Virgin Mountain Icelandic Film


The Vic theatre was packed. Extra chairs were lined up at the rear. A quick trailer for the movie, Rams, was shown. There was no need for the trailer to encourage people to go to Rams. Both Virgin Mountain and Rams had been sold out for days. The audience for the annual Victoria Film Festival know their films and were aware that Virgin Mountain, the Icelandic-Danish film by Dagur Kári, had won not only the top prize at Tribeca, but also an acting award for lead Gunnar Jonsson. As well, Icelandic films have steadily developed a reputation for excellence.

Helga Thorson, the head of German-Slavic Studies, and the new head of The Richard and Margaret Beck Lectures on Icelandic Literature, greeted the packed house, mentioned that anyone who might be interested in the ongoing lectures could pick up a pamphlet in the lobby and that the Beck was financially sponsoring Virgin Mountain.

The film began brilliantly with nothing but images, no dialogue. It was obvious that this was going to be a film in which we were going to be shown the story, not told about it, and with its quiet beginning that is was going to be a film of subtext that would demand the audiences’ attention. There is no dialogue to break the audience’s focus on images and the need to interpret them. The film creates an intimacy between the main character, Fusi, and the audience, beginning the process of creating an understanding of the silence in which Fusi lives.

Gradually, his life at work, at home and beyond are revealed. At work, he is bullied, at home, he lives with his mother and her boyfriend, and beyond is limited to every Friday going to the same Asian restaurant and ordering the same meal. Often, he sits in his truck and calls a local radio station to ask for the disc jockey to play heavy metal. At home, he entertains himself by reconstructing historic battles with toy soldiers.

At forty-three, his life is settled, determined. He is socially inept and unpracticed. His huge body (the mountain in the title) makes him an unlikely object of an woman’s romantic fantasy. Into this predictable life, a precipitating incident occurs in the person of his mother’s boyfriend who is determined to get Fusi out of the house. He gives Fusi a certificate for line dancing lessons for his birthday. His mother gives him a cowboy hat. Protesting all the while, Fusi does go to the first lesson but before it begins, he retreats to sit in his truck in the falling snow.

He sits in the dark watching the light from the door that leads to the dance lessons. It’s a wicked winter night out. Nearly everyone has left when a figure we can only obscurely see through the falling snow appears, comes up to the truck window, and asks if Fusi would mind giving her a ride. Fusi is taken aback but agrees. And so, as in much good narrative, the repetitious, unbreakable, known present is disrupted.

New possibilities arise as he agrees to give Sjöfn a ride. It is a pattern we have all seen and experienced in both life and drama. What makes this film brilliant is the way Fusi’s the new possibilities are played out.

When learning to write narrative, whether fiction or drama, one of the hardest lessons is to understand and master the relationship between text and subtext. Many students deny subtext exists, that is, until asked if they ever flirt. A discussion of flirting with its subtle suggestions of desire and possibility begins to open an understanding of how to create unstated possibilities. Dagur Kári is someone who understands subtext and uses it to great effect to create both sorrow and laughter.

In an early scene, Fusi goes for his usual Friday pad thai at the same Asian restaurant and the proprietor says, “The usual?” Later, when Fusi takes Sjöfn to the restaurant, not only is her presence such a change filled with hope that the proprietor gives them a complimentary appetizer. The scene is filled with information for the viewer. The delight of the proprietor says something about the fact that Fusi, in spite of his seldom speaking, being a genuinely likeable person.

Sjöfn says to Fusi, you come here every Friday, you must be an expert on the menu and he has to admit that he always orders the same thing. Not only is the scene humorous as she asks her questions and is taken aback by Fusi’s answers, but Fusi’s short confessions reveal how small is the world he has created for himself. The scene is brilliant but it is only one of many that is brilliant.

The restrained dialogue works very well. Life is filled up with silences. But actions can be filled with meaning and dialogue can counter point it.

When Fusi first gives Sjhön a ride, their conversation is both crazy and funny. “You’re not weird are you? You aren’t going to rape me?,” she asks. Fusi has to think about the question before replying with his rather puzzled no. She asks him a number of questions and his answer is always no, but it isn’t a defensive no or an angry no. It’s a no that says what she is asking is inconceivable. In a scene with his mother, he’s cooking in his mother’s kitchen, his mother comments on how his cooking has improved and asks about Sjhön. The dialogue is common, ordinary but filled with his mother’s fears.

This is a movie of deft moves by the director, by right on performances by the actors, major and minor. It is not a big movie with a large landscape, a cast of thousands, a pounding musical score, violent action. It is like a delicately constructed box filled with surprising compartments. Some of the compartments contain tears, some laughter, some deep thought, some hope, some compassion, some disappointment. It creates individuals and scenes that will stay etched on the viewer’s memory for a very long time.

In a film with so little dialogue, every word is important. Every word must move the plot forward and, doing triple duty, reveal character while developing theme. Gunnar Jónsson is known in Iceland as a TV comedian. He understands the importance of words, their pacing, and the way they are said. His (Fusi’s) repeated, not quite comprehending no’s do more than a speech would from someone else. Playing against him is Sjöfn (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir) and she, wracked by euphoria and depression, has a voice filled with emotion. She brings possibilities, not just of sex (as some of Fusi‘s coworker baggage handlers at the airport would see it) and love, but of Fusi escaping the small, insulated life he has created for himself.

After watching Virgin Mountain, I thought of the magic casket that Steinar of Hliöar made for the king of Denmark. “It was divided into several compartments of different sizes. Under the largest compartments, which were detachable, was the bottom; but there was more to that than met the eye, because under it there lay three, some say four, secret compartments which no one could open except by an ingenious special device”. And so does Dagur build his film, scene by scene, each one so there is much more than meets the eye, each one creating the layered reality of what looks on the surface like a simple life.

