Friday, August 27, 2010

Literary Tourism in Iceland

My colleagues in the QUT-based Walk the Book project will next week be participating in the Environmental Change-Cultural Change conference at the University of Bath. I haven't been able to get to the conference in person, but Susan Carson will be delivering my paper, "Exile in the Fjords: The Saga Past and Environmental Tourism in Iceland" (given below). I'm sure she will have no trouble saying Eyjafjallajökull, Hlíðarendi, Önundarfjörður, Dýrafjörður, all places of great natural beauty also populated by saga sites.

I'm interested in the prospects of saga-related travel in Iceland, and how it can be integrated with more environment-based tourism. As it stands, the sites of Iceland's literary past are rather overlooked, no doubt for good reason: most tourists visit Iceland because of its geology and environment.

But overlooking the saga past - or not engaging with it in at least some detail - means that visitors miss the chance to experience the Icelandic landscape in the way that is close to local perceptions. Because the sagas remain a part of how Icelanders view rural landscapes, and indeed how Icelanders view themselves as a nation, saga-related travel is a way of meeting the local culture through environment.

For those interested in saga-related tourism, have a look at the websites of The Iceland Saga Trail Association; The European Heritage Maps Project, which has recently completed a heritage map of the Vatnsdaela district in Iceland's north; another European project, Destination Viking - Saga Lands; and the West Vikings Project, which is focussed on The Saga of Gisli, a saga set in the Westfjords. Each of these projects seems to be at an early stage of development, but collectively they signal a growing effort to include Iceland's literary heritage in the traveller's encounter with the island and its culture.

Conference Paper: Environmental Change-Cultural Change, University of Bath (September 2010)

Exile in the Fjords: Literary Tourism and the Environment in Iceland, by Kári Gíslason, QUT


This paper will discuss the places of literary tourism in Iceland, with a particular emphasis on the tourism industry’s incorporation of Iceland’s medieval literary past in shaping experiences of Icelandic wilderness and rural areas. The paper hopes to show that saga trails, if given greater inclusion in the tourist experience, offer the chance for visitors to relate to local perceptions of the landscape as embedded with stories of the past, a process that enriches the encounter with landscape because it brings with it a deeper cultural encounter.

The sagas in Iceland

The term saga refers to the literature produced in Iceland predominantly in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. During this time, Iceland was a very active literary community, the most famous products of which are the so-called family sagas, that is, stories set in Iceland and dealing in the main with disputes between prominent farming families. There were no urban centres in medieval Iceland, and so the social picture of the sagas is entirely rural. Thus, those wishing to visit saga sites must be prepared to extend their trip beyond both the towns and the island’s natural wonders and wilderness areas, which are most often uninhabitable.

The family sagas number around 40, and the most well-known is Njal’s Saga, to which we will return in a moment. Although written in the later medieval period, the family sagas are all set during the period following the settlement of Iceland by Norwegians in the 870s up to shortly after the country’s Christianization in 1000.

The sagas remained somewhat neglected in the centuries that followed the intense period of their composition, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries an antiquarian push began, and saga manuscripts were collected and shipped to the colonial power, Denmark. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the Icelandic push for independence from Denmark developed, the sagas were used as evidence of Iceland’s unique cultural identity and rich intellectual history. Diplomats and saga scholar presented the Icelandic sagas to the international community as indicators of national distinctiveness, and had a significant influence on how Icelanders perceived the sagas as Icelandic rather than as expressions of pan-Nordic identity.

After World War 2 and the achievement of full Icelandic independence, there commenced a process of repatriating the manuscripts that had been given to Denmark during the colonial period. The return of the manuscripts was seen as symbolic of independence. Massive crowds attended the return of the manuscripts at Reykjavik harbour, a reflection of how the nation saw itself be reunited, through the sagas, with a more noble and independent medieval past. These texts witnessed a great, rural past, the spirit of which could now be acquired afresh.

The sagas abroad

In England and Australia, the sagas have most often been received via university courses in Old English history and literature. Studying Beowulf often also meant reading saga literature and Old Icelandic skaldic verses—Tolkien, for example, who taught Old English at Oxford, was influenced in his writing by Old Icelandic myth and society. Interest in the North grew markedly in the nineteenth century, when an increasing number of English travel writers visited, many of whom focussed on Iceland’s saga heritage. William Morris, who made two journeys to Iceland, is probably the most famous of these, but prior to his visits at least 28 published accounts of travels Iceland appeared in English.

