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On the Edge of the Arctic Landscape in Icelandic Crime Fiction

This article was previously published in Issue 20, ISLANDS (March 2019).

Stranded in the North Atlantic and battered by harsh winds and volcanic eruptions, the bleak shores of Iceland loom large in contemporary crime fiction. Despite its diminutive population, which is settled sparsely over much of the small island nation, Iceland has produced a remarkable number of crime novels, reflecting the larger explosion of Nordic crime fiction across an international market. While the cold and dreary landscapes of many Nordic countries provide a suitably bleak backdrop for plots that always revolve around a murder, the narratives that emerge from Iceland demonstrate an especially close reliance on the landscape as a plot device, rooting the events of the novels firmly in the topography of the island. The key role played by landscape in Icelandic crime fiction can be situated against the historical backdrop of the nineteenth-century nationalist movement, which established an inseparable link between landscape and national identity, facilitated by the medieval Icelandic sagas. Despite the abatement of nation-building fervour, contemporary crime fiction has inherited the prominence accorded to landscape present in both the reception of the medieval sagas and the cultural production of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, lending these works a distinctive identity in a largely formulaic genre.

Illustration by Grace MacKeith

The novels of two of Iceland’s most prominent crime writers testify to the importance of landscape within the genre and demonstrate the use of topography as a central catalyst for both plot and character development. In the 2010 novel I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, a far-flung village in the Westfjords region of Iceland provides the setting for much of the story’s events, in which three friends attempt to renovate a dilapidated house only to find their efforts impeded by the lingering ghost of a young boy. As with all the author’s novels, the plot embarks on so many twists and turns that by the final pages, the original conflict is difficult to recall, buried under the revelation of a decades-old crime, its subsequent solution, another attempted crime, and at least two adulterous affairs. In the end, the protagonist becomes a ghost and gives up renovating the house for haunting it. Despite the absurdity of the narrative, I Remember You offers a compelling mystery, in large part due to its setting in a remote fjord accessible only by boat and totally unreachable when the weather turns bad. Predictably, the weather quickly sours, and the isolation enforced by the desolate, Icelandic landscape traps the three friends at the house, leading them into conflict with the ghost boy and then with one another.

A similar use of topography to frame and direct the narrative is apparent in Ragnar Jónasson’s novel Snowblind, published in 2015, which is set in the remote fishing village of Siglufjörður, a town bounded by mountains that block what little sunlight reaches Iceland’s northernmost shore. The setting becomes a driving force in the plot through its function as a barricade that cuts the small village off from the rest of the island. The protagonist of the novel, a young policeman on his first assignment, moves from Reykjavík to sleepy Siglufjörður, only to be faced with two murders and the claustrophobia of small-town life and its attendant gossip, underscored by the imposing mountains which trap and isolate. While no vengeful ghosts wander the docks of the little fishing village, Snowblind boasts a plot thick with unreliable testimony, local politics, and trouble at the community theatre. With an avalanche closing the one road into the town, the landscape traps the community and exacerbates tensions between characters, pushing forward the plot while also driving character development through the deteriorating mental state of the policeman. The setting initiates the conflict, as the protagonist becomes increasingly confined in the dark Siglufjörður winter and attempts to cope with the pressures of the town, the crimes, and the bleak mountain landscape.

In the novels of both Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Ragnar Jónasson, the landscapes that hold so dominant a place in the storylines are the dramatic fjords for which Iceland is famous, with frequent references to the volcanic rocks, the heavy snowfall and the remoteness of the locale to underscore the narratives’ roots in Icelandic topography. The significance accorded to the unique landscape of the island can be traced to the historical relationship between land and literature, evident in the Sagas of Icelanders (Íslendingasögur), and its role in the creation of Icelandic national identity.

