Iceland is stark and stunning. It’s everything the travel brochures say it is: beautiful in a way that’s hard to imagine without visiting. When I travelled to Iceland a few years ago, I couldn’t get enough of the glaciers, waterfalls, geysers and gorges, the vast lava fields and the miles of Icelandic moss. You find that your supply of superlatives quickly runs short when you start to describe Iceland to others.
The sheer beauty of the place is more than enough reason to travel to Iceland. But that’s not really why I’m looking forward to going back there with Classical Pursuits late this summer.
I want to know what it does to a people to make a place like Iceland their home. Iceland is barely the size of Kentucky and its population is smaller than that of Windsor, Ontario. For most of its history, Iceland has offered a hardscrabble existence, at best.
I’m excited that our trip this summer will give us a chance to see how past, place and people mix to make the vibrant Iceland of today. We’ll read and discuss the magnificent Icelandic sagas and will talk with experts about Iceland’s Viking past. We’ll meet with artists and designers to explore the rich world of contemporary Icelandic fashion, arts and music. We’ll look under a few rocks and behind a few hills to see if we can spot any of the “hidden people” that a good number of Icelanders will tell you share the island with them. We’ll see if we can track down any first-hand reports.
And, we’ll try to find out what it is that makes Iceland such a literate and literary place. From the sagas of the Middle Ages to the crime novels of today, Icelanders have been passionate about the spoken and written word. This topic, it seems, is something we can ask about everywhere: it’s said that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime.
I hope you’ll come along with us. We’ll look, think, talk, read, relax and enjoy. And if you’d like even more Iceland this summer, please join me at our companion program Toronto Pursuits this July. I’ll be leading a course on Halldór Laxness’ great twentieth-century novel Independent People. Laxness’ rediscovered masterpiece is a poetic, deeply felt epic on the scale of a Melville or Cervantes.
– Mark Cwik
Mark Cwik is a long-time leader of discussions of great literature, a lover of epic tales and a big fan of Icelandic sagas. He is a designer and maker of wood furniture and would move to Iceland in a heartbeat — except that it has no trees.