From Iceland — A Measure Of Iceland’s Cultural Atomic Mass

A Measure Of Iceland’s Cultural Atomic Mass

Published April 5, 2024

A Measure Of Iceland’s Cultural Atomic Mass
Photo by
Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine

The massive impact of the nation’s historic manuscripts

“This feels strangely intimate,” Ryan Boudinot jokes as he removes stacks of paper first from a pair of reusable Bónus shopping bags and then from four cardboard boxes. There’s one box for each neatly arranged bundle of crisp white printer paper. Once unboxed, the four piles occupy roughly the entire surface of the café table on which they’re placed.

The surrounding shelves are stocked with books on international artists, exotic travel destinations and photojournalism. They’d be welcome additions to any coffee table. But the pages Ryan has laid out are not yet books. Or they are, just without the glossy covers and bound spines. They’re his unpublished manuscripts — two novels, Murders & Hallucinations and The Tree with the Missing Trunk; and two memoirs, Lambs and the Lion and Dude Ex Machina. “Fifteen years of work,” Ryan says, seemingly to himself or perhaps the pages themselves, as he squares off their corners and readies them to be photographed.

An American author of several books, nominee for a handful of literary prizes, former professor and current tech worker, Ryan is on his third trip to Iceland in early March, 2024. To be clear, a carry-on laden with thousands of pages of paper doesn’t typically accompany him on his international voyages. This was a one-off occurrence that has brought us here to a café-slash-bookstore in downtown Reykjavík for Ryan to hand his manuscripts, the product of more than a decade of his mental labour, to an Icelandic friend and colleague for safekeeping.

How we got to this point can be traced back 33 years, or, if you’re inclined to more poetic musings about time and fate, back hundreds of years to Iceland’s earliest embrace of the written word.

Recent history

“I have had this strange attraction to Iceland for a long time,” Ryan shares. “It’s like a lifelong thing to the point where, when I was in my 30s, I had a series of recurring dreams in which I was in Iceland — and I hadn’t been here yet. They were super emotional and I would wake up crying.”

The precursor to the dreams was Ryan’s exposure to a book of photography from Iceland when he was 18-years old. “I was struck in a way that I can’t really explain. It was a feeling that ‘I must go there,’ and then it became a significant place for me,” Ryan says of the memory. “And so to bring my manuscripts here feels like fulfilling that path in a way — it feels appropriate to me.”

I never thought that the States would get to this point; I’m realising in hindsight that I took a lot of freedom of speech and expression for granted. So it’s frightening and there are a lot of people very concerned about what’s going on right now.

The opportunity for Ryan to visit Iceland for the first time came in 2011 when, over coffee with Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson — perhaps better known as Sjón — at Grái Kötturinn, he learned about Reykjavík’s recent success in being named a UNESCO City of Literature. He and Sjón had connected through writing several years earlier when Ryan was guest-editing the Hobart literary magazine and reached out to the Writers’ Union of Iceland to commission submissions from Icelandic authors. Sjón’s “The Net” found a place in the issue.

That in-person meeting with the famed poet, novelist and habitual Björk collaborator sent Ryan on a mission to secure the same recognition for Seattle, his adopted hometown in the United States. The bid was successful in 2017.

Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine

“So I travelled to various other Cities of Literature and went to a conference in China for UNESCO. It’s a huge tale and part of it is told in one of those books,” Ryan says, gesturing to the stacks of paper sunning themselves on the adjacent table. “Then, I think it was 2013 that Andri and I were both nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award — him for his novel LoveStar and me for Blueprints of the Afterlife.” At this point in our meeting the friend to whom Ryan is entrusting his manuscripts had arrived and occupied the vacant seat at our table.

Andri Snær Magnason was awarded the Philip K. Dick Special Citation of Excellence in 2013 (“I got nothing,” Ryan clarifies) and he and Ryan forged a friendship from that point on.

His arrival brings the conversation back to the reason they’re both here: transferring Ryan’s manuscripts into Andri’s possession.

“In the United States right now there is this feeling that we’re breaking apart into two tribes,” Ryan says in explaining why he has brought his works to Iceland. “This has been going on for a while, of course, but there are two cultures developing and branching off from each other, and each of those cultures has expectations about conduct and speech. I never thought that the States would get to this point; I’m realising in hindsight that I took a lot of freedom of speech and expression for granted.”

