Qualities of the 19th Century British Traveller in Iceland: Part 2

Glymur, Hvalfjörður, 1200-1500 feet deep.

In addition to being the first outsider to see several attractions in Iceland, Baring-Gould was also well known for his translations of the sagas he so admired. Anglo-Icelandic scholar Andrew Wawn believes Baring-Gould to have written “the first Iceland travel book to show any real awareness of manuscripts of sagas and eddic poems.” Thus, Baring-Gould’s actions set him apart once more as one of the discerning travellers discussed in Part 1 of this section. But does he engage in snobbish attempts to actively disparage tourists in addition to distinguishing himself as one who often strays from the beaten path? At one point he states that “Certainly a tourist who runs to the Geysirs and back to Reykjavík gets no true idea of Icelandic scenery,” and at the beginning of his book, when he arrives in Reykjavík, he satirically laments the presence of crinolines (i.e. petticoats) fashionable back home in one of the Danish stores. Neither of these examples is particularly harsh. When it comes to anthropogenic environmental degradation, however, he becomes more critical. It is instructive to quote Baring-Gould extensively here on the scene of a boiling hot spring whose conduit is obstructed by stones: 

I must take this opportunity of protesting most earnestly against the mischief which travellers do in choking the throats of boiling fountains with stones. As I have already said, the alternating Geysir at Tunguhver is spoiled by the wanton folly of visitors; and I fear that the damage will be done to Strokr by tricks of this kind being played on it. Turf can do no harm, but stones are very likely to block the throat or injure the mechanism. The following quotation is from a newly published voyage to Iceland by Carl Vogt. It arouses my indignation most thoroughly.
‘In the hopes of being able to excite a second eruption, moreover with the view of forcing the Geysir (i.e. that at Reykir) to exert its utmost violence, we dragged great stones up and filled the bore of the fountain completely to the brim.’

The fight of frost and fire, Kerlingarfjöll.

Baring-Gould’s anger at the tourists’ ignorant manipulation of Geysir’s mechanism is understandable, but seems hypocritical when juxtaposed against his own actions on the following page of his account, where he and his guide divert a stream from “two lovely ponds of still blue water” into a different pool. He writes that they “completely altered its character, converting it from a well of furiously boiling water to a pool steaming tranquilly,” and goes on to say that

Not satisfied with this experiment, we tried another, and dug into a small puddle of hot mud; it was at once converted into a bubbling pool of five jets. After this, a mud pond which had been in active ebullition, 130 feet north of it, on the farther side of the blue ponds, gave up working, and left a dry black bed, riddled with holes out of which the water had previously risen.

Perhaps he deems the water ponds and mud puddles insignificant compared to the great geyser that is a main attraction of the area and indeed of Iceland itself. However, he also exhorts future travellers to scientifically document springs like these by explaining that he has shared his experiments with the reader “to show how variable the springs are, and to urge the importance of every traveller taking precise notes of their position and character.”

Þingvellir, ropy lava.

The only justification for these paradoxical passages seems to be that Baring-Gould strongly believes the scientific spirit of his “experiment[s]” warrants his tampering with the natural forces behind the pools. Given his uncle’s status as President of the Royal Society, it is easy to imagine Baring-Gould being interested in emulating the Society’s style, as his experiments are reminiscent of the Enlightenment Age’s ethos of inquiry via experiment (and not many other travellers to Iceland are performing experiments). Thompson has written that travel writers frequently followed the Royal Society’s customs, such as the use of journals, to “demonstrate both that they had adopted such a disciplined approach to note-taking whilst travelling, and also that their published narrative was largely derived from these original, on-the-spot observations.” Baring-Gould does not share his journal accounts from every day, but he often cites the date and time that events occur; other authors to be examined in the following chapter write most of their books as diary entries. The Royal Society’s motto, “Nullius in verba,” roughly translates to “take nobody’s word for it,” which is ironic considering the trend of imitating the Society’s style in travel writing when the act of travel writing itself is merely recording one’s word for it. And for some critics, the process of recording was not always something to be shared, for the sake of the public itself.

4 thoughts on “Qualities of the 19th Century British Traveller in Iceland: Part 2

  1. Pingback: Good Arcs Make Good Stories | Raxa Collective

  2. Pingback: The Sweeping View, For Historians And Non-Historians Alike | Raxa Collective

  3. Pingback: A 3-minute Visit To Iceland | Raxa Collective

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