23 September 2022
‘As if some long-since inhabited country had been fished up out of the bottom of the sea’: Travel Literature on Iceland
As the National and University Library of Iceland commemorate the 250th anniversary of Joseph Banks’s expedition to Iceland with an exhibition, we are publishing a series of blogs on all things Icelandic in the British Library collections.
For those who want to know more about Joseph Banks’s expedition to Iceland, check out our guest blog from 2017 by the foremost expert, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Iceland, Anna Agnarsdóttir, who also curated the current exhibition.
In the second blog of this series, we look at writing from the past 250 years of British travel to Iceland.
Ever since Joseph Banks paved the way and established friendly relations between Britain and Iceland in 1772, a steady stream of travellers have been inspired to venture to Europe’s far North-West. Natural scientists, geologists, saga enthusiasts, explorers and anyone with enough money and ‘spirit of adventure’ saw the appeal of the always seemingly mysterious country, producing along the way a raft of accounts, published journals, translations, maps and drawings.
John Cleveley Jr., Cathedral at Skálholt, Add MS 15511, f. 29r
For those interested in getting to grips with the full range of writings over the last two-and-a-half centuries, look no further than Haraldur Sigurðsson’s bibliography Writings of Foreigners Relating to the Nature and People of Iceland. If something a little less bibliographic is required, you could do worse than consult the list of references at the end of ‘Sheaves of Sagaland’, chapter 6 of W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland, an alternative take on the travel account formed of irreverent poems, anecdotal advice, letters and other short pieces. The chapter in question compiles quotations from those that went before them, which might give more of an insight into the attitudes of the average Victorian traveller, than of Icelandic life itself. Deliberately out of context, and compiled supposedly for the benefit of John Betjeman, they speak to every aspect of Icelandic life:
‘Concerning their food
“It cannot afford any great pleasure to examine the manner in which the Icelanders prepare their food.” (Von Troil)
Concerning their habits
“If I attempted to describe their nauseous habits, I might fill volumes.” (Pfeiffer)
Concerning their dress
“The dress of a woman is not calculated to show the person to advantage” (Mackenzie)’
George Stuart Mackenzie, Great Jet of Steam, on the Sulphur Mountains, from Travels in the Island of Iceland, during the summer of the year 1810 (Edinburgh: 1811) 983.e.23
More recently, H. Arnold Barton’s Northern Arcadia gives a fantastic overview of the first wave of travel from Banks to the missionary Ebenezer Henderson’s trip in 1814-15. And, for a more visual introduction to the topic, the University of Nottingham’s online exhibition, ‘Ice, Fire and Northern Myths’, takes us through the richly illustrated material contained in their comprehensive Icelandic special collections. And, with the current exhibition in Iceland, it’s safe to say interest in the history of travel writing on the region has not waned.
Ebenezer Henderson, The Geysers, as seen on July 30th 1814, from Iceland; or the journal of a residence in that Island during the years 1814 and 1815 (Edinburgh, 1818) 979.i.3
The British Library is uniquely placed to navigate the copious literature that emerged from such journeys. Not only can we find the vast majority of accounts published before 1882 digitised courtesy of Google Books, but the Library also holds the four volumes of original drawings from the Banks expedition to the Hebrides, Orkney and Iceland by the artists John Cleveley Jr., James Miller and his brother John Frederick Miller (all drawings available online: vol.1, vol. 2, vol. 3, vol. 4), as well as William Morris’s travel diaries from his two trips in 1871 and 1873 (digitised here).
John Barrow Jr., Basaltic cave at Stappen, from A Visit to Iceland, by way of Tronyem, in the “Flower of Yarrow” Yacht, in the Summer of 1834 (London, 1835) 791.e.3
Why Iceland loomed ever larger in the imagination of travellers has to do with a blend of scientific interest in the Age of Exploration in the ‘land of ice and fire’ and the search for cultural and racial self-understanding, which saw Englishness increasingly linked to an Anglo-Saxon heritage, its purest vestige supposedly residing in Iceland (Kassis). That association with ‘Viking’ culture grew through the Victorian era with the interest in sagas, which could be flexibly interpreted for any cause, from the imperial to the social democratic. That Icelanders were in some way exemplary did not preclude visitors from understanding that singularity as ‘primitive simplicity’, as Uno von Troil’s reflections have it. Given that some 19th-century journeys went via the Sápmi as well, like John Barrow Jr’s A Visit to Iceland by Way of Tronyem, accounts often give the unpleasant impression that travelling North equalled a trip back in time and ‘backwards’ in the ‘civilisation’ process.
