Refurnished Thoughts

Discover Vintage America - SEPTEMBER 2018

Very long ago and far away

Much in need of a summer getaway, my wife and I visited Iceland last month. Besides the welcome relief from the Midwest's sweltering August, the trip proved fascinating for learning the history and tenacity of Icelandic people, who have inhabited this island since approximately 846 A.D. Now there's some history.

The statue of Leif Eiriksson in downtown Reykjavik, a gift from the American people to the Icelandic people in 1930.
(photo by Leigh Elmore)

Iceland straddles the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, which pull apart by a couple of centimeters a year, lava bubbles up between them creating a strange landscape of steaming geysers and active volcanoes that are capped by enormous glaciers. The melting ice creates dozens and dozens of picturesque waterfalls around the island nation. It is some of the newest land on earth, geologically speaking of course.

For most of history Iceland was uninhabited by humans until it was settled by Viking farmers from Norway in the ninth century with some Celtic influence as well. And they farmed quietly, not affecting the course of history for another 1,000 years.

Much of Iceland's early history was passed down orally over the centuries, and then finally recorded for the first time in the "sagas" – a series of tales that mixed historical fact and fanciful legend. They are loaded with stories ingrained in the Icelandic national identity. The earliest sagas, finally written down between the 12th and 14th centuries, are some of Iceland's most treasured relics, as beloved as our own Decla-ration of Independence and Constitution.

Its first organized government convened annually beginning in 930 A.D. for a reading of the laws at an outdoor site called Thingvellir, which is now a national park of great beauty.

The Settlement Museum in downtown Reykjavik provides a good overview of Iceland's early history as well as displaying the foundation of a Viking long house that dates from the 800s. Iceland is important to the story of America, because Icelander Erik the Red sailed west and discovered Greenland. Later, his son, Leif Eiricksson sailed father west and is credited with discovering Newfoundland, or Vinland, around the year 1,000 A.D.

With no standing army or navy, Iceland was always at the mercy of its Scandinavian forebears, and for much of the modern age was a province of either Norway or finally Denmark. The British occupied Iceland in World War II to prevent Nazi incursions. Iceland declared Independence in 1944. In the postwar world, the presence of a U.S. Naval base and NATO membership helped to fuel a love of American culture.

In recent years tourism has eclipsed fishing as the leading revenue producer and during the summer Reykjavik and the surrounding countryside are crawling with tourists from around the world. And no wonder, the country seems like a giant national park, akin to our Yellowstone, with magnificent sights of ice and fire.

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at
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