Believe it or not, Iceland is near the top of my travel bucket list.
These days, of course, it’s not too shocking of an admission. With social media providing us access to carefully curated images of even the world’s most remote corners, almost everyone has seen images of the country’s photogenic fjords. We’ve marveled at its majestic waterfalls cascading into crystalline lagoons. We’ve witnessed the way its lush-green grass envelopes its towering mountains and expansive valleys. We’ve spotted the multicolored curtains of the Northern Lights reflecting off of its monstrous glaciers. We’ve all fallen in love with the Icelandic countryside, and by this point, it’s close to cliché to say that you want to visit.
But my particular obsession with this Nordic island extends beyond its unique countryside — as a writer, I’m drawn to its appreciation for stories. Few nations value reading and writing as strongly as Iceland does, and in a world that feels increasingly dominated by electronic technology and online media, a love for traditional storytelling almost seems like a lost art. It’s utterly fascinating to me.
Looking purely at the numbers, it’s hard to argue with the country’s literary clout. Iceland boasts a 99 percent literacy rate, and a 2016 study conducted by John W. Miller of Central Connecticut State University ranked it the third-most literate nation in the world (for reference, the U.S. ranked 7th), taking into account a variety of factors such as test scores, library and newspaper availability, and education system inputs and outputs. And though it has a population of just 330,000, Iceland claims the titles of most writers, most books read, and most works published, per capita, in the world.
Perhaps the most staggering data point, however, is the fact that 10 percent of Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime — 10 percent. Think about that for a second. That’s one in every 10 people. Many of us in the U.S. struggle to compose a single thank-you card come Christmastime, and yet, if you joined a slow-pitch softball team in Iceland, odds are that at least one member of every team you played would not only write, but publish, an entire manuscript. Isn’t that infuriating?
Though supported by data, Iceland’s literary prowess is apparent beyond just the hard numbers. It’s entrenched in the culture. The capital city, Reykjavik, for instance, was named a UNESCO creative city of literature in 2011 for its variety of literary festivals, its promotion of reading and creativity through workshops and writing initiatives, and its celebration of free speech. And in the months leading up to December, the nation experiences a “book flood” as citizens purchase books to gift to their loved ones on Christmas Eve. This is part of a national tradition in which everyone receives a book on the night of the 24th so they can bring it to bed, begin to read it that night, and discuss it over the following days. Across the Atlantic, we might occasionally buy our mom an Amazon gift card that she can use to find a title that suits her fancy, but in Iceland, the act of picking out a hard-copy of a specific story you think someone will enjoy is a practice that is still cherished and celebrated.
Iceland’s literary heritage stretches back to the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries, eras chronicled in the famous medieval work titled “the Saga of the Icelanders.” The prose narratives of that collection, along with the poems of “the Poetic Edda,” preserve the stories of the country’s Norse settlers. Together, the two bodies are considered classics of world literature and are still widely read and translated today.
The sagas of those eras mark the origin of the storytelling tradition that persists in Iceland. That was how ancient Icelanders communicated, how they recorded their histories for future generations. Today, you can sign up for “saga tours” of the island nation that expose you to the country and all of the narratives entrenched in the landscapes. Along these excursions, visitors discover that “each geyser and waterfall … has a tale of ancient heroes and heroines attached [to it].”
And this, I think, is the key to understanding the wonder of Icelandic storytelling. We often associate the country with both its majestic landscapes and its commitment to literacy, but we can’t ignore the fact that those two features are inextricably connected.
In his book “On Trails,” Robert Moor describes the ancient practice by which societies that hadn’t yet benefitted from widespread literacy would encode their stories into the physical landscapes around them. As he says, “Walking creates trails. Trails, in turn, shape landscapes. And, over time, landscapes come to serve as archives of communal knowledge and symbolic meaning.” You could literally walk through the hills and witness where each scene played out in terra firma.
That, I’d argue, is the exact process that was employed in ancient Iceland. The Norse settlers, enamored by the surreal landscapes they’d discovered, infused every acre with their narratives and histories. And that practice kicked off a national storytelling tradition that has carried through to the present.
Even today — when our narrative capabilities have expanded into mediums as advanced as photography, film, and even virtual reality — we still see storytellers flocking to the Icelandic countryside to compose their tales. J.R.R. Tolkien drew on Icelandic vistas and Norse mythology when designing Middle Earth. HBO’s television epic “Game of Thrones” films many of its most breathtaking scenes in Iceland. Kristopher Jansma set an entire section of his critically acclaimed “the Unchangeable Spots of Leopards” in an Icelandic writers’ colony. And the traveler’s favorite “the Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (which is as focused on the stories we tell as it is on the nature of wanderlust) captured the island in all of its beauty, rocketing it to the top of many of our bucket lists in the process.
It should come as no surprise that nature breeds creativity. Anyone who’s ever gone on a walk in the woods has felt that jolt of inspiration that accompanies immersion in spectacular scenery. But there’s something else at play — especially in Iceland, where that sense of captivation is heightened by the sheer magnitude of the island’s landscapes. You experience a sense of humility when you find yourself at the foot of a mountain, or in the center of a valley that seems to extend beyond the horizon. You look around and suddenly understand how small, how unimportant you are in the grand scheme of things. You’re just a single speck in a beautiful, frightening, chaotic world.
Stories, on the other hand, give us meaning. They provide purpose. They help us situate ourselves amid what otherwise seems like colossal disorder. It’s only natural that in a land as mesmerizing as Iceland, stories would grow to be so important.
Someday, I’ll cross Iceland off my bucket list, and when I return, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of stories to tell.
Header image by @vanexusphotography