W. G. Collingwood, Descent of Arnardals-Skarth, from W. G. Collingwood and Jón Stefánsson, A Pilgrimage to the Saga-Steads of Iceland (Ulverston, 1899) 10281.i.11
In Banks’s wake and lifetime, several journeys were made, often with Banks facilitating, all with a published output, which is more than can be said for the Banks expedition itself. The Swede von Troil’s Letters on Iceland was the only text that came from that, which did however set the standard for future writing, itself including a bibliography of 120 texts on Iceland to date. John Thomas Stanley’s expedition is captured in the diaries kept by the wealthy Englishman and his companions, James Wright, Isaac Benners and John Baine, eventually published only 50 years ago. Following Stanley, came William Jackson Hooker, the first director of Kew Gardens, whose Journal of a tour in Iceland in the Summer of 1809 contains some of the illustrations from the Banks voyage engraved for the first time.
W. G. Collingwood, Gill at Gilsbakki
Encouraged by Banks to go and collect specimens, Hooker’s specimens and notes were destroyed on his way back, leaving him to rely on memory and samples collected by the Stanley party for his 600-page journal. The mineralogist George Mackenzie followed in the company of Richard Bright and Henry Holland, whose diaries have also been published. The last of this first wave of travellers was Ebenezer Henderson, who spent by far the longest on the island, there as a representative of the British and Foreign Bible Service. Barton calls his account ‘the fullest and most sympathetic’ of the early texts, no doubt in part due to his great knowledge of Scandinavia and his proficiency in multiple languages.
Ethel Brilliana, First view of Iceland, from A Girl’s Ride in Iceland (London, 1894) 10281.c.6.
John Barrow Jr, later known for his heroic efforts in coordinating the search expeditions in vain for John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to the Northwest Passage, was the next traveller to Iceland, noting that ‘twenty years have expired since a fresh word has been uttered respecting Iceland’. And while several journeys were made by others through the 1840s and early 1850s, including notably by Ida Laura Pfeiffer, it was not until 1856 and the introduction of scheduled steamship sailings to and from Iceland that travel became regular and affordable, and with that came a flurry of travel journals. Frederick Dufferin’s Letters from High Latitudes was hugely popular, inaugurating a new register for travel writing, less forensic and more comic, perhaps the ease of travel reducing the pressure to note every encounter in meticulous detail.
Samuel Edmund Waller, Hlidarende, from Six Weeks in the Saddle: A Painter’s Journal in Iceland (London, 1874) 10281.bb.42
So, for Dufferin, the Faxaflói bay, where Reykjavík lies, is magnificent while also ‘mouldy green, as if some long-since inhabited country had been fished up out of the bottom of the sea.’ For Frederick Metcalfe four years later, ‘the prospect was […] by no means cheering’: ‘as if to mock the foreigner for his infatuation, his way is beset, not only by dangerous rivers, appalling lava streams, hidden pits of fire, and chasms of ice, but his imagination is tortured by chimeras dire, phantom gorillas, or by whatever name he may please to call the shapes in stone and slag, that grin and frown on his solitary journey.’ Anthony Trollope’s also very popular account is perhaps so light on meaningful engagement with local culture that it becomes ‘mainly a reproduction of Englishness in the peripheral world rather than a study of Icelandic physiognomy’ (Kassis).
Sabine Baring-Gould, Öxnadals-Heithi, from Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas (London, 1863) W48/4817
Iceland’s epic beauty was ripe for drawing and painting, and most travellers in this period seem to be accomplished artists, so these books were also a platform for their pictures. The Banks expedition’s artistic output is important for its documentary and almost genre quality but later visitors perhaps allowed themselves to heighten the drama of landscapes, often inflected by a knowledge of the sagas that unfolded there. Sabine Baring-Gould’s Iceland: its Scenes and Sagas is notable for its fine watercolours. Henderson’s geysers and jets shoot out like shafts of light to the heavens.