Oblivion by Indridason


I’m a great fan of Analdur Indridason’s writing. I’ve read all his books that have been translated into English and I eagerly look forward to the next one. I bought Oblivion and, although I usually go to bed about ten o’clock, I stayed up until one thirty a.m. following Erlendur and Marion. For those of you who don’t know, Marion is an older detective, a mentor to Erlendur. In previous books, I’ve been intrigued by Marion and his role in Erlendur’s life and career so I’m happy to say that since this book takes place when Erlendur is just starting out as a detective, the reader learns more about Marion’s life.

It is tricky to write narratives that fill in a story that has already been developed. I’ve followed, fascinated, with Erlendur’s obsession about missing persons, especially those who are lost in Iceland’s dangerous landscape of glaciers, lava deserts, raging rivers, boiling mud and water. I last saw Erlendur on the edge of freezing to death, being snowed under in a reprise of the death of his brother when they were young. I, like I’m sure many others, wanted to send an email to the author saying, “No, no. Don’t let him go.”

Erlendur’s life is complicated. His marriage has broken up. His ex hates him. His son and daughter in the later books are disasters; his daughter is an addict who refuses to be rescued. In Oblivion we get a glimpse of the early years after Erlendur has left his wife. From a distance, he silently watches his daughter on a playground. Not much is said but the passage is full of regret and guilt. It shows Indridason’s ability to communicate emotion tersely so that it never becomes melodrama.

The novel, since this is a murder mystery, begins with a death, a body in what will become known in reality as the Blue Lagoon, now a major attraction for tourists. However, when the story takes place the shores are barren and the woman who goes to bathe in the waters to soothe her skin condition is alone when she sees a shoe rising out of the water. Disgusted that someone would throw a shoe into the water, she goes to retrieve it only to find it attached to a body.

For the next 345 pages we follow Erlendur and Marion Briem as they gradually fit together the puzzle of the victim’s death. To add to the story, Indidason folds in the story of Dagbjðrt, an eighteen year old who, decades before, had disappeared without a trace. Erlendur had been fascinated with her inexplicable disappearance and, now, with Marion’s encouragement, he begins to look at this cold case.

Indridason is expert at fitting together complex puzzles but his novels are made up of much more than tricky plots. He has a genius for creating landscape and mood. Even those readers who have not been to Iceland get to experience the harshness of the landscape, the bitterness of the weather, and the moodiness of the skies. The sense of daily life in and around Reykjavik is captured with place names, short descriptions, the names of food. It is all very bleak, bleaker than I’ve experienced but then I’ve always been there in summer. That bleakness is as much Erlendur’s as it is the landscape’s.

In more than this novel, Indridason explores the relationship of the American military and the Icelanders. The British occupied Iceland to keep it from being taken over by the Germans during WWII. A year later, the British were replaced by the Americans. Relationships were uneasy. Iceland has a small population, at the time of the war, around one hundred and twenty thousand with forty thousand of those living in the capital city, Reykjavik. They were overwhelmed by tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen. Conflict was inevitable. Icelanders were poor. There were serious restrictions on what they could import. The Americans were well supplied with consumer goods: cigarettes, beer, meat, clothes. A black market developed.

Indridason does an excellent job of creating the conflict between the occupying Americans and the Icelanders.

When I stay up until one thirty in the morning to read a book, it has to be very good. At the same time, I felt with Oblivion that as a reader, I was ahead of Erlendur and Marion with regard to the solution to the mysteries. Part of the problem may be that my devotion to Indridason’s novels comes more from his development of Erlendur and less from the plot. In this book, the two plots are more important than the main character and his mentor. As far as the plot goes, I was disappointed with the appearance of Master Sergeant Roberts. It was a bit like having a shoot out in a Western movie and solving it by having the cavalry appear . However, that is a quibble brought about because when I read an Indridason novel, I expect it to be perfect. It won’t stop me from re-reading Oblivion and reveling in the descriptions, details, clever moves, interesting interactions among the characters.

Victoria Cribb has done an excellent job of translating the novel.

I highly recommend all the Erlendur books. However, before you read this one, if you haven’t read some of the earlier novels, I’d recommend you buy a couple and get to know Erlendur so you can appreciate these new details about his life.

June 17: the king’s visit


“Have you heard what they are saying?” Fusi asked. He was cutting grass.

“No, I haven’t time for gossip,” Bergir replied.

“The king is coming to Iceland.”

“The king? What king?”

“The king of Denmark. He’s bringing us a constitution.”

“I wish he’d bring me a better blade for my scythe.”

“Do you know what a king looks like?”

“No. We’ll find out when he comes, won’t we?”

And so they did. It is 1874. A king is coming to Iceland. It is the first time such a thing has happened. Christian IX is coming to present the Icelanders with a constitution. This is the culmination of years of work by Jon Sigurdsson and his followers.

This is no small occasion. By the time five Americans, including Bayard Taylor and Samuel Kneeland arrive on the yacht, Albion, there are one German, two French, one Swedish, one Norwegian and one Danish frigate in the harbour. Frigates are warships, mounting a lot of cannon. Closer to shore there are twenty smaller sailing ships.

Iceland is a world of dull colors, dark browns and blacks, greys. People are poor and brightly coloured European cloth is expensive. Houses are small and dimly lit. There is little in the way of pomp and ceremony. There are no castles. The houses of the wealthy are described as good quality farm houses in England or Scotland.


