. Jóhannes Nordal and Valdimar Kristinsson (Reykjavík, 1987). This excellent book is revised and updated every ten years or so. Unfortunately it was decided that the fourth edition (Iceland: The Republic ) would focus on "the history and development of the Republic of Iceland" and would therefore devote increased space to "tracing economic and cultural trends in the postwar period" (p.11). This meant a corresponding reduction in the space devoted to other important subjects, illustrations, and maps.
The most useful guide for intending visitors is Deanna Swaney's Iceland, Greenland & the Faroe Islands: A Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet). This is updated regularly.
11 The best current introduction to the geology of the country is Þorleifur Einarsson, Geology of Iceland: Rocks and Landscape, tr. Georg Douglas (Reykjavík: Mál og menning, 1994).
12 The fullest and most detailed introduction in English is Stefán Einarsson, Icelandic: Grammar, Texts, Glossary (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1945; 2nd ed. 1949). A number of examples of the modern spoken language can be heard on this Web site.
13 The best introduction to Icelandic history is the richly illustrated three-volume historical atlas Íslenskur söguatlas (Reykjavík: Almenna bókafélagið / Iðunn, 1989-93). Nothing comparable exists in English.
15 There are signs today that scholars are beginning to question the received view — which was to some extent a construction of the 19th-century independence movement in which Jónas Hallgrímsson played so important a part — that Icelandic history after the end of the republic in 1262-4 was one long screed of woe and stagnation. See for example 171Skí469-79.
16 Not that this was any kind of long-term solution, or one that satisfied the needs of the Icelanders. Sir George Mackenzie, who visited the country in 1810, acknowledged that the Danish government "has done every thing that was possible to encourage the trade with Iceland. But in doing so, with the best intentions, the people have been neglected, and the Danish merchants alone regarded. Whatever good the regulations of Denmark might have been calculated to effect, the prohibition against trading with other nations has left the Icelanders nearly in the same state they were in, when subjected to the monopoly of a company" (TII271). And Jón Helgason reports that another Englishman, who visited the country in 1818, thought the Danish government "mismanages Iceland and Danish merchants oppress it like a nightmare. 'These Danish Shylocks,' as he calls them, jack up the price of their goods by 30% to 100%, since they have a total monopoly" (Rr131). Absolute free trade was only reintroduced in 1854.
17 The following story about the móðuharðindi can stand for a hundred others:
When Erlendur Hjálmarsson [1750-1835] was the intendant at Munkaþverá, he had a reputation for hospitality and sociability. An old man named Jón was living there in the parish and Einar became quite fond of him because of his modesty and intelligence. One Christmas Erlendur gave a great feast, sparing no expense. He invited all his friends and Jón was among the guests. The occasion was a great success and everyone got a little tipsy. Erlendur asked Jón whether he had ever in his life attended a more lavish banquet.
"Yes, indeed," Jón replied. "I've tasted food that was much more delicious and much more savory than what was served up here. And I thanked God for it with a brimming heart and tears of joy. I don't find myself doing that now, though this was certainly a generous feast and nothing was lacking."
Erlendur was taken aback by this reply since he had been expecting something a little different. He said: "Is this really true, Jón?"
"It's true enough," said Jón.
"When was it?" Erlendur asked. "And where?"
Jón replied: "It was during the famine that killed so many people. When I boiled the sheepskin clothes I wore and ate them without any sauce."
They say this story of Jón's brought tears to the eyes of Erlendur, who was a sensitive and compassionate man, and the other guests, too, were deeply moved. (4Íþs142)
18 On the inchoate independence movement in which Jónas played so important a role, see Aðalgeir Kristjánsson's beautifully illustrated Endurreisn Alþingis og þjóðfundurinn (Reykjavík: Sögufélag, 1993).
19 Gustav Georg Winkler, Island: Seine Bewohner, Landesbildung und vulkanische Natur (Braunschweig: Druck und Verlag von George Westermann, 1861), pp. 33-4.