Ethel Brillliana, Cod-Fish drying
W. G. Collingwood and Jón Stefánsson published an epic picture book with coloured plates depicting the scenes of the sagas, while Ethel Brilliana Tweedie’s emotive sketches, often ‘from pony’s back’, give over something of the ephemerality of the traveller’s experience. What the use of illustration has in common, beyond their obvious appeal to the reader, is its necessity in helping to describe the indescribable, encapsulated in Simon Armitage’s final poem, ‘Listen Here’, in his and Glyn Maxwell’s homage to Auden and MacNeice, Moon Country:
It will not be had,
or fixed. Made of finer stuff,
to find it is to let it come to mind, then bluff,
or lie, or think, or wish.
Now hear this.
George Stuart Mackenzie, New geysers
Another way of thinking about the inability to put Iceland into words, or, in Baring-Gould’s phrase, the ‘fail[ure] in rendering the wild beauty of colouring’, is that Iceland exceeds expectations and exceeds the journal format. This is common to many accounts all the way up to Damon Albarn’s latest solo album, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, which began life as an ‘orchestral interpretation of the view outside of his [Reykjavik] living room window’ before ending up abstracted, ‘a stream-of-consciousness meditation on earth’s natural forces’. And, similarly, even while William Morris’s journals are precise, anecdotal day-to-day accounts, for Lavinia Greenlaw, ‘it is a document of a journey that becomes a description of all journeys’. Greenlaw is able to use passages from the celebrated journal as jumping off points for her own poetic reflections on travel, strangeness, the nature of experience.
W. G. Collingwood, Melstad and Reykir
William Morris’s Iceland journals have a strong claim to be the best of the genre and ‘amongst the best prose Morris ever wrote’ (McCarthy). Written for his confidante, Georgiana Burne-Jones, he worked up his manuscript into a fair copy but the journals weren’t published in his lifetime at his request. Amongst Morris’s travel companions was Eiríkr Magnússon, a theologian and linguist who got to know Morris in London, before becoming a close friend and collaborator on saga translations and on the edited volume of the journals. Morris was without doubt the most important Icelandophile of his day, translating numerous sagas, further introducing audiences to their themes through his own poetry, and creating epic works, such as Sigurd the Volsung, so steeped in saga influence, they would go onto inspire the next century’s fantasy genre.
John Cleveley Jr., Eruption of a geyser at Geysir, Add MS 15511, f. 43r
Arriving at the already much-visited Geysir, Morris, the purist and knowledgeable Iceland scholar, ‘bewailed it for the possible Englishman whom I thought we should find there’. Clearly not in the best mood, he continues:
the evening is wretched and rainy now; a south wind is drifting the stinking steam of the southward-lying hot springs full in our faces: the turf is the only bit of camping-ground we have had yet, all bestrewn with feathers and wings of birds, polished mutton-bones, and above all pieces of paper: […] understand I was quite ready to break my neck in my quality of pilgrim to the holy places of Iceland: to be drowned in Markfleet, or squelched in climbing up Drangey seemed to come quite in the day’s work; but to wake up boiled while one was acting the part of accomplice to Mangnall’s Questions was too disgusting.
Allergies to tourists aside, Morris was enamoured by the place and the people, who never fail to be depicted as exceptionally hospitable, which is also the case in the accounts across the centuries. As the last entry in his 1871 journal says, Iceland ‘is a marvellous, beautiful and solemn place, and where I had been in fact very happy’.
