Grimur should have known better than to cheat seven year old Egill during a competition at the Icelandic winter games. Egill got mad, went home, picked up an axe and split Grimur’s skull in half. Egill’s mom was delighted: what a fine Viking my son will make – when he grows up, he’ll sail from port to port and “kill a man and another”.
The year was 917 AD, not long after the Vikings arrived in Iceland from Norway. Egill did make his mother proud. He became a fierce Viking warrior who managed to kill a few more enemies during his lifetime, farmed the land on this cold rock in the North Atlantic and – wrote poetry. Doesn’t every good Viking have a soft spot in his heart for the art of creative writing? Somehow Egill, who also became a father of 5 children, survived a lifetime of conflict, deceit, violence and intrigue before dying at the ripe age of 80.
Reykjavik, Iceland’s coastal capital, is renowned for the late-night clubs and bars in its compact center. It's home to the National and Saga museums, tracing Iceland’s Viking history. The striking concrete Hallgrimskirkja church and rotating Perlan glass dome offer sweeping views of the sea and nearby hills. Exemplifying the island’s dramatic landscape is the volcanic setting of the geothermal Blue Lagoon spa.
Nowadays, things are a bit more civilized in Iceland, but Egill’s fierce determination and bravery (minus the killings) became embedded in the consciousness of the Icelandic people. His adventurous life is immortalized in the culture of this land and his tenacity is seen as a value to be upheld by Icelandic society. Not surprisingly there are beers, TV shows, popular songs and annual tournaments named after him.
The violent and brutish life styles of those early days are long gone. In fact, the Iceland of today is one of the most progressively governed and peaceful countries in the world. America’s much heralded Second Amendment would seem absurd in a country which boasts only 0.3 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants (Canada’s homicide rate is 1.8, that of the USA is 5.0). Iceland has no army and stays neutral during international conflicts. Iceland’s advanced education system, its impressive public health care system, the country’s long standing love for the literary arts (thanks, Egill!) and its policies on gender equality are the envy of many countries, even in the developed world.
Still, Iceland is not without problems and internal conflicts. The financial crisis of 2008 has left many Icelanders struggling or in poverty. It prompted the government to look for job creation in all the wrong places. As never before, Iceland’s geothermal resources are up for sale and subject to exploitation. Many Icelanders are strongly opposed to the sale of the island’s natural resources. They rather suffer the consequences of the economic downturn than to sell their precious geothermal resources to international (Canadian!!) energy conglomerates.
The Icelandic people have a strong bond with nature. After all, frequent earth quakes and volcanic eruptions are constant reminders of Mother Earth’s power. Still, Icelanders seem to struggle with the ecological balance of their island. Only now, environmental awareness and protection are being added to the political agenda. No wonder! With a population of only 300,000 people, there is no pollution in Iceland and human impact (aside from industry) is still negligible. But from an outsiders perspective, there are many signs that Iceland’s ecological health is severely compromised. When the first settlers arrived in Iceland, 30% of the island was covered in woods. Today, only 0.8% are forests. Erosion is a very serious problem. Large parts of Iceland’s interior are covered by a desert landscape. To counter these problems, the government has introduced lupines to stabilize the soil. The lupines now spread like weeds and can be seen covering vast landscapes. Also, there is hardly any wildlife. The dominating wild animal is the arctic fox, which preys on the bird population. Mostly seabirds, which roost high on the ocean cliffs, are safe from this predator. Another concern is global warming and its effect on Iceland’s glaciers. Warmer summers and less snow in winter cause the glacier ice to melt at an alarming rate. The Myrdalsjoekull glacier in southern Iceland retreats at a rate of 35 m to 110 m per year.
Many years ago, on my way from Germany to Vancouver, our plane crossed over Iceland on a clear afternoon. The sight of volcanoes and glaciers were unforgettable to me. At last, I was able to visit Iceland. The country has a breathtakingly beautiful landscape and its people share an enviable communal spirit. In many aspects this island is unique in the world. The Icelandic language has not changed in over 1,000 years, there is no separation between church and state, only 8% of the Icelandic population are foreign born, and 53% of Icelanders believe in the existence of trolls and elves.
I wonder what Egill would think of today’s Iceland. Would he be astonished by the cars on the roads? Probably. Would he be surprised by the lack of trees on the island or bewildered by the geothermal power plants everywhere? Possibly. Most certainly, though, Egill would be shocked by the lack of killings in the villages. I can almost hear his words: "Why are they so bloody peaceful!!? Are these people really my descendents? Where did I go wrong?"
Maybe it was his poetry.