Dawn at the Edge of the World
It has just gone 11am and I am standing in the pre-dawn light at a fault-line between worlds. Here, on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge the continental plates of North America and Eurasia pull apart at the rate of an inch a year, creating, over millions of years, the two-mile wide valley before me – cutting epically across my field of vision and coalescing, in the uncertain distance, into the penumbra where land and sky, night and day, meet.
It feels like the first day of Creation as I stand in this cradle of a nation. It is a freezing morning in Thingvellir (‘Þingvellir’ in Icelandic, the first letter makes the ‘th’ sound and resembles Thor’s hammer – the Norse god of thunder, and Iceland’s presiding spirit: in the Elder Futhark it is the rune, ‘Thurisaz’). We have just stepped off the coach after a two-hour drive from Reykjavík, regaled by our gravel-voice guide, Svanur, about the twelve-hundred-year history of his young country as the craggy landscape emerged out of shadows like Midgard appearing out of the mists.
This congruence of speech and landscape echoes how the gargantuan primal bovine, Ymir, licked the materia prima into being from the frozen block of cosmic void, if we are to believe that consummate skald, Snorri Sturloson, author of the 13th Century Prose Edda. From its vast body the world itself was made: “Out of Ymir’s flesh was fashioned the earth,/And the mountains were made of his bones;/The sky from the frost cold giant’s skull,/And the ocean out of his blood.” Svanur’s rumbling, growling, R-rolling voice seems to mirror the harsh, jagged landscape itself.
We had set off in darkness, still disorientated from yesterday’s late December arrival and half-asleep. In this pre-coffee fugue state, listening to the disembodied voice above the glottal stops of the diesel engine, it is as though our guide conjures his country into being by words alone – a modern day Snorri, a skald with a microphone and some good one-liners. His witty anecdotes embellish and personalise his impressive story of a thousand years, a millennium-long monologue told over the course of the day as we visit bucket-list attractions on the classic ‘Golden Circle’ tour from the capitol.
A predictable, touristic thing to do, but that is exactly what I am at this moment – on my first full day in Iceland, a place I have been meaning to visit for years, finally taking up the open invite of my Icelandic buddy, who happens to be our world-class tour-guide (he can cite a smattering of Booker Prize winners, World Cup winning footballers, platinum-selling musicians, and A-list actors and directors among his customers).
And now here I am – one foot in North America, one foot in Eurasia, between night and day, the end of one year and the birth of the next.
It has felt my whole life has led me to this place.
And it feels great to have arrived.
I walk past the tourists taking and another group listening intently to a German tour-guide expounding seriously on geology and make my way along the boardwalk to the entry point into the gorge – a steep gravel path with a handrail (useful in icy conditions). I descend into the gorge, a place that feels strangely familiar having researched it for a novel and studied classic images of it.
To be walking here really feels like walking into history.
Iceland may not have the exquisite ancient architecture of Europe, but as their own ‘Houses of Parliament’ (Thingvellir literally means ‘assembly field’) this takes some beating. It feels like something from The Lord of the Rings – perhaps not surprisingly. Tolkien, it turns out, had an Icelandic au pair, Arndis/Adda, from whom he studied correct Icelandic pronunciation and heard some of the classic tales. And of course it is a very storied landscape – the patina of narrative is thick in Iceland, and every nook, cranny, crevice, and crag seems to have a tale attached to it, or is evidence of troll-petrification: trolls being large, dumb creatures who are easily tricked into talking until dawn, when they are turned to stone (a trope Tolkien nicked for his tale of artful thievery, The Hobbit).
I certainly felt like I was going to turn to stone unless I kept moving.
At the bottom of the gorge, I stop and try to visualise it being full of Viking settlers, gathered from across the virgin land to hear the lawspeaker declaim the legislation from the Law Rock. The steep walls of the gorge – formed when a section of the continental plate sheared off, rather like the skin cracking on my frozen knuckles – creates a perfect acoustic. I would have been tempted to let out a ‘barbaric yawp’ if my teeth hadn’t been chattering so much. Instead, I content myself with climbing up the wooden staircase to the ridge opposite and striking a suitable ‘hero pose’ on an outcrop of rock. This was Casper David Friedrich territory – bleakly beautiful, it offered a taste of the Romantic Sublime – a sense of awe and existential terror in the face of primal nature, raw and savage, red in tooth and claw, as opposed to the Enlightenment aesthetic of orderly landscape promoted by Capability Brown and Joshua Reynolds. The Sublime was an ideal first expounded upon in the 1st century AD by an anonymous author writing in the style of Longinus, a famous rhetor or speechmaker, hence his epithet, Pseudo-Longinus. In his treatise, Peri Hypsous (On the Sublime), he suggests: ‘For by some innate power the true sublime uplifts our souls; we are filled with a proud exaltation and a sense of vaunting joy; just as though we had ourselves produced what we had heard.’ This quality of striving for elevation is hardwired into the Latin roots of the word: sub, meaning below or up to, and the noun limen, meaning limit, boundary, or threshold (and also ‘lintel’), thus suggesting support and a ‘lifting up’. This concept was taken up and expanded upon by Edmund Burke in his influential essay, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757. Burke identifies seven criteria: darkness; obscurity; privation (or deprivation); vastness; magnificence; loudness; and suddenness. Certainly, the first five were very tangible on that freezing New Year’s Eve dawn at Thingvellir – which had required considerable effort and expense to reach (amid Covid-19 and Omicron restrictions and concerns).
