• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #83: The History of Iceland


Yeah, ojofnudr sucks.

Part of the fun of travel is doing the homework ahead of time. I’ve always tried to cultivate some level of understanding of areas I’m about to visit - Mexico, Hungary, New Zealand, etc - I find that it heightens my enjoyment of the trip. So I’ve been working my way through Karlsson’s well-regarded one-volume history of the island nation (Karlsson is a professor of history at the University of Iceland).


Iceland has a history unique among European nations given its founding during recorded history, during the Viking era, so a wealth of written history is available for scholarly consultation. The sagas describe a medieval culture obsessed with honor, decentralized with local chieftains rather than a king or prince. Fascinatingly, the emphasis on honor was tempered by an attendant desire for moderation. Strength and courage were esteemed, but where their excessive or overly aggressive use led to inequality (ojofnudr), which was loathed by the community, honor was lost. Wealth did not confer honor, especially when gotten through the deprivation of neighbors. We could learn something from that here in greed-drenched America.


Iceland was ruled by the Norwegians for a hundred years and then the Danes for half a millennia. Only after the First World War did Iceland regain its independence in 1918, though the Danish monarchy remained the titular head of state until WWII, when the Nazi occupation of Denmark and the Allied use of Iceland as a strategic staging area severed that relationship for good. Iceland became a fully independent state and a founding member of the United Nations and NATO, though it has not been a member of the European Union.


The international banking crisis hit Iceland particularly hard in 2008, resulting in some of the most aggressive banking reforms in the world, not to mention a new Icelandic Constitution. 2009 also saw the election of Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir as prime minister, the first openly homosexual head of state in modern history. The current president, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, is an author unaffiliated with any political party. In addition to his own books on modern Icelandic history, he has translated several Stephen King books into Icelandic. Polls indicate his approval rating is in the high 90s. Maybe there’s a lesson there, too.

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