In anticipation of the arrival of the Danish king, flags have been raised on all the larger buildings. A new dock is being got ready and workmen are building a crimson canopy over it. This is where the king will come ashore. It wouldn’t be dignified for him to be carried ashore and he hardly can be expected to wade ashore.


Although the rest of the country in 1874 is still isolated with some people never having seen a foreigner, Reykjavik is used to having sailors and traders come to stay for short periods of time. Now, a “few officers and sailors from the foreign men-of-war are mixed with the crowd.”


Half an hour after the Albion arrives, the foreign frigates are all in a flutter of brilliant colors. People crowd the beach. The masts of the king’s ship make their appearance above the low western head-land. Then French, German and Swedish officers come on deck in full uniform, boatswains and gunners take their stations, and—it begins to rain. It will continue to rain for the king’s entire visit. The Icelandic weather is no respecter of royalty.


The king’s ship appears from between the islands.

The foreign frigates in recognition of his arrival fire their cannons. Some frigates carry twenty-eight guns. It is no wonder that Bayard Taylor says “flash, smoke and thunder follows in rapid succession from the five hulls, the rocky shores send back their echoes and the whole harbor rings.” The Icelanders “standing in a dark line in front of the houses, silent and motionless” will never have seen or heard anything like this extravagant greeting.


This cannon greeting is replied to by the king’s ship. To add to the noise the sailors on the foreign frigates cheer loudly as the king’s ship passes between them.


The king and the prince and their party are rowed to shore. Here, there is a royal pier that “slopes down to a platform, between a double row of Danish flags hung

with green garlands.” The king’s party and the greeting party stand on the platform. Speeches of welcome are made and replied to. However, in 1874 there are no microphones, no loudspeakers, so no one more than thirty feet away can hear what is being said. Those close enough to hear, cheer from time to time, but the two thousand people who can’t hear what is being said, stand silent. The welcoming takes ten minutes. When it is over, the Governor leads the way up the pier. He is followed by the king and prince. Although there is resentment toward Denmark because of trade restrictions that have caused a lot of hardship and favored a few well connected Icelanders at the expense of the many, the crowd is polite and the King and prince look very cheerful and friendly.


What follows is as close to a parade as the Icelanders have ever experienced. The Governor, all decked out in his finest, the King and Prince in impressive uniforms, then important officials, the “the bishop in velvet and satin, a snowy Elizabethan ruff, and a high hat, the clergyman,” and the members of the official Icelandic committee. These are described by Taylor as being strong, wind burned men who look like farmers. They are wearing heavy brown coats and Taylor notes that the white gloves they have been given don’t go together with their clothes. The parade has about forty people in it. When they have passed, the curious crowd falls in behind them and follows them to the Governor’s residence.


When they arrive at the Governor’s house, the door opens and Madame Finsen, the Governor’s wife, appears, dressed in a simple black silk, without any ornaments. She descends the steps of the first garden terrace, curtsies at the right moment to the royal guest, a little less deeply to the Prince, and accompanies them to the door. Taylor is impressed by Madam Finsen. It is not often that someone, even a Governor’s wife, has the king drop by to visit. She handles the greeting admirably.


The curious crowd waits and watches. The Bishop, members of the official committee, and other officials wait at the bottom of the garden, until summoned by a chamberlain in a red coat, when they are led inside. The crowd has seen enough already to talk about for years to come. The Icelanders have now seen what a king looks like, a prince is added as a bonus, and vanity and self-importance are on display in the garden. The word poppinjays comes to mind, or a Halloween costume ball but my sympathies are with the sturdy farmers who have been decked out in white gloves. Were the gloves a way of identifying them as being part of the official greeting party or were the gloves because there might have been the risk that they would touch the king or prince with those rough farmer’s hands?



The next day at eight o’clock, a gun from the King’s frigate booms. Lines of linked flags are run up to the peak of the masts and yard-arms. Taylor says that “the gleam and sparkle of the linked flags…is something glorious to behold.” On the hills, long lines of people on horses are still only specs but they reveal that people are coming. All transportation is by horse, riding horses, pack horses, spare horses and soon Reykjavik will be crowded with the small Icelandic horses.


This day is a busy one. There will be a commemorative service at the Cathedral, an evening banquet in a hall of the university and, in the evening, a festival on the hill of Austurvelli. The hill is a mile from town.


At the banquet, the king mingles with the guests. When dinner is announced “the King gives his arm to Madame Finssen, the band blows its trumpets, and the guests march into the large hall of the University, which is decorated with flags, pyramids of rifles, stars made of swords, and other warlike ornament.”


The evening is Danish. The flags, the rifles, the swords are symbols of Danish power. They have an army. Iceland does not. Everything about the dinner is Danish. According to Taylor, the silver plate and porcelain, with the royal arms, the wine glasses, cakes and bonbons—everything except the snipe and salad, are Danish. There is duck and venison, green peas, truffles, but the rarest thing for the Icelanders are the black Hamburg grapes which come with the dessert. Few Icelanders would ever have seen grapes, never mind tasted them.


After the banquet, the king and his party and the dignitaries walk to the hill nearly a mile away, where there are flags, tents, and two thousand people. An area large enough to accommodate five thousand people has been cleared but Taylor says that only two thousand people have come to celebrate in the wind and the rain. It may be the weather that has kept people away, or the expense and difficulty of traveling to Reykjavik on horseback but Taylor is one of five Americans who have come to see Iceland free itself from a monarchy and he interprets the small turnout as an expression of Icelanders dislike of the monarchy and their desire for a republic.


