Almost everyone who visits iceland has a moment of doubt, a time when he asks himself what on earth he is doing there. Mine came early, on the scorched black lava field of a volcano called Krafla. Wherever I looked, piles of twisted rock were spouting steam into the cold, subarctic air. The stench of sulfur was so thick I could hardly breathe, and the brittle volcanic ash crunching beneath the soles of my shoes was actually hot, making my feet sweat.
The other people picking their way across the lava field looked like they loved it. As for me, I just couldn’t seem to relax.
Maybe it was the battered old warning sign that had announced this existential wasteland: volcanic hazard zone – do not enter.
Or maybe it was because, a few days before in Reykjav¿k, I’d seen the “Volcano Show” given by Villi Knudsen, an Icelandic filmmaker who specializes in eruptions. Knudsen, whose hulking frame and ginger beard would have impressed his Viking ancestors, had said that he was prepared to fly to Krafla at a moment’s notice because underground pressure has been building there for years, and a blast is now expected at any time. The warning sign I’d seen had been put up at Krafla during the last series of eruptions in the early ’80s, when hundreds of tourists had flocked to the spot to watch the natural pyrotechnics.
“If Krafla had gone up,” Knudsen said, “they would all have been blown back home without a ticket.”
Krafla is a vision of the earth as it was during its formation, at once impressive and vaguely horrifying. All around are signs of Iceland’s endless re-formation; in some places the ground has warped into enormous egg-shaped bubbles, and volcanic vents spray constant fountains of steam into the air.
The earth here rises and lowers several inches a year like an enormous geological lung. And although the volcanic magma is a mile and a half
underground, I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind that the earth’s surface was really only three feet thick and could crack open like an eggshell and swallow me whole.
Still, since I’d come all the way to the fringe of the Arctic Circle for this, what was I supposed to do – turn back now? So I went wandering out over the lava field like everyone else, thinking that if Nature wanted to blow me away, there wasn’t much I could do about it. Call it an Icelandic state of mind.
Over the ten centuries since the first Norse settlers arrived in their longships, Icelanders have learned the hard way to live with their volatile island – one of the most volcanic places on earth – treating it with a mix of respect, dread, and black humor.
Iceland’s most famous volcano, Mount Hekla, was so active in the Middle Ages it was considered by theologians to be the gateway to hell. Another volcano, Snaefellsjokull, was the passage down which Jules Verne sent Professor Liedenbrock in Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Fully one-third of the earth’s flow of lava during recorded history has come up through Iceland. In 1963 a completely new island, Surtsey, burst from the sea off Iceland’s southwestern coast. In 1973 another island, Heimaey, had to be evacuated because of an eruption, and rescue workers turned back a 300-foot-high wall of lava with sprays of seawater as rocks the size of television sets fell from the sky.
And at N¿mafjall, where an orange clay plain of gurgling mud pools stretches up to a cleft mountainside, peasants once mined sulfur to make the gunpowder that fueled Europe’s wars for centuries. The notices at N¿mafjall don’t say you’ll be blown up, though. They say not to walk on the light-colored clay, or you’ll fall through and be boiled alive.
It may sound as if Iceland should be visited only by certifiable masochists, but that’s not the case. This island is the ultimate nature trip – a haunting, sodden journey into a violently windswept landscape of lacerating purity. Raw volcanic scars rub up against the largest glaciers in Europe, sweeping fjords, and luscious, fairy-tale greenery. (As Icelanders never tire of telling you, Iceland in high summer is actually a vivid green, while Greenland, perversely, is covered with ice.)
Iceland’s forbidding, dreamlike shores have inspired writers and poets ever since the first Vikings took time off from their self-destructive feuding to pen the sagas – semihistorical accounts of Iceland’s first centuries that are now considered one of the great literary achievements of the medieval world. Even today every corner of the countryside seems saturated by folk tales involving witches, ghosts, and elves.
The simplest things in Iceland have a surreal, magical quality. The first time I smelled sulfur, for example, was during my initial morning on the island, in my hotel room in Reykjav¿k. I was running a bath, and the room filled with the powerful scent of rotten eggs. The water was perfectly clean – as pure as bottled mineral water – but it was coming ready-heated from somewhere beneath the surface of the earth.
That morning was sunny – a fact hardly worth noting anywhere but in Reykjav¿k, where it usually is raining. Buckets down, in fact. On this day it was utterly cloudless, and it had been for weeks, part of the best summer since the early 1930s. Blond, statuesque Icelanders were out promenading in the parks, looking at the flowers, playing chess with life-size pieces. German and Swedish tourists, all dressed in the latest designer labels, lolled in open-air caf¿s as if this were one long apr¿s-ski party.
