In honour of the first appearance of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms, Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough explores the past, present and future of Icelandic culture, in a BBC Radio 3 discussion with novelist Joanna Kavenna and poet Ian McMillan.
the rocky cliffs crack open, and the troll women are abroad
They identify why the north has been such a lure for poets and writers, starting with the Old Norse sagas. Iceland’s sparse, glacial geology has given people a different relationship to the land, a sense of living as humans on the edge. Amid a landscape that seems invested with dangerous personality, in Old Norse literature the supernatural is blended into the everyday, as can be heard in some of the texts from which Eleanor reads.
Ironically, the new spoken medium of the radio put paid to the tradition of reading sagas round the family fire. However, Icelandic literature lives on in writers such as the Nobel-prize-winner, Halldór Laxness. His novels chart the growth of capitalism and relative urbanisation of Iceland, and express a yearning for the older, mysterious sense of the land.