David Roberts and Jon Krakauer obviously approached their task with zest. They depict a land and a culture still dominated by the peculiar Northern light, the lava fields and geothermal pools, the barren interior, the cliffs, the puffins, sheep, and fishing villages familiar to medieval settlers. Roberts and Krakauer wandered throughout the island, choosing to dwell on scenes that are connected to the sagas with their great outlaw heroes. There are few human faces in these photographs, a wise choice for a book that aims to emphasize a timeless continuity between medieval and modern in a culture whose insular nature and peculiarities of geography always overshadow human endeavors.
Warmed by the Gulf Stream and more temperate than most European countries of the North, Iceland gained its independence from Denmark only in 1944. From A.D. 1262, there was a long, languishing domination by first Norway and then Denmark, during which the great days of the heroic Middle Ages, from the ninth century Viking foundation, provided inspiration and a separate identity for native Icelanders.
The language is so unchanged from Old Norse that schoolchildren today can read the ancient sagas with ease. The book is haunted by the often eerie, supernatural, and spectacular encounters narrated in NJAL’S SAGA, GRETTIR’S SAGA, EGIL’S SAGA, LAXDAELA SAGA, HRAFNKEL’S SAGA, and the ELDER EDDA. Clouds and mountains; compact homes and churches alone on the rural landscape, painted in bright colors; the lonely, rocky, craggy terrain—all come to life in text and photographs, tantalizingly evocative of ancient heroes.
Roberts and Krakauer circumnavigated the island, which is about the size of Virginia, in winter and summer. It is inhabited today by a mere 250,000 citizens. A few captions from the book’s photographs give some indication of the exotic and ancient culture here arrayed: “Sun and storm fill the sky over Eyjafjordur, the superb bay in the north first settled by Helgi the lean"; “Plover eggs nestle in the alpine tundra of Skatafell"; “Helgafell, the old crater on Heimaey, is a near neighbor of the crater of Eldfell, which suddenly erupted in 1973"; “Seen from the summit of Sandafell in the Westfjords, a file of unnamed mountains ranges to the south: This is the country of Gisli’s Saga.”