LITERARY ICELAND: From Ancient Epic to Modern Novel

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It’s a rare visitor to Iceland who is not touched by its desolate beauty. This wild island boasts some of Europe’s most impressive natural wonders—massive glaciers, barren highlands, rumbling volcanoes, vast lava fields, deep gorges and fjords, geysers, and thermal pools. It’s a land of extremes that begs to be explored.

What thrills the traveller, though, has made living in Iceland a challenge for much of its history. Until WWII, a struggle for subsistence was the main feature of life for most inhabitants. Icelanders have clung to the bits of arable land along the island’s coast, scraping a living from farming, fishing, and herding. Several times during Iceland’s 1,100-year inhabited history, Icelanders have considered abandoning the island as the most viable option for their survival. Centuries of isolation and hardship have bred a nation of tough, hardy, self-reliant Norse individualists.

Icelanders are also, remarkably, among the most literate and literary people in the world. Icelanders have long defined themselves as a literary nation. From the time the first Vikings settled this northerly island in the late ninth century, they began recounting their story in folktales, poems, oral histories, and song. Two centuries later, those stories began to be captured in writing in prose and poems: “Eddas,” the Book of Icelanders, the Book of Settlements, and, most notably, in the great Icelandic sagas. Near-mythic prose tales that dwell midway between ancient epic and modern novel, the sagas form the core of the nation’s literary heritage and cultural identity.

Today, with life in Iceland far more secure, literature, art, and design are thriving. The capital Reykjavík bustles with theatre, concerts, readings, galleries, and boutiques. Literary output is remarkable for a nation of only 300,000 people, with more books published per capita than perhaps any other place in the world.

We’ll explore the Icelandic love of language and storytelling first with discussions of two works from the catalogue of Icelandic sagas. We’ll then get a more recent take on life in Iceland through discussion of novels by the 20th-century Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness and the contemporary novelist and poet Sjón.

See our detailed itinerary for more information.

“The fish can sing just like a bird, / And grazes on the moorland scree, / While cattle in a lowing herd / Roam the rolling sea”

– Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing

Overview

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Destination
Reykjavík and surrounding natural areas


Dates
September 5–14, 2016 (9 nights)


Readings
The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey's Godi and Saga of the Confederates; The Fish Can Sing, by Halldór Laxness; and From the Mouth of the Whale, by Sjón


Accommodation
Hotel Plaza, Reykjavík; Hotel Fljotschlid, Smaratun; and Hotel Samar


Leader
Mark Cwik is a longtime 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.


Fees
US$4,995 per person based on double occupancy
US$6,165 per person based on guaranteed single accommodation
US$250 taxes and gratuities per person

Fee includes guides, readings, accommodation, two meals a day, discussions, ground transportation, walking tours, talks, excursions, and admissions.


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