Saturday, December 01, 2018

The ongoing struggle for independence

Iceland wasn’t the only country to achieve its independence in 1918, but it is the only country to win its national sovereignty that year and succeed in maintaining both its independence and territorial integrity to the present day. Other countries that reckon milestones of independence in 1918 include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and Yemen. Yet none of these other countries has been continuously self-governing over the century that followed. Although Iceland was occupied by Britain and then the United States during World War II, it remained sovereign and self- governing during those years and actually took the final step of independence by declaring the republic in 1944. 

Fullvedishátið 2018 (Marino Thorlacius / Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Noting that both Canada and Iceland achieved their independence “without revolutions of bloodshed in either country,” former President of Iceland Ásgeir Ásgeirsson said, “we may rejoice wholeheartedly in this good fortune. In Iceland the restoration of independence was made possible by the unbroken continuity of our history.” The peaceful birth of both countries, through evolution and negotiation, appealing to persuasive arguments rather than force of arms, were noteworthy achievements in the annals of human history. Northrop Frye referred to Canada as a “peaceable kingdom,” drawing upon an idea that had been popularized among theologians in the 19th century, and the same might be said about Iceland from the time of its independence in 1918 until it became a republic. 

In 1974, Haraldur Kröyer, who was Iceland’s ambassador to the United States and Canada at the time, said, “The struggle for national independence did not end in 1918, nor in 1944. That struggle is still going on. A people’s fight for its right of existence as a nation, for its economic independence and political sovereignty is a never-ending struggle.” He went on to say, “We, who inherited Iceland from those who brought it beyond the threshold of political and economic independence, must ask ourselves today how we have guarded the heritage entrusted to us.” 

The simple fact that Iceland is the only country to achieve sovereignty in 1918 and maintain it bears witness to Haraldur Kröyer’s insightful observation. Independence is not a once-and-for-all achievement, but an ongoing struggle. Political democracy demands the active participation of its citizens; we cannot abdicate the responsibilities of citizenship to the few, especially those who mistakenly believe they know better than the collective will of the people. Economic independence demands hard work and resourcefulness, combined with fair play and equity. National sovereignty demands a willingness to pay the price needed to sustain the institutions of government through taxation and sometimes even personal sacrifice. 

Whatever shortcomings and disappointments there may have been along the way from sovereignty to the present day, when Icelanders ask themselves how they have guarded the heritage entrusted to them, they can honestly answer that they have done as well as any nation – arguably better. Iceland remains a robust democracy that prizes equality, tolerance, fairness, decency, freedom, and democracy. Icelanders have used their independence well.

This post appears as the editorial in the December 1, 2018, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.

Iceland's centennial as a sovereign nation

The year Iceland achieved its sovereignty as a nation would have been memorable even without this milestone of independence. The early months of the year are remembered as the “Great Frost Winter” and the record low temperature that year has never been surpassed. The volcano Katla erupted on October 12, threatening the countryside with devastation for 24 days. Overseas, the Great War came to an end, leaving much of the European continent in ruins, even though the war had been good for the Icelandic economy owing to increased demand for exports from farms and fisheries. The Spanish flu that gripped the world arrived in Iceland by ship on October 19, infecting nearly two-thirds of the residents of Reykjavík over the span of six weeks and resulting in the deaths of nearly 500 people, mostly in the southern and western regions of the country. 

In the summer of 1918, a joint parliamentary committee of the Icelandic Alþingi and Danish Folketing met to work out the terms of an Act of Union. The resulting treaty opened with the declaration, “Denmark and Iceland are free and sovereign states in union under the same king.” The next four articles established the succession to the crown and other provisions regarding the royal family. Article 6 provided that, “Danish citizens shall enjoy in all respects the same rights in Iceland as Icelandic citizens born there, and vice-versa,” while exempting the citizens of each country from military service in the other, and the following article provided that Denmark would continue to administer foreign affairs on behalf of Iceland at the direction of the Icelandic government. The remaining articles of the 20-article treaty dealt with transitional matters regarding the protection of territorial waters, supreme court jurisdiction, financial arrangements, procedures for approving the treaty, the establishment of a parliamentary consultation committee, a dispute resolution process, and provisions for renewing or repealing the treaty. 

Fullveldisdagurinn in 1918, outside Stjórnarráðhúsið.
Following passage by the two parliaments and the overwhelming approval of Icelanders in a referendum on October 19, the very day the flu arrived in the country, the Act of Union came into force on Sunday, December 1, 1918, and Iceland became a sovereign nation. The ceremony declaring Iceland’s sovereignty was a modest affair, but it was a bright, sunny day when of officials gathered outside Stjórnarráðhúsið (Government House) to mark the occasion – and the significance of the day was observed in churches across the land, including the National Cathedral. 

