This week, the time has come for me to officially lay out some of the terms of my honors history thesis that I have been writing about for a few months now. Although this “hypothesis,” or explanation of what I expect to argue, won’t set my focused topic in stone, it will certainly be instrumental in guiding me at least in a broad sense as I move forward with writing this semester, and it will also help show my advisors what path I plan to take. Without further ado, here is my thesis hypothesis in a 400-word nutshell.
During the latter half of the nineteenth century it became both fashionable and profitable in Britain to publish one’s travel accounts and journals after making a tour anywhere. Visitors and explorers to a relatively exotic and unknown region like Iceland (i.e. one perceived as polarly frigid and hard to reach) often published full books on the subject soon after returning home.
In the travelers’ writings on Iceland’s past we can frequently recognize the amateur historians of the environment in spirit—but natural historians in name—as they cite the Landsnámabok (the medieval Icelandic “Book of Settlements”) for evidence of lush forests in the past or point out ancient tree-rings and decomposed leaves in the peaty coal-like substance surðurbrand as signs of either previous vegetation or chance driftwood from the New World.
On the other side of the travelers’ pursuit of truth were the admiration of beauty and romantic description of natural scenes, and many men focused on the haunting desolation and howling wilderness, the peculiar and grotesque or quaint and curious, while committing details of the land’s physical and spiritual effects to memory and paper.
But it cannot be said that wanderers in Iceland were there solely to gaze upon lofty mountains or into smoky solfataras, however. Quite often, a fervent love for antiquity and a Victorian idolization of Viking identity spurred travelers toward Iceland, home of the Sagas and Eddas, last stronghold of the language truest to Old Norse, icy base of piratic warrior-heroes, backdrop to the adventures of Þórr and Óðinn. Levels of interest varied greatly between different authors; some men displayed equal enthusiasm in their writings for a historical but unaesthetic attraction like the site of Burnt Njál’s saga and an unusual natural phenomenon like a geyser or a majestic scene of picturesque beauty.
In this environmental history of Iceland through British travelers’ and explorers’ eyes, I will examine the details of Iceland’s natural history they recorded during their expeditions, and analyze the conceptions they held of the island’s current and past ecological conditions. In this sense my approach is less a study of changes in the land than it is an inquiry into the transformations of the British travel-culture and -literature as tourism became popular in Iceland, focusing on what elements of the country’s nature they found worth visiting, recording, and sharing, as well as how and why they communicated this information in their writing.