Let’s assume you deplane in a foreign country, in the dead of night, in the dead of winter, and get into a cab. The driver speaks lightly accented but excellent English. You ask about the weather lately and what follows would do a professional meteorologist proud: an avidly comprehensive report, involving a high-pressure area to the east and a low-pressure area to the west, or maybe vice versa, which, in conjunction with atypical precipitation patterns in neighboring countries, and slight divergences in the usual ocean currents, have contributed to the highly uncommon weather of late. (You’ll have to take on faith that the weather’s peculiar; the sky outside the cab is black and you can’t see a thing.) Next, the cabbie learns that you’re an English teacher and he holds up a Modern Library edition of Izaak Walton’s seventeenth-century classic, The Compleat Angler, which he’s enjoying hugely. He solicits your professional opinion (“But do you think Walton has a graceful style?”), and you mumble in reply, “I haven’t read it, I’m only an English teacher, not a cab driver”—or something of the sort. What country are you in?
Odds are, you’re in Iceland. It’s a place where meetings of this variety—chance revelations of improbable pockets of erudition—seem to happen all the time. It makes sense, somehow, that this would be the land that, per capita, boasts much the greatest chess expertise in the world. On my last visit I felt, on listening to my Izaak Walton– reading, night shift–driving cabbie, less surprise than confirmation; here was just the sort of incongruous, winsome encounter I’d come to expect in a country which, since I first visited it sixteen years ago, has drawn me back almost annually.
As it happens, this particular brand of pleasure—meeting up with an improbable intellectual flowering—has a retrospective component. The more you look into the history of Iceland (a record of frightful weather and chronic poverty, punctuated by decimating epidemics and natural disasters), the more admirable its achievements become. Nowhere is this more true than in that great literary culmination commonly known as the Sagas of Icelanders, whose heyday arrived in the thirteenth century and which to this day remains the country’s most noteworthy, durable export.
They were anonymous scribes, the authors of the sagas, who worked—presumably—in the enclosing dark of arctic winters, recording onto calfskins their tales of heroes and heroines, brave feats and bitter blood-feuds. When winter descended and travel became impossibly hazardous, their island nation would be cut off from the rest of the world for months at a stretch. They put their heads down and kept working. They flourished in an age when literature in much of Europe was stagnating or nonexistent. Indeed, some critics have argued that there were periods during the saga’s golden age when the most significant European literature was Icelandic.
In any case, there can be no …