July 21, 2021
In recent days a native Icelander named Egill Bjarnason published a book, “How Iceland Changed the World.” I wonder about that title’s bold claim, but nonetheless he writes well, is entertaining.
He begins with the Vikings, and then steps forward, chapter by chapter, until he finishes in the 21st century. Along the way, he brings in plenty of fascinating details about the island’s towns, people, weather, government, and the Northern Lights, an enjoyable and readable geography primer.
In his introduction, he tells of the day he received a special bonus as a cub reporter at his town’s newspaper, “a twenty-seven-gear Mongoose bicycle, a touring bike with fat tires and a rear rack.”
He rode the bike out of Selfoss, a town 50 kilometers east of Reykjavik, intending to ride the full Route 1, the Ring Road, “an 821-mile loop that connects most towns and villages in the country.”
Egill discovers that the terrain is “famously uneven,” and that “along the coast the wind blows hard,” and “directly against you while bicycling. Always, I tell you. Always.”
He made it half-way, from Iceland’s southwest corner to Húsavík, a town on Iceland’s north shore, that lies just under the Arctic Circle.
At that latitude in the north Atlantic, the sun never rises or sets between June 11 and June 30 each year, truly a “land of the midnight sun.”
There, Bjarnason took a job on a cruise vessel that carried paying passengers out to sea to observe whales, or to the west to see Greenland’s massive fjords. He discovers how the ocean’s cold and its chronic wind can make him feel most miserable. “Water. Water. Water. Land!” he cries.
In his first chapter, he recites the stories of the most famous Vikings: of Erik the Red, his son Leif Erickson, their settlement in Greenland, and their the discovery of Vinland in North America. Leif named it Vinland, because one of their party found and ate fermented grapes. “Wineland or Vinland.”
Throughout the book, Bjarnason drops in certain interesting facts about Iceland.
For example, Iceland has the smallest army in Europe, not a single soldier. It has never participated in a foreign invasion. It has no railway system. Most of Iceland’s towns have a pool that is open all year with geothermal-heated water, and many of its residents enjoy a daily swim all year.
The only mammal native to Iceland is the Arctic fox. There are few, if any, reptiles or amphibians in Iceland, and no forests. Centuries ago, the earliest settlers cut down the trees.
Instead, it has “boundless Icelandic deserts, shaped by volcanic eruptions and covered in different shades of lava.”
In and around the bareness, a certain purple-flowered plant has now emerged, “the Alaskan lupine that arrived in Iceland in 1945 in a suitcase,” in a misguided attempt to provide “an efficient cover for the eroded land.” Today, “the lupine is considered an invasive plant.”
Bjarnason points out that “Iceland is basically Hawaii upside down.” The first is located in the northern Atlantic, and the other is in the southern Pacific. But whereas Hawaii has 11,000 square miles divided among a number of islands, Iceland’s single island covers 40,000 square miles.
Iceland’s population approaches 357,000, and of that total, 123,000 live in Reykjavik, the world’s most northern capital.
Bjarnason tells of the two most famous visitors to Iceland: Neil Armstrong and Bobby Fischer.
In July of 1967, the American astronaut Neil Armstrong trained in Iceland for the scheduled moon landing two years later. NASA chose Iceland because of its lunar landscape, described as “volcanic geology with no vegetation cover.” During his days off, Neil found an Icelander who took him fishing.
In the summer of 1972, the American Bobby Fischer challenged the Russian grand master chess champion, Boris Spassky, to a 21-game match that would convene in Reykjavik. Bobby won 12 ½ games to Spassky’s 8 ½, and became the eleventh world chess champion.
In April of 2005, Japanese officials released Bobby into the custody of Iceland’s officials, after the Japanese government had held him in detention there for nine months. U.S. officials had wanted to extradite him back to the U.S. for income tax evasion, and because he had played chess in Yugoslavia.
Bobby lived in Iceland for the next 27 months, although Bjarnason says, “The truth is that Bobby Fischer hated living in Iceland. He could not travel abroad with the U.S. still pursing a case against him.” Also, the cold and the constant wind frayed his “madness, paranoia, and aimless years.”
He died in Iceland on January 17, 2008. Bjarnason says, “In the end he defeated himself.”
A most honored American, Neil Armstrong, vs. a dishonored American, Bobby Fischer. Each spent time in Iceland, and each helped Iceland go about in a quiet and Nordic way to “change the world.”