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, 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 World War II, 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. 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 the prose and poem “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 very 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 city Reykjavik bustles with theater, 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 discussion 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 by the best-selling current-day crime writer Arnaldur Indriðason.
Click here to view a detailed itinerary.