“We can assume that most of those who gathered at Government House – a building which had been a Danish jail, then the residence of Danish governors – looked hopefully to the future,” suggests President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, an esteemed historian. “That cannot be proved, of course, but contemporary accounts and memoirs give that impression. And no doubt those people hoped above all to be able to make a better world for themselves and their children, in a sanctuary of security, happiness and autonomy.” 

What occurred in Iceland in 1918 is comparable to what Canada had earlier achieved on July 1, 1867. Speaking at the University of Manitoba in 1961, Ásgeir Ásgeirsson, who was President of Iceland at the time, said, “When the British North America Act came into force, in 1867, and Canada gained independence, we Icelanders cited this event as an argument in our struggle for independence and Iceland received its own constitution a few years later, in 1874, on the millennium of the settlement of the country. Since then the political history of Canada and Iceland have run a similar course. ... These developments have taken place without revolutions of bloodshed in either country.” 

“Gaining sovereignty boosted the Icelanders’ vitality and audacity, giving rise to advances which took us from poverty to prosperity with astounding speed,” says Einar K. Guðfinnsson, former Speaker of Alþingi and chair of the parliamentary committee overseeing the centennial. “Now, when we celebrate the centenary of Icelandic sovereignty, we should look back, bearing in mind the words of poet Einar Benediktsson about the need to ‘look to the past in order to build something new.’” 

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir observes that much has changed over the course of the past century and she questions whether modern Icelandic values are the same as they were a century ago – a reasonable question given the pace of change. Beliefs about national governance, cultural identity, language, the nature of society, and stewardship of both land and sea have evolved over time and anniversaries of noteworthy historical events offer opportunities for reflection and refinement. “We must seize the opportunity offered by this milestone, the centenary of Icelandic sovereignty,” says the prime minister, “to reevaluate and reinforce our shared values: to build on the strong foundation we have, and the ideal of a free and democratic society where human rights are honoured, equality of opportunity is ensured, and we safeguard the wellbeing of all the people of this country. Democracy, freedom, equality and justice are values that unite the sovereign nation of Iceland, which nurtures its land and its language, and also celebrates diversity and difference.” 

This post appears on the cover of the December 1, 2018, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

A conspiracy of ravens

For some time, a pair of ravens has been nesting in the steeple of the Gimli Unitarian Church, much to the delight of people passing by – especially visiting Icelanders, it seems – and much to the annoyance of people who care about practical matters, like compromised shingles and moisture damage. I mistakenly thought they were crows until someone who knew better told me to take a closer look. Church leaders once had the nest removed by the Gimli Fire Department, hoping the ravens would make themselves a home in a better neighbourhood – a tall tree somewhere – but they returned and it is hard to escape believing that they’ve somehow become attached to the place.

Whatever the reason for the ravens’ staying power, having watched David Suzuki’s episode of The Nature of Things that examined the superior intelligence, memory, and remarkable ability to recognize human faces on the part of their cousins, the crows, I’m reticent to upset any members of this branch of the bird family and risk their ire, having seen what they can do to people who offend them. I used to fantasize about seeing a steeple without a nest, but “corvicide” is now out of the question because, while a group of crows may be called a murder, a group of ravens is known as an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy” – and I’m not inclined to tempt fate by inviting either. People love them and they’ve waged a very successful publicity campaign in recent years, having become the subjects of feature stories in newspapers along with favourable mentions on radio and TV. They have become inescapable tenants.

I suspect that the reason visiting Icelanders, in particular, appreciate seeing them nesting on the steeple is that Icelanders, alongside North America’s Indigenous people, have an inordinate fondness for ravens (and even their close cousins, crows) which figure positively in the folklore of both people. In pretty much every other culture, these birds are viewed with disdain, but not among Icelanders and Indigenous people. I’ve stopped sharing my former desire to get rid of the nest with visitors from Iceland, since they have universally expressed their disapproval at the very thought of it, some suggesting that we should consider the ravens’ presence to be a good omen. It should be remembered, though, that these are the same people who compliment me on the dandelions in my lawn, sometimes expressing their envy that I’m so fortunate as to enjoy the beauty of such an abundant crop of wildflowers in my own yard. What can you really expect from people who think that eating putrefied shark and fermented rams’ testicles is a good idea?

The more strident raven-lovers from Iceland have reminded me that there are folktales and poems about clergymen who have run afoul of ravens nesting in their churches, warning me that I do not wish to share their fate. Ravens can be harbingers of kindness and wisdom, but also death and destruction. Choose kindness and wisdom, my Icelandic friends and family seem to be saying.

