A country that is endowed with phenomenal beauties and landscapes, Iceland can be best understood through its literary traditions. Iceland is probably the earth’s most literate country with a near-universal literacy rate. The reading tradition goes back to the 13th century when Viking sagas and folklore started to instill in people’s popular imagination. Since then this literary custom of writing and reading has only grown stronger. Almost 10 out of every 100 Icelanders publish at least one book in their lifetime. You read it right! Icelanders love writing.
Icelandic writers provide a peek into the country’s culture, their legends, sagas, obsession with crime fiction, and their belief in tells which we sometimes might find obscure. The chilly dark winters have been imprinted in every literary work. It’s no surprise why Icelandic authors keep finding a place in The New York Times Bestsellers list.
We have compiled a list of major works of prominent authors along with travel guides to help you learn about the culture, geography, history of this great island that will inspire you to visit, the moment you put down any of these books. To make it easy, we have divided the books into four categories so you can directly pick your selection if you are not up for a long read.
1. The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness
Dubbed as the ‘Tolstoy of the North’ and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 1955, Halldor Laxness was simply a literary genius. His vivid and prolific narration writing style has inspired generations, and even today he is considered a literary cultural icon of Iceland. Although his book Independent People is more popular and considered classic, it’s not an easy read. And for that reason, we have included a more accessible but coming of age novel, The Fish Can Sing.
The story revolves around an orphan named Alfgrimur who spent his childhood in a cottage with an old fisherman in a small village near the outskirts of the capital city, Reykyjavík. Alfgrimur had a simple wish to become a fisherman like his grandfather who adopted him. But his plan for life takes a sudden turn with the arrival of Iceland’s greatest singer, Garðar Hólm. Whether Alfgrimur remains confined to the traditional way of life or chooses to make a difference in his life, is the rest of the story. It’s a light humorous book that gives a fascinating insight into the early 20th-century life in Iceland.
2. Last Rituals: A Novel of Suspense by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Iceland, although most famous for its beautiful landscapes, is also known for Icelandic crime noirs. From Arnaldur Indriðason to Yrsa Sigurdardottir, these crime writers have provided the world with some of the best mystery, suspenseful and cold-blooded stories that have kept the midnight candle burning all night. And Yrsa Sigurdardottir is considered “the Icelandic Queen of the Nordic Noir”.
The Last Rituals is set around the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. This novel is a part of the six-volume series, but this one stands out. The body of a German student studying at a university in Reykjavik is discovered, his eyes gouged out and some ancient symbols carved into his chest (no, it’s not another Da Vinci Code). Police make an arrest, the victim’s family is not convinced. The family asks an attorney, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, to investigate. It doesn’t take long before Thora discovers the deceased student’s obsession with Iceland’s grim history of persecution, witch-hunts, and gruesome execution methods. But it’s not the past but present that haunts the capital city as she discovers more horrendous traditions, the killer’s motive is unknown. It’s a grisly chiller set in the depths of winter, a must-read for anyone interested in crime noir.
3. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Hannah Kent is an Australian author whose very first novel Burial Rites (2013) became a worldwide sensation. Based upon a true story of the life of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829. According to reports, Jennifer Lawrence is going to be in the lead role for the film-adaption currently being under production. A “Dark love letter to Iceland”, Hannah Kent once referred to her book in an interview.
Burial Rites is the story of Agnes Magnusdottir. Agnes had been charged with the murder of two men, the one being her lover, Natan Ketilsson. She is sent to an isolated farm to wait for her execution. There is a great mystery regarding what happened on the night in question, whether she committed the murder or not. While you read this gripping novel, circle around the places mentioned, you might love to visit those places in Iceland. Many travelers have followed the Burial Rites route to make their trip a thrilling trip. Some of the places are:
- Illugastadir Farm: Natan and Agnes lived together on this farm.
- Tjarnakirkja: the Church where Agnes and Fridrik are buried
- Thristapar (Three Hills): where Agnes and Fridrick were beheaded.
Myths and Legends
Traveling is more fun when you understand a country’s culture through its past, legends, and folklore stories. Perhaps, Iceland can be understood through its Sagas. From the Nordic legends (remember the mighty hammer of Thor) to Elf, Trolls, Monsters, and Vikings, these stories have been told, again and again, generation after generation. Don’t be surprised when some Icelander is told about the sight of an elf by him or his family member (80% of the population believes in an Elf). We recommend checking out these books before you land in the mythological land of Fire and Ice.
1. The Sagas of the Icelanders by Jane Smilely
The Sagas is often included in the world’s greatest literary collections. There is a reason for that. A unique body of medieval literature as epic as Homer, as vicissitude as Sophocles, as captivating as Shakespeare, it is a must-read for those interested in mythological literature. These Sagas describe the lives and beliefs of the first Norse men and women and their descendants, who made heroic journeys from the Nordic Region up to North America.
The 10 sagas and 7 shorter tales in this volume depict the stories of another world. If you are short on time, just pick Vinland Sagas (a must-read to understand stories and myths about 10th century Vikings).