Despite a self-conscious affluence and a small core of quaint Old World charm, most of Reykjav¿k has a half-formed, East European feel. The streets are lined with concrete apartment blocks and monolithic public sculptures that look like giant wrenches and can openers.
The city’s face tells the story of modern Iceland. Only 50 years ago the country was a dismal rural outpost; today it is a model Scandinavian welfare state with one of the highest standards of living on earth. High-tech fishing methods have provided Icelanders with a higher per capita income from the sea than Saudi Arabians have from oil. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Iceland ranks as one of the world’s more expensive places to visit. (Icelanders also own more video recorders and cellular phones per capita than any other people on earth.)
“Icelanders love to collect statistics about themselves to prove how eccentric they are,” explained a young civil servant named Pall. I had met him strolling near Reykjav¿k’s duck-filled tj¿rn, or pond. Like most Icelanders, Pall had a stonelike expression for the first five minutes of a conversation, when he suddenly switched into an effusive friendliness – a split personality that Icelandic people like to blame on a small-town shyness rather than Scandinavian coolness.
He proceeded to reel off a few figures: With a total of about 260,000 inhabitants – less than, say, the city of Louisville, Kentucky – Iceland has a higher concentration of chess grand masters (six of them) and has recently won more international beauty competitions (two Miss Worlds) than anywhere else on earth. Icelanders can boast a democratically elected woman head of state (Vigd¿s Finnbogad¿ttir, who has been president since 1980) and produced the world’s first feminist political party to actually gain parliamentary seats. Icelandic is Europe’s oldest living language (basically Old Norse, as spoken by the Vikings), and Icelanders publish many more books per person than any other nation. They can even claim a priest who wrote the first Basque dictionary and a farmer who wrote a famous epic poem about an obscure Balkan revolutionary.
“If you lived in Iceland,” Pall explained, “or even went through one Icelandic winter, believe me, you’d be acting pretty strange yourself.”
Even so, on that first day in Reykjav¿k, where half of all Icelanders live, I wasn’t sure that eccentricity was enough to make the place interesting. At 6 p.m. shops closed, people vanished, and only a few nervous foreigners like myself were left wandering about like characters in an Ingmar Bergman dream sequence, trying to find somewhere to eat.
I finally found a pizza bar that was full of beautiful blond women dining together. (Leaving the men at home is an old tradition among the independent-minded Icelandic women, I was told.) I ate some expensive pizza, drank very, very slowly a tiny ten-dollar beer, and listened to the gutteral sound of Icelandic flowing around the bar in a smooth, incomprehensible stream.
There was one characteristic Pall hadn’t told me about: Icelanders probably guzzle more alcohol per person on Friday nights than any other people on earth. They work hard all week, don’t drink a drop, then go out on Friday and get totally plastered – turning law-abiding, genteel Reykjav¿k into something (as one Icelandic writer has observed) straight out of Hieronymus Bosch.
It was about 11 p.m. when I wandered into Reykjav¿k’s most popular pub, Gaukur a Stong – named, reportedly, after a Viking farmer whose house was buried Pompeii-style by the great volcano Hekla. The sun was setting, and the bar was just getting going. A band dressed in black leather blasted out some heavy metal chords, singing in English to a crowd that looked full of 25-year-old fashion models. The beers were $12 a glass. Nobody else seemed to mind about the prices. Paying for their drinks over the bar with personal checks and credit cards, they ran up individual tabs that must have easily hit the hundreds.
I ordered a rum, and the barman automatically asked, “Double?” Anything less than a double, I learned, was considered a waste of time. It soon became obvious that nobody was drinking for the taste.
“Drinking is idiotically expensive in Iceland,” declared a woman at the bar named Birna. “You have to save up all week, then get drunk all at once.” Like most Icelandic women, Birna, at 23, was married with two kids. But that didn’t stop her from knocking back a cheap Icelandic firewater known as brennivin, commonly called “Black Death.”
By midnight the place was packed, and the booze was flowing like water. Drunken lovers fell writhing on the floor. Men passed out with their heads on the bar. One kid drunkenly knocked over his double-vodka-and-orange and looked as if he were about to cry. (No wonder: It had cost $20.) At 2 a.m. I left with Birna and her husband, Thorgeir, for another bar across the street where an American guitarist was on the stage. The place was in frenzy. Dancing arm in arm, the whole bar was singing along in perfect English to old Beatles songs. The swaying movement was too much for some, who fell howling to the floor. Thorgeir staggered off to the bathroom to be sick, and Birna shook her head.
