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The Shire that is Iceland

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The Shire that is Iceland

Review by Júlíana Björnsdóttir.

tales-of-iceland_coverFact number one: Iceland is a peculiar place with funny place names and people who claim to believe in elves and huldafólk (‘hidden people’).

All those who know me, either share my passion for travels or are blatantly aware of that passion. They know, either pretending or actually comprehending, my need to travel unbound by routine and roots. It is the nature of the natural born traveler to sniff the air and inhale it for sake of curiosity, taking in the novelty lands under excavation. It’s not about gathering an enormous amount of factual data or researched information but the deeply personal and individual experience.

The thread tying together all the witty—sometimes crude—remarks and the poetic and picturesque images the author paints with words alone of Icelandic landscape is the curious observer and equally passionate traveler, Stephen Markley.

Fuelled by passion for his topic, a destination he once upon a time discovered through the audacious but clearly effective words of Quentin Tarantino, he is constantly alert and awake and taking in the sights and the people passing him by and lending a word or two, or giving him an impression of the national character.

As with all travel books in the first person narrative, the writer and his companions become the protagonists and the story a depiction of personal experiences. In the case of Tales of Iceland or Running with the Huldufólk in the Permanent Daylight, Stephen Markley is the first person narrator narrating a tale of an exotic journey through Iceland’s rough landscape and giving an account of his relationship with his two friends and companions, Trin and Bojo on the road.

As a traveler myself, I was immediately drawn by the very first sentence, a question with a semi-answer as to why we choose to travel where we travel and the inspirations behind our pre-selected destinations.

Iceland, as Markley explains, was one such pre-decided destination. The idea of Iceland came to him from director Quentin Tarantino but as his journey unfolds, it takes on a Markley-ish shape and the superficial “supermodels working in McDonald’s” sentence, is forgotten.

Like a good thesis, the opening chapter is the mission statement without the academic references, and the final chapter the closing words, the summoning together of the topic.

From a superficial imagery and vague idea of the country Iceland, Markley’s final words are philosophic at heart and poetic in structure. A thoughtful contemplation that on less than two pages ties together the whole journey and the romantic in him that is overwhelmed by the extraordinary nature Icelanders too often take for granted.

His own passion for the environment and fear of what may be is contagious, and in particular his concerns for our glaciers and their gradual disappearance with all the environmental catastrophes that may cause.

His perspective of the Icelandic national character as drawn up in one of Halldór Laxness’ most famous works, Independent People, is perhaps a little more accurate than we are willing to admit ourselves: “The love of freedom and independence has always been a characteristic of the Icelandic people. Iceland was originally colonized by freeborn chieftains who would rather live and die in isolation than serve a foreign king.”

Icelanders are indeed a tribe of people whose need for independence is fierce. It is perhaps the reason why Icelandic women are among the most liberated in the western world and why liberal views generally thrive in Icelandic society.

But it’s the pride that is sometimes the downfall of the eagerly independent people, and the need to stand on our own two feet and create a basis for economic prosperity using (in excess at times) our natural resources.

As an environmentalist myself, it may be my consent of his beliefs and fears for the future of our planet, but as he points out, Icelandic nature has not gone unharmed from mankind’s mistreatment of it.

Albeit the book is primarily intended for American travelers, it does succeed in interesting Icelanders to explore, either for the first time or once more, places such as Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe or the glacial kingdoms many of us are yet to explore despite the great proximity.

Despite the on-the-surface Kerouacian laddish adventures on the road, it is more than that. As a protagonist, he is not shy to be himself and letting the reader see him for who he is, or how profoundly the journey unites the three friends in unbreakable bonds of friendship.

The boyish remarks and sometimes inaccurate interpretation of Iceland and Icelanders as locals see their land and themselves may seem slightly obnoxious, but as Markley clearly states in the opening chapter, the book is not a guide to Iceland but “travel-lit with a distinctly Markleayn flare.”

And that’s precisely what it is.

Markley is a modern-day explorer who offers a unique and sometimes provocative view of his destination. He is unafraid to speak his mind, perhaps much to the discomfort of some, but also much to the enjoyment of others.

From boyish nonsense interpretation to heartfelt poesy, Markley’s book is a damn good read in league with J. Marteen Troost’s hilarious but endearing Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu. Like Troost, Markley’s voice is distinctly his.

Maybe it’s the starving traveler in me but I so enjoyed the boyish and romantic (in the literary sense) narrative. Markley’s sense of humor combined with the experience of a mature traveler is an irresistible fusion for both the seasoned traveler and ‘friends of Iceland’ (people who’ve traveled to Iceland), the Icelander who’s never ever traveled abroad and everyone up for a light-hearted and sometimes hilarious travel tale but also heartwarming appreciation of little Iceland.

stars35Tales of Iceland or Running with the Huldufólk in the Permanent Daylight is available on Amazon.

Júlíana Björnsdóttir – [email protected]

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