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New perspectives on the Land of Ice and Fire

What first springs to mind when you think of Iceland? If, like me, it's strongmen competitions, glaciers, and volcanic ash grounding air traffic, then Egil Bjarnason's How Iceland Changed the World might just be the book for you.

Quite simply, I loved this book. Sometimes light-hearted, even laugh aloud funny, oftentimes of a much more serious nature, this study of the largely overlooked land of ice and fire and the hardy souls who live there is both a far reaching and fascinating study. Bjarnason looks at the influence of Iceland from its earliest known records through to the present day and makes a convincing, even occasionally tongue-in-cheek case, for Iceland's central role in a series of world events. For example, the chapter 'The Discovery of the West' looks at Icelanders' roles in the first known European exploration of America c.1000 (although personally, I like to believe that they were preceded by the Irish monk St Brendan, in his curricle, in the 6th century! Maybe more on that in another post...). A later chapter focuses on the essential role played by the Icelandic landscape in preparation for the Moon landing of 1969.

As well as the discussion of the role played by Iceland on the international stage, there is also a recurring theme of how a sense of Icelandic identity was created and developed (and still continues to develop). I found this particularly fascinating - for example, Bjarnason explains how an identity that was once seeming rooted in patriarchal mores has now become more often aligned to being a flagship for gender equality.

I really like this approach to History. It challenges the often prevailing narrative of the centres of influence and encourages us to look beyond the sometimes more straightforward approaches to the discipline. Highly recommended.

Egill Barnasson, How Iceland Changed the World (The Big History of a Small Island) is published in paperback by Icon Books, London, 2021.

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