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Land of Fire and Ice: Travelling Through Iceland By the Book

By Lisa Christensen Graefe | Published: January 29, 2019

The author's family in Iceland
All 17 travelers at Reykholt Medieval Museum.

Iceland—Land of fire and Ice! Land of poets and saga writers! Land of our ancestors! For my siblings and me, Iceland is all of these things. They, with their spouses and children, joined my family of six on an Icelandic adventure, 17 of us in all.  

Icelanders have contributed substantially to the world’s cache of great literature. Iceland has one of the highest literacy rates on the globe. Icelanders love to read! Already in the Middle Ages, Iceland had a full-blown literary scene in both poetry (the great Skaldic poets) and prose (the Saga writers).  To date, Iceland celebrates writers and readers at Christmas time, when gifts of books are exchanged and everyone spends the day reading. Jólabókaflóð, literally the “Christmas Book Flood,” is an annual event.

Of course books and storytelling were a part of our Icelandic adventure as we drove our three Land Cruisers over the stunning volcanic landscape. We took Highway 1, the famous Ring Road, all the way around the island, visiting heritage farm sites and towns, taking in the many geologic wonders and learning about the Vikings who first officially settled on the island in 874 AD. Here are some of our favorite Icelandic books:

A trip's worth of reading, plus Lisa's Icelandic family tree.

1) King Harald’s Saga, by Snorri Sturluson (translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pålsson)

Lisa's family reading by the lake
Carl reads to the family during an evening in
Egilstadir on Lake Lagarflot.

Our first stop after arriving in Iceland was in Reykholt, the home of Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241), the famous saga author and lawspeaker. His masterpiece is Heimskringla, in which he describes the history of Iceland and Scandinavia. A part of Heimskringla, “King Harald’s Saga, describes the life of the warrior king, who in 1066 fought—and lost—the battle of Stamford Bridge. The Medieval Cultural Centre Snorrastofu was the perfect spot to delve into the history of medieval Scandinavia. Both King Harald “harðráð” Sigurđsson (1015–1066) and Snorri Sturluson are ancestors of ours, and we spent one evening listening to our son Carl Graefe (King Harald’s 26x great-grandson) tell the king’s story. Another great source for understanding the Viking era is The Sagas of the Icelanders: a Selection.

2) Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Gothafoss waterfall in Iceland
The spectacular waterfalls of Iceland. 

As we traveled the Ring Road, we encountered landscapes of incredible beauty. Iceland is breathtaking and diverse. Around every corner we saw new wonders, especially the unparalleled waterfalls. Our first waterfall was Goðafoss, where according to legend, lawspeaker Þorgeir Ljòsvetningagoði threw his statues of Norse gods into the falls after Christianity had been declared the official religion of Iceland. Nephew Jon Erik Haines regaled us with stories of those gods from Neil Gaiman’s fascinating book. In this new version the legends are retold with a strong dose of Gaiman’s wit. It is a modern version of some fantastic tales.

3) The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indriđason

One cannot go to Scandinavia today without reading at least one crime novel. Scandinavian mystery writers have taken the world by storm, and even Concordia Language Villages is offering a Nordic Crime Mystery Weekend this coming March. My favorite Icelandic writer is Arnaldur Indriđason. His book The Draining Lake tells of a skeleton tethered to a Soviet-made radio found at the bottom of a lake near Reykjavik, where the water level has fallen due to seismic activity. In this mystery, detective Erlendur Sveinsson solves a murder case dating back to the Cold War. And it was in Reykjavik that our Icelandic tour came to an end.

4) Eccentric Islands by Bill Holm

After returning home, I discovered one last book. It is a collection of essays involving island life by Minnesota author (and cousin) Bill Holm. The book is full of tales of “islandness,” both real and imaginary. It is fun to follow Holm’s travels and realize, “I’ve seen that,” and “I’ve been there.” In his essay “Iceland 1979,” Holm describes Nobel Prize winner Halldor Laxness’ Independent People. About this classic novel, Holm writes “Congratulations, sensible Reader! You have discovered literature—the mystery of a story made from language.” After all, it is through language that we tell our story, whether it is an epic tale passed down through the ages and generations, or a modern tale of mystery and adventure. Our individual islands are connected through the stories we share. Ah, the wonder of human stories connected through distance, time, blood and language!

Bibliography

Arnaldur Indriđason, The Draining Lake, translated by Bernard Scudder, Thomas Dunn Books, 2007.

Gaiman, Neil, Norse Mythology, W.W. Norton & Co., 2017.

Holm, Bill. Eccentric Islands. Milkweed, 2000.

The Sagas of the Icelanders: a Selection, preface by Jane Smiley, introduction by Robert Kellogg, Penguin Classics, 2000.

Snorri Sturluson, King Harald’s Saga: Harald Hardradi of Norway, translated by Magnus Magnusson, Penguin Books, 1966.

About the Author

A picture of the author, Lisa Christensen Graefe.

Lisa Christensen Graefe has been a villager and staff member at Waldsee. She is currently a German instructor at Bemidji State University and library assistant at Bemidji High School and Bemidji Public Library.

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