Iceland Imagined
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Iceland Imagined

Nature, Culture, and Storytelling in the North Atlantic

Karen Oslund

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eBook - ePub

Iceland Imagined

Nature, Culture, and Storytelling in the North Atlantic

Karen Oslund

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Iceland, Greenland, Northern Norway, and the Faroe Islands lie on the edges of Western Europe, in an area long portrayed by travelers as remote and exotic - its nature harsh, its people reclusive. Since the middle of the eighteenth century, however, this marginalized region has gradually become part of modern Europe, a transformation that is narrated in Karen Oslund�s Iceland Imagined.

This cultural and environmental history sweeps across the dramatic North Atlantic landscape, exploring its unusual geography, saga narratives, language, culture, and politics, and analyzing its emergence as a distinctive and symbolic part of Europe. The earliest visions of a wild frontier, filled with dangerous and unpredictable inhabitants, eventually gave way to images of beautiful, well-managed lands, inhabited by simple but virtuous people living close to nature.

This transformation was accomplished by state-sponsored natural histories of Iceland which explained that the monsters described in medieval and Renaissance travel accounts did not really exist, and by artists who painted the Icelandic landscapes to reflect their fertile and regulated qualities. Literary scholars and linguists who came to Iceland and Greenland in the nineteenth century related the stories and the languages of the �wild North� to those of their home countries.

