As I mentioned earlier this week, I’m in Iceland while my wife Kate attends the Iceland Writers Retreat. The retreat organizers were kind enough to include partners and kids in their more social activities and tours. Even though I’m not participating in the retreat’s workshops, I’ve found plenty of Icelandic fuel for my writer-mind.
The Icelandic people are immensely proud of their literary heritage, and rightly so. They were the scribes of the Viking Age, committing the Sagas to print and providing a written history and folklore of the Scandinavian peoples. Icelandic, while today spoken by just 330,000 souls, give or take, is considered the language most like that of the old Vikings. (Geographic isolation will do that.)
That pride is evident from the top down in modern Icelandic society. The retreat delegates and partners were guests of President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson at his historic home, Bessastadir, on Friday. Yeah, we got to meet Iceland’s president. I think it shows the nation’s interest in literature that President Grimsson not only threw us a little soiree, but spoke eloquently, and without notes, on his nation’s literary heritage for a good 20 minutes. And he then hung out for nearly the entire time we were there. Sure, it’s a small country, but the man’s a national head of state. And he knows his nation’s literature, both past and modern.
Yesterday, the retreat organizers took us on a tour of Iceland’s natural and historic sites, guided by historian Gudni Johannesson, author of The History of Iceland. One of the more unique stops was the home of the late Halldor Laxness, Iceland’s literature Nobel laureate. There, we heard accomplished author, poet and lyricist Sjon read from one of his works. I’m not normally one to jump on an author’s bandwagon after a reading, but we grabbed an English copy of Sjon’s The Blue Fox last night. Yes, the reading was that good.
Iceland knows writing. Reykjavik is a UNESCO City of Literature. Their tradition of book-giving at Christmas is fantastic; if it ever caught on in the U.S., a boatload of authors would be very happy (and more solvent) people. The landscapes lend themselves toward thoughtful introspection; the history is epic and song-worthy. And Icelanders take pride in it all, but with a great dose of modesty and humility. The people also have a curiously effective mix of dark humor and bright optimism, and they’re friendly as can be.
A quick anecdote to wrap this up, told to us by President Grimsson (so you know it’s a good one). The president was in a Reykjavik suburb recently to celebrate a municipal anniversary of some sort. He went to the local primary school, where the kids put on a play. The play wasn’t about woodland animals or children learning life lessons; it was a peewee version of the saga of Snorri Sturluson, Iceland’s great chieftain and poet. When Snorri was beheaded in the end, the children gleefully tossed the (presumably fake) head into the crowd in celebration. The president didn’t say whether he caught the head, but he told this story with good humor and immense pride in the next generation.
Icelanders love their history, writers and poets, for sure. And they make darn sure their kids know their history and literary heritage. I’m greatly amused to ponder what the reaction might be among U.S. parents if the annual elementary school play featured beheadings.