by Sabine Baring-Gould

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas is a fantastic adventure, and Baring-Gould is an excellent guide on this journey through this beautiful land in the 1860s – a time when her population was estimated at 1,862; in other words, it is an Iceland long gone, that we can hope to glimpse now only through historical narratives such as this. This is a fine winter’s read, to be enjoyed while tucked up by the fire with a mug of tea or hot chocolate, sequestered from the outer cold. The book is longish and rambling, reflecting the slower pace and readerly patience of the 19th century; so, it would not be to everyone’s liking.


I enjoyed Baring-Gould’s descriptions of the waterfalls, geysers, and volcanoes: vast works of nature unencumbered by modern tourist conveniences and safety precautions. I enjoyed, too, his shared thoughts on the local people and their ways of living, which he highlights with snippets of dialogue (some of which is hilarious). I like, especially, the way that B-G interweaves his travelogue with bits of Icelandic sagas that relate to the particular area he was exploring at the time. These stories seem crucial to the understanding of the place, and they are fascinating and entertaining in their own right – provided one is interested in folklore, that is (which I am).


It is important to keep in mind that this perspective on Iceland and its inhabitants is that of a Victorian English parson, teacher, and bonafide eccentric, whose intellectual and social accomplishments spanned many areas, but whose attitudes reflected the social mores of his time; for one cannot help but notice that, while he admires some of the Icelanders, he speaks of them, overall, with a condscension that would be viewed as culturally insensitive and ignorant were it to appear in travel writing today. I believe that sort of attitude – especially by Colonialists – was so normal as to go unnoticed then, so I do not want to retroactively judge him for it (but then, I am not an Icelander, and if I were, I might feel differently).


I read this book not because I have such a fascination with Iceland, but because I have a fascination with Baring-Gould and I’d enjoyed reading some of his works on mythology and folklore. Having said that, I do now have a fascination with Iceland, thanks to this book! I am officially enamored of the place now, and I look forward to visiting there one day. I could not help but wonder, as I read, what Baring-Gould and Bjork would have thought of one another, and what kind of conversations they might have had, had they found themselves together pondering icebergs, in some parallel universe where time loops back on itself.