The Near North

There have always been good reasons to visit Iceland's exotic desolation, but next year will bring a few new ones
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I AM not normally on the routing list for copies of the correspondence between Olafur Ragnar Grímsson, the President of Iceland, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the First Lady of the United States, but last year a small matter arose that put me on it. The matter was this: at a time when the world's attention has been focused on A.D. 2000, and on such prime millennial destinations as Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Rome, the attention of Iceland has been focused instead on A.D. 1000 -- the year Leif Eriksson, an Icelander, and his Vikings set sail for the New World, and also the year Iceland embraced Christianity. In his letter to the First Lady, President Grímsson wanted to make sure that America was taking note. In truth, the U.S. government had been developing commemorative plans for some time, but the State Department now moved into a condition of heightened alert. President Grimsson's letter was forwarded to me because the Viking world figures prominently in the comic-strip saga which I write and my father draws. A copy also went to Chris Browne, the cartoonist responsible for Hagar the Horrible.


The role of the American comic strip in helping diplomats avoid foreign-policy debacles is a gripping story that cannot yet be fully told. Suffice it to say that the ancient Icelandic sagas proved inspirational, and during most of 1999 Prince Valiant has taken place in medieval Iceland, where Val ventured at the behest of a beautiful, strong-willed, tart-tongued woman named Gudrid Olafsdottir. Gudrid in the strip happens to be based on Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, a contemporary of Leif Eriksson's. With her husband, Thorfinn Karlsefni, she made a voyage of her own to North America, venturing as far down the eastern seaboard as Manhattan. She bore a child in North America, the first European woman known to have done so. Later she made a pilgrimage to Rome. There may have been no better-traveled woman in the medieval world.

Researching Iceland's rich history, and watching as my father captured its stark beauty in pictures, kindled an urge to visit Iceland in person -- which I did last August, in the company of my twelve-year-old son, Tim. The Icelandic government provided assistance. Summertime is the peak of the tourist season in Iceland, when the days at this subarctic latitude are wonderfully long (sunset on the evening of June 21 doesn't actually occur until June 22, at 12:03 A.M.; sunrise on the 22nd is at 2:55 A.M.), and the weather is as clement as it will ever be (a typical day is overcast, with moments of rain and intrusions of sun and a midafternoon temperature of 60°). Next summer, of course, will prove especially eventful, as Iceland celebrates the double millennium of Christianity and the Eriksson voyage.

The very name Iceland conjures a sense of distance, but as Leif could have attested, Iceland really isn't all that far from America (it's about two hours closer than London). And, as Tim and I learned on our own journey, it isn't a place that requires an elaborate touring strategy. The starting point will always be Reykjavík the capital, but most of your daylight hours (the ones you can stay awake for, anyway) should be spent elsewhere -- and out of doors. A ten-minute drive from the center of Reykjavík brings you into the countryside, heading for the coastal fjords, the mountain glaciers, and the highland moonscapes of the interior. There aren't many people in Iceland (about a quarter of a million), and there are no castles, no vast collections of art, and virtually no trees. Enjoying the place requires a taste for magnificent topography and exotic desolation, and for weather at its most protean and palpable. A plucky cheerfulness comes in handy, and so does some familiarity with those Viking sagas. W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice displayed elements of the right attitude in Letters From Iceland (1937). A MacNeice quatrain:

The tourist sights have nothing like Stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

And yet I like it if only because this nation
Enjoys a scarcity of population.

MacNeice and Auden's seemingly out-of-date miscellany of poems, local lore, and epistolary fragments has become oddly timeless. Take it along.

ICELAND was the last country in Europe to appear on the face of the earth, and the last country in Europe to be settled. Whether it is properly "in" Europe remains a matter of argument. The Eurasian and North American tectonic plates have been pulling apart for eons, and Iceland was created by the upwelling of magma between them, which continues. The island is home to more than twenty active volcanic systems, and in recent centuries has spewed a third of the world's erupting lava. Geysers and steaming pools abound. The hot water in your hotel room may smell slightly sulfurous.

The fault line between those tectonic plates runs across Iceland from southwest to northeast, and can be explored most hauntingly at a place called Thingvellir, a wide rift valley that has been preserved as a national park. The valley is named for the Althing, Iceland's ancient legislative body and the world's earliest true parliament; the Althing was first convened here, in A.D. 930, under one of the valley's long, sheer walls. The standard one-day "golden circle" tour of southwestern Iceland always includes a stop at Thingvellir, and Tim and I had signed up for such a tour; first-time visitors probably should do the same, as a means of basic orientation. It will invariably give you too little of too much -- still, I would not want to have missed the moment when a guide, from his platform on a footbridge across a chasm dividing "Europe" and "America," began expounding on the subject of Iceland's pivotal role in NATO.

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Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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