Burke’s refinement of the Sublime was epitomised in the works of John Martin. Martin’s painting, ‘The Plains of Heaven’ (1851-53) could have almost been of Thingvellir (perhaps on a sunny day in midsummer). It depicts a vast mountainous landscape dominated by a lake in the middle-distance, and the snowy peaks in the distance against the ozone-blue sky. In the foreground a group of angelic beings cascade over a cliff edge, rhyming with the waterfalls. This movement is echoed in the video by the Icelandic group, Sigur Ros, Glósóli (2009), in which a drummer boy leads a colourful group of waifs and strays towards, and over, a precipice.
I felt drawn by the eerie, fey music of Iceland to travel to such extreme places. Fortunately, I wasn’t quite compelled to fling myself over the edge, a psychological phenomenon known rather alluringly as the ‘call of the void’, or l’appel du vide, in French – or more prosaically, ‘high place phenomenon’ (HPP), but I certainly felt a strong urge to plunge deeper into the epic landscape and legendarium. However, for now, this is over-ridden by a stronger urge to get a coffee and a muffin from the gift shop.
While I chat to Svanur, we gaze out over the seven-kilometre-wide graben that lies between the Almannagjá and Heiðargjá faults. It’s covered with 10,000-year-old lava that originated in a crater south of mount Hrafnabjörg. In 930, the site was chosen by Grímur Geitskór (‘Goatshoe’, or ‘Goatbeard’ – the Viking settlers loved giving each other memorable epithets) for the Althing, the general assembly of the fledgling nation – at that point only around sixty years old (the precise ‘year zero’ is a debatable point, as before Ingólfr Arnarson founded the first permanent settlement on Iceland in 870 CE after reaching the unwelcoming coast on his longship and throwing two carved pillars overboard and vowing to follow them to the ‘smoky cove’ of Reykjavík, earlier settlers reached the shores – a recent discovery of longhouses at Stöð, near the village and fjord of Stöðvarfjörður in the east of Iceland, has pushed the date before A.D. 874 — the commonly accepted date for Iceland’s settlement by people, who, according to Icelandic lore, were escaping the Norwegian king Harald Fairhair. And before this there is tantalising evidence of Irish monks, which I’ll return to. The Althing – still running today, but at its present site, in a modest stone house in downtown Reykjavík – became the longest continuously running parliament in Europe. The original site seems to have been selected for sheer jaw-dropping affect – it is the ultimately background, like some scene from Ragnarok, and the gorge does have good acoustics, enabling the lawspeakers to declaim their laws from Law Rock – but apparently the fact that the land had suddenly become available due to its owner breaking a serious law and forfeiting it was the clincher. I had previously been to Tynwald Hill in the Isle of Man, where every year, on Tynwald Day, 5th July, the laws of the land are proclaimed in Manx and English, but despite the authentic Norse influence on that singular, small island in the Irish Sea, it feels Telly Tubby-ish compared to the savage grandeur of Thingvellir. Here it was not just the laws of the land that were being set down, but the land itself was still being forged. Here, the very mantle of the Earth turned inside out.
The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is part of the longest mountain range on Earth, extending from the Arctic to the tip of South Africa for 10,000 miles – equidistant between the continents, its mountains extend up to a 1000 miles in either direction, and some breach the surface of the Atlantic Ocean to form island chains, such as the Azores, Ascension, and St. Helena (and of course Iceland itself). In its deepest parts volcanic activity and earthquakes boil and shudder the ocean – but in this most hostile of environments, life has been found amid the black fumers, called extremophiles, who, far from the life-giving sun, survive by drawing nutrients from the rich chemical composition of the water and rock. Scientists believe they give us a glimpse of a form of extra-terrestrial life we could find in the subterranean oceans beneath the frozen surface of Jupiter’s moons, such as Io and Europa (which the NASA JUNO Project has been mapping. Plans are afoot to actually conduct a survey: a submersible has been designed to explore these distant otherworldly oceans).
Back on Earth, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and analogous zones such as the Rift Valley in Africa have proven to be the cradle of life. Discussing the American Frontier, the Beat poet Gary Snyder in The Practice of the Wild praises the value of the liminal: “A frontier is a burning edge, a frazzle, a strange market zone between two utterly different worlds.” Such thresholds are fertile hot spots of immanence and creation.
