My list of ideas for future articles is enormous and it’s often difficult to choose which to write next. I was delighted, therefore, to be asked to suggest an Icelandic themed reading list for a book club, possibly with a view to making a club visit to Iceland to round it all off. My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of Icelandic literature, fiction, folklore, geology, cookery and natural history and more. Mostly read, all referred to and always tempting me away from my main occupation (running Iceland Traveller), it’s been a real treat to combine work and pleasure in this way.
The titles below start off in a roughly chronological order, and I’ve selected ten with a book club in mind but there’s no need to follow this structure. Should reading IN the Icelandic landscape appeal to you, then please get in touch. The possibilities are many and various for small groups seeking what we do best: interesting specially tailored journeys around a theme or festival
Iceland’s literary background
Although settled around 870AD, Iceland remained a mainly oral society and before writing became established, it does seem to be the case that trained storytellers were in existence. Early documented works did not appear until after Iceland adopted Christianity and to begin with literary writing was in the form of poetry or Eddas. In 1125, Ari the Learned wrote the earliest historical work entitled Islendingabok or The Book of Icelanders, and also in existence at around this time was Landnamabok, the Book of Settlements which details the settlement of Iceland. By the late 14th century, the stories of the feuds and battles of the ‘Saga Age’ that had mainly taken place between 930 and 1030 had been recorded in manuscript form.
My first recommendation for a readable introduction and first book on my reading list:
Icelandic. Literature of the Vikings (2013) by Armann Jakobsson. ISBN 978-9953-440-44-0
The Saga Age
The extent to which these great stories of warfare, heroes, outlaws and everyday life are historical or fictional remain a subject of great debate. Of the many that exist, there are a number of favourites and as they are often based around a particular region of Iceland it’s well worth reading a local Saga. Since most first-time visitors will spend some time in the South and may well hear some of the story from their tour guide, this is a good place to start.
My second recommendation is therefore Njal’s Saga though another that is very popular and based in West Iceland is Egil’s Saga. Translations of the Sagas are easy to find, either individually or as one significant tome and produced by Penguin. www.penguinclassics.com
An online search will soon yield summaries of the Sagas, useful as an overview before launching into the intricate detail of the full text.
I realise that since my early childhood, I have been influenced in many ways by the lure of Iceland and that my travels there as a Geographer and teacher were simply one of them. I grew up with the stories on BBCTV’s Jackanory and although I am not sure that I remember Magnus Magnusson reading them aloud in person at the time, when I came across his book, I recognised the striking illustrations by Paul Birkbeck straight away. This is a beautiful collection of five traditional Icelandic tales which are well known by Icelanders, and in my view provide an important insight into the Iceland that I have grown to know.
My third recommendation is Icelandic Stories as told by Magnus Magnusson on Jackanory. I have an edition published in 1969 by BBC Publications. SBN: 563-08463-4. This is no longer in print, but for all second hand and hard to get titles, I am a great fan of https://www.abebooks.co.uk/
Another great source of reading material is the legends and myths of Iceland. With the growth in visitor numbers to Iceland the demand for more translations and new works has resulted in much greater choice in the country’s many bookstores. This has enabled me to extend my library and to include more unusual and obscure books, and so rather than recommend one of the better-known collections of folk tales, I have chosen a book of ghost stories based on historical accounts. I also realise that I haven’t yet read all of this book, so it is not going back on to my shelves just yet.
My fourth recommendation is Icelandic Ghost Stories (2013) translated to English by Philip Roughton. ISBN 978-9935-440-45-7
Iceland has good reason to count itself as a small island punching well above its weight. In 1955 Halldor Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although born in Reykjavik, he spent much of his youth in the country and often his writing reflects his experience of time spent in the landscape. However, he also travelled widely, converted to Catholicism and took a great interest in socialism. Everyone with an interest in Icelandic literature should read his work, and since he produced novels, poetry, travelogues and much more there are plenty of ways to do this. Because I have now spent so much time in Iceland, I am always drawn to reading more about the places I know. I am currently reading The Atom Station, about post-war Reykjavik but this is not my suggestion for a first read of Laxness.
