How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island

How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island by Egill Bjarnason was published in 2021. It’s a popular new book about an old subject: history. Iceland has been the hottest spot on the planet to visit for the past ten years. I myself have been there three times between 2013 and 2018 (not counting airline transfers at Keflavík) so it’s a good time to publish a new history book for English readers. I found it to be so much more interesting than History of Iceland: From the Settlement to the Present Day, which, in spite of my fondness for all things Nordic, I found to be so crushingly dull.

The title is an exaggeration, as world events recounted in lengthy detail such as the French Revolution, the foundation of Israel and the moon landing all would have taken place without Iceland’s minuscule role. It is Egill’s charm in making his homeland’s level of involvement seem all the more dramatic on the world stage. Egill wrote this book originally in English, so it was not weighed down by the potential awkwardness of a substandard translation. He wrote a chronological history which was broken down by subject matter, starting with chapters entitled The Discovery of the West, then The Medieval Legacy, moving on to other historical topics such as Nationalism, World War II, The Moon Landing, The Cold War and ending with Gender Equality. What made Egill’s book such a can’t-put-down read was its humour and Egill’s–perhaps his knowing representation of all Icelanders–willingness to laugh at himself.

Egill’s humour was not confined to jokes or snappy punchlines, but rather in his ability to tell a funny story. I found myself quoting him at length, for the laughter he elicited is lost unless I reproduce entire paragraphs. The author shows that ignorant tourists (both real and faux) can be as idiotic as some of the stalwarts of Icelandic history like Vikings and temperamental volcanoes. His humour never deflected from the seriousness at hand, which included the revelation that Eva Braun had visited Iceland in 1939 before the outbreak of World War II. Egill even pointed out that colour film footage of her trip is available on YouTube.

This style of writing history wasn’t irreverent and has enough laughs and personal asides to keep you turning the pages. To get an idea of the kind of history book Egill wrote, I include the following passages. They were my favourite parts and I still smile as I reread them:

“Well-meaning tourists asked questions that ranged from baffling to mildly insulting, like whether the country had enough educated people to run a functioning government. Each visitor seemed to have a pre-conceived narrative of what Iceland was. Iceland the alien planet. Iceland the frozen wasteland. Iceland the expensive playground. Iceland the Viking fortress.”

“Iceland’s first history book, The Book of Settlements, tells the story of Ingólfur, and then goes on to detail the names and farm holdings of the thousands of settlers who came after him. This was a kind of Viking VIP list written by the country’s first nerd, Ari the Learned, to highlight the country’s respectable genealogy–to show that it was populated by more than slaves and murderers.”

“Hekla’s two most powerful eruptions, those of 1104 and 1300, brought a cloud of ash flying over northern Europe like a guerrilla marketing campaign for doomsday: Hell is real! So you’d better come to church.”

“Earlier expedition leaders had skimmed the landscape in comparison, and taken a degree of liberty with their recollections, recounting tales of crossing bridges made of whalebone and meeting locals who lived to be 150 years old. Facts did not get in their way. Their goal was to feed a market hungry for historical and geographical publications, the most common category of nonreligious books since the invention of the printing press. Iceland was the exotic North, and there was hardly anyone around to correct false claims. Rarely was there documented proof that an author had ever actually visited the country, and typically each publication was influenced by previously printed books, the myths repeated again and again. Icelanders living in Denmark tried to dispel the rumors, but the most popular ‘facts’ came back like zombies: two books published fifty years apart by Dithmar Blefken (in Dutch) and Olaus Magnus (in Swedish) claim, respectively, that Icelanders live for up to 150 to 300 years–because of the pure climate, of course. Which I’d say is fair reasoning: the human body is organic, and we all know that vegetables and other organic things last longer in the fridge.”

“So in the spring of 1939, when the uptight Dr. Gerlach arrived in the world’s northernmost capital, he struggled to make friends with anyone other than German nationals living in Iceland and a few long-standing German allies. Gerlach was described as one of the best pathologists in Europe, but his devotion to the Nazi Party got him fired from his university in Switzerland. In return, his promotion within the Nazi Party was swift. He was invited to serve the Third Reich in Iceland, a place of ‘high culture.’ What an honor! Imagine the anticipation of a Nazi who’d been promised he could work with ‘pure’ Aryans. His voyage was like that of a kid heading to an actual unicorn ranch, only to be stabbed by a horn.”

“Anyone without a criminal record can run for president, as long as they are above the constitutional age limit of thirty-five, which is (as everyone knows) the age when one finally starts acting more presidential–the age when one can hear the words open bar without waking up hungover behind a dumpster the next morning.”

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