W H Auden also visited Iceland twice. His account of his travels in Letters from Iceland reflected the changing image of Iceland abroad during the years of its struggle for independence, when the sagas were, as noted earlier, important political tools. Auden, like Morris, stressed Iceland’s unique natural environment alongside its literary heritage. Admittedly, neither Morris nor Auden was a typical traveller, but their combination of literary and environmental awareness was very much in keeping with how many Icelanders viewed the landscape.

The interest in the sagas in the English-speaking world peaked in the 1980s, with a very strong representation of Old Icelandic courses in universities. The Penguin Classics translations—a number of which were done by the television broadcaster Magnus Magnusson—made the sagas accessible to a wide reading public, and for a moment even fashionable. It is a situation seems rather far removed today, with Old Icelandic courses threatened by the broader decline in Literary Studies and the Humanities.

Tourism Trends in Iceland

But does interest remain in Iceland’s literary past, that is, as a literary heritage separately and uniquely located in Iceland? And, if so, what does it mean to relate that interest to broader growth in the tourism sector?

To look, firstly, at the wider trends in Icelandic tourism: In the past decades, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of foreign visitors to Iceland. In 1955, they numbered 9,474, while 50 years later in 2005, that figure had risen to over 374,000, and in 2008, to 502,000 visitors. In the context of Iceland’s recent financial crisis, the growth in tourism is naturally regarded as an increasingly important source of foreign earnings: in 2008, tourism revenue represented 16.9% of Iceland’s exports, placing it third after marine products, in first place, and the aluminium industry in second.

If we turn our attention to indicators of growth in rural tourism, we will see that the pattern is even more marked. By 2008, the turnover from holiday camps, farm accommodation, and campsites had risen from a 2003 figure of 338 million kronur to 1,294 million kronur, more than a four-fold increase in five years. While this remains a relatively small portion of the tourist accommodation market (in comparison with hotels), the trend is an encouraging one for the development of saga trails, as many of the farms are located in well-known saga districts.

The emphasis in recent tourism promotion of Iceland has been the island’s landscape and environment. The selling point is reflected in the Icelandic Parliament’s Tourism Strategy 2006-2015, which envisages a place for Iceland “in the forefront of environment-friendly tourism”. As most here will be aware, Iceland resumed its commercial whaling operations in 2006, and has drawn widespread international criticism for this decision, but also criticism from the Icelandic tourism industry, which is very conscious of its environmental image. Whale watching operators have experienced very rapid growth since the beginning of whale watching tours in the mid-1990s: the number of passengers has risen from around 10,000 in 1996 to over 110,000 in 2008. This is just one indicator of the central place of environmental tourism in Iceland, and the importance of maintaining Iceland’s position as a “wilderness” destination.

Efforts to Highlight the Saga Past

At the same time, efforts are being made to highlight Iceland’s literary heritage, even if these efforts fall well short of what’s being done in environmental and adventure tourism. There are at least three operators offering saga tours, and in 2006, The Iceland Saga Trail Association was formed. The Association emerged from a European project, Destination Viking – Saga Lands, and aims to connect the various bodies involved in early Icelandic literature and saga-related tourism. Another European initiative, The Heritage Maps Project, which is a Leonardo da Vinci Education and Culture Lifelong Learning Programme, is developing two Icelandic heritage maps, one based on a family saga, Vatnsdaela Saga.

Njal’s Saga

As mentioned before, the most famous of the sagas in Njal’s Saga, a large and very ambitious work with a national perspective, a complex narrative, and sophisticated development of themes around law, honour, religion, and personal ethics. Most of the events of the saga take place in the south, in fact in close proximity to the site of the recent volcanic eruption. Perhaps the best known character in Njal’s Saga in Gunnar, and his farm at Hlidarendi is located on the north-western side of a plain that separates the farming area of Fljotshlid from the Eyjafjallajokull glacier and its volcanic surrounds.

In July just gone (2010), the author of this paper visited this area, and took in a view of the volcanic glacier from Gunnar’s farm, Hlidarendi. In the picture above, you can the ash from the eruption being blown down a valley that lies to the north of the glacier. On this particular day, the author seemed to be the only one visiting Gunnar’s farm, and the presence of a heritage plaque, which you can see in the slide, was not enough to attract the thousands of visitors at the site of the volcano a little further to the south.