My fifth recommendation is the first title by Laxness that I read. Having travelled in East and North Iceland with Icelandic friends and local guides, I had begun to really understand about the determination of Icelanders in the early 20th century to be farmers in their own right rather than labourers. Independent People, first published in 1934, was for me not just beautifully written but also conveyed with stark reality of the harshness and struggle that I connect so strongly with the survival of Icelanders against the odds in so many ways since the time of settlement. Independent People by Halldor Laxness is widely available in English, for example from Penguin Random House (1997) ISBN 9780679767923.
I’ve become particularly interested in the journeys that people have made to and from Iceland. I find it quite fantastic that as early as the 4th century, Irish monks are believed to have sailed to Iceland for the summer to live in caves. When the light began to fade, they would sail back to Ireland. There are many more interesting tales of journeys made, but I’ve chosen one Icelandic friends of mine made in a similar way when they finished school and wanted an adventure. “I became dizzy thinking of how big the world is and how little and weak I am” said Anna, born in 1901 who had to endure this sense of wonder until the age of 46 before she managed to make her first trip abroad. From her account, I had the impression that she was much younger than this, perhaps an indication of how used we have all become to travelling independently from our late teens.
My sixth recommendation is A Dairymaid Travels the World by Anna from Moldnupur and translated by Philip Roughton. ISBN 978-9979-70-738-7
True to the characteristic harshness of life in this curious country, this novel based on real events leading to the last execution in Iceland makes compelling and gripping reading. Agnes Magnusdottir was condemned to death in 1829, having been convicted of her part in two murders that took place in 1828 in North West Iceland. I became totally immersed in reading this on the plane on a journey to Iceland and did not put the book down once. I remember emerging into Keflavik airport feeling very unprepared for the bustle of passport control and the baggage reclaim. When Australian author Hannah Kent published this, it seemed to me to be a strange subject for her to have written about, but she has done a fantastic job. Find out more about Hannah and Agnes in this Q and A.
My seventh recommendation is Burial Rites (2013) by Hannah Kent. ISBN 978-1-4472-3316-9
Icelandic Crime Fiction
When I first travelled to Iceland in 2000, there was very little in the Reykjavik bookshops that wasn’t in Icelandic. However, Iceland has many bookshops and they all serve coffee so browsing and staying warm soon became a very pleasurable activity for me. The bookstand in the departure hall at the airport was the first place that really took advantage of travellers (and especially me) feeling nostalgic about leaving Iceland and it was here that I first discovered Arnaldur Indridason and his detectives Erlendur and Sigurdur Oli. His books almost always include a map, even better for ‘Geography me’, so I quickly became hooked. Since then, tourism, an interest in crime fiction and some great TV dramas from Iceland and Scandinavia more generally have driven a massive growth in this genre.
To complete my 10 recommendations, I’ve selected one by each of my most read Icelandic crime fiction authors. Indridason was the pioneer and has written 14 books at the last count. Yrsa Sigurdadottir has published a similar number based around a female detective, Thora. I can truly say that I have been absolutely terrified by one or two of her books, perhaps made worse because as I read I can clearly visualise the locations. She has also written some books for children. Ragnar Jonasson is currently achieving considerable recognition for his novels, some of which are based in North Iceland. Most recently, the third in his Hidden Iceland Trilogy is eagerly awaited in English. All three authors have received a mass of awards and frequently occupy the top rankings in Iceland and further afield.
My eighth recommendation is Hypothermia (2009) by Arnaldur Indridason ISBN 978-0-0—53227-9
My ninth recommendation is Last Rituals (2009) by Yrsa Sigurdadottir ISBN 978-0-340-92063-3
My tenth recommendation is The Darkness (2018) by Ragnar Jonasson. ISBN 978-1-405-93080-2
Most of my recommendations should be easily available in paper format and some as e-books. For out of print or second hand my go-to is always https://www.abebooks.co.uk/
For your opportunity to read in the Icelandic landscape or to make literary Iceland part or all of your travels there, do contact me.
Other questions about Iceland? Yes please!