2. Song of the Vikings, Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown
Tales of Norse mythology and the Viking sagas have inspired countless writers including Richard Wagner, JRR Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, and the author Nancy Brown brings the vivid descriptions of the medieval Icelandic world where it all started. However, whatever we know about Norse mythology comes down to us is through the writings of one man, Snorri Sturluson. The Song of the Vikings is his biography.
Snorri lived in the 13th-century Icelandic world. He was not a writer or statesman per se like Homer, he was one of the richest men in entire Iceland and a wily political power player. Storytelling was his time-pass, little did he know that these stories would one day become the foundation of modern mythological literature. The award-winning author Nancy M Brown brings Snorri’s story to life in an exceptional textured narrative. If you want to know how the stories of Odin, Thor, or Loki came into life, mark this book as your next read.
Delve deep into the present Icelandic culture and history through these books.
1. Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss
Names for the Sea is not a novel, it is a memoir of Sarah (and her family) when she moved to Reykjavik to teach at the University of Iceland. It’s a fascinating read as she vividly describes her struggles to fit into the Icelandic close-knit society. The book explores the issues from the financial crisis, knitting, old traditions, volcanos, and chilly winters to Icelanders believing in elves. You will learn a lot about the country and its beautiful landscapes. A recommended read for those who wanted to know about Iceland from an outsider’s view.
2. The Control of Nature by John McPhee
One of the pioneers of creative non-fiction and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, John McPhee, is considered a literary genius of America. The Control of Nature is a perfect introduction to his literary talent. The book is premised upon those places where mankind is in a constant battle against nature. It is divided into three essays: “Atchafalaya”, “Cooling the Lava”, and “Los Angeles Against the Mountains”. In this epic battle of men v/s nature, in the second essay, you will find how residents of Heimaey (Iceland) saved their only harbor along the southern coast of Iceland. The Icelanders initiated an all-out endeavor unique in human history to stop the lava flows just half a mile away from the harbor. Although, men won this battle how long nobody knows as nature is not bound by our wishes. Include this non-fiction classic about the never-say-die-spirit of Icelandic people in your reading list.
3. Ring of Seasons, Iceland, Its Culture and History by Terry G. Lacy
Why not prepare yourself with little knowledge and information before you make a trip to a foreign culture? That’s why we have included one of the relatively less popular but informative works of Terry G Lacy’s Ring of Seasons. The American writer Lacy spent 22 years in Iceland before publishing this informative book. It’s a great source to make an understanding of Iceland’s fascinating culture and its mythological history. The book provides information about Iceland’s history, culture, religion and politics, volcanos, and much more, painting a vivid picture of the way Icelanders live today. Ring of Seasons is an excellent read for anyone considering a trip to Iceland.
4. Iceland Imagined by Karen Oslund
For centuries, the countries located on the edges of Western Europe were often portrayed as remote and exotic and unwelcoming nature. However, since the mid-18th century, this remote region (Iceland, Greenland, Northern Norway, and the Faroe Islands), has gradually become part of modern Europe. A transformation that is taking place over two centuries, is perfectly captured in the work of Karen Oslund’s Iceland Imagined. Throughout the book, you will find a vivid description of cultural and environmental history sweeping across the North Atlantic landscape.
We have kept the recommended travel guides in the last section for a reason. Because these books are comparatively short and easy to read. All the above-mentioned books revolve around Icelandic culture and history, and their obsession with crime fiction. However, if you are not as bookish as us (which is highly unlikely), leave every book mentioned above, and buy these recommended books.
1. The Little Book of Tourists in Iceland by Alda Sigmundsdottir
Alda Sigmundsdottir is an Iceland-born prolific writer and journalist who has authored several books revolving around topics like culture and history and contemporary issues of Iceland. If you have to select one book before visiting Iceland, buy The Little Book of Tourists in Iceland. It describes the recent tourism boom in Iceland since 2010 with a fresh perspective. It gives us an inside peek into what Icelanders think about foreign tourists and their impact on the country. Overall, a fascinating resource for anyone interested in contemporary Iceland, or an indispensable companion for travelers to the country.
2. The Little Book of the Icelanders by Alda Sigmundsdottir
Another fascinating book about Iceland by the same author, Alda. A quirky and entertaining book that gives us unique insight into the lives and beliefs of Icelandic people. The book is a collection of 50 miniature essays. The short essays cover naming conventions and customs in Iceland; why Icelanders hate to commit; why Icelandic women are really men; rituals associated with weddings, confirmations, graduations, and deaths; and many other unconventional topics that you would love to ponder upon. Do you know there is a shower-police in Iceland? Even we didn’t know before reading this book. It is one of the most enjoyable reads you will ever come across about Iceland.
3. DK Eyewitness Top 10 Iceland
A pocket travel guide, Top 10 Iceland breaks down the best of Iceland into helpful lists of Ten. You will get all the information about the best museums, must-sees, shopping areas, dining + a free laminated pull-out map of Iceland. On top of that, this pocket guide is annually updated with a top 10 list for each category, making it a must-to-have companion for your Iceland vacation.