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Sagas to savour

Was Iceland responsible for the French Revolution, the moon landing and the discovery of America?

With Iceland one of the few places on the planet where a holiday is possible without returning to face quarantine, it is an apt time to release an entertaining, offbeat (and pleasingly concise) history of the remote North Atlantic nation.

How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island by Egill Bjarnason (Icon Books, £10.99).

At 255 pages, How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island is perfect for a summer getaway read, racing as it does through the Viking days, the sagas, Norwegian and Danish intervention, independence (from Denmark in 1944), boom, bust and who-quite-knows-what now. The Covid pandemic has hit the economy hard; Iceland is one of the most tourist-dependent countries in the Western world having enjoyed a quadrupling of visitor numbers during the past decade.

If figures rise again soon, perhaps thirtysomething Icelandic reporter Egill Bjarnason’s account of his nation’s rollercoaster ride across the centuries, beginning when a lost Viking captain ran aground 1,200 years ago, ought to be offered alongside tubes of Pringles and G&Ts on board Wizz Air flights from Luton to Reykjavik, the capital. Maybe a summer “combo deal” for all three might prove popular.

Although a “small island” (half the size of the UK), the history, is indeed “big” and Bjarnason, a contributor to the Associated Press and the New York Times, has a journalistic lightness of touch as he picks out his homeland’s key moments, often lingering on episodes that had – or might have had, if you entertain the possibility — a wider impact on events across the globe.

Did the eruption of the Laki volcano in 1783, covering Europe in “200 megatons of sulfuric acid aerosols [and] creating a choking, hellish-smelling fog”, contribute to the desperation of peasants that led to the French Revolution? Possibly, says Bjarnason with a wink, although “Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had had it coming”.

Would the moon landing have gone so smoothly had Neil Armstrong and NASA not turned up for practice on Iceland’s lunar-like landscape? OK, he concedes, maybe the country’s importance was quite small regarding that historic achievement (another suitable spot would probably done just as well).

Bjarnason goes on to ponder playfully the part played in the Cold War by the great chess showdown between the reclusive and erratic American Bobby Fischer and Russia’s Boris Spassky at the World Chess Championship held in Reykjavik in 1972. The loss by the Soviet hero was a bitter pill to swallow back in Moscow, after all. Henry Kissinger, then US national security advisor, who believed that such sports events might thaw tensions, was by turns delighted at the outcome and bemused by the Soviets’ icy response. 

Iceland’s usefulness as an American airbase kept U-boats at bay

Yet flippancy aside — and Bjarnason has fun teasing out such scenarios as he relates the stories — Iceland has taken many key roles in world events over the years. One of these was the country’s involvement in the Second World War, after the British arrived on the strategically important island on May 10, 1940 — the same day Germany invaded the Low Countries.

This tale is told with relish. Britain’s unannounced arrival was almost comical. Four warships with an arsenal that was “more or less a junkyard dating from the First World War” sailed into Reykjavik with their lights turned off at night only to find a waiting committee at the harbour as the keen-eyed islanders, who had been up late celebrating a public holiday, drinking and dancing into the early hours, spotted them coming miles away.

“Would you mind getting the crowd to stand back?” said the huffy British consul, who had been tipped off by secret message that the ships were due. “Certainly,” replied a policeman whose “job description likely did not require him to help foreign invaders”. Such anecdotes and asides are scattered throughout; How Iceland Changed the World is not a dry retelling of dusty old history books.

The belief among many including American president and five-star general Dwight Eisenhower is that, without holding Iceland’s mid-Atlantic position, the Allied Forces would have had a much tougher time of the Battle of the Atlantic to secure supply chains. Iceland’s usefulness as an American airbase kept U-boats at bay, reducing the conflict’s length. “The war claimed the lives of 1,000 people every hour,” Bjarnason writes. “It is, of course, impossible to quantify by how much Iceland-led operations may have shortened the war’s duration. A single month? That’s 720,000 lives, 60 per cent of them civilians.”

The survival of these written works, hidden from invaders and saved them from fires, is nothing short of a miracle

Historical speculation this may be, but there is no uncertainty about the place Icelandic sagas hold in world literature, being the source of stories of early days of Nordic adventure and the Norse mythology of Thor, the god of thunder, and Odin, the god of wisdom.

The tale of Erik the Red, a short-tempered Icelandic outlaw who was forced to flee for three years is gripping. Around AD 980, after killing a neighbour over an argument about some “magic ornamental beams”, Erik became one of the first settlers in Greenland. His trip across the treacherous and freezing North Atlantic (with about a fifty-fifty chance of survival), delivered the desperado in a verdant fjord-land, which he promptly named Greenland.

During his period of exile, however, Erik grew lonely, having no idea that Inuit lived in the north of the island (amazingly, this ignorance remained for several hundred years after Norsemen arrived in Greenland). So he returned to Iceland and, like an ancient estate agent, gathered 200 more settlers who soon followed him back.

Erik’s eldest son, Leif Eriksson, is the subject of another saga, this one involving sailing to Newfoundland with forty men on two ships 500 years before Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. This is a source of great national pride — the main terminal at Iceland’s international airport is named after him — although he spent very little time in the new continent, despite managing to get drunk on fermented grapes found by one of the crew. Hence his name for their discovery: Vinland.

Another star of the sagas, Gurid Thorbjarnardottir, was to follow Leif’s route shortly afterwards, settling somewhere in the vicinity of New York (it is believed, although no one is certain) with 140 others for three years and bearing a son name Snorri, born between AD 1006-1010: “the first European American on record”. Skirmishes with native Americans soon followed, however, and the party returned to Iceland. Had they not, the history of north America would be quite different.

The survival of these written works, hidden from invaders and saved them from fires, is nothing short of a miracle; the twists and turns sagas in their own rights, as relayed by Bjarnason, who must have some ancient story-telling blood in him. 

As he brings us to modern times — the election of Vigdis Finnbogadottir, the world’s first female directly elected president in 1980, and the financial collapse of 2007 — the “big history” of the subtitle feels apposite. For a nation of 356,000 close to the Arctic Circle, a lot has certainly gone on.

Those feeling inspired might just jump on a Wizz Air flight, with a copy in hand, and go see for themselves.

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