Consisting of a group of forty narratives written in prose, the Sagas of Icelanders relate the events of tenth-century Iceland and the farmer-chieftains, feuding families, and outlaw-heroes who inhabited it. Originating in an oral tradition, the stories were transcribed in later centuries, with the earliest extant manuscripts dating to the fourteenth century.[1] In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Icelandic landscape, as it appeared in the sagas, provided a means of tracing the events recorded in the narratives to their geographical locations on the island. In a 1772 account of Icelandic history commissioned by the king of Denmark, to whom Iceland was then a vassal territory, the authors Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Pálsson relate the sagas to the island’s history by tracing topographic features in their literary references. The landscape thus served to demonstrate the historical veracity of the events recounted in the sagas, by providing visible evidence that the rocky cliffs once walked by a long-dead saga hero were the same that marked the Icelandic landscape of the late eighteenth century.[2] The attraction of the landscape as testimony to the events of the sagas soon brought foreign travellers to the island, culminating in works such as W.G. Collingwood and Jón Stefánsson’s A Pilgrimage to the Saga-Steads of Iceland, which offered an illustrated catalogue of Icelandic locations with accompanying texts describing their significance for the events of the sagas. The nineteenth entry in the book, Knafa-Holar, depicts two rocky outcrops in an otherwise flat, sandy vista, where “in A.D. 986, the enemies of Gunnar, the outlawed hero of Njál’s saga, set upon him.” The text goes on to describe the clash between Gunnar and his two brothers against their enemies, resulting in the death of one brother.[3] The close relationship between the existing landscape and its literary traces led to the utilisation of the sagas as historical documents, verifying the history of the island and its inhabitants.

The acceptance of the sagas as historical fact was eventually questioned by Sigurður Nordal on the basis of topographical inaccuracy when, in 1940, he suggested that the events of a narrative taking place in Hrafnkelsdalur bore no resemblance to the actual landscape of the location.[4] Despite the subsequent re-evaluation of the sagas’ reliability, the link between history and topography was deeply established and had already become a centrepiece of the nineteenth-century nationalist movement that sought independence from Denmark and resulted in the establishment of the republic in 1944. In the nation-building attempts to define Icelandic culture and identity as distinct from that of the Danes, the sagas provided a uniquely Icelandic history, preceding the advent of Danish rule and, as Gísli Sigurðsson writes, “establishing a direct link through the land back into the dark past when the heroic ancestors created the nation.”[5] Regardless of the exact accuracy of the landscapes described in the sagas, the resemblance of the lava fields, geysers and glaciers to those inhabited by nineteenth-century Icelanders rooted the stories in the island’s topography, which is markedly different from that of Scandinavia.

The uniqueness of the Icelandic landscape, as well as its language, became the foundation of Icelandic national identity, resulting in the so-called trinity of ‘land, nation, language’ that directed nationalist efforts in the production of culture. Icelandic architecture of the twentieth-century mimicked the land’s natural formations of volcanic rock by using hexagonal columns of basalt, while painters turned to nature for inspiration. Even composers claimed to recreate in music the sound of Iceland’s ocean shores and volcanic eruptions.[6] The predominance of landscape as a means of defining Icelandic identity, mediated by the sagas, suffused almost all areas of cultural production into the early-twentieth century and the vestiges of its historical significance appear in the contemporary genre of crime fiction through its key role in the narratives.

Although crime fiction is usually a formulaic category, the crime novels of Iceland are distinct in the genre through their employment of landscapes as catalysts in the narratives. The closely intertwined relationship between plot and setting in the novels of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Ragnar Jónasson root the narratives in the island’s unique topography, making the stories impossible to imagine outside of Iceland. Although the plots are often typical for the genre and frequently ridiculous, the landscape, whose contours are traceable back through the centuries, grounds the outlandishness of the narratives in the stark realism of the island’s terrain, suspending disbelief for the space of the story. The dramatic role of landscape, inherited from the sagas and their significance in early Icelandic nationalism, has even proven capable of attracting visitors from around the globe. The establishment of the Iceland Noir festival in 2013, with Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Ragnar Jónasson as two of the founders, has drawn crime fiction enthusiasts eager to see the spectacular Icelandic landscapes of the novels, echoing the journeys of earlier travellers who sought the traces of sagas in the rocky outcrops and dreary shorelines of the island.

[1] Ian Wyatt, “The Landscape of the Icelandic Sagas: Text, Place, and National Identity,” Landscapes, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2004), p. 55.

[2] Ibid., p. 56.

[3] W.G. Collingwood and Jón Stefánsson, A Pilgrimage to the Saga-Steads of Iceland (Ulverston: W. Holmes, 1899), p. 22.

[4] Wyatt, “The Landscape of the Icelandic Sagas: Text, Place, and National Identity,” p. 60.

[5] Gísli Sigurðsson, “Icelandic National Identity: From Romanticism to Tourism,” in Making Europe in Nordic Contexts, ed. Pertti J. Anttonen (Jyväskylä: Gummerus Oy, 1996), p. 44.

[6] Ibid., pp. 46-48.

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