Rainy Day, Godafoss, Iceland

It is dramatic to come, as we did, from the beautiful fiords of Norway to the severe lumpy landscape of Iceland. Iceland is a volcanic island, strafed with holes blowing steam and hot water. Although this strange country does have some ice (glaciers), most of the land is clothed in moss and miniature trees. There is an Icelandic joke (and I am convinced possibly the only Icelandic humour is formed in a riddle): If you are lost in an Icelandic forest, what do you do? Just stand up.

The Vikings who started to settle there in 874 A.D. did possess a Nordic attitude to life. Fishing was the main attraction for Ingólfur Arnarson, a chieftain from western Norway, who is credited with establishing a farm where Reykjavik stands today. Scandinavians with some mixture of Celtic blood rather than pure Norwegians followed. The usual tribal wars ensued, and in 1000 A.D., a common legislature lead by the King decided to adopt the Christian religion. In 1262, the Icelanders swore allegiance to the King of Norway. Not until 1918 was Iceland made a separate state under the Danish crown.

We spent only two days in Iceland—the first one, in the area around the northern tip of Akureyri, and the second, in the capital of Reykjavik, the only other city. The official map of Iceland proudly notes that towns with more than 5000 inhabitants are marked in red. Count them both.

Tourism is keenly pursued as one of the few ways of making a living in this northern land near the Arctic Circle. Our bus tour out of Reykjavik, opportunistically entitled the Golden Circle, included a geyser visit, a stop at an historic Icelandic settlement with its buildings covered with sod, a thermo-heated greenhouse with an attached a gift shop amusingly called the Garden of Eden, and a visit to a strange place where the tectonic plates of the earth meet, or rather divide, creating a valley with steep rock cliffs.

Volcanoes, hot springs, and glaciers pretty well sum up the attractions of this barren, geographically unstable country. Sheep gazing has pretty well taken care of the vegetation that managed to survive the axes of the early settlers.

We stopped at a gift shop where knitted wear was on offer, the products of the local farmers’ wives who produce these items during the long, almost lightless, dreary winter. My bride tells me that these items are scratchier than the Norwegian versions, but the designs are similar. We were there in the summer when the sun did not ever disappear. There was a period of brown-out before the sun rose once again, but the sky never darkened.

I needed to clean the mist from my glasses as we climbed around the challenging terrain at Godafoss. With air temperature at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, this drifting gray cloud is not icy, but after a half hour of climbing up and jumping down from the rocky forms, I was starting to feel chilled.

It was here at Godafoss, the famous waterfalls of the northeast, where I first started to understand the Icelandic people. Legend has it that an early settler threw his heather idols into the current of “God’s water” to pledge his conversion to Christianity.

I was surprised to realize that many Icelanders, as well as Norwegians, still believe in magic, trolls and the supernatural. Iceland: Land of the Sagas, a noted tourist book, states that as recently as 1975 a survey by the University of Iceland found that sixty-four per cent of all Icelanders reported some experience of the supernatural. Fifty-five per cent found plausible the existence of elves. One guide book talks about a farm with many nice waterfalls that were formerly the house of trolls.

Walt Disney has managed to eviscerate the dark power of the Norse and Germanic netherworld by turning trolls and elves into amusing, kindly souls, cousins to Mickey Mouse. We even have Casper, the friendly ghost. In this land of steam, volcanoes, mist, and all-day darkness in the winter, it is perhaps not surprising that another world, a mysterious place still exists.