As it turns out, I’ve developed a growing fondness for both ravens and crows. At our country home, Huldukot, the ravens and crows visit in alternating conspiracies and murders. (That sounds rather ominous, doesn’t it?) Cindy has noticed that when I’m sitting at the dining room table and these birds see me, they call to me to bring them peanuts. She has also noticed that I seem to respond to their calls faster than one of Pavlov’s dogs. So I now welcome each murder and conspiracy as it arrives without any hint of unkindness. And I’m looking forward to seeing the resident ravens of the church welcome people to Gimli from its steeple this summer.

The author with the raven's nest in the steeple behind him.

This post appears as the editorial in the May 1, 2018, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

What's your one Icelandic book?

Last year, Condé Nast Traveler reported that the language learning platform Babbel had asked several ambassadors to the United States to name the one book each would recommend for first-time visitors to read before traveling to their home countries. Twenty-two diplomats responded and, looking over the titles they suggested, my initial reaction was to think: never ask a diplomat for a book recommendation.

That said, the best answer was clearly offered by Iceland’s ambassador to the United States, Geir H. Haarde, who recommended Halldór Laxness’s classic, Independent People. After all, Laxness is Iceland’s only Nobel laureate – so far – and most literary critics consider Independent People his finest work, even though it received mixed reviews from Icelanders when it first appeared. I would personally argue that World Light and even The Fish Can Sing are superior works, but I readily concede that’s a matter of taste.

Recommending Independent People strikes me as a safe choice – one could fairly say it was a perfectly diplomatic recommendation. I can hardly imagine anyone (except me) arguing against it – but I will. Don't get me wrong – I love Independent People and almost everything ever written by Halldór Laxness – but I consider it advanced reading, something for the second- or third-year student of Icelandic literature, not the proper text for a class called “Introduction to Visiting Iceland.”

For Americans on their way to Iceland for the first time, I am inclined to recommend Bill Holm's The Windows of Brimnes, an affectionate portrait by a man who deeply loved both lands. For visitors of Icelandic ancestry, Sally Magnusson's Dreaming of Iceland reveals the country through the eyes of those of us who learned about it from the stories of our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. If you’re more into short stories, W.D. Valgardson’s “The Man From Snæfellsnes” (in two parts) from What Can’t Be Changed Shouldn’t Be Mourned offers an excellent primer for the diaspora Icelander returning “home.”

Specialists might wish to read something that intersects with their interests. Both naturalists and language majors would be moved to read Charles Fergus’s Summer at Little Lava while anthropologists and sociologists might want to consider Karen Oslund's Iceland Imagined. Historians and criminologists might opt for Dominic Cooper's Men at Axlir or Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, which give an accurate flavour of life in past centuries. For psychologists and humourists alike, Einar Már Guðmundsson's Angels of the Universe might inspire them to wonder about everyone they meet on the streets of Reykjavík. 

Now, I understand the desire to read native Icelandic fiction. Several great books immediately leap to mind: Þorbergur Þórðarson's The Stones Speak, Guðbergur Bergsson's The Swan, Gunnar Gunnarsson's The Good Shepherd, Svava Jakobsdóttir's The Lodger and Other Stories, or (for a bit heavier read) Guðmundur Kamban's The Virgin of Skálholt

And before anybody posts something silly in their social media feed about Icelanders and their habits, they should read any one of Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s “little books” – especially The Little Book of the Hidden People. But any of her books, which are all treasures, can save you from the most common clichés about Iceland.

If one must read Laxness, then The Fish Can Sing might be a better first choice, unless one is a theologian, in which case Under the Glacier might be a better pick ... except for liberation theologians, who should go with The Atom Station. Poets might prefer World Light, however, while political scientists should consider the merits of Iceland's Bell.

Once someone has visited Iceland and come face-to-face with the character and peculiar humour of the Icelandic people, then – and perhaps only then – will they really be ready to read Independent People. A friend of mine who is widely read once told me that it was the most depressing book he had ever encountered, which caught me by surprise, since I find it overflowing with that dry humour that is so characteristic of Icelanders. He had read it as a tragedy, whereas I see it as a droll commentary on the Icelandic character, more comedic than tragic. I realized then that a person needs to know Icelanders firsthand before they are capable of fully appreciating Independent People. It’s not a novel for beginners.

Perhaps editors are no better at recommending books than ambassadors. If it hasn’t occurred to you already, I find it difficult to name the one book everyone should read before visiting Iceland. Iceland’s history is too long, its geography too amazing, its people’s opinions too broad, and its culture too deep for any one book to capture the essence of the land and its people. 

If you had to choose, though, what’s your one book that speaks of Iceland?

This post appears as the editorial in the April 15, 2018, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.