“Books are being banned from libraries now,” Ryan continues, “and the challenges to books are coming from both sides of the political divide. Right wing, left wing; it doesn’t matter anymore. Books are being challenged and removed from libraries.”
In addition to stashing his manuscripts in Iceland, Ryan plans to stipulate that any publishers interested in reading his works would have to travel to Reykjavík to see them in person. That’s where Andri comes in.

“I call my office the Andri Magnason Institute, so these would be the first of its manuscripts coming to Iceland,” Andri jests, referencing the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies where Iceland’s historic manuscripts are housed. Asked what compelled him to step in as guardian of Ryan’s unpublished books, Andri continues to serve as comedic foil to his friend’s concerns over looming threats to freedom of speech. “My motivation is just friendship and my fondness for quirky ideas.”

“In the world of coincidences and randomness, it’s always good to set afloat possibilities for randomness,” Andri continues. “There is a linear way the universe works and then there’s the more floating way; I have a big flair for working in the floating wind.”

Atomic mass

The wind has seen Andri swirling around the manuscripts for much of his life, with Iceland’s cultural history being a topic that he has spent a great deal of time considering. When he was just starting out at university, Andri was studying in the same building where the historic manuscripts were housed, but two years into his education he had yet to lay his eyes on a single sheet of vellum.

“Then I remember my father’s friend was working there and he wanted to invite us to come and see [the manuscripts],” Andri recalls, “and I was really starstruck. They had had a huge impact on me since I was 10 or 11; I really felt how special it was that I could actually read them.”

Some years later, Andri’s thoughts turned to the missed opportunities around Iceland’s historic literary treasures and the lack of domestic fanfare surrounding them. “It was strange that our national treasures were held in an exhibition room the size of an IKEA display — sofa plus cabinet,” he says. It was — and still is — his belief that, even if Iceland’s landscape wasn’t a massive draw for international tourists, people would make the trip just to see the Poetic Edda with their own eyes.

It was strange that our national treasures were held in an exhibition room the size of an IKEA display — sofa plus cabinet.

That’s precisely the point he endeavoured to make when tasked with writing a report on cultural tourism and attractions for the Ministry of Culture in the year 2000, more than a decade before Iceland’s touristic star really began to rise.

“The main question for me was ‘what is the most important man made thing in Iceland — what has the highest cultural atomic mass?’” He continues, reenacting his train of thought at the time: “So there’s Björk, of course. She’s very influential, but maybe not something that would be appropriate for the government to be working on. Would it be Hallgrímskirkja? Well, you know, it’s a monument but it’s not influencing the world; it’s an icon for Reykjavík. Would it be Njáls Saga? Well, it’s interesting, the Viking sagas are interesting.”

“But if you look at the Poetic Edda, the cultural impact of that book is greater than the Mona Lisa. It’s not like we have a Marvel Comics movie every other year about Mona Lisa. It’s not like we have Norwegian death rock bands based on stories about the Mona Lisa. So we have this amazing source right here. Humans throughout the last 10,000 years have left fragments of worldviews, mythologies, complete image ideas of origin stories, gods, their battles and deeds. We have maybe seven or 10 intact, big mythologies in the world — one of them is Norse mythology and it so happens that the source of Norse mythology is in Reykjavík in the Poetic Edda, in the Prose Edda.”

“These stories are this infinite source,” he continues. “Even one line can become a Marvel movie, Tolkien, comic books, contemporary dance, Norwegian death metal, tree huggers and racists — the cultural impact is huge.”

Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine

Andri’s position at the time that he was writing his report for the government was that, if a proper museum would be built to house and exhibit Iceland’s manuscripts, the draw would be massive and admission prices would pay for the facilities. Such is the case with the Book of Kells, a biblical manuscript in Ireland that draws up to a million visitors every year.

“But then I was torn by that idea,” he admits. “Because I had the privilege of accessing the books in a very modest place. So then I was thinking, ‘Why am I feeling like that is normal, this ultimate utilisation?’ Why am I feeling like a million people is how things are supposed to be? We’d have a gentrified downtown filled with elderly Germans buying copies of the Edda and every other store would be an ‘Edda store,'” he says, poking fun at the “puffin stores” that sprouted throughout Reykjavík like mushrooms as tourist numbers swelled.

“But for school children, the fact that every school child does not get to go there and see it is a great shame,” he laments.

From Andri to Árni

Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir is a research professor at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, or Árnastofnun, a research institute at the University of Iceland entrusted to preserve the nation’s collection of historic literature and manuscripts.

