In the Eye of the Beholder: Iceland 360° – The Top Ten Places

Iceland 360° – The Top Ten Places is a bilingual, Icelandic-English, photo book by Vilhelm Gunnarsson who has worked as a photographer at the daily newspaper Fréttabladid since 2003.

Gunnarsson has been awarded for his press photography and his pictures have been published widely in the foreign media. This is his second photo book. The first, published in 2010, features the volcanic eruption in Eyjafjallajökull.

His photos from the 2011 Grímsvötn eruption are equally stunning, most notably the one of farmers herding sheep in the ash-stricken rural region near Kirkjubaejarklaustur published on p. 20-21 in the current issue of Iceland Review.

This book features more peaceful scenery; the photographer invites us to share his view of his ten most favorite places in Iceland.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” the foreword says and that’s very true. I won’t dispute the beauty of the places selected for this book but I don’t find them particularly original.

The book might just as well be called: “The Ten Most Visited Places” because it includes the country’s most frequented tourist hot spots, such as the Golden CircleLandmannalaugarJökulsárlón and Mývatn.

That being said, there is a reason for these places being so popular among tourists. The lava formations and clear waters of Thingvellir in striking autumn colors look like a painting of a fantasy world and even more so the colorful hills of Landmannalaugar.

One may never tire looking at pictures from these areas but it still feels like you’ve seen them a million times before, that is if you’re an Icelander, a regular visitor to the country and/or have browsed through many photo books of its landscapes.

Therefore I applaud new perspectives and motives, such as a cow and foal kissing on a field of buttercups in the Golden Circle chapter (I seem to remember having bought this photo as a postcard once) and a lone black horse against the yellow, red, blue and green backdrop of Landmannalaugar.

I also find the picture of pink flowers in the green moss of Thórsmörk particularly beautiful, as well as the one of the adorable baby foxes playing in the same chapter and the redpoll tweeting on a branch in the Skaftafell chapter.

The glacial lagoon Jökulsárlón may be one of the most photographed locations in Iceland but the melting icebergs constantly form new sculptures. Gunnarsson’s photo of a piercing blue iceberg with a hole in it and a flock of Arctic terns hovering above truly captures one’s attention.

Not all of the chapters are “clichés”. I was pleased to find Borgarfjördur eystri in the East Fjords covered, where reindeer curiously sniff at the photographer in a snowy landscape. In fact, all of Iceland’s regions are covered except for the West Fjords, which I miss.

Each chapter opens with a description of the location at hand and is a bit heavy on the adjectives, in my opinion. I would have preferred more historical and geographical facts over sometimes pretentious descriptions of what it feels like being in the places featured.

For example: “Mist droplets bead upon our faces and it is impossible to see how far the water travels into the canyon. It is an extraordinary sensation to stand on the edge of the cliff and feel it tremble from the force of the waterfall,” it says on Gullfoss.

Pictures say more than a thousand words, they say, and I agree. Besides, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, everyone has a different experience of Icelandic nature—sometimes it cannot even be put into words.

The photographs alone are enough to encourage people to travel to these places. Which is why I would also have wished there were a few more photographs of places off the beaten track. Icelandic nature is best experienced in solitude.

What also bothered me about this book is that there is no table of contents and no page numbers. And the English version could have been proofread a little more closely.

Other than that, the pictures are certainly beautiful—my favorites are the ones including flora and fauna—and perfect for someone who has never been to Iceland and has never looked at a “best of” photo book from the country before.

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Published by Salka in 2011, Iceland 360° – The Top Ten Places is available in Icelandic bookstores and on the publisher’s website (for questions, email: [email protected]).

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

A Voyage into the Past: Square Sails and Dragons

Square Sails and Dragons is a historical novel by American author Celia Lund set in an Icelandic settlement in Greenland around the year 1000 AD, featuring both fictional and historical characters on a voyage to Norway.

These characters include Eric the Red, who founded the Greenlandic settlement and after whom one of its fjords is named, and his son, Leif “the lucky” Ericsson, the first European to set foot on the American continent, legend has it. He is commemorated with a statue in front of the Reykjavík landmark church, Hallgrímskirkja.

