by Einar Leif Nielsen

Iceland has been infused with horror and fantasy since it was settled in the 9th century. The settlers brought with them the Nordic gods and stories about strange creatures that lurk in the night. Since settlement Icelanders have created their own myths, written sagas and passed down folk tales with hidden people, ghosts, trolls, merfolk and other fantastical creatures. In the 9th and 10th centuries Icelandic traders sold narwhal horns as unicorn horns all over Europe, stories of new lands found in the west reached the mainland and the volcano Hekla was thought to be a gateway to hell itself. So Iceland became part of the fantastical north in the minds of Europeans.

Iceland’s connection with science fiction is younger, but still quite a bit older than the genre itself. The astronomer Johannes Kepler, best known for his laws of planetary motion, wrote a novel in 1608 called Somnium. The novel could be called an early work of pre-science fiction. The book’s protagonist is an Icelandic boy named Duractus. His Mother is a witch named Fiolhilde. Note these are not Icelandic names, not even close. In the novel, Duractus is sold to a sailor, who then leaves the boy with Tycho Brahe. When Duractus returns home his mother is impressed with his knowledge and teaches him to summon demons that can travel to Levania, which is the Moon by another name. Levania and its inhabitants are described in detail but Duractus never manages to get there before the book ends.

Usually when courses on science fiction are taught they start with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein in 1818. It makes a lot of sense as Frankenstein is pure science fiction and the book created tropes that are still  used today. Somnium seems to be a book where the author lets their creativity run free and even though it does contain descriptions of the moon and its inhabitants, one can still question whether it is science fiction or fantasy.

The next time Iceland was referenced in a science fiction novel was in 1864. That year Jules Verne published his second novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. The novel is a classic and was a bestseller in its time. At the start of the novel, a character called Professor Otto Lidenbrock finds hints of a passage to the center of the world in an old Icelandic saga. The sagas themselves have influenced a lot of fiction and it would be easy to write a whole essay about those influences. So it is nice to see them as the catalyst for this story. Otto and his fellow adventurers travel from Hamburg to Reykjavík and there onward to Snæfellsjökull. There the team travels into a subterranean world full of wonders. Journey to the Center of the Earth is not the first subterranean novel but it did influence many that came after, for example The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle. Verne did a lot of research for the novel, although it might not seem like it now, but he started the tradition of hard science fiction which is still a big part of modern sci-fi.

Not only was the novel influenced by Iceland, it seems like Iceland was influenced by the novel. Snæfellsjökull is a small glacier and an active volcano. It has a rich history and locals view it with love and respect. There are old stories of trolls and magic connected to the glacier but Verne’s novel seems to have added to those mysteries. So much so that UFO enthusiasts took an interest in Snæfellsjökull in the 90s and on November 5th, 1993 they gathered on the glacier in hopes of greeting aliens. This didn’t pan out but it further enriched the history of the glacier in the eyes of Icelanders.

This connection to one of the most famous stories in science fiction interested Icelanders so much that the novel was translated in 1944. Which makes it one of the earliest translations of science fiction into Icelandic. By comparison, Frankenstein by Shelley wasn’t translated until 2006. Journey to the Center of the Earth has been filmed many times but the most recent blockbuster based on the book was released in 2008. Many of the non-subterranean scenes were filmed in Iceland and the movie’s female lead was Icelandic.

Like Kepler Verne never visited Iceland. It just seems to have been a mysterious island where  both of them could to set the novels. Although Verne’s research was a lot better. But at the start of the 20th century Iceland modernized and lost some of its mythological status. In the 21st century, it has become a hub for science fiction filmmaking and tourism. Still, some of the mysteries can be found in raw nature which makes up most of the island.