Árnastofnun is housed in an eye-catching new building on the university campus that has been named Edda. Though Alþingi approved the construction of a new building to house the institute back in 2005, ground wasn’t broken until 2013 and the building wasn’t opened until 2023. The fenced-off, muddy construction pit that occupied the site for so many years became affectionately known as “hola íslenskra fræða” (the hole of Icelandic studies).

It’s not like we have a Marvel Comics movie every other year about Mona Lisa. It’s not like we have Norwegian death rock bands based on stories about the Mona Lisa.

But the building is now open, exuding that new construction smell. However, Árnastofnun is still in the process of moving its collection over from its old locations in other university buildings, in part due to ongoing experiments to pinpoint the correct climate settings for storing the historic texts.

“We now have this beautiful library,” Svanhildur says while navigating through a series of bright and modern rooms, tapping her key card at every door. Security around the collection is tight. “So all printed books have been moved and we have a very good library for Icelandic studies and also for mediaeval studies. It’s a huge change for us to have this library; it’s much more accessible than our old premises, when the institute was spread across three places.”

Árnastofnun is named for Árni Magnússon, a 17th century Icelandic scholar who made it his life’s work to collect Icelandic manuscripts to be preserved for posterity’s sake.

“He went to study in Copenhagen and, with time, became a professor at the university there,” Svanhildur says, explaining that the only university in the Danish colonies (which included Iceland) was in Copenhagen. “He was living in a time where intellectuals in Europe were kind of realising that there was a lot of antiquarian interest in humanism. That alerted scholars, among others in Europe, to the fact that people in Iceland had actually preserved sources on the history of not only Iceland, but also Scandinavian and even German culture and so forth.”

Árni was, in Svanhildur’s words, “a crazy collector.”

“You need to be a little bit crazy to achieve what he achieved. He travelled throughout Iceland, he collected manuscripts and not only beautiful manuscripts, he was interested in every last scrap of a manuscript.”

“At that time, people had long since started writing on paper, not on vellum. The vellum manuscripts were old and dirty, difficult to read. So people copied them on paper and then they would just throw away the vellum. So this was happening and Árni was after every scrap. People had even started recycling the vellum manuscripts, using them as covers for other books or in bindings or even as a sieve! We have a very old manuscript in the collection that has holes in it because it was used as a sieve.”

What made Árni such an incredible collector, Svanhildur says, is that he saw the value in even the fragments. So much of the collection at Árnastofnun is fragments and scraps that serve not only as valued manuscripts, but also a chronicle of changing times and the evolution of the mediums in Iceland over the course of centuries.

Snorri wanted to collect this knowledge, basically for the benefit of would-be poets or skalds, because the way people produced poetry in Iceland in that time had very much to do with metaphors and extended metaphors.

“In the early 12th century, we know people started compiling genealogies, preserving memories of their ancestors coming from Norway and then gradually also writing down stories and poetry,” Svanhildur recounts. “Then in the 13th century, we find that Icelanders are putting together sagas about Norwegian Kings, for instance.”

“One man, Snorri Sturluson, is kind of famous in this regard,” Svanhildur continues. Snorri was a writer and politician who would compose stories about Norwegian kings, but he is most famously the writer of the Prose Edda, which is one of two main sources of Norse mythology in existence. “Snorri wanted to collect this knowledge, basically for the benefit of would-be poets or skalds, because the way people produced poetry in Iceland in that time had very much to do with metaphors and extended metaphors,” Svanhildur says. “And these are often based on allusions to the heathen gods or mythology in general. So you see, if you were going to be a good poet, you needed to have knowledge of the stories from the mythology.”

It is largely through the writings of Snorri that the stories of the Norse gods live on today, influencing countless aspects of modern popular culture.

“But there were also older poems, called the Eddic Poems, that preserved this kind of worldview,” Svanhildur clarifies. “Poems like Völuspá, which describes kind of the pre-Christian northern worldview of the Askur Yggdrasils and, of course, Ragnarök, the end of the world.”

A collection spanning the North Atlantic

When Árni died in 1730, he bequeathed the entirety of his collection to the University of Copenhagen. Again, at that time there was no institute of higher learning in Iceland, so the thought of returning the manuscripts to this remote island where he first collected them would have seemed absurd.

