Tourists today visit Iceland to confront its awesome geology, or to visit sites associated with its Viking past, but in the nineteenth century, British explorers who encountered this strange land did not always understand what they were seeing: sailors mistook puffins for flying rabbits, and geographers reported icebergs that could spontaneously combust into flame. Iceland was a world of magic and mystery. As Thomas Spray explains, it was only towards the end of the century that people began to take a proper look at Icelandic culture, especially its ancient literary myths and traditions, and to see the land of fire and ice in a new light. [MP3 version]
In 1856 Lord Dufferin set out to Iceland in an attempt to find the elusive “True North.” His self-chosen expedition title: Navigator, Artist, and ‘Sagaman’. In the mid-1800s such ventures were not unheard of. Many seafarers were drawn to Iceland by scientific interests: clearly shown by the title of Charles Forbes’ 1860 account of ‘Volcanoes, Geysers, and Glaciers.’ Yet Dufferin’s approach was indicative of an increasing interest in Iceland as a destination for literary enthusiasts seeking Viking roots. In a supreme act of historic irony, nineteenth-century Iceland was raided (even pillaged) by Victorian gentlemen.
This engagement was undoubtedly linked with the translation of saga literature. Walter Scott’s ‘Eyrbyggja saga’ extracts and George Dasent’s Njáls saga translation encouraged waves of literary pilgrims, artists, and writers to pick up their pens and set sail for Iceland. William Morris (1871; 1873), Sabine Baring-Gould (1862), Richard Burton (1872), and W. G. Collingwood (1897) were just a handful of well-known names. Back in Britain, general interest in northern antiquity supported and inspired research into the leading theories of Romantic Nationalism and comparative philology. The top scholars of the day suggested that the Scandinavians had given the British Empire many of its finest inherited qualities, paving the path for imperial greatness. Iceland was ancestral ground, an important study in the construction of racial identity.
This talk demonstrates how the early saga tourists of Iceland laid the way for a host of book-bearing travellers, exploring the figure of the travelling English ‘Sagaman’. It considers how Anglo-Scandinavian tourism was bolstered by interest in the Icelandic Sagas and look forward to the cultural tourism of today, where Iceland is home to not only the northern realms of George R. R. Martin’s books, but also to a film cast as diverse as Thor, Beowulf, Batman, and Alien.
This lecture formed part of our Late Summer Lecture series, featuring the best postgraduate research into narrative and literature. The series continues until 7th October.