While Square Sails and Dragons, Lund’s debut, appeared in 2005, its sequel, New Harbors New Hopes, which is set in North America, was published this year. This is a review of the first book.

Straight out, let me say that I enjoyed it. I’m a big fan of historical novels and generally, the further back in time they take me, the more I’m caught up in the story.

As a debut, it is very good, and I take my hat off to Lund for having realized her dream of publishing a novel after retirement.

Lund dedicates the book to her late husband and in the acknowledgements she also addresses her children and grandchildren: “you probably expected memoirs, but thanks for never questioning which drummer Grandma might follow next,” she humorously notes. Indeed, both humor and enthusiasm can be sensed in the book.

Authenticity is key to writing good historical novels. That is not to say they should be stripped down to dry facts and figures—fiction is important to add meat to the bones and make the story come alive—but it should be based on thorough research to harmonize with history and should at least feel authentic.

Of course, how authentic something feels depends on how well readers are familiar with the subject matter. The overall context of the story seemed fairly authentic to me, especially the details surrounding the build and mechanism of the Viking ship. Lund did a good job in placing me onboard that knarr.

The characters were also vivid and likeable, especially that of the main character, the stowaway Terje Gundersson. An independent and adventurous young man, he doesn’t take no for an answer yet manages to make friends with most of the unruly seamen who reject him at first, most notably with the ship’s commander, Leif Ericsson.

But I’m sorry to say that the naming of the characters was an absolute linguistic mess and it bothered me so that it stole away much of the joy of reading.

Take the protagonist as an example. I’m no expert but I take Terje to be a modern Norwegian name, which I doubt would have existed in that form at the time the novel is set. Neither is Gunder, which I assume is an Anglicized version of Gunnar.

I’d let the commonly used Anglicized versions of Leifur (Leif) and Eiríkur (Eric) slide but Norwegian versions of Biblical names like Jon and Per are hardly fitting for pagans.

I cannot imagine Bardal having been used as a first name in the Norse settlement in Greenland. It sounds more like a family name adopted by people who derive from the valley Bárdardalur named after a settler called Bárdur—which is an actual name.

Speaking of surnames, at the time patronymics were used (as they still are in Iceland), and so all surnames of men should have the ending –son and all surnames of women the ending –dóttir. I doubt people would have referred to each other by surname alone.

There were no family names like Terssen, I dare say, which must be an Anglicized version of an Icelandic patronymic which may have been adopted by an Icelandic immigrant to North America at the turn of the 20th century.

Linguistic misunderstanding also seems to have led to the surname of the first known discoverer of the European mainland, Bjarni Herjólfsson, to be spelled Hergolfsson.

There are many more examples of names that bothered me but I’ll stop here. Let me just say that I don’t think it would take a lot of effort to confirm whether names that sound Old Norse actually are Old Norse, and I sincerely encourage the author, or her editor, to do so before publishing the next novel.

Apart from this, the storyline kept me interested, taking the voyagers from Greenland by accident to the Hebrides and onwards to Norway. Characters make friends and foes, fall in love and are left heartbroken.

One of the deepest and most interesting characters is that of King Olaf Tryggvason, while Thorgunna, the chieftain’s daughter on the Hebrides, is the most mysterious and intriguing—I would have liked some elaboration on her personality and Celtic influences.

The plot was particularly exciting towards the end and didn’t really wind down but rather led up to the sequel. It felt as if there was more to come; there was no real closure to the love stories, for example.

However, the excitement wasn’t especially intense, in the sense that it was neither terribly violent nor passionate. That isn’t a flaw, but made the book read more like an adventure for teenagers that adults might also enjoy rather than a novel targeted exclusively at adults.

I have a suspicion that the sequel may be more intense; at least that’s what the description on the back cover indicates. I am keen to find out.

I recommend Square Sails and Dragons to all avid readers of historical novels and those interested in Norse history in particular—the things that bothered me may feel authentic enough to others.

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Square Sails and Dragons and New Harbors New Hopes are available on amazon.com.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir