It’s quite amazing that a country with only 338,000 people can produce so many talented musicians, with such a diversity of styles and genres. The rise of Iceland as a producer of popular music came with Björk’s arrival on the scene in 1993, and it has since developed into an important international music hub with annual festivals that attract people from all over the world. Artists such as: Mínus, Gus Gus, Emiliana Torrini, Sigur Rós, Ólafur Arnalds, and Of Monsters and Men have all made the crossover into global music markets. One of the most notable music festivals in Iceland, Airwaves attracts lots of international media attention. For 5 days in mid-October, Reykjavík buzzes with talent scouts and journalists from around the world, there to check out the plethora of local and international bands showcased on the stages of all available music venues. The festival is affiliated with the national airline, Icelandair, which offers package tours to Iceland during Airwaves.
New bands to be on the lookout for include: Agent Fresco, Bloodgroup, the Esoteric Gender, Mammút, Sin Fang Bous, Sudden Weather Change, and Worm is Green. Also check out Keflavík’s Icelandic Museum of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which details the history of the nation’s pop music scene, from the first radio signals from the American military base to current artists. Another good resource for Icelandic music is www.icelandmusic.is, the online music portal from Iceland Music Export that promotes native acts and lists tour dates. For listings, check out "The Reykjavík Grapevine," a free monthly circular, also available online at www.grapevine.is.
Apart from pop music, Iceland also has a vibrant classical, opera, and jazz scene, with some dedicated venues in Reykjavík. The annual Jazz Festival (reykjavikjazz.is) in September is held at venues around town, ranging from concert halls to a brewery, and features many Icelandic jazz musicians alongside international names. The newest opera celebrity in Iceland is Garðar Thór Cortes, who can be heard (among a wealth of other Icelandic talent) at the Icelandic Opera (www.opera.is). The Iceland Symphony Orchestra (https://en.sinfonia.is) performs regularly in the 1,800-seat concert hall in the Harpa (Reykjavík Concert and Conference Center).
With one of the most literate populations in the world, Iceland produces more novels per capita than any other country, so don’t be surprised if every second Icelander you meet has published his or her own book. Icelanders are prolific writers and won’t hesitate to self-publish. The country's most revered 20th-century writer is Nobel Prize–winner Halldór Laxness, whose work is widely available in English and countless other languages. Among other popular modern authors whose books you’ll find in English are Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, author and musician Sjón, and crime writer Arnaldur Indriðason.
Among the great literary works of medieval Europe, the Icelandic sagas retain the most importance and immediacy to the nation that produced them. Many consider the sagas Iceland’s greatest national treasure, and their status is consistent with the Icelandic people’s love of literature. Iceland’s people trace their ancestry back to the Vikings, and the Icelandic language has changed relatively little in the last thousand years. Today’s Icelanders can quite clearly comprehend the original texts of the sagas—even better than most English speakers do in deciphering the works of Shakespeare, penned several centuries later. The sagas are still best-sellers in Iceland, and all students are required to read them.
Most of the sagas originate in the 12th to 14th centuries but recount events of the 10th and 11th centuries, when Icelanders were experimenting with self-government and transitioning to Christianity. The sagas do not neatly correspond to any modern literary genre, but might be called historical novels. The storylines follow a general pattern, in which conflicts escalate into multi-generational blood feuds and personal codes must be reconciled with the maintenance of the social fabric. (Readers expecting stories of handsome knights rescuing fair-haired maidens locked in castles tend to be disappointed.) The narrative style is terse and action-oriented, with infrequent dialogue and not much introspective probing. Yet the sagas seem remarkably contemporary in their depth of character, intimacy of domestic scenes, well-developed sense of irony, and profound grasp of psychological motivation.
About 40 Icelandic sagas have survived, most written anonymously. The two most widely available collections are The Sagas of Icelanders (Penguin, 2001) and Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas (Oxford, 1999). As wonderful as these collections are, both are highly selective. Of the six most revered sagas—Egil’s Saga, Eyrbyggja Saga, Grettis Saga, Hrafnkel’s Saga, Laxdæla Saga, and Njál’s Saga—the Penguin collection includes Egil’s Saga, Hrafnkel’s Saga, and Laxdæla Saga, while the Oxford collection has only Hrafnkel’s Saga.
All the major sagas are in print as individual volumes. Which one you choose could depend on which region you plan to visit: Egil’s Saga, Eyrbyggja Saga, and Laxdæla Saga are set in the west; Njál’s Saga in the south; and Hrafnkel’s Saga in the east. Grettir the Strong, the hero of Grettis Saga, spends his final years on Drangey in the northwest. Egils Saga is the subject of a fine exhibit at the Settlement Center in Borgarnes. Njál’s Saga is often considered the greatest literary achievement of all the sagas.