It is hard not to think that Iceland’s landscape will always dominate visitors’ impressions of the country, and provide the main focus of Iceland’s promotion as a tourist destination. However, the experience of the natural environment can surely only be enriched further through engagement with the nation’s literary history, in particular because it allows the visitor to get closer to the native perception of the landscape. From a local point of view, it also offers the possibility of drawing visitors into rural areas that are close to more dramatic natural features, such as glaciers and volcanoes.

The Westfjords

The Westfjords region lies the northwest extreme of the island, and consists of a head-like assembly of deep fjords and high heaths that can be very difficult to cross during periods of heavy snowfall or storm weather.

The capital of the Westfjords in the fishing town of Isafjordur, which with its population of around 3,500 inhabitants is by far the largest town in the region. It offers the only large shopping area in the Westfjords, and almost the main services. The region’s main airport is also located in the town, and has a notoriously difficult landing into the fjord that, during strong winds, can lead to long delays and cancellations of flights. The author of this paper taught at Isafjordur Grammar School for a year, and on his walks around the area enjoyed watching the planes come in.

The region faces a number of problems, each of which has implications for the travel industry and the development of cultural life. Its isolation in the northwest of the country was once the basis of its usefulness to the fishing industry—a number of small fishing villages thrived because of their proximity to the rich fishing grounds nearby. But with fishing trawlers becoming much larger, and with the sale of local fishing quota rights to operators in the capital, the geographical advantage of the past has passed.

There is strong feeling among Westfjord residents that the road network is not inclusive of them. Iceland has one major ring road—called Route 1—and crucially it does not take in the Westfjords. The result is that a special effort is needed on the part of a touring visitor in order to travel into the northwest. Consequently, the Westfjords is missing out on the large increases in tourism over the past twenty years.

The result of the decline in the local fishing industry has been an economic and population crisis in the villages of the Westfjords. The village of Flateyri, once one of the most prosperous in Iceland, is now struggling to keep its fish processing plant running. Shops in the village have closed, and the petrol station is only being kept open through community action.

Flateyri is, like many of the villages in the region, situated on a narrow spit of land that reaches into the fjord. The location of the village is dramatic and very beautiful, with the mountains of the fjord climbing sharply behind it, and golden beaches with a high density of bird life tracing some parts of the shoreline. In the Saga Age, one of the farms in the fjord was owned Vesteinn Vesteinsson, the closest friend of Gisli the Outlaw, to whose saga we should now turn.

The Saga of Gisli and Literary Tourism in the Westfjords

The European project, Destination Viking – Saga Lands, that was mentioned earlier has in the Westfjords been developed into the West Vikings project, which provides a trail following events in The Saga of Gisli, a very useful saga insomuch as the main character, Gisli, was an outlaw who was forced to travel widely in the district.

The project also organizes a summer Viking festival in the village of Thingeyri, the nearest village to Haukadal, where in the saga Gisli’s farm is located and where much of the action takes place. Since 2005, a local actor, Elfar Logi Hannesson, has run a successful one-man show based on the saga, in both Icelandic and English.

And the University Centre of the Westfjords conducts a course in The Saga of Gisli designed for students of Scandinavian literature, most probably appealing to those who wish to study the sagas in their setting.

What each of these efforts in saga-related tourism reveal is a desire on the part of many Icelanders to have the country appreciated for its literary heritage, because this heritage remains at the core of the Icelandic self-conception, and the Icelandic perception of the natural and rural environments. But what they also bring into focus is the relatively small amount of time and resources being given to this aspect of Icelandic tourism.

Later this month, Iceland will host the 19th Nordic Symposium in Tourism and Hospitality Research, which this year includes the theme of Heritage Tourism. The conference centre is in Akureyri, a town in the mid north, and here is part of the description of that area given in the conference brochure:

Akureyri is a popular tourist destination for short and long visits. The town offers a wide range of activities and interesting places e.g. notable museums, the world’s most northerly botanical gardens, one of Iceland’s most popular swimming facilities, 18-hole golf course, the best skiing area in the country, good hiking trails and free city bus. The town is also a good base for excursions to many of Iceland’s most beautiful wonders as waterfalls, volcanic areas and canyons as well as exciting activities...

The brochure makes no mention of the area’s rich literary heritage, and that Akureyri could equally be a centre of exploration of the very interesting literary past located in the fjords and rural districts. Thus, in a sense, this paper closes with an example of the missed opportunity to more strongly communicate to visitors the Icelandic perception of landscape as embedded with narrative. Highlighting this connection more in the future will not only enrich the tourist experience, but help to engage an international community in a vital local concern around environment and culture.