A (Slightly Outdated) History of Iceland - The Reykjavik Grapevine

A (Slightly Outdated) History of Iceland

A (Slightly Outdated) History of Iceland

Published July 20, 2009

As the title clearly states, this book is a very brief account of the history of our small nation and country. And the first thing I noticed is that it is in fact very small, making it quite handy for travellers.The second thing I noticed is that the last part of chapter one about the settlement of Iceland seems to be missing. At least from the copy I have. And typically, it just had to be the most interesting part of the story of settlement that continues to be heatedly debated by both genetic specialists and us common folk alike; the issue of whether Iceland was settled by brave, independent-minded people fed up with the oppressive rule of Harald Hairfair or, as some would have it, outlaws and criminals escaping Norwegian justice and grabbing some slaves along the way. So I guess that whether we Icelanders are descended from criminals or bravehearts will just have to remain a mystery, for now.
Despite the aforementioned smallness, the book is packed with facts and information, and somehow still manages to be a surprisingly light read. The chapters are short with informative pictures and the index at the back is also very helpful. There is a map of Iceland and a simple timeline inside the cover that gives a basic overview of the history of the country.
Christianity and the Church get a lot of coverage, understandably, as Christianity played a big part in history and politics of old. But personally I would have liked to have seen the Old Norse religion getting more than just a paragraph. A note on the first Icelanders way of living would also have been interesting, but perhaps that is moving into speculation rather than fact. And Gunnar seems to be a man of facts, which is fitting for a historian. For example, he states clearly that it was indeed Icelanders who were the first Europeans to discover America, knowledge that has long since been taken as a fact in Iceland but the outside world somehow manages to be doubtful about, despite the overwhelming evidence in our ancient sagas.
The book was published in 2000 and has been re-printed three times, in 2003, 2007 and 2008, but without being updated. Thus, on page 67, Ingibjörg Sólrún is said to be the mayor of Reykjavík though she only remained in office till 2003, and on page 63 the U.S. are said to still have a military base in Keflavík. So, although most facts remain facts, some of the information in the book is outdated and perhaps even more clearly so as the atmosphere in Iceland has drastically changed since the economic meltdown of last October. I particularly liked the part where it says: “History has taught Icelanders that political autonomy means prosperity, while submission means decline.” (p. 34)
I think history has changed her mind. At least according to those who claim that submission to the Brits and Dutch in the Icesave debate is the only way out of this mess that we suddenly find ourselves in.

  • A Brief History of Iceland by Gunnar Karlsson
  • Mál og Menning, Reykjavík 2000. English translation by Anna Yates.
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