The dominant figure of modern Icelandic literature is Halldór Laxness, winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature. His most renowned work is the 1946 novel Independent People, a compassionate and often comic story of a poor sheep farmer determined to live unbeholden to anyone. English translations of several other Laxness novels remain in print. World Light (1937) is the life tale of a marginal, starry-eyed poet, a foil for Laxness to work out the conflicting imperatives of art and political engagement. Iceland’s Bell (1943) explores Danish colonial oppression of Iceland in the late 17th century, with most characters based on actual historical figures. The Atom Station (1948) is a more outright political satire dealing with issues stirred up by the American-run NATO base in Iceland. The Fish Can Sing (1957) is a particularly gentle coming-of-age story about a boy’s pursuit of a mysterious male operatic star. Paradise Reclaimed (1960) concerns a late-19th-century farmer who abandons his family, emigrates to Mormon Utah, and later returns to Iceland as a missionary.
Currently Iceland’s most popular writer—both at home and abroad—is Arnaldur Indriðason, whose crime novels feature inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, a rather gloomy divorced man who spends his evenings reading Icelandic sagas. Seven of Arnaldur’s works have been translated into English, and in 2005 his Silence of the Grave won Britain’s coveted Golden Dagger Award. The film version of his novel Jar City was Iceland’s candidate for the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. We cannot also forget Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, aka Sjón, the Icelandic author and Oscar-nominated songwriter, whose CoDex 1962: A Trilogy, set in 3 different decades and jumping from one genre to the next, is already being hailed as one of the century’s great works of literary art.
Iceland was widely venerated in Victorian England, and William Morris’s translations of sagas were household reading. Several Victorians wrote Icelandic studies and travelogues, some of which have been reprinted. Letters from High Latitudes (Hard Press, 2006), by the prominent statesman and diplomat Lord Dufferin (1826–1902), is an often wild account of his 1856 travels in Iceland, Norway, and Spitzbergen. (Tim Moore’s Frost on My Moustache: The Arctic Exploits of a Lord and a Loafer, published in 2000 by Abacus, is a hilarious account of Moore’s misadventures while retracing Dufferin’s route.) Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas (Signal Books, 2007), by the eclectic scholar, novelist, and folk-song collector Sabine Baring-Gould (1834–1924), is a magnificent account of his 1862 journey across Iceland on horseback, interlaced with learned musings on the sagas. Ultima Thule, Or, A Summer in Iceland (Kessinger Publishing, 2007), written in 1875 by explorer and ethnologist Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890), is an equally penetrating and erudite portrait of Icelandic society.
Ring of Seasons: Iceland, Its Culture and History (University of Michigan Press, 2000)—by Terry G. Lacy, an American sociologist who has lived in Iceland since the 1970s—is highly engaging and insightful.
History of Iceland: From the Settlement to the Present Day, by Jón R. Hjálmarsson (Iceland Review Press, 1993), is a tidy, 200-page primer on Icelandic history. Iceland’s 1100 Years: History of a Marginal Society, by Gunnar Karlsson (Hurst & Company, 2000; reprinted in the U.S. as The History of Iceland by University of Minnesota Press), is twice as long and has a bit more intellectual heft. Readers particularly interested in the historical context of the Icelandic sagas should pick up Jesse Byock’s authoritative study Viking Age Iceland (Penguin, 2001).
Iceland: Land of the Sagas (Villard, 1990) is a coffee-table paperback, with 150 pages split evenly between Jon Krakauer’s evocative photographs and David Roberts’s essayistic reflections on Iceland’s landscape and literary heritage. Iceland Saga (The Bodley Head, 1987) also takes the reader on a kind of literary tour, but from a more informed perspective; author Magnús Magnússon translated many sagas himself.
Iceland is perhaps better known for its fantastic film locations used in big-budget films and television (such as Game of Thrones, Batman Begins, or Journey to the Center of the Earth) than its home-produced creations. Icelanders may not have the money to make similar films, but they do make films and have been doing so for nearly a century. They even have their own national film award, the “Edda Award.” Though smaller individual films have been made since the 1920s, bigger productions weren’t carried out until 1980, when the Icelandic Film Fund was founded at Kvikmyndamiðstöð. Since then, dozens of Icelandic films have been produced, with some critically acclaimed films like Englar Alheimsins (Angels of the Universe) and Reykjavík 101. You can keep up with Iceland’s film industry at www.icelandicfilmcentre.is.
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