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Natural Histories and National Histories
Early in the morning of our second day of driving we came to a junction in the main dirt road. A primitive jeep trail split off, marked by a sign that pointed across a vast, barren volcanic plain: “Kverkfjöll—105 km.” Civilization ends here; we had crossed Iceland's green, inhabited circumference
. We bounced onto the jeep trail and the clock whirred backward
. It seemed we had entered a time before life began—before cars, houses, animals, bushes, or birds
. Along with related cataclysms and natural disasters, [volcanic] eruptions have shaped Iceland's history in somewhat the same manner that the histories of other European nations have been shaped by war.
—Peter Stark (1994)
Icelandic nature, particularly in its extreme manifestations of volcanoes and glaciers and their potential to create natural disasters, has long fascinated travelers. The striking idea of a land shaped by fire and ice grips the memories of visitors, even as the tourist industry has rendered the image clichĂ©. There is a basis for the “fire and ice” clichĂ©; nature in Iceland does exert a powerful force on the landscape. Iceland sits on a mid-Atlantic tectonic plate boundary that is slowly being forced apart as new rock is pushed to the earth's surface, forcing the two plates farther away from each other. This geological circumstance makes many parts of Iceland seem to be continuously under construction—barren, rough, and bearing the imprints of recent cataclysms (fig. 1). While lush green meadows, fields of flowers, and even trees—despite a history of soil erosion and deforestation—are also a part of the Icelandic landscape, these are far less frequently pictured and remembered than the more dramatic mountains, lava fields, and icebergs, all of which usually contrast sharply with travelers’ home terrain. Visitors came to Iceland with the desire to see natural phenomena not found at home; they often overlooked the more mundane features of the Icelandic natural world, instead heading straight for the geysers and glaciers.
Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European travelers to the island frequently used dramatic language in describing Icelandic nature as remarkable, unique, and completely different from the landscapes, flora, and fauna they knew at home. A participant on Joseph Banks's 1772 expedition to Iceland, Uno von Troil, a Swedish student of Linnaeus who later became the bishop of Uppsala, wrote on the very first page of his Letters on Iceland, “I was happy to come to a country where many traces of our ancient language still existed, and where I was certain to catch a glimpse of the most unusual aspects of nature.”1 Three-quarters of a century later, Ida Pfeiffer, the wife of an Austrian civil servant, echoed von Troil's expression when she spoke of her hope of finding in Iceland “nature in a garb such as she wears nowhere else.”2
The idea of traveling in order to find natural extremes and wonders was, of course, not uncommon in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, and Iceland and the other North Atlantic countries were far from the only exotic regions spoken of in these terms. At this time, European journeys both northward and southward were expected to bring the traveler face-to-face with the unusual. In the genre of northern voyages, probably the most well-known and striking example of this trope occurs on the opening pages of Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein, when the narrator Robert Walton is onboard a ship, headed north from St. Petersburg toward Archangel, where he will meet Victor Frankenstein and hear his sad tale. Walton writes to his sister that even though the North Pole is often pictured as the “seat of frost and desolation,” it “presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight,” and he imagines it as a country “ruled by different laws and in which numerous circumstances enforce a belief that the aspect of nature differs essentially from anything of which we have any experience.” He further explains that, even though the ship was encountering ice floes, at the pole “snow and frost are banished” and they would “sail over a calm sea.” For the rather counterintuitive notion that natural conditions would abruptly reverse themselves at the pole, Walton cites the authority of “preceding navigators.”3 Shelley's formulation of northern nature, written in the epitome of the Romantic style, is so extreme that not just natural phenomenon but the very laws of nature were imagined to be different in the North.4 The North was a wild place, uncontrolled by the physical laws and standards familiar to the traveler.
This construction of the North as a wilderness where all the laws of nature are turned on their heads is fundamentally one-sided, however. It takes for granted the Western notion of the difference between homeland and wilderness, ignoring the fact that people who live in so-called wildernesses do not consider them in these terms.5 Mark Nutall, an anthropologist who studies land use in Greenland and the Arctic, writes that the Western-Inuit conflicts over land and resource use are often the result of profound misunderstandings of the categories of the other; what is for Westerners a wilderness is the landscape that the Inuit would describe as home—a place not to be “protected” from humans but to be inhabited and used by them.6 Historically, many European travelers to the North Atlantic ignored the natives’ perspective of their own landscapes and instead dealt with the possibility of differing notions of nature by projecting their own senses of uncertainty or ill ease onto all interactions with the territory. They imagined that natives of this territory possessed the same sense of distance and nature that they did. Henry Holland, a British medical student who accompanied George Steuart Mackenzie on his expedition to Iceland in 1810, described after his return home his impressions of the reaction of an Icelandic student to the landscape of Scotland:
A young man by the name of Thorgrimson