Iceland in 1874 is poor. The population has been repeatedly devastated by bad weather, epidemics, and oppressive political and business practices. The Icelanders do not have storerooms of gold. What they have is their singing. The singing in the cathedral was impressive. Now, there is singing before the formal program begins. Between the presentations, the admirable male choir of Reykjavik sings.


The king now leaves for the geysers. The Great Geyser is one of the wonders of the world. His party requires 180 horses. The Americans also go to the geysers. The king waits at the geysers for three days but there is no eruption. The geysers are as stubborn as any Icelander.

Having been disappointed at the geysers, the king and his party return to Thingvella.


When the Americans arrive at Thingvella around eight o’clock on Thursday evening, the wild valley had undergone a complete transformation since they left it three days before. Both Taylor and Samuel Kneeland describe the valley. The steep green slopes along the foot of the Allmannagja are dotted with little tents ; four large pavilions, with several smaller one’s, have been erected along the bank of the river ; on the Mount of the Law a flagstaff is planted, from which floats the ancient banner of Iceland, a white falcon in a blue field ; while on the opposite side, towards the Axar cataract, on a mound, there is a decorated shelter with the standards of the nations represented at the Festival. On the right floats the colors of Norway, England and the United States; on the left those of Denmark, Sweden, and the German Empire. Taylor says groups of people are scattered all over the valley, or on the rocky, grass-topped heights; there are flags everywhere, smoke rises from camp-fires. Instead of the usual silence of Thingvella, there is shouting, people greeting each other, and singing, always singing.


Taylor describes the King’s arrival in such a way that it makes me wish I could go back in time and be at Thingvella for this moment. Oh, to have a movie camera as all this takes place. The natural setting is spectacular. A group of twelve Icelandic bonder, or farmers, selected for their appearance ride forward to meet His Majesty at the farm of Skyrcot. It is described as a little oasis in the lava-field, about a mile distant. They escort the king to the site of the festivities. Just before they get to their destination, the farmers split into two groups with six on each side of the path.


The Chairman of the Committee, Fredriksson, makes a short speech, welcoming the king. The crowd which has gathered cheer so loudly that some of the horses become frightened. Gov. Finssen is thrown off his horse. The King, who is an accomplished rider, sits firmly, patting his horse on the neck. “Then twenty-four girls come forward, scattering the native flowers of Iceland—thyme, anemone, saxifrage, and geranium—in the Royal path, while the choir, posted on the lava rocks, strike up one of their solemn, soul-stirring chants.” The Royal camp is pitched, as before, on the little hill in front of the church, but there is now quite a village of

tents around it.


What an incredible scene, the great chasm, the horses, the tents, the farmers on their horses, the king and his party, twenty-four beautiful young women in their traditional Icelandic costumes spreading flowers before the King.


The next day there is a light but steady rain. Everyone, except the Icelanders, goes to the area where the official ceremonies are to take place, wearing waterproof coats. Having read this I immediately think of Bjartur of Summerhouses in Independent People when he says “I’ve been wet all my life.”


A bridge of planks has been built across the river. After crossing it, the King stops to listen to a formal speech given by Herr Thomssen, of Bessastaðrin the name of the People of Iceland because it is Iceland’s thousandth anniversary. This speech, Burton says, has, as all the other speeches made by Icelanders, two components: an expression of loyalty to the King while, at the same time, wishing to have their own government.


The King replies briefly. There are cheers. The band plays the Danish national anthem and everyone walks to the mound. At the official site, there are a bunch of formal greetings and well wishes read out from abroad. When those are done, the King spends half an hour listening to people who want to talk to him. Although Burton, Kneeland and the other Americans are strongly Republican, Burton says that the King’s manner “as it has been from first to last, is admirable—never lacking in true dignity, yet thoroughly simple, friendly, and familiar.”


With the formal ceremonies over, the choir goes to the door of the large pavilion. There they sing a new song written by Jochumsson. It is superbly sung. When the song is over, the Americans are ushered into the pavilion. They sit with the other foreign guests.


The banquet in Reykjavik was Danish. The decorations were Danish. The food was brought from Denmark, much of it tinned. However, this breakfast is Icelandic. It is “salmon, mayonnaise of fish, cold mutton, and excellent Rejkiavik bread, with claret, sherry, and finally champagne. It is, in fact, rather a dinner than a breakfast, or served as such for the Royal party.”


With this meal over, the King and his party–remember he needed 108 horses so this is no small group–get ready to ride back to Reykjavik. It is raining heavily. It began to rain when the King arrived and it is still raining. At one o’clock the King and his retinue are in their saddles but there is one more spectacular moment coming.


The choir goes ahead of the King to the Allmannagja. “There, under the lava walls of the tremendous cleft, sing a parting song. One by one the cavalcade disappears around the corner of the sharp crest, and Thingvalla is left to the people of Iceland.”


Think on that, the long line of horses, the royal figures, the choir, the cliffs, the rising voices, the steady rain. What a dramatic moment. All this has occurred because of Jon Sigurdsson and his followers. This is what it was like. It wasn’t abstract. It was horses, rain, people, food, camp fires, tents, speeches, songs, cheering.


It is here that Steinar of Hlidar brought his magical horse to give to the king. Even though he was not important enough to be invited to the festivities, it is here that he comes and all this is what he sees and hears.


Samuel Kneeland, in his book, An American In Iceland, sums up what he has seen by saying, “Jon Sigurdsson has done something important, even heroic, for Iceland. He hasn’t been Joan of Arc. He hasn’t led the Icelanders in armed rebellion. He’s done something much more important. He’s convinced the Icelandic people that their situation is not hopeless. Centuries of oppression have made it seem impossible that there can be a better way of being governed. Jon Sigurdsson has convinced people that there is a better way and it is achievable. Iceland has no army. It has no resources to raise an army and equip it. It must depend on persuasion. It must move gradually toward independence.”

