Walking Through Fire

(Drawing by Fifa Finnsdottir, from “The Trolls in the Knolls”, a collection of Icelandic folklore).

On October 27th 1955, the Icelandic author Halldor Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Laxness’ work helped to draw the world’s attention to this most mysterious and nebulous country. Iceland was founded in the ninth century by Viking chieftains from Norway and Denmark, who then took slaves from Ireland to build a civilisation. Most Icelandic people are the descendants of Irish slaves, and the Icelandic language is closer to ancient Gaelic than either Norwegian or Danish.

Laxness was acutely aware of Iceland`s long struggle for self determination and was a committed Icelandic nationalist. Until 1944 it remained under Danish control, in spite of its unique culture and language. However the path for nationhood was protracted and painful. Iceland was in an uneasy alliance with Denmark throughout the twentieth century, particularly during the Second World War and in its aftermath.

Iceland, like Denmark, was neutral at the outbreak of war. Germany invaded Denmark on the 9th April 1940, and the Danish powers declared that Iceland would control its own defence and foreign policies. However just a month later British forces launched an invasion on Icelandic soil, fearing that the Germans would make an incursion on the island. The Icelandic authorities were incensed at this violation of its neutrality. A year later American forces took over the defence of the island and did not leave until 1946. Three years later Iceland joined NATO but this was not popular with the civilian population and riots broke out.

This fractious period of political and social instability is the backdrop of Laxness` most famous work, “The Atom Station”. The narrator is Ugla, a young woman from the countryside sent to work for a prominent Icelandic politician in the capital city Reykjavik. She is at turns sardonic but at other times also acutely vulnerable. Her naivety is cruelly exploited both by the elite authorities and the left wing activists who populate the city`s cafes and bars at night.

Ugla is an unashamed romantic who clings to the mythology of Iceland’s ancient past. Her love of tradition clashes with the harsh realities of modernity, including the aforementioned “Atom Station”, an American funded defence post and also a glaring symbol of militarism, colonisation and globalisation. Ugla falls in love and becomes pregnant, but this does not spell disaster for her, it allows her to find hope and renewal, and a return to the land of her ancestors.

Laxness is a pertinent writer to return to at this present time, a time when progressivism is being challenged in the most horrific and vivid ways. More people are questioning whether modernisation, westernisation and globalisation are positive forces for good. Traditionalism, conservatism and nationalism are now being mooted as alternatives, despite their historically negative connotations. There is virtue in the past which remains unacknowledged.

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