It’s not that Icelanders are full on megalomaniacs (we are though, in general), but our history and culture have shaped the western world in myriad ways that we could make a strong case that Iceland shaped the world on a deep level. In some ways, Iceland is the butterfly effect of the North.
Now we can even prove this—well, to a point. Egill Bjarnason has made quite a name for himself as a journalist, writing for the likes of The New York Times, Al Jazeera, Associated Press and Lonely Planet. He also teaches media and political science part-time at the University of Iceland. But what matters most for us Icelanders—forever burdened by our delusions of grandeur—is that he has written the book called ‘How Iceland Changed The World’, published by Penguin Random House and released in the US and Europe, in which he navigates the various effects of Icelandic culture on the world at large since the year 1100.
Iceland’s effect on Tolkien
“I wrote up three chapters and sent some cold emails to literary agents in the US,” Egill explains when asked how on earth he ended up with the biggest publisher in the world. Of course, when reading the book, it comes as no surprise that it was picked up by the publisher—there was actually an auction for the right to publish it—it’s witty, accessible and very enjoyable.
In it, Egill covers everything from an Icelandic (originally Norwegian) Viking, Leifur ‘the lucky’ Eiríksson, discovering North America and losing it again; and the story about how a young Icelandic woman, Arndís Þorbjarnardóttir, shaped J.R.R Tolkien and telling him about Icelandic folktales that Icelanders see very clearly when reading (or watching) ‘The Lord Of The Rings’; to the invaluable lessons other nations can take from Iceland’s gender equality reforms.
Dull freedom fighters
“In Iceland, there is a lot of emphasis on the big Icelandic novel,” Egill explains. “I had worked for years in my father’s bookstore and I felt like there was something missing in Icelandic literature, something about Icelandic history,” he says. He adds quickly that of course there are many excellent books about Icelandic sagas, many are even outstanding, but everyone in Iceland can agree that they are not very accessible. Or fun. Or anything that would catch the interest of non-Icelandic readers.
“Also, people other than Icelanders are not that interested in our old politics, and let’s just face it, Jón Sigurðsson (Iceland’s independence hero) is probably the dullest freedom fighter you can find,” Egill says, making the author of this article laugh out loud. There are not many that are so blunt about our national heroes.
1100 years of history in a small book
“But I still wanted to tell the story of Iceland and just kind of slam the first 1100 years of history on the table,” he adds. And that’s just what he did. In his 255-page book, Egill explains how an Icelandic volcano triggered climate change in the late 18th century that possibly contributed to the French revolution and, therefore, the modern republic. And then of course there is the story of how Iceland played a big role in US space exploration. Egill also reminds Icelanders of the interesting bond between this small island and Israel, which have turned sour over the past decades. Iceland’s ambassador at the UN was the one leading the committee that submitted the bill for a new Israeli state. Icelanders found a deep connection to this old nation of Israel for many reasons. But, this is a history almost forgotten in Iceland today.
Nationalism, the good type
How did Egill choose his subjects?
“Well, a lot ended up not finding its way into the book and I learned a great deal about the process of writing,” he explains. Egill says that he ended up writing about the subjects that carried the most depth and, although Icelanders are aware of many of these connections that the book explains brilliantly, Egill goes to new depths that will be completely new for many Icelandic readers. For example, the effects of Icelandic nationalism on other former colonies in the 18th century, when Icelanders reshaped their dignity and their self-image in the fight against overwhelming weight of the Danish crown to the point of Danish even slowly overtaking the Icelandic language.
“In some ways, Icelandic freedom fighting has become a road map for many smaller countries that used to be colonies,” Egill explains. The clearest example is that Icelanders demanded the crown to return Iceland’s most important historical cultural values, our old scripts. We have reclaimed many of our important scripts, but not all of them. And there are a lot of cultural values still stored in museums in old empire’s around the world, far away from their true owners.
A lot of discipline
Of course, because Icelanders can be very egocentric, we have to ask: how is the world reacting to the book? “Surprisingly well, even the publishers are surprised by the interest,” Egill answers modestly. He admits he did not expect anyone to be interested in this tiny little island and its big story. What’s more, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have written about the book and it’s currently the best seller in Scandinavian history on Amazon.
Asked if he plans on following up on his success, Egill becomes reticent. But he admits that he has an idea and, who knows, perhaps someone will like it. Until then, he says that he’s gonna keep on doing what he enjoys, writing for magazines, news outlets and teaching at the University of Iceland between.
“We’ll see how this goes. It takes a lot of discipline to write,” he says, seemingly unaware of his own contribution to Iceland’s impact on the world.
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