So, it is perhaps not surprising that at many of Iceland’s most spectacular sites, legends and lore abound about the Huldufólk: bright beings from below the earth, who emerge unexpectedly, and are often described in terms of light (indeed, another term for them is the ‘alfar’, or lios alfar – light elves). It is tempting to induce from Iceland’s astounding volcanic heritage that this the source of the belief in the Hidden People – that they are personifications of what must have seemed mysterious, magical, and terrifying to the settlers (and still does to visitors), but I sense that is being too reductive, that there is something more subtle and complex at work here in the matrix of belief evident.
For a start, the Norse settlers would have believed in the existence of not just one or two worlds – the mundane world, and an otherworld, a habitus of ancestors and supernatural beings – but nine. Suspended on the World Tree, Yggdrasil, are Ásgard (the realm of the Áesir, the Norse Gods); Midgard (Earth, realm of humans); Hel (ruled over by the fearsome daughter of Loki); Alfheim (realm of the Alfar, the elves); Muspelheim (realm of fire); Jotunheim (realm of giants); Niflheim (realm of ice and mist); Nidavellir/Svartalfheim (realm of the dwarves); and Vanaheim (a hidden realm of magic). Of this remarkable collection of worlds, Alfheim and Muspelheim seem most apposite, although Iceland often resembles Niflheim in the dead of winter. Muspelheim and Niflheim hang directly opposite one another on the World Tree, and their collision brought about the creation of the nine worlds. However, in Ragnarok, the fire giant Surtur rises out of Muspelheim to destroy the many worlds – which seems like a metaphor for global warming until you realise Iceland has been experiencing cycles of this for millions of years: it is a land continually being destroyed and remade.
In 2010 the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, grounding 100,000 flights in the largest commercial air-traffic shutdown since World War Two. Vast amounts of toxic material were thrown up into the jet-stream, where it caused a major hazard to aircraft. When ash is sucked into a jet engine, it is heated to such a high temperature it turns into molten glass. When it reaches the back of the engine, it cools, solidifies on the turbine blades, jamming the engine and causing the plane to plunge out of the sky. So, understandably, after an initial scare on one particular flight, Europe became a no-fly zone for jet aircraft. And that is why I found myself stuck in Northern Italy after a job teaching storytelling to Italian English-language students. European travel infrastructure went into complete meltdown, travel sites crashed, and it became impossible to book anything except by going in person. My hostess managed to purchase me a train ticket to Paris, and my friend in Paris, a ticket to Calais, but then I had to just take my chances. Faced with the sobering reality of such a situation I realised how entangled and vulnerable the modern world is: an Icelandic volcano coughs, and Western Europe catches a cold.
We are always at the mercy of forces greater than we can control, and even comprehend – in this respect we are no different to the earliest humans who gathered around fires to tell stories to explain the strange and terrifying world around them. We have always narrativized the unknown – what lies outside the circle of the fire and the light of knowledge, be it a violent thunderstorm, an earthquake or avalanche, tsunami, plague, or famine. We gave chaos a face and a voice – turned it into an angry god or demon. The Icelanders, inheritors, and preservers of Norse mythology, have a large and colourful rogues’ gallery in their pantheon. One of them, Surtur, is the god of fire – the ur-Balrog – and he seems to be still very much active today, causing disruption, devastation, and, occasionally, unexpected acts of creation.
At 07:15 a.m. on 14th November 1963, the cook of Ísleifur II, a trawler sailing south of Iceland near the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago (the Westman Isles), spotted a rising column of dark smoke southwest of the boat. The captain thought it might have been a boat on fire and ordered his crew to investigate. Instead, they encountered explosive eruptions giving off black columns of ash, indicating that a volcanic eruption had begun to breach the surface of the sea. By 11:00 a.m. the same day, the eruption column had reached several kilometres in height. The crew were the first to witness the birth of the new island that was called Surtsey Island, Surtr’s island. The eruptions had been happening below the surface for some time, as local seismic monitoring observed (another fishing vessel recorded strangely warm seas just before the eruption), and that fateful day was merely the first breach of this subaquatic leviathan. The eruption continued until 5th June 1967, by which point the embryonic island measured a modest one square mile. Nevertheless, this provided a priceless gift to scientists – a living observatory in which they could monitor the development of life on land, as though they were glimpsed the earliest days of life on Earth. Surtsey was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, and access has been exclusively reserved for scientists observing strict protocols, to avoid any damage to this pristine environment.