“The problem with Icelanders,” Birna said, “is that we take everything to extremes.”
Nobody comes to Iceland for the urban life. My plan was to hire a car and spend three weeks driving around the island, staying in remote farmhouses and hiking. I was ready to leave Reykjav¿k, when it started raining. Not normal rain, but Icelandic rain, which is driven by 50-mile-an-hour North Atlantic gales, making raincoats and umbrellas next to useless. A mechanic at the car rental agency told me not to worry.
“Do like the Icelanders do,” he said. “When it’s raining in the south, go to the north. When it’s raining in the north, go to the south.” The whole time we were talking, he just stood there in the rain, getting soaked to the skin. He said he didn’t even notice. “I grew up wet,” he shrugged, by way of explanation.
It seemed that nature was already taking control of my actions, so what could I do but obey? The Ring Road that runs around Iceland took me through a lush and misty countryside, dotted with sheep farms and red-roofed wooden churches. The only things missing were trees, nearly all of which had been cut down by the Vikings and have never grown back.
All around the coast, long beaches of black sand stretched into the distance toward sea-battered cliffs populated by seabirds. Shattered fields of lava were sprinkled with tiny flowers. At the fringe of Asbyrgi Canyon, once thought to have been formed by the hoof of Odin’s giant horse, I ate fresh berries. The dusk sun, once the clouds had cleared, lingered for hours over the horizon and turned everything it touched to magical gold. On the sides of desolate fjords, gray clouds were gathered around twisted peaks above the lonely mountain roads, looking like the perfect home for a family of trolls.
At regular intervals I came upon Iceland’s spectacles: huge waterfalls, glaciers oozing down between mountains like rivers of blue putty, and J¿kuls¿rl¿n, a lake filled with masses of ice. On one occasion, I battled bad roads and unmarked paths to cross a lava field in a storm to get to Dettifoss, the largest waterfall in Europe. Long before I could see it, I could hear it, rumbling like a Sensurround earthquake. When it finally appeared, an enormous, hypnotic mountainside of water thundering into a natural churn, I couldn’t help but reflect that in other parts of the world grandeur always seems to be cordoned off, staked out with viewing platforms, somehow captured, at the cost of its excitement and mystery. In Iceland everything still seems fresh and real.
Being regularly doused in rain and savaged by wind only adds to the purgative effect, like having a long sauna, then diving into a cold pool. The island is almost completely unpolluted: Nearly all energy is either geothermal or hydroelectric, and there is no heavy industry. (Fishing accounts for most of the exports.) The water is 100 percent glacial, and the food deliciously pure: Fish swim in clean seas or crystal rivers, vegetables are grown in greenhouses, and lamb and cattle graze in fields untouched by fertilizer.
After a week in Iceland my skin was clear, my eyes sharp, and I felt as if I had boundless energy. After four weeks I felt I had been stonewashed clean.
With its three winter months of Stygian gloom, and landscapes that are always playing with the imagination, it is little wonder that Iceland has produced so many writers, including nonagenarian Nobel Prize winner Halld¿r Laxness, who has recorded the passing of the country’s rural life.
But no Icelander would disagree that the greatest stories of all are still the old Icelandic sagas – bloodthirsty little tracts that have been described as medieval prototypes for the modern Western. Instead of cowboys chasing one another across the prairies, the sagas are full of wandering Vikings and strong-minded Norse women, with names like Thorsteinn Cod-biter, Ketill Flat-nose, Hallgerdur the Long-legged, and Audur the Deep-minded, all battling it out for the classic motives of love, honor, greed, and revenge in the shadows of glaciers.
Still avidly read (and even heatedly debated) by many Icelanders, the sagas are loosely based on the historical events of the island’s first Norwegian settlers. Unlike most writings of the Middle Ages, which are eye-glazingly dull, these are actually fun to read.
One day I decided to follow the course of Nj¿ls Saga, a widely read tale of a 50-year blood feud in southern Iceland. The saga’s gory climax occurs at a farm called Bergth¿rshvoll, where the hero orders his family to barricade their house against a horde of enemies – thus signing their death warrants, because the house is then burned to the ground. I managed to find the farm still called Bergth¿rshvoll, but it was a boxlike house that looked as if it belonged in suburban Long Island. A polite, middle-aged woman showed me around the property, but there was nothing there. Even the site where archaeologists had found the 11th-century remains of a burned house had been filled in long ago.