is going to study medicine at the university of Copenhagen. When he landed but two days ago, he had never seen a tree, or a house built of stone; carts, carriages, roads, and a thousand other things, were all new to his eyes and understanding. Conceive then his astonishment in passing through the richly wooded country between Leith and Edinburgh, and still more the feelings with which he beheld every thing around him in this metropolis, which perhaps more than any other place in the world is fitted to afford an entire contrast to the scenes he had left behind him in the desert place of his nativity. The Latin language (in which alone I can converse with him) is not favourable perhaps to the expression of strong emotion; but I could see his wonder in his countenance, and the eager gazing of his eyes. The feeling to me is a singular one of seeing these people here, after meeting them before in scenes and situations so very different.7
In this passage, Holland's home and the student's appear as utterly alien places to each other, and both travelers could experience a similar sense of wonder in gazing at the strange landscapes they found. Holland, however, is in the position to define the terms of the encounter: Iceland, the place of the student's nativity, is characterized as a “desert place,” while Edinburgh is a “metropolis” that provides an “entire contrast” to the other. The landscape of the “desert” is defined by the features that this environment lacks—trees, roads, stone houses—and the other elements of European nature and culture. It is only the student's ability to converse directly with Holland, albeit inadequately, that distinguishes the encounter from the purely alterian. And even language is not here treated as a civilized gesture; it is rather through the student's “gaze” that Holland claims to understand the other's feelings.
Some of the natural wonders that traveling Europeans found in Iceland, as well as in other parts of the world, were curiosities to be collected and placed in cabinets, museums, and gardens.8 But others—like the most characteristic features of the Icelandic landscape, the volcanoes, glaciers, and hot springs—had to be seen in situ in order to invoke wonder. While flasks of mineral water from the hot springs and rocks from the volcanic eruptions could be taken back home to be analyzed, for the literary traveler the landscape of the North Atlantic had to be experienced in its entirety, not in scientifically dissected pieces. Scientific and literary motives for visiting Iceland were not in fact generally separated from each other by travelers, just as von Troil linked his interests in Iceland's “ancient language” and “unusual nature” in the same sentence. The same was true of Sir Joseph Banks, the leader of the expedition that von Troil participated in and a later president of the British Royal Society. Banks was not initially particularly interested in northern travel, and the Iceland excursion was for him only a hastily arranged substitute for a second Pacific journey after his 1768-71 Endeavor voyage. The trip left him with an unexpected taste for things Icelandic, and he became a lifelong collector of saga manuscripts and volcanic rocks, as well as a friend of Icelanders and Iceland enthusiasts.9
Clearly, the environment and landscape of Iceland made the strongest impression on those Europeans who actually visited the island. However, Iceland's unusual nature did also sometimes impact the environment of people who remained at home. The Laki volcanic eruptions of 1783, which are ranked as one of the ten largest in recorded world history, not only devastated the country, but the volcanic smoke also affected the climate and agriculture of England, Germany, southern Europe, and even North America.10 The cultural memory and meaning of this disaster and its transformation of the Icelandic landscape has been a subject of central importance in Icelandic history for some time, but its implications for the linkages between landscape and cultural and political meanings extend beyond the small island's shores, just as the smoke from the volcanic eruptions itself did. The Laki catastrophe focused attention on Iceland, the Icelandic landscape, and the problems of living with Icelandic nature. At the end of the eighteenth century, these problems were the business of many different kinds of people. Following the Laki eruptions, natural historians, Danish officials, visiting tourists, and Icelandic political leaders all offered interpretations of the event, of the landscapes created by the lava flows, and of the late eighteenth century in Iceland. In these discussions, native Icelanders as well as Danish and other foreign visitors used the barren landscapes of volcanic rock and the consequences of the eruptions to reflect upon Icelandic history and the role of human agency in that history. These writings reveal how very different stories and meanings can be found in the same landscape and natural events. Who offered interpretations, and why? What interests did they have in defining Icelandic nature in these ways? The various reactions to the Laki eruptions—which can be roughly categorized as scientific, religious, and political/historical—show how Icelandic nature had different meanings for people with different interests. Some thought of Iceland as a wilderness of potential that needed better management to bring it under control; others believed that Iceland was beyond human control but was rather a place where humans could observe nature's basic forces at work.