A decade after Surtsey’s arrival an unexpected eruption on the Westman Islands forced an emergency evacuation of the inhabitants. Miraculously, no one was killed, and the valuable fishing port was saved by the quick thinking of the residents and rescuers, who hosed down the snout of magma, forcing it to divert away from the settlement and thereby preventing it from destroying the fisheries and blocking the harbour. It is hard not to see in the many petrification tales of slow, stupid trolls – gigantic, ugly giants who haunt the high places – who are tricked into talking until sunrise and are thereby turned to stone, a metaphor for the reality of living in a volcanically active country. Yet the witnessing of these astonishing eruptions – which draw the curious perilously close the spouting lava cone, as in the 2021 eruption of Fagradalsfjal. No volcanic eruption had occurred for 815 years on the Reykjanes Peninsula until 19th March of that year, when a fissure vent appeared in Geldingadalir to the south of Fagradalsfjall mountain – and the life that slowly but inevitably establishes itself on the initially unpromising lava fields is perhaps subconscious fuel for the imagination. Until we understood vulcanology, such events must have created deep awe, fear, and terror – and a turning to religious and spiritual beliefs for explanation.
Icelanders really are in the hands of the gods of ice and fire and rock, and the fact of their survival and latter-day thriving is a testimony to their remarkable resilience and ingenuity.
The last time Katla erupted was in 1918. It threw up five times as much ash as Eyjafjallajökull and extended Iceland’s south-coast by three miles. The glacial melt released was similar in volume to the Amazon River. There was major destruction, although amazingly no one was killed that time. Unlike when Laki went up in 1783. That explosion killed a fifth of Iceland’s population and created an ash cloud that covered the northern hemisphere for months, reducing temperatures to three degrees. Winds brought tonnes of lethal sulphur dioxide and sulphuric acid to Britain, where an estimated 23,000 people died from poisoning and extreme cold. The poisonous ash created a fog that closed ports. The sun turned the colour of blood. Crops and farmworkers died in the fields. Some believe it triggered the French revolution.
Nowadays, modern-day Icelanders seem to accept the volatility of their homeland with a mixture of stoicism, good humour, and practicality. On my visit I watched the daily ‘volcano forecast’ on the English-speaking news service, The Grapevine, in which the reporter laconically presented from the most recent intense tremor zone with his pet sheepdog.
Such natural heritage generates tourist revenue and cultural capital. You can descend a lava chamber like the Professor Otto Lidenbrock in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864). Lidenbrock decodes a mysterious codex in a recently purchased runic manuscript, which reads: “Go down into the crater of Snaefells Jökull, which Scartaris’s shadow caresses just before the calends of July, O daring traveller, and you’ll make it to the centre of the earth. I’ve done so. Arne Saknussemm.” Seeing this as evidence of the Hollow Earth hypothesis, which was popular in Victorian times, the German professor decides to embark upon an expedition to Iceland, believing there are volcanic tubes that reach to the very centre of the earth. He, his nephew Axel, and their Icelandic guide Hans Bjelke rappel into Iceland’s celebrated inactive volcano Snæfellsjökull, then contend with many dangers, including cave-ins, subpolar tornadoes, an underground ocean, and living prehistoric creatures from the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras.
Since then, many film-makers and tourists have sought to emulate the experience of the fictional explorers.
The closest I came to it was standing on the extensive lava field in the south of Iceland on a bitingly cold day – a strong Arctic wind threatening to burn my face off while I struggled to take a panoramic shot before scuttling back to the minibus. I had seen such sights of various documentaries and in films, but it was another thing entirely to stand there and behold it for yourself.
My first whiff of Iceland was of bad eggs, or rather the sulphurous geothermal springs which are scattered throughout the country like dragon-nesting sites. Leaving Keflavík airport our friend and guide, Svanur, pointed out a gigantic egg sculpture, The Jet Nest, by Magnús Tómasson. His country is very adept at hatching the Krona-bird these days. The first place he took us to was a hot spring, Gunnuhver, associated with a giant witch named Gunna, who was tricked into the spring and boiled to death: Welcome to Iceland!
It was a grey, chilly day and nearly dusk – we parked up and walked to the icy platform overlooking the steaming vent. Uniquely, the geothermally heated water here is seawater. The boiling mud does serve well as a kind of witch’s jacuzzi – reaching up to three hundred degrees Celsius, it is not something to take a dip in. The landscape looked like a hastily improvised art installation – wire and timber amid the discoloured rocks evidence of a bit of the platform recently devoured by the hungry geyser. In the distance a dark lighthouse (Reykjanes) loomed above a low cone; the middle distance a drab wasteland of smouldering rubble – looking rather like Mordor. The aesthetic was not what one would call ‘picturesque’, unless you were searching for the Romantic Sublime, of course.
And back at Thingvellir on that freezing morning at the dawn of the year, as I gaze across the epic, dramatic landscape of a world being freshly-forged out of the smithy of the Earth, it felt like I had found it.
Kevan Manwaring is Psychogeography Editor at Panorama.