Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Did Tolkien Ever Go to Iceland?

No, Tolkien never went to Iceland. Elsewhere on this blog (see "The Tolkien Connection"), I've talked about how much Tolkien was inspired by Iceland and Icelandic literature--and how his love of Iceland inspired me.

Tolkien's trolls are Icelandic trolls. His hobbit holes are like Icelandic turf houses. Bilbo's ride to Rivendell matches, more or less, a ride through the Icelandic landscape. Gandalf's character comes from Icelandic tales of Odin. Hobbits, too, may have Icelandic antecedants. But Tolkien never went to Iceland.

I've always thought that was sad. It was Tolkien who, in a roundabout way, sent me to Iceland the first time, and I've been back about 20 times since. Iceland has inspired five of my seven books.

But a recent conversation on the listserv of the Mythopoeic Society made me think of Tolkien's travel gap in a different way. Wrote David Bratman, a librarian and Tolkien scholar, "Tolkien, and the Inklings in general, tended to consider merely visiting places to be over-rated as a way of getting to know them."

Bratman refers to a letter Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher in 1943, in which he complains about what some people might call progress: "The bigger things get the smaller and duller or flatter the globe gets. It is getting to be all one blasted little provincial suburb. ... At any rate it ought to cut down on travel. There will be nowhere to go. So people will (I opine) go all the faster."

Instead of travelers, Bratman explains, Tolkien and his friends were "bookmen, who learned of places through deep immersion in the literature of a place, and not just in reports by other visitors. Tolkien's thorough knowledge of Icelandic civilization came from his intensive and lifelong reading of Old Norse literature."

For Tolkien, that approach obviously worked. For me--not so much.

For one thing, I write history and historical fiction, not fantasy. What places actually look like matters to me. When I wrote Song of the Vikings, for example, I spent several weeks tromping around in the area Snorri Sturluson ruled in the 13th century. Suddenly I understood why his father, in Sturlunga Saga, got involved in a feud over the ownership of the seemingly inconsequential farm of Deildartunga.

Nowhere in the saga does it explain that Deildartunga owned the highest-volume hotspring in the world. Because of this feud, Snorri was fostered by Jon Loftsson and educated at Oddi, where he learned to write. This hotspring, you could say, led directly to the writing of Heimskringla: The History of the Kings of Norway and The Prose Edda, containing nearly all that we know of Norse mythology, and perhaps even Egil's Saga, which influenced the writing of so many other sagas.

Such on-the-ground research in Iceland and Greenland also helped me write The Far Traveler and my young adult novel based on it, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler. I spent months living where Gudrid lived, walking where Gudrid walked, taking a boat down the fjord Gudrid sailed or a horse into the mountains where Gudrid rode.

True, things have changed since she lived there around the year 1000. I took full advantage of electric lights, geothermal heat, jeeps, power boats, hi-tech hiking clothes, you name it. But some things hadn't changed: the wind on my face, the stinging rain, the way the sun sank behind the mountains, the cries of the birds, the smell of the seaweed or the hay, the spirited horses, how difficult it was to walk through a lumpy, bumpy, frost-heaved pasture without twisting an ankle, the way the tide surged in over the sea flats.

Armchair travel is one of my favorite pastimes. All winter I travel through books--and it's the only way I know to travel back in time. But come summer, my wanderlust isn't so easily contained and you can find me--for at least part of the time--in Iceland. After 20 visits in nearly 30 years, I'm just getting to know the place.

1 comment:

  1. I got a very strong sense of time travel from Laxness. Getting away from roads makes it easier for the imagination to take you places, especially in Iceland.