And so, it came to pass and when we celebrate June 17, we should remember these events, these images. We are fortunate that Samuel Kneeland and Bayard Taylor left us books about these events. If you want full descriptions of their adventures in Iceland, you can read Kneeland’s, An American in Iceland, and Taylor’s Egypt and Iceland in the Year 1874. All factual material has been taken from their books.




Christmas in Reykjavik with Ebenezer, 1814

In 1814-15 Ebenezer Henderson became the first Englishman (Scotsman) to spend the winter in Iceland. He was there to sell and give away Icelandic bibles. He was devout, well educated, a brilliant linguist, and utterly determined to spread the word of God. He was a keen observer and during his year in Iceland, he made enough observations to fill a two volume book based on his visit.

He has a chapter (Ch. IX) that describes winter in Iceland. I thought, when I first read Iceland or the Journal of a Residence in that Island, during the years 1814 and 1815, that it would describe various Christmas customs practiced by the local people of Reykjavik since he spent the winter there.

He does describe the weather. He says that “On the 6th of December, with clear weather and a light breeze from the east-north-east, it sunk to 8 degrees 30”, after which especially toward the end of the year, the weather became remarkably mild and continued in this state till near the middle of January”.

He adds that there was a lot of snow, so much so that there was great distress among the peasants because they ran out of hay.

He says that the Northern Lights were exceptional.

In Iceland Review there have been some reports in recent days about the danger of traveling in Iceland. Here is what Henderson has to say about winter travel in 1814-15. “The distance between the houses; the dreadful chasms and rents in the lava hidden by snow; the rivers either choked full of ice, or but slightly frozen…all combine to present obstacles, which few have the courage, or physical strength to surmount”.

In winter, “The men are occupied in fabricating necessary implements of iron, copper and wood, &c.; and some of them are wonderfully expert, as silversmiths…They also prepare hides for shoes; make rope of hair or wool; and full the woolen stuff.”

The women, “Besides preparing the food…employ their time in spinning, which is most commonly done with a spindle, and distaff; knitting stockings, mittens, shirts, &c. as also in embroided bed-covers, saddle clothes, and cushions.”

“Reykiavik,” he says, “is unquestionably the worst place in which to spend the winter in Iceland. The tone of society is the lowest that can well be imagined. Being the resort of a number of foreigners, few of whom have had any education, and who frequent the island solely for the purposes of gain, it not only presents a lamentable blank to the view of the religious observer, but is totally devoid of ever source of intellectual gratification. The foreign residents generally idle away the short-lived day with the tobacco pipe in their mouth, and spend the evening playing at cards, and drinking punch. They have two or three balls in the course of the winter, and a play is sometimes acted by the principle inhabitants.”

And there you have it. Not a single word about Christmas. Not a word about any marking of the birth of Christ in church or out. No mention of local customs. No Yule lads, not even to disparage pagan ways. No Christmas cat. No ogres or giants. No potatoes in shoes. No new piece of clothing. No Christmas songs inside or outside the church.

Did he just not think they were worth writing about. He describes in detail the fishing, the farming, many aspects of daily life. He tells us about the reaction of both wealthy and poor to receiving a new Bible. But not a word of any celebration of Christmas. It may just be the because of the church to which he belonged but he goes to such great effort to record everything around him that it seems a shame, if there were Christmas celebrations among the Icelanders (I wonder who those other foreigners in Reykjavik were who were such a bad lot) that he didn’t record them for us.

On to Stapi: 1929

olive crossing desert

olive crossing desert

Olive decides, on returning from Thórsmork, that she will travel around Snaefellsnes and to Akureyri. The distance will be three to four hundred miles and will probably take about three weeks. Quite the trip for a woman traveling alone on horse back in 1929.

She prepares for the trip by sending her luggage by sea on a mail boat to Akureyri. She takes two haversacks and includes in them all her sketching materials. Her friend, Stefán, discovers that the Sudurland, a small cargo boat will be going to Stapi. There is a farm there where Olive can stay overnight before riding to Búdir. She will have a guide and three horses to take her from Búdir round Snaefells Jökull to Stykkishólmur. That part of the trip will take five days.

Stefán takes her to see the Sudurland. “We had to climb across some planks, over the sides of three other small vessels in order to reach it. Accommodation appeared very scanty, but the captain, who was on board, told Stefán that he would promise me a berth if possible.”

“These arrangements settled, I climbed back over the other boats, across planks and up and down iron ladders to the quay, where I stood for a while lost in wonder at the glory of an Icelandic night.”

“Five nights later the Sudurland sets sail. Olive discovers that she should have bought her ticket in advance. All the sleeping accommodation is taken. As she says “the little boat was already packed to overflowing with Icelandic farmers and fisher-folk”
She tries to sleep on deck but it is too cold. The ship’s mate finds her a bench “between the side of the ship and the stair rail that led below….In spite of a calm sea the “Sudurland” pitched and rolled like a trawler, and I had difficulty in not falling off my narrow bench.”

In the early morning the ship anchors off the creek at Stapi. “One had either to jump or be lifted into the boat from off the iron steps down the side of the Sudurland. Olive’s haversacks get thrown into the boat and one of the boatmen carries her. “At last we were all wedged safely in between a mail bag, a lot of sacks, and some timber that had been taken off the “Sudurland”.

