Icelandic Writings

The two first edition volumes of Captain Richard F. Burton’s “Ultima Thule; or, a Summer in Iceland,” 1875. Photo by Bauman Rare Books.

I’ve mentioned before that throughout the literature from the 18th and 19th centuries in Iceland I’ve found a conflict between traditional and modern conceptions of the land’s nature, but I want to clarify that this was likely not limited to a simple farmer-or-scientist dichotomy. My aim is to more closely examine any relationships between the writings of Icelanders and Europeans that were meant for a European audience (in the case of the former this involves contemporary translations) and tease out the nuances between them. I believe these scientists, travelers and explorers from various cultures sought the same thrill of setting foot on ground that had never been touched by “civilized” man before; they traveled untrodden lands whose exploration allowed them to feel a sense of discovery and lonely grandiosity while experiencing wilderness; and in some cases they desired the satisfaction of improving scientific knowledge of a natural area.

When I talk about looking at ‘writings’, I mean primary sources like journal articles, diaries, letters, books, notices, maps and other publications or manuscripts by Icelanders (written or translated into English or French) and Europeans (originally written in English or French) focused on exploration or observations of the wildernesses of the country. Some of these volumes were intended for specific European audiences. Studying the physical medium containing the intellectual information can offer a sense of how the readers experienced a text and how that experience influenced their interpretation of the subject matter. Thus, a well-bound, illustrated book about Icelandic exploration catering to middle-class armchair adventurers in Britain, for example, will have more than superficial formatting differences with a letter written by a ship’s naturalist to the French Ministry of the Navy.

Volume one of another first edition “Ultima Thule.” Photo by Maggs Bros., Ltd.

Each source will carry its own implications of the author’s point of view, intended readership, translator’s aims, and potential miscommunication that I will have to keep in mind. The same goes for documents written by European travelers and explorers seeking the thrill of discovery and adventure as they ventured into Iceland on their own whims or in the service of their country, as I expect these sources—out of accessibility, diversity, and relative ubiquity—to make up the bulk of my primary material.

4 thoughts on “Icelandic Writings

  1. Pingback: Sourcing Icelandic Wilderness |

  2. Pingback: Historian Cross-overs |

  3. Pingback: Journey to the Center of the Earth, Via Iceland |

  4. Pingback: If You Happen To Be In Denmark |

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