Published July 26, 2015
The term Íslandsvinur, “Friend of Iceland,” first appeared in Iceland’s media in 1874, in the annual Fréttir frá Íslandi (“News from Iceland”). Fréttir frá Íslandi bestowed the epithet upon one Dr. Konrad Maurer of Munich, for writing a book about Iceland on the occasion of its 1,000 years of settlement, which was celebrated that year. American scholar Willard Fiske, who amassed a large Icelandic library and wrote a book on Icelanders and chess, was also mentioned in the same paragraph. Both were mentioned several times in Icelandic papers in the following years.
The third official “Friend of Iceland,” Mr. James Bryce of Belfast, Ireland, received the title in 1890. An article in biweekly magazine Þjóðólfur named him as the most important “Friend of Iceland” in Britain, sang his praises as author of several historical works, and even called him a British “Njáll,” in his capacity as advisor to Prime Minister Gladstone. Gladstone himself was even quoted as saying that he was half-Celtic, like the Icelanders, and that he had never seen a people more like the English than the Norwegians, even though he expected the Icelanders to be even more English than they were. Gladstone said that he hoped to see both Ireland and Iceland independent in his lifetime.
Kind of a big deal
Being named an official friend of Iceland has historically been kind of a big deal. Joining the club means that the local media will report on, emphasize and exaggerate your every achievement, up until your passing, which will in turn inspire some heartfelt obituaries.
Sovereignty and independence brought inflation to Iceland, to honorary friendship titles as well as to the currency. Friends of Iceland are no longer expected to write books about us or to represent our cause to foreign dignitaries. We are no longer a small country struggling for independence, and are hence no longer in dire need of friends.
Yet, Icelanders are still very proud when a person of note visits the country. With the rise of celebrity culture, the local media has taken to bestowing the title upon literally every star that makes it over, and will employ it in every mention of them thereafter. For instance, The Kinks and Led Zeppelin have not been discussed without a nod to their friendstatus since they played shows (and arguably wrote songs) here in the 60s and 70s.
Being a “Friend of Iceland” comes with privileges as well as duties. In 1972, Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky played the World Chess Championship in Reykjavík, firmly putting Iceland on the map. In 2006, some still-grateful Icelanders got the by-then disgraced Fischer out of jail in Japan by awarding him citizenship in absentia. The world might have turned its back on Bobby, but we did not. What are friends for?
In the 1990s, more and more friends were added to the list. Many of them were part of the Britpop scene, which seemed to see Iceland as a haven at the height of their excesses. This trend culminated when Blur’s Damon Albarn famously bought a house (and 1% of a bar) in Reykjavík, making him one of the first friends to attempt a lasting relationship.
Still kind of a big deal
One would think that with all the foreign stars walking around Reykjavík these days, the title would have lost all meaning. Gone are the days when a respectable newspaper like Tíminn would run a famously erroneous story about Sylvester Stallone wanting to make a movie in Iceland. It turned out to be a cover, planted by professional abductors who were trying to bring a child back to an American father who had lost a court case court against the Icelandic mother. The headline to the story was of course “Will we get Stallone as a friend of Iceland?” The year was 1993.
Yet, the title keeps being constantly employed by Icelandic media (if sometimes jokingly). Earlier this year, a Morgunblaðið story about a golf match in California came with the headline “Friend of Iceland is Number One.” A recent RÚV story on the Russian oligarch Usimov exclaims: “Friend of Iceland richest man in Britain.” Even Barack Obama received the honorary title after speaking warmly about geothermal energy, without ever even having been here.
Geopolitics have changed a lot since the Victorian Era, when a mere mention of Iceland by the UK Prime Minister was reported by the Icelandic media. However, Iceland’s enthusiasm for itself has not.