Today is Icelandic National Day (Þjóðhátíðardagurinn), also known as the 75th anniversary of Iceland becoming a republic independent from Denmark. As it happens, two years ago we were in Iceland on that day. We missed everything.
When I first came to Amsterdam, the Pride canal parade was taking place. I spent the entire day record hunting. In Iceland, at least, we went into the country… okay, the Golden Circle… then, when we returned, we discovered something strange. There were Icelandic flags everywhere. Every single store was closed, streets – empty, every restaurant open and filled with people. We finally sat in a pizzeria (very traditional…), where I pulled out my phone and found out what was going on.
Halldór Laxness’s Independent People, which made Iceland the nation with the most Nobel prize winners (i.e. one) per capita, was the second book I read as research for Storytellers. I did not understand a lot of metaphors back then, missing on all the political allusions, my confused eyebrows wandering higher and higher until all of my hair transported itself to the back of my neck. Once I did more research I ended up with a three-page treatise on Jón Sigurðsson, Iceland’s most famous politician of all time, the leader of Icelandic independence movement. I had to cut that out from the book for obvious reasons – its title wasn’t Icelandic History for Beginners – and it wasn’t until our visit to Iceland’s National Museum a year later that I understood exactly how important Jón was.
An impressive display dedicated to Jón, together with its lengthy captions, explains a lot about Iceland back in the 19th century.
In my book Ingvar is trying to make an impression that he and Jón were best of friends. It wouldn’t have been impossible, except that he would have had to befriend Jón on his death bed.
Jón Sigurðsson was born in 1811. At the age of 22 he moved to Copenhagen, where he studied grammar and history. Back in that time this was the only way for Icelanders to get higher education. Jón, however, never actually graduated, instead becoming a politician. In 1844 he was elected to the newly restored Alþing, Icelandic parliament, becoming its president (speaker) despite the fact that he continued to live in Copenhagen, where he eventually died. In fact, the session in 1845 marked the first time he even came to Iceland at all since twelve years earlier, and out of the seventeen bi-annual Alþing sessions held before his death he had only attended thirteen.
The way Jón influenced Icelandic politics was through the written word. He started a yearly magazine, Ný félagsrit (New Association Writings) – the one Ingvar wrote for – and remained its main financial backer and contributor until 1873, six years before Jón’s death. Icelanders, the nation with highest literacy percentage in Europe, read everything they could put their hands on. His influence on the people’s minds was thus much greater than if he had only been one of the Alþing members.
His and his wife Ingibjörg’s house in Copenhagen became an informal social centre for the city’s Icelanders. Despite the fact that he was doing his best to undermine the Danish rule, his main source of income were grants that came largely from the Danish treasury! Therefore the Danish connection with Iceland became its own undoing, even though Jón himself never actually expressed desire for full independence, instead asking for “greater self-rule”. Interestingly the National Museum phrases this as “he was also a controversial figure, in both Denmark and Iceland, due to his leading role in Icelandic politics and the campaign for greater authonomy”. (Italics mine.) If there ever was any other politician who used one country’s money to influence the eventual split of another country from the first one, I am yet to hear about them. Controversial doesn’t seem to be strong enough a word!
Jón died in 1879 after lengthy illness, but the seed he had sown continued to grow. On December 1, 1918 Denmark and Iceland signed an “Act of Union”, which recognized Iceland as a fully independent and sovereign state – the Kingdom of Iceland – freely associated to Denmark in a personal union with the Danish king. (“Freely associated” in a “personal union.” Someone like me – raised in Communism – can’t not smirk at that.) According to the historian Gunnar Karlsson, whose name my main character shares (accidentally – I swear!), one of the reasons was that during the first World War Iceland got essentially cut off from Denmark, yet managed more than well, as that period was the first true time of prosperity for the country – when the others were busy fighting, Iceland was busy exporting all sorts of goods.
Not everyone actually wanted full independence without a personal union, believing that despite the Act of Union stating that the Danish King had the power of veto he would never actually use it. Nevertheless, a clause was inserted into the Act, declaring that it might be revised in 1943. The revision didn’t happen in 1943, since the world was in the midst of World War II. Nevertheless, a year later a referendum was held in Iceland, its results declaring the desire to severe all ties with Denmark (at that time occupied by Germany, while Iceland was being defended by the US Military). The Danish King accepted the results of the referendum and sent a letter congratulating Icelanders on the establishment of a new republic on June 17 – the 133rd anniversary of Jón’s birthday.
My own 2nd anniversary
On June 17, 2017, I had no idea how my own life would unfold, that I would become obsessed with a country that was indeed very pretty and worked as the setting for my novel very well, that I would exchange emails with professor Gunnar Karlsson himself, learn way more than was healthy about Jón Sigurðsson and Icelandic politics in the 19th century. Fittingly, though – which I didn’t know – we went to Þingvellir, the place where Alþing was traditionally held since the Viking times. The main picture at the beginning of the post was taken on June 17, 2017.
Do you know when I realised that?
Approximately a minute ago, when I was looking for photos from June 17.
I’ll leave you now, because I have to go and have goosebumps for a while.