The references below include the most notable (mainly) English-language travel books and manuscripts on Iceland in the Library’s collections with a link to a digital copy where available.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
‘Drawings illustrative of Sir Joseph Banks's voyage to the Hebrides, Orkneys, and Iceland in 1772’, Add MS 15509-12
Uno von Troil, Letters on Iceland (London, 1780) 152.c.44
William Jackson Hooker, Journal of a tour in Iceland in the summer of 1809 (Yarmouth, 1811) 791.e.2, digital copy
William Morris, ‘Diaries (in the form of octavo ruled note-books and all written in pencil) kept by Morris on his two visits to Iceland in the summers of 1871 and 1873’, Add MS 45319 A-C, digital copy
George Stuart Mackenzie, Travels in the Island of Iceland, during the summer of the year 1810 (Edinburgh: 1811) 983.e.23, digital copy
Ebenezer Henderson, Iceland; or the journal of a residence in that Island during the years 1814 and 1815 (Edinburgh, 1818) 979.i.3, digital copy
John Barrow Junior, A Visit to Iceland, by way of Tronyem, in the “Flower of Yarrow” Yacht, in the Summer of 1834 (London, 1835) 791.e.3, digital copy
Ida Laura Pfeiffer, Journey to Iceland: and travels to Sweden and Norway … From the German by C. F. Cooper (London, 1852) 10280.d.32, digital copy
Frederick Dufferin, Letters from High Latitudes; being some account of a voyage in the schooner yacht “Foam” ... to Iceland, Jan Mayen, & Spitzbergen, in 1856 (London, 1857) 10281.c.28, digital copy
Frederick Metcalfe, The Oxonian in Iceland: or, notes of travel in that island in the summer of 1860, with glances at Icelandic Folk-lore and Sagas (London, 1861) 10281.b.22, digital copy
Sabine Baring-Gould, Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas (London, 1863) W48/4817, digital copy
Samuel Edmund Waller, Six Weeks in the Saddle: A Painter’s Journal in Iceland (London, 1874) 10281.bb.42
William Lord Watts, Snioland: or, Iceland, its jökulls and fjälls (London, 1875) 10281.aaa.22
Richard Francis Burton, Ultima Thule; or, a Summer in Iceland (London, 1875) 2364.f.1.
Anthony Trollope, How the “Mastiffs” went to Iceland (London, 1878) C.124.g.1
Elizabeth Oswald, By Fell and Fjord; or, scenes and studies in Iceland (Edinburgh, 1882) 10281.bbb.4, digital copy
John Coles, Summer Travelling in Iceland; being the narrative of two journeys across the island (London, 1882) 10280.g.4., digital copy
William George Lock, Guide to Iceland, a handbook for travellers and sportsmen (Charlton, 1882) 10280.bb.22., digital copy
Ethel Brilliana, A Girl’s Ride in Iceland (London, 1894) 10281.c.6., digital copy
W. G. Collingwood and Jón Stefánsson, A Pilgrimage to the Saga-Steads of Iceland (Ulverston, 1899) 10281.i.11
Mrs Disney Leith, Iceland (Peeps at Many Lands) (London, 1908) W10/1133
W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland (London, 1937) W4/2845
William Morris, Icelandic Journals (Fontwell, 1969) 72/5914
The journals of the Stanley Expedition to the Faroe Islands and Iceland in 1789 (Tórshavn, 1970) 84/02018 – 84/02019
Henry Holland, The Iceland Journal of Henry Holland, 1810 (Works issued by the Hakluyt Society. Second series; no.168) (London, 1987) Ac. 6172/188
Haraldur Sigurðsson, Ísland í skrifum erlendra manna um þjóðlíf og náttúru landsins : ritaskrá = Writings of foreigners relating to the nature and people of Iceland: a bibliography (Reykjavik, 1991) YA.1995.b.8642
Fiona McCarthy, William Morris: A Life for our Time (London, 1994) YC.1995.b.276
Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell, Moon country: further reports from Iceland (London, 1996) YK.1996.a.22671
H. Arnold Barton, Northern Arcadia: Foreign Travelers in Scandinavia, 1765-1815 (Carbondale, 1998) 99/20599
Andrew Wawn, The Vikings and the Victorians: inventing the old north in nineteenth-century Britain (Cambridge: 2000) YC.2000.a.6087
Dimitros Kassis, Icelandic Utopia in Victorian Travel Literature (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2016) ELD.DS.93013
Lavinia Greenlaw, Questions of travel: William Morris in Iceland (London, 2016) ELD.DS.203595
Martin Stott, Iceland Journals Introduction (2020), on William Morris Archive website