She crosses a creek, gets one foot soaked, climbs up a steep bank to the farm where she will stay overnight. “It was a primitive-looking little cabin built of wood, peat and lava boulders, with a corrugated iron roof. The front door led into a narrow passage very dark, with an earthen floor, and walls built of peat and stones with tufts of grass growing in between. The entrance was so low that I had to stoop my head for fear of hitting the roof! My friend, the farmer (from Búdir), kindly inquired for me if I might spend the night there before riding on the next day to Búdir.”

“The woman of the house, who was regarding me with great interest and curiosity, understood no English, but I gathered that I was welcome to stay as long as I liked, although she could only offer me a sofa in the bath-stofa, as all the beds were occupied by her family. Thankful for small mercies, I accepted the somewhat hard and narrow sofa which my hostess did her bet to make comfortable for me.’

“At eight o’clock we all sat down to coffee and cakes, after which I tried to get some sleep on my sofa, but this was out of the question, for the farm at Stapi, like so many of these primitive and isolated little homesteads, is the proud possessor of a telephone. It was constantly ringing, and either the farmer, his wife, or one of the other women, and occasionally all of them together, would hasten to answer it, continually repeated: “Ullo! Ullo!Ullo!” sometimes for as long as five minutes on end.

It is 1929. How Iceland has changed. Olive often travels in trucks or cars for part of her journey. The roads are primitive, full of pot holes and rocks, sometimes no more than a dried creek bed, but there are roads. People and goods are moved more easily and quickly. Horses are being displaced and the change can be seen clearly when Olive reports that horses are frightened by motor vehicles. Before, there was nothing to frighten the horses.

Symbolically, the horses being frightened by the vehicles presages the near future in which these vehicles will replace the horses, taking away their essential part of Icelandic life. Now, there are telephones. Telephones that change life in Iceland dramatically for isolation was an essential part of Icelandic life. The farms were far apart, the weather, harsh, traveling conditions extremely difficult and dangerous but now there were telephones. No wonder the farmer’s wife and his daughters jump up and run to the phone every time it rings.

Although Olive is simply recounting her travels around Iceland in the year 1929, she is, inadvertently, recording profound changes in Icelandic life. The very foundations of Icelandic society as changing.

Changes in Iceland: 1929


When Olive Murray Chapman reaches Reykjavik, she meets Mr. Stefan Stefansson, a local guide. He takes her to the Hotel Island. For those of you reading my blog posts about earlier times in Iceland, the news of an actual hotel will be an obvious marker of change.

Over the centuries, the isolation, the paucity of visitors, the tremendous difficulty of internal travel, the overall poverty of the people, the lack of roads, meant that travelers, Icelanders. plus the few foreigners who braved Iceland’s harsh landscape, brought tents, stayed in farmhouses or churches.

It is believed that the first inns in Europe were established once the Romans had built roads. They key to the existence of inns is the existence of roads which are then used regularly by travelers. These inns provided accommodation, food and fodder for horses.

Olive says about the Iceland Hotel, it “consists of a public dining-room and a fair number of bedrooms, is built of wood and corrugated iron like most of the houses in Reykjavik, and at every window is a fire escape consisting of a long coil of rope fixed to a big nail inside. A new hotel is now being built, and will shortly be opened; it is much larger and I was told it would contain ever convenience and comfort.”

Stefansson tries to convince Olive that she should hire an English speaking guide and that she should choose and easier route. However, she is determined to go by Snaefellsnes, ride right around the peninsula, beneath the glacier, but Stefansson says her route would be off the beaten track. She is undeterred. Finally, he gives in and marks on her map the location of farms and the distance between them.

Reykjavik has grown substantially. It now has around 20,000 inhabitants. The day after she arrives is Sunday and she goes out to see the city. She visits the public square. A band is playing, a large number of people are promenading around the green grass.

Like many visitors before her, she describes the traditional costume of the women. However, there are differences. In place of a shawl, some of the women wear raincoats. These, she says, “look very drab and incongruous with the national headgear.”

“Many of the younger women and girls of Reykjavik have now adopted modern European dress, favouring the latest Paris fashion, and, as a dear old Icelandic lady complained to me, they prefer to shiver in their silk stockings and flimsy underwear rather than cling to the warm and suitable costume of their forefathers! Most of the older women in Reykjavik, however, are still faithful to the national dress, and up country it is universally worn by old and young alike for best occasions.”

She sees an outdoor pool with children being taught to swim. In books from the 19th C, it is often remarked that none of the fishermen know how to swim even though they risk their lives every day on the sea.

She visits the open-air laundry and is told that some farmers have started to use the natural hot water on their farms to heat their houses.

She visits a fish drying-ground and sees girls wearing big oilskin aprons and coloured handkerchiefs twisted around their heads. She gets “a lift part of the way back to Reykjavik on a lorry full of dried fish.”

She goes to see the Roman Catholic Church of grey stone, is delighted with the “green plots of grass and familiar flowers” in gardens. She finds the National Museum interesting. The National Library impresses her. She comments on the importance of both chess and the Passion Hymns. She notes the “fine collection of the English classics” and on how interested people are in psychic research.

She interviews Einar Kvaran who is the founder of the Icelandic Society of Psychical Research which was started in 1905. There are four hundred members and they have a good library.

There cannot be an Icelander or Western Icelander who reads her comment at the end of Chapter III and not have a sense of pride. Reykjavik, not so long before, had less than a thousand inhabitants. It now has around 20,000. She says, “I have seldom been in a town as small as Reykjavik which contains so many good bookshops; but this is not surprising, for the Icelanders, especially the farmers, are exhaustive readers, and take the keenest interest in the literature of other countries besides their own. During the dark winter days, when they are unable to work, these remarkable people will often spend long hours in attempting to learn foreign languages, and it is not altogether unusual, on coming across an isolated little farmstead away out in the wilds, to find that the farmer is capable of speaking three languages: English, German and Icelandic. Many of our own country folk might well take a lesson from such industry!”

