Review of “How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island” by Egill Bjarnason

This is a delightfully quirky book about an island in the North Atlantic, its history, and its rather idiosyncratic people, written by an Icelandic native whose national pride oozes off every page. Although the subtitle promises a “Big History,” the writer manages to tell the whole story in 257 pages, and one gets the impression that he hasn’t omitted much.

Iceland is remote and forbidding. It was not settled until the ninth century CE. From there, some of its intrepid explorers went on to settle Greenland, a bigger island with an even smaller population. Some of them even seem to have landed on the coast of North America, which they called Vineland, but no permanent settlements survived.

With a population of fewer than 400,000, Iceland is small for a country by any standard. It is so small that it had no word for “nepotism” until 1995 since everyone was pretty much related to everyone else! Nonetheless, on a few occasions, it has been the center of significant events on the world stage. For example, readers may recall that when one of Iceland’s many volcanoes erupted in 2010, it shut down air traffic all over Europe and stranded 5 million passengers for several days.

But in 1783, the eruption of the Lakagigar volcano in southern Iceland was even more momentous. The eight-month event that began on June 8 spewed sulfurous fog and lava, causing Europe to have its coldest year in history. An estimated 120,000,000 long tons of sulphur dioxide was emitted, about three times the total annual European industrial output in 2006. This outpouring caused a thick haze to spread across western Europe, resulting in many thousands of deaths throughout the remainder of 1783 and the winter of 1784. Crops were destroyed and livestock starved. Volcanic ash carried away by the wind also poisoned the sea.

In the years after the eruption the climate in Europe continued to deteriorate. As Forbes Magazine reported:

“The eruption is now thought to have disrupted the Asian monsoon cycle, prompting famine in Egypt. Environmental historians have also pointed to the disruption caused to the economies of northern Europe, where food poverty was a major factor in the build-up to the French revolution of 1789.”

[In this case Iceland did indeed change the world.]

Iceland is a volcanic hot spot on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge – the dividing line between the Eurasian and North American continental plates. Via BBC

During World War II, Iceland’s location made it a strategic target for both Germany and England. Iceland had no armed forces of any kind, and so it was ripe for the plucking by any armed power. Lucky for Iceland (compared to the alternative), the British got there first. In 1940, a British flotilla of four war ships sailed into the harbor of Reykjavik, and without firing a shot, conquered the country. The whole affair was very polite, and most Icelanders didn’t seem to object. But the British were in the midst of a serious war with Germany and didn’t want to use a lot of troops guarding Iceland, so they asked the Icelanders if they would accept American protection. The Americans, who were not yet at war but who clearly favored the British, willingly sent an occupation force, which built a huge air field and stayed for fifty years. Icelandic men were none too happy with the Americans, but Icelandic women generally enjoyed the influx of young men with plenty (by Icelandic standards) of money to spend.

Iceland became the locus of two additional momentous (sort of) events in the late twentieth century. First, in order of importance, Reagan met Gorbachev there for an ostensibly low-key meeting that blossomed into a genuine thaw in the cold war. Second, an earlier meeting between a Soviet and an American, although less important in most respects, gathered enormous press coverage and put Iceland on the international map—Bobby Fisher played Boris Spassky for the world’s chess championship!

Iceland has been ahead of the rest of the world in granting women political rights. Iceland had the first popularly elected female head of state.

The Icelandic language is important because some of its earliest writings are our only source of the tales of the discovery of Greenland and the first European discovery of America. While important, it seems, alas, utterly unpronounceable by English speakers. I had the pleasure of listening to this book, read by Einar Gunn. His English was clear, but when he pronounced the names of Icelandic people or places, I was betting the sounds were not reproducible by anyone but an Icelander. When speaking their own language, Icelanders do a lot of “schlurshing,” that is, the sounds of the letters ’s’ and ‘h’ seem to predominate. In fact, Iceland’s parliament seriously considered eliminating the letter ‘z’ from its alphabet because Icelanders couldn’t tell the difference in the sounds of a ‘z’ and an ’s’.

Evaluation: Bjarnason’s writing is spritely, clever, and wry. But even though he often seems self deprecating (or Icelandic deprecating), he clearly loves his country and is proud of its past and its people. I recommend this short but diverting history.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Penguin Books, 2021


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