Be sure to check out our amazing Magnum Photos galleryon volcanoes.
Flying to Iceland in the early 1970s, during the “Cod War” that the tenacious islanders were then waging against encroaching British trawler fleets, I looked out of the cabin window to see the Westman Islands ablaze and pouring a great plume into the sky. Iceland was the only country in modern Europe to have added to its territory volcanically—not many years earlier, a whole new island had risen out of the sea and been baptized Surtsey by those whose frozen archipelago it had enlarged. On another occasion, an eruption poured so much lava into the sea that it threatened to close the mouth of one of the country’s few natural harbors; the local folk played icy water onto the advancing stream night and day to thwart its conquest. This is the land of the Sagas, where you learn what all Icelanders know as a birthright and we are just rediscovering. Nature is boss, and she is pitiless.
“Europe is absent,” wrote W.H. Auden in Letters From Iceland in 1937. “This is an island and therefore/ Unreal.” He may have been thinking of Prospero’s isle—one of his other favorites—but, in fact, Iceland has an extremely real and rugged way of imposing itself on Europe. A gritty way at that. The explosion of the Laki volcano in 1783—which killed almost one-quarter of the local Icelandic population—led to a dust cloud smothering much of Europe that is thought by some historians to have precipitated the drastic crop failure that led to the French Revolution of 1789. That was, at least, an advance for modernism. The last time the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, in the early 19th century, it polluted the Atlantic air for almost two years. If that happened again, or is happening again, we would be back to ships and maybe airships, and talking like the seafarers of old about the importance of prevailing winds.
The now-famous name of the plume-source is made up of three Icelandic words: Eyja for island, Fjalla for mountain, and Jökull for glacier. Easy, like the rather basic name of the country itself. In Iceland, the telephone book is alphabetical by first name, because whether you are male or female, you take your second name from your father’s first one. So, if he’s called Halgrim, you are either called Halgrimson or Halgrimsdottir. (There are occasional exceptions.) Again, simplicity. Iceland is probably the world’s most classless society, certainly the world’s most Protestant one, and also the world’s most ethnically pure. Genealogists rush to Reykjavik these days, because the family “markers” are easily traceable for hundreds of years back.
Until very recently, you had your elemental choice between lamb and cod if you were an Icelander—the near-tundra of the interior (where the Apollo mission trained in the world’s closest approximation to a moonscape) has a few swaths of grass for hardy sheep. The same simplicity on the seashore: “Fish or Die” was the motto until the big shoals began to run out. Such was Iceland’s work ethic that on contact with the European Union, it soon became a dynamo of startups and finance, winning international plaudits until the implosion of its banking system very nearly ripped through the euro two years ago and forced Britain to seize Icelandic assets using anti-terrorist legislation. If Iceland were a mouse, it could be said to have roared, and more than once.
But being on the edge is what defines the country. My father took part in the illegal British military occupation of the country in 1940—a pre-emptive invasion to safeguard that jagged edge that formed the northern tier of the North Atlantic sea lanes. Until quite recently, Iceland’s main international airport at Keflavik was also a NATO base, part of the Norse ring of installations that watched for a Soviet attack over the Arctic Circle or the Pole for the duration of the Cold War, which, ironically, began to thaw when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik. The people of Iceland have always dwelled on the edge of starvation and calamity and servitude, keeping their ancient language alive under Danish and Norwegian colonization, and sometimes having to contemplate the actual abandonment of the island, as in the period of the last great climate change, when a combination of fire and ice seemed to conspire against continued human settlement at Europe’s ignored northern fringe.
Icelanders have a claim to have established the world’s longest-lived parliament, still known as the Althing and now decorously housed at the center of the capital. Today, much of the island’s hot water comes through taps that still betray a whiff of the sulfur of the boiling springs below, and the ingenious islanders have even learned to make wine by growing grapes in hothouses built over the fissures that are forced ever-upward by the incandescent magma that bubbles under the frigid crust. Still, there was a long-ago and less comfortable time when foreign occupation meant convening the parliament in a natural ring of rocks adjacent to a freezing lake in the interior. I drove out there with one of the country’s veteran leftist politicians, Jonas Arnason, during the last confrontation between the Icelandic and British navies; the only time, except for the Cyprus crisis with Greece and Turkey, that NATO forces have ever made war on one another. He seemed to prefer the original bleakness, with its arduous, hostile environment, to the comfortable simulacrum in the capital city on the inhabitable edge of the country. They say that if you take Icelanders away from their ancestral terrain, they are liable to pine and even to die from homesickness. Perhaps that’s why one meets so few of them.
Later, as day shaded into morning with hardly an interval of night, I saw the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis. It’s easy to understand the part that these giant shades play in Norse mythology—they resemble huge shimmering curtains waiting to part on a vast and icy stage. We might soon be closer to the Icelandic edge than we could have guessed and see the curtain fall on the ease, comfort, and predictability of our own traverses of the North Atlantic.