Iceland,1929: the great adventure

Olive with her Icelandic horses

Olive Murray Chapman went to Iceland in 1929. She wrote a book, Across Iceland, about her adventure. Nineteen twenty-nine. Between the wars. WWI had ended in 1918, eleven years before her visit. WWII would begin in 1939, ten years after her visit.

Much has changed in Iceland. The most noticeable changes are roads and motor cars, although as her book makes clear, the roads sometimes were dried stream beds and the roads often ended abruptly. Waiting at the end of such road were horses, ready to take her and others to their destinations.

Think of it. An Englishwoman, on her own, not knowing the language, having only a pocket dictionary that was given to her by a friend. Her assets are self-confidence, good health and flexibility.

She starts out by taking a taxi from Edinburgh to the docks at Leith. She finds the Brúarfoss which she describes as “beautifully clean and very well appointed.” Two hours later, the ship sets sail. There is a lot of cargo, chiefly timber. The weather is so bad that during the first twenty-four hours no one eats. However, the next day, the weather improves and the passengers all come to breakfast.

She says, “It is the custom in an Icelandic boat to have tea or coffee at 8, breakfast at 11:30, coffee at 3:30, dinner at 5:30, and tea and biscuits at 8 o’clock.”
One of the great charms of Olive’s book, if I may be so familiar as to call her by her first name, is its naivety.

She meets “a cheery little Icelander” on board who speak English. She says to him that she is going to Iceland because “some years before I had met a charming Icelandic girl, and her description of the wonders and beauties of her native land had filled me with a desire to go and paint there. Also I was anxious to travel right across country from south to north if possible and to get to know something about the people and customs”.

The Icelander explains that she’ll need a tent and a guide. Olive says that she hopes to not have a regular guide but, instead, to travel from farm to farm, “taking ponies from different places, and local guides form stage to stage.”
The Icelander wants to know how she’ll manage since she doesn’t speak Icelandic. She shows him her pocket dictionary and says she’s going to ask someone to write out the phrases she will need. The Icelander goes over a map with her.

The ship, after stopping in the Westman Islands, reaches Reykjavik in four days. Given the early journeys of the sailing ships of the British explorers or even the ships that took the Icelandic emigrants to Leith, this is remarkable.

Her description of the four hour stop in the Westman Islands contains some nice details. She describes how the local fowlers risk their lives to capture birds. She also describes the drying of cod. However, it is her description of the taking on of passengers that I found most interesting.

“We remained at the islands four hours to unload cargo, and I watched a lot of timber being taken off in small boats; and after a party of Westman Islanders, who were coming to Reykjavik, were taken on board from a rowing-boat. The sea was rough and it was a wonder how they ever managed to get on board! The men would wait till a big wave would lift the boat on a level with the iron steps up the side of the “Brúarfoss”, they would then make a wild jump for it and land safely on the steps. The women were lifted up by a man in the rowing-boat and half thrown into the arms of two others who waited to catch them on the steps. One woman had a baby; it was thrown across and caught in the same casual way! Another had a crutch and her leg in irons, but somehow or other she was hauled aboard, and to my admiration none of the women showed the slightest fear or consternation whatever during this risky proceeding!One or two of them wore the national dress, with their hair in long plaits down their backs, but others wore quite fashionable coats with fur collars, and thin high-heeled shoes!”

I’ll write more about her journey. Although she is inclined to use adjectives with great abandon, she has a sharp eye and a good heart. By the time I finished this little book, I admired her greatly and wished that I could have known her. Her adventure is, perhaps, a small adventure, but it is definitely an adventure and took courage and resourcefulness. It is, after all, 1929. Travel in Iceland, in spite of motor cars, a few roads, and plucky little steamships, was still demanding . I’m not sure that I would have gone off to an unknown land with nothing but a pocket book of phrases.

Wild Times in Reykjavik, 1862

I found Faroe and Iceland in a second hand bookshop, unwanted, unloved, unread. I scooped it up. It was owned originally by a Mr. Edmund Wilford Bulkley, 1880. It has some fine sketches in it. I think I paid $5.00 for it. The author is Andrew James Symington and the book was published in London, in 1862.

Symington wants to go to Iceland, that no longer so distant but still fabled place. He thinks that he might try getting to Iceland on a private yacht (if he can find one that is going), to rent a sloop or to get a passage on a mail ship from Copenhagen. The first two are highly uncertain. The third possibility is important. This is 1862, steam ships have appeared and changed everything. They can travel in any weather, they can keep to a schedule, and they are relatively cheap. These are the reasons ten years later that our ancestors were able to leave Iceland in large numbers. It was actually possible to plan.

He sees an ad in the Times for the Danish mail-steamer “Arcturus” It will stop at Leith on its way north. It’s schedule will give passengers a week to visit the interior and it’ll be back in Leith in a month. He checked and discovered that the ship would stop at the Faroes and the Westmanna Isles, and it would go from Reykjavik to Seydisfiord. He looks forward to seeing the “magnificent range of jokuls and numerous glaciers along the south coast.”

He buys himself a long “waterproof overcoat, boots, preserved meats, soups, &c in tin cans, a mariner’s compass, thermometer, one of De La Rue’s solid sketch-books, files of newspaper, a few articles for presents, and other needful things.

On the 20th of July he goes on board.

The “Arcturus” is a screw-steamer, 400 tons. The captain is a Dane. The crew, except for a Scots engineer, are foreigners. There were eight men in the cabin.