Almost nothing in Iceland, it turned out, is older than about 50 years. Part of a high-tech, metamorphosed nation, rural towns are even blander than Reykjav¿k, with a few jerry-built houses thrown up around an Esso gas station, whose fast-food bar is the social hub for a whole region. There are a few turf farmhouses, with grass growing over their dirt roofs like
hobbits’ homes, and some wooden chapels dating from the last century, but that’s about it. With little wood and nothing but volcanic stone to work with, Icelanders built none of the cathedrals or fortresses that are the staple of history-lovers in the rest of Europe.
Instead, the sagas stand alone. They give every part of the Icelandic landscape a meaning far beyond the purely visible: Here on this headland is where the warrior Grettir overcame an ancient ghost, only to be left forever terrified of the dark; this pile of stones is where the heroine of Laxd¿la Saga forced her husband to murder her former lover; here at this creek one of Iceland’s first settlers was ambushed by the Irish slaves he once yoked, like cows, to a plow.
For Icelanders, in fact, words are exciting historical artifacts, more evocative than any collection of ruins or Viking helmets could hope to be.
Back in Reykjav¿k, I visited the sanctum sanctorum of the Icelandic soul, a concrete building called the Arni Magn¿sson Institute, where the original vellum manuscripts written by 12th-century scribes are kept. Magn¿sson, who died in 1730, was a great collector who devoted his life to tracking down these Icelandic writings. On two occasions, he found priceless scraps of manuscript that had been turned into shoe leather and waistcoats.
“The Icelandic language goes back ten centuries without much change,” explained an old, bushy-eyebrowed scholar from the folklore department as we wandered among the display cases full of magnificently illustrated books. “In Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, the Old Norse tongue evolved and changed, but here in faraway Iceland, it stayed intact.” Today’s Icelanders can pick up the original medieval sagas and read them as easily as they read the weekly newspaper.
And possibly no other nation on earth is so obsessed with linguistic purity. Next to the Icelanders, the French look like cultural wimps. There are very few anglicized words creeping into Icelandic, even in the technological or medical fields.
Medieval customs are also kept up. Thanks to the ancient Scandinavian system of patronyms, everyone in Iceland calls one another by first name and is so listed in the telephone book. Children’s surnames are taken from their father’s first name, so Olaf Jonsson’s son will be called Thorgeir Olafsson, his daughter Greta Olafsdottir. Law forbids children being given non-Icelandic names, and even foreigners taking Icelandic citizenship must accept an Icelandic name.
According to surveys, most Icelanders still believe in ghosts and elves. (Roads are built around knolls said to be occupied by the “hidden people.”) And they snack on dried cod instead of Mars bars. (Winter festivals feature such delicacies as scalded sheeps’ heads, pickled rams’ testicles, puffin breasts, seal meat, and hakarl – shark meat that has been buried for three months in the sand and is so rank that even the carrion birds won’t touch it.)
But despite these holdovers, foreign television, foreign music, and foreign videos are pressing against the cultural floodgates. (“The language is slipping,” one man told me. “Young people simply cannot be bothered with some of the syntactical rules – which are admittedly rather Byzantine.”)
And if the language goes, I wondered, then where does that leave the Icelanders? Just another bunch of very rich, very blond Europeans occupying a spectacular but empty national park? Seen in those terms, the Icelanders’ struggle to save their culture takes on a rather heroic – albeit quixotic – dimension.
On my last day in Iceland, eating one more hamburger with fries in an Esso station, I was beginning to have my doubts about the Icelanders’ chances. But then, on the way to Keflav¿k airport, I stopped off for one last swim in a place called Blue Lagoon. This heated, open-air spa was created by a geothermal heating center. The silver-colored structure looms over the spa, pumping steam into the air, and people seem to be wallowing in blue industrial waste in some horrifying 21st-century nightmare. But not only is the whole thing natural, swimming here is actually good for you, thanks to the minerals rising from beneath the earth. People with rare skin disorders travel here from around the world just for a chance to wash in the Blue Lagoon’s steaming waters.
Floating on my back in the hot blue milk surrounded by lava fields, I looked up at the swirling mists and felt the gentle brush of a cold, light drizzle on my face. No matter how much Iceland changes, I had to admit, it will never be quite like everywhere else.