As Svanhildur underscores, the poems contained in the Poetic Edda, for example, were recorded around the year 1275 and had not been well preserved elsewhere. “So there are only three poems that are in that book that are also preserved in their entirety in another mediaeval manuscript. If this book had been lost, like many, many manuscripts were at the time, we would only have about three of the poems instead of 31. That’s how precious that one manuscript is.”

That piece of history is now back in Iceland. Petitions to repatriate Árni’s collection of Icelandic manuscripts began to gain steam in the 1830s and really took off in 1944 in connection to Iceland’s struggle for independence from Denmark.

The government in Copenhagen had rejected the request of an Icelandic bishop in the 1830s to return diplomas dealing with the former dioceses of Skálholt and Hólar. It also denied Alþingi’s request in 1907 for Copenhagen to return the entirety of the judicial and religious documents that Árni had borrowed from Iceland and never returned. According to the University of Copenhagen, another request in 1925 eventually resulted in the return of four manuscripts and some 700 diplomas to Iceland.

It would not be until 1971, however, that a large portion of Árni’s collection would be repatriated — but only after a long and drawn out debate in the Danish parliament. Eventually, those documents that could be deemed “Icelandic cultural property” were ordered to be repatriated. A special clause also legislated the return of select manuscripts from the Danish Royal Library — including the Codex Regius and the vellum codex Flateyjarbók. The former contains the Poetic Edda, and the latter is the largest and arguably most lavishly illustrated Icelandic manuscript in existence. Both had been gifted to King Frederik III by the Icelandic bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson in the mid-17th century.

“We received back 1,666 manuscripts from the collection,” Svanhildur states. “The rest remain in Copenhagen.”

You can see it in the Greek and British disputes about returning historical items. There’s much more understanding now than there was 30 years ago or 50 years ago towards claims like this. It’s really the people who produce these things who should be allowed to look after them. So I think time works in our favour.

Though Svanhildur likens the separation of the collection between Iceland and Denmark to the division of assets in a modern divorce, there has been talk in recent years about pushing Copenhagen to return more historic artefacts to Iceland. Minister of Education, Science and Culture Lilja Alfreðsdóttir appointed a task force in 2019 to plan negotiations with Denmark on that very matter. Talks are ongoing.

“Attitudes are changing,” Svanhildur points out. “You can see it in the Greek and British disputes about returning historical items. There’s much more understanding now than there was 30 years ago or 50 years ago towards claims like this. It’s really the people who produce these things who should be allowed to look after them. So I think time works in our favour.”

Constructive collaboration between Iceland and Denmark has seen the digitisation of much of Árni’s collection, though. Svanhildur is particularly excited by the fact that images of many of the manuscripts can be called up online, granting unprecedented access to scholars and students.

“That is a wonderful resource, because we rarely use the manuscripts themselves,” she says, pointing to the fragility of the documents. “When we are working on them, we use photographs because often they will be easier to use — you can enlarge and zoom and manipulate them so that they are easier to read.”

IRL access at last

While digitised access has been a boon for scholars and history buffs — and the illustrated manuscripts in particular are wildly impressive to view even on a computer screen — the opportunity will soon come for Icelanders to lay eyes on their national treasures in the (preserved animal) flesh.

An exhibition hall in the Edda building sits empty for now, save for barren glass cases and a lone humidifier sealed off with plastic sheeting to run climate experiments, but it will soon be the site of a rotating exhibition of artefacts from Árnastofnun’s collection.

“The Codus Regius will sometimes be in the exhibition and sometimes not,” Svanhildur says of the planned exhibition. “We are going to show about 20 manuscripts at any one time, but we are having to rotate them every three months for preservation’s sake. That’s a big logistics exercise. It’s fun, but it’s challenging.”

“They’ve lasted for 800 years, probably not always under good conditions,” Svanhildur says. “And if we take care of them, there’s no reason they can’t last for another 800 years.”

Ryan’s manuscripts, on the other hand, have traded their Bónus bags for their new home in the “Andri Magnason Institute,” where they’ll be kept in far less technologically advanced conditions. But they’re being honoured nonetheless as written works worthy of preservation, adding themselves to Iceland’s centuries old tradition of respecting and safeguarding the written word. Those wishing to view them will have to take it up with their keeper, but those wanting to lay eyes on the Poetic Edda — whether it be 100 people or 1 million — need only wait until November to be struck by the full force of Iceland’s cultural atomic mass.

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!

Cover Features
One Man’s Passion Project

One Man’s Passion Project


Show Me More!