If you had been aboard the “Arcturus” with Symington you would have been served three meals a day by a Danish stewardess. Among the meals you would have had red-smoked salmon, Danish sweet soups, with raisins, black stale rye-bread, and beef fried with onions or garlic.

On 26th July the “Arcturus” reaches Iceland and Symington and fellow passengers go to Reykjavik’s only hotel. What would you think Reykjavik’s only hotel would be like? Who would be there? What would they be doing? Remember, it is 1862, ten years before our ancestors start gathering at the Icelandic harbours so they can leave Iceland.

You would have been rowed to shore. You’d have walked from the harbour up to the hotel. “The hotel,” Symington tells us, “at Reykjavik is merely a kind of tavern, with a billiard room for the French sailors to play, lounge, and smoke in; a large adjoining room, seated round, for the Reykjavik fashionable assemblies; a smaller room upstairs, and some two or three bedrooms. On reaching it we were received by the landlord and shewn up stairs, where we found Mr. Bushby, who gave us a most courteous English welcome, notwithstanding our unintentional intrusion. He had, that morning, when the steamer came in sight, set out and ridden along the coast from the sulphur mines at Krisuvik—perhaps one of the wildest continuous rides in the world—to meet Captain Forbes.

“Knowing the scant accommodation at the landlord’s disposal, he at once placed the suite of rooms he had engaged at our service, to dress and dine in, thus proving himself a friend in need. A good substantial dinner was soon under weigh, and rendered quite a success by the many good things with which Mr. Bushby kindly supplemented it, contributing them from his own private stores.

“Mr. Gisli Brynjulfsson, the young Icelandic poet—employed in antiquarian researches by the Danish Government chiefly at Copenhagen, but at present here because he is a member of the Althing or Parliament now sitting—joined us at table, having been invited by Dr. Mackinlay. He speaks English fluently…He kindly presented me with a volume “Nordurfari,”.

So, there you have it, an evening in Reykjavik in 1862. Not, perhaps, as exciting or wild as Reyjavik 101 but a pleasant evening nevertheless. It would have been nice if the author had provided more specific details, descriptions so we could share the dinner party, the rooms, could hear, taste, smell, see, those rooms with the French sailors playing billiards. Did you know that French sailors played billiards in the hotel in Reykjavik in 1862? I certainly did not. So thank you for that Mr. Symington.

(Information and quotes from Faroe and Iceland by Andrew James Symington. I searched the web for a picture of AJS but, alas, found none that might be him. I found an AJS on a family web page but the pictures were not labled clearly. If it was our AJS, it was him in old age. However, rather than muddy the waters by risking the wrong picture, I leave the article un-pictured. If a member of AJS’s family, I gather descendants still exist, stumble over this post, then I would consider it a favour if they’d send me a picture of him, a portrait will do, but I’d love some pictures of him in Iceland if such things exist. If not, then elsewhere.”

Black Skies Review

In Black Skies, Arnaldur Indridason’s latest mystery novel set in Iceland, the main character of the series, Erlendur, is still missing. He has gone away for a holiday but has stayed longer than expected. The problem of solving a murder falls on one of his subordinates, Sigurdur Oli, whom readers have got to know in previous novels. In the early novels, there was Erlendur, Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg. However, we only catch a glimpse of Elinborg for she is in charge of another investigation.

There are reminders of Erlendur and his absence. His daughter calls, looking for him. A strange derelict haunts the novel with a paper bag he wants to give to Erlendur. This derelict, Andres, has appeared in previous novels. Erlendur has been obsessed through previous novels with the death of his younger brother when they were children. They were lost in a snow storm. Erlendur let go of his brother’s hand and when rescuers came and found Erlendur, they never found his younger brother. Since then Erlendur has been obsessed with his brother’s death and has searched the heath for his remains at every opportunity. Erlendur is inclined to be morose and brooding. There is a line in the novel where a character mentions that Erlendur was interested in an area where there were some lakes. The possibility of his suicide lies behind all the activity in the novel.

Black Skies stands up well as a novel in its own right. The main character, Sigurdur Oli, is an interesting character, one deeply flawed with serious limitations that cause him to make decisions that someone less flawed would avoid. In previous novels where he has been a secondary character, the reader has not seen much of his background. He’s married, he and his wife can’t have children, he likes to BBQ, he prefers American popular culture, he’s a snob, particularly about clothes (it’s a common Icelandic quality).  In this novel, we get to see further into his life and character as we meet his domineering mother and his wimpy father.

We also get a closer look at his values. He resents the Icelanders in Reykjavik who are living a high life, owning extravagant houses and expensive cars, all on credit as the economic boom accelerates. The crash has not yet happened. Greed and ambition abound and Sigurdur Oli wonders if he’s made the wrong decision in becoming a policeman. The people he’s investigating are hiring musical groups to play at parties in their homes. They have the best of everything.

Once again, Indridason has fashioned a tightly structured novel with an intricate plot. The unravelling of the plot is interesting, the connections sometimes surprising, but equally interesting is the way in which the underbelly of Icelandic society is revealed.

Everyone reading this novel, does so with at least some awareness of the boom and bust in Iceland, the Kreppa. The novel takes us into the seamy but common side of the financial fraud and manipulation that went on. Icelanders, in reality, place great emphasis on appearance and material success. They want nothing but the best. The best clothes, the best furniture, the best appliances, the best houses, the best cars, the best holidays. At the same time, there are those who do not get to participate in this rush to grab as much of the best as possible. There are the drunks, the street people, the drug dealers, the drug addicts, the senselessly violent, the sexually risky.

In this novel Indridason manages to pull all these people together into an intricate plot that leads this reader of mystery novels to say buy this book, put it under the Christmas tree.