The Laki eruptions occurred at a moment when Iceland was becoming a destination for scientific and literary European tourism, while at the same time the Danish state was pursuing a centralizing administrative policy, begun under the leadership of the kings Christian IV (1588-1648) and his son Frederick III (1648-70), to bring the various colonies and dependencies more directly under Copenhagen's control. Because of these historical circumstances, a plethora of historical records exist for examining the Laki eruptions, written from the viewpoints of inhabitants who experienced the crisis, of visitors to the island, and of officials concerned with the management of agriculture. A central question for all these writers, although taken up in different ways, was the description of Icelandic nature—not only what had occurred during the disaster, but what was characteristic of Icelandic nature in general. What kind of place was Iceland, these writers wondered? Was it a place that nature had rendered uninhabitable through the collision of extreme forces? Or was it an island where nature could be tamed through proper management? And, if the latter was the case, in whose hands should this management rest?11
The Laki disaster, which is known in Icelandic as the Móðuharðindi (famine of the mist) or the Skaftåreldar (fires of the Skaftå river) began on June 1, 1783, when a series of earthquakes shook the Skaptafell district in southern Iceland (map 2).12 On June 8, after seven days of earthquakes and aftershocks, smoke carried by a northeast wind covered the district with a layer of ash, sand, and finely ground minerals. The following day the lava streams from fissures adjacent to Laki, a glacier-covered volcano in the Skaftå mountain range, burst forth, while the earthquakes, smoke, and rains of ash continued. The mountain itself did not actually erupt in 1783; the lava poured rather from these fissures. Over the next days, the river Skaftå dried up. Lava began to pour from the canyon of the river and continued to flow, in stops and starts, until early December. Fish, birds, and sheep were the first animals to die, followed by the cattle and horses. The lava was slow moving enough that most of the efforts to evacuate the farms in the district were successful, and few people died directly from the lava flows; but the health of vulnerable members of the population was severely compromised by the smoke and ash, and many died of famine in the following years.
The Móðuharðindi resulted in the death of 70 percent of the island's sheep and the destruction of the island's offshore and inland fisheries for the next three years, both from fluorine poisoning and the thick layers of ash that covered the grazing land. Furthermore, the Móðuharðindi had been preceded by years of cold winters, famine, a smallpox epidemic, and a plague among the sheep in midcentury. More than 10,000 inhabitants perished in the famine in the years after the eruptions, reducing the population to about 38,000—about the number of people estimated to have inhabited the island after its settlement in the ninth century. Because of a smallpox epidemic and continuing famines in 1785-87, the population did not regain its predisaster size until the mid-nineteenth century.
This catastrophe, coupled with other troubles of the eighteenth century in Iceland, was remembered long after the island had begun to recover. When the chief justice of Iceland, MagnĂșs Stephensen, looked back at the history of the eighteenth century in 1808, what first came to his mind were all the problems that his country had faced for the last hundred years. In his book, he counted up a long list of all the “bad years” (Uaar) and listed the causes to which he attributed these problems—cold winters, sea ice, famine, disease, and so on. MagnĂșs's contemporary, the Icelandic bishop Hannes Finnsson, commented that the eighteenth century only saw the worsening of all the problems of the seventeenth, a period that had been characterized by raids from Algerian pirates and the introduction of the Danish-owned monopoly trade, which Hannes regarded as highly disadvantageous to Icelanders.13 According to these Icelandic authorities, the late eighteenth century was a period of great natural and social crisis in their country. During the nineteenth century, one group of Icelanders looked back at this period of crisis and argued that the blame for it should be laid at the feet of one entity: the Danish government, and in particular the Danish-monopoly trading company.
Throughout the eighteenth century, the Danish government had been confronting environmental problems in various parts of the kingdom, including sandstorms and soil erosion in the Jutland peninsula and deforestation on the island of Zealand.14 Furthermore, the impoverished conditions in Iceland had already been the subject of a land commission investigation in 1770-71. The official response to the news of the Laki eruptions was both long- and short-term: aid was sent from Copenhagen and an investigative body was appointed to recommend a course of action. The central recommendation of the land commission of 1785, the last of the eighteenth-century commissions on Iceland, was that the monopoly trade, which had been instituted in 1602, be lifted and trading opened to all the subjects of the Danish kingdom, including the Icelanders.15 This company had been put into place primarily to break the hold of the Hamburg merchants—members of the strong Hanseatic trading league centered around the northern German cities of Hamburg, Bremen, and LĂŒbeck—on Icelandic trade. Denmark had also prohibited the export of Icelandic products to Hamburg in 1620. During the period of the Danish monopoly, from 1602 to 1787, only between twenty-two and twenty-five merchants were licensed to trade in Iceland, each with a fixed trading post served by one or two boats.
Both Danish and Icelandic officials had criticized this trading system for its inflexibility and inefficiency even before the Laki eruptions. Many of the criticisms appeared to be justified after the catastrophe, since the monopoly company's boats...

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Citation styles for Iceland Imagined
APA 6 Citation
Oslund, K. (2011). Iceland Imagined ([edition unavailable]). University of Washington Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2011)
Chicago Citation
Oslund, Karen. (2011) 2011. Iceland Imagined. [Edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press.
Harvard Citation
Oslund, K. (2011) Iceland Imagined. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Oslund, Karen. Iceland Imagined. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.