A Saga for Dinner: Landscape and Nationality in Icelandic Literature


  • Reinhard Hennig University of Bonn, Department of Nordic Studies




Iceland, landscape perception, nationalism, medieval literature, environmental literature / Islandia, percepción del paisaje, nacionalismo, literatura medieval, literatura ambiental


Iceland’s attempted industrialisation through an expansion of hydropower and aluminium smelters can lead to a significant reshaping of the country’s landscapes. There has been considerable resistance against such plans since the 1970s, culminating in the debate about the Kárahnjúkar project between 2001 and 2006. The book Draumalandið. Sjálfshjálparbók handa hræddri þjóð [Dreamland. A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation] by the writer Andri Snær Magnason has been particularly influential. It combines ecological consciousness with an appreciation of Iceland‘s literary tradition and history. Thus it displays a view of landscape which connects nature preservation closely to cultural achievements and to national sovereignty. This perception of landscape originates from the assumption that Iceland experienced a golden age from the beginning of colonisation in the Viking age until the subordination under the Norwegian and later Danish kings in the 13th century, which led to an all-embracing degeneration. Nationalist poets such as Jónas Hallgrímsson in the 19th century based their demands for independence on Iceland‘s medieval saga literature and the country‘s landscapes. These seemed to provide evidence for a high culture in unity with nature during the time of the Commonwealth. Although the historical reliability of the sagas is doubtful, they are still used as an important argument in Draumalandið. Now the narratives as such are put in the foreground, as they can give value and meaning to the landscapes and places they describe. Thus a turn from a realistic to a more constructivist perception of landscape can be observed in contemporary Icelandic environmental literature. 

El intento de Islandia por industrializarse a través de la expansión hidroeléctrica y fundiciones de aluminio puede llevar a la reestructuración significativa del paisaje nacional. Existe una resistencia considerable a estos planes desde los 70`, culminando entre el 2001 y 2006 en el debate sobre el proyecto Kárahnjúkar. El libro Draumalandið. Sjálfshjálparbók handa hræddri þjóð [País de sueños. Un manual de autoayuda para una nación temerosa] del escritor Andri Snær Magnason ha sido particularmente influyente. El libro combina conciencia ecológica con una apreciación histórica y tradicional islandesa, presentando una mirada paisajística que conecta de forma cercana la preservación de la naturaleza con logros culturales y soberanía nacional. La percepción de paisaje se origina a partir del supuesto de que Islandia experimentó una edad de oro desde el comienzo de la colonización, en la época vikinga, hasta la subordinación bajo los reinos noruegos y daneses (siglo XIII), la que llevó a una envolvente degeneración. Poetas nacionalistas como Jónas Hallgrímsson (siglo XIX), basaron sus demandas independencistas en las sagas medievales y en los paisajes del país. Esto proporcionó evidencia de una cultura unida con la naturaleza durante el “Commonwealth”. Aunque la fiabilidad histórica de las sagas es dudosa, aún son usadas como un importante argumento en Draumalandið. Actualmente las narraciones como esta pueden dar valor y sentido al paisaje y los lugares que se describen. En este contexto, en la literatura ambiental islandesa contemporánea se observa la existencia de un giro desde una percepción realista del paisaje a una más constructiva.


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Author Biography

Reinhard Hennig, University of Bonn, Department of Nordic Studies

Reinhard Hennig has studied Scandinavian studies and history at the universities of Freiburg im Breisgau, Göteborg and Bonn from 2003 to 2008.
Since 2009, he is research assistant at the Department for Nordic Studies at the university of Bonn, and lecturer at the Institute for Nordic Studies at the university of Münster.
Currently he is working on a phd-thesis with the working title "Nature, Culture, and Activism: an Analysis of Environmentalist Literature from Norway and Iceland".





Literary Landscapes and the National Imaginary