Living on the Moon

To Americans visiting Europe, Iceland recommends itself as a beautiful, friendly, safe tourist destination, whose international airport near Reykjavik is at just the right location to interrupt transatlantic flights for a few days, and whose international airline (Icelandair) is as low-priced as it is reliable. But there is much more to Iceland than meets the eye. Modern Icelanders are the direct descendants of marauding Norwegian settlers (disproportionately men) and their Celtic wives, slaves, and followers. Those origins, long suspected on the basis of historical accounts, were proved within the last year by genetic studies comparing Icelanders’ paternal and maternal genes. Upon their occupation of the previously uninhabited Icelandic landscape, those settlers established a society like none other on Earth. They arrived with an anti-big-government attitude and found that attitude reinforced by necessity born of extreme poverty. For both of those reasons they privatized government beyond Ronald Reagan’s wildest dreams, and thereby collapsed in a civil war that cost them their independence for the next seven hundred years.

For anyone interested in learning more about this strange society, three excellent new books tell the story from entirely different perspectives. Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland recounts medieval Iceland’s history from the first settlement until the loss of independence in 1262. Byock’s perspective is that of an American who, while in law school, found Icelandic sagas more interesting than law books, went to Iceland to work on a remote sheep farm, repaid the farmers’ talent for telling him long stories with his own talent for repairing their broken farm machinery, and ended up becoming fluent in Icelandic, translating Icelandic sagas, and teaching Norse languages and history.

Gunnar Karlsson’s The History of Iceland covers medieval Iceland more briefly than does Byock, in 86 pages, and then devotes its remaining pages to Iceland from 1262 until the present. Karlsson’s perspective is that of a modern native Icelander, as anyone who has visited there will recognize from his name and that of his wife Silja ADalsteinsdóttir. Icelanders’ last names are not family names but patronymics, so that Gunnar is the son of Karl, Silja is the daughter of ADalsteinn, and their children bear last names different from either parent’s (Gunnarsson and Gunnarsdóttir). Finally, The Sagas of Icelanders portray medieval Icelandic society through the eyes of its own members. Though one of medieval Europe’s smallest nations, Iceland produced the first great body of prose in any medieval vernacular European language. Seventeen of those vivid prose epics, including the two Vinland sagas that are our primary source of information about the Vikings’ attempt to colonize North America, are gathered here in translation.

Lying on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge just south of the Arctic Circle, and formed almost entirely by volcanic action, Iceland has Europe’s largest icecaps and glaciers, plus many active volcanoes and geothermal areas. Those un-Norwegian landscape features were obvious to the first settlers from southwestern Norway, but in other respects Iceland looked familiar to Norwegians. The lowlands were covered by easily cleared birch…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.