The Near North

There have always been good reasons to visit Iceland's exotic desolation, but next year will bring a few new ones

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.

Tim and I came back to Thingvellir the next day by public bus from Reykjavík a 1:25,000 geological-survey map in hand. We had the park to ourselves. The parallel walls of the valley lie about three miles apart. The spongy green flatland in between, with its grace notes of bluebells and alpine cinquefoil, is deceptive: a foot or so of matted tundra conceals a lava plain. The plain is scored with crevices -- twenty feet wide, two or three stories deep, hundreds of yards long -- into which you can descend, with great care. (Auden, on packing for Iceland: "The most essential article is a pair of stout gumboots.") Water runs in many of the crevices, flowing into Thingvallavatn, the large lake at the park's southern end. The flatland is crossed by east-west footpaths marked with cairns. Occasional ruins fleck the site.

We followed the fissures from north to south for the length of the park, emerging at last onto the grounds of the tiny Thingvallakirkja, a nineteenth-century Lutheran church. A Christian sanctuary has stood on the site since the early eleventh century. In the middle of the sixteenth century, after a theological debate whose finer points included that of an ax blade, Iceland embraced Lutheranism. Next July an ecumenical festival is expected to draw thousands of people to Thingvellir to celebrate ten centuries of Christianity on the island.

The decision to become Christian was made by vote of the Althing (and on condition that baptisms occur in thermal pools, not frigid rivers). Next year's festival will include some Icelanders whom the original voters would never have anticipated. At mass one Sunday in the Catholic cathedral at Reykjavík, attended by what may have been a quorum of Iceland's Catholic minority, the moment came when congregants greet the people nearby. Turning around, I found a long pew full of Vietnamese. Iceland has taken in 160 Vietnamese refugees since 1979 -- something of a surprise to the rest of the world, given that the country's human gene pool has been so stable for so long that biotech companies are today vying, in effect, to bottle it. "Fridur se med ther," the Vietnamese said in Icelandic: "Peace be with you."

ONE of Iceland's advantages for a visitor is its small size. To be sure, travel by car can sometimes be slow, and a trip around the perimeter, on the country's 900-mile main highway, may take three days. But the country is only about the size of Kentucky, and Icelandair's busy domestic service can get you anywhere by small plane within an hour. Most places are closer. The Snaefellsnes Peninsula, where Jules Verne imagined the cratered entrance to the center of the earth to be, is forty minutes by air from Reykjavík, to the north. Europe's largest glacier, the Vatnajökull, is a fifty-minute flight to the east.

Iceland's international airport lies thirty miles out of town, on the lava wastes at Keflavík, next to the NATO base, but Reykjavík's local airport adjoins the city. After an early-morning cab ride from our headquarters at the amiable Hotel Borg -- one of the few old hotels in Reykjavík, a venerable Art Deco adornment on Parliament Square -- we took a thirty-five-minute flight to the Vestmannaeyjar, the Westmann Islands, a volcanic archipelago off Iceland's southern coast. Most of the other people on the plane were Icelandic teenagers on a golf outing to Heimaey, the largest of the islands and the only inhabited one. Above the seatbacks in front of us bobbed the tousled crowns of a dozen towheads.

is The Atlantic's managing editor. His most recent book is (1998).

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1999; The Near North - 99.12 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 6; page 46-51.