Ice and fire

A Letter from Iceland, the land that sparked a novel about a woman’s self-discovery

Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir writes from Iceland, the land that sparked her novel about a woman’s self-discovery
Polar stratospheric clouds form at high altitudes and at extremely low temperatures

Something strange was happening in the sky this morning, as the sun was coming up over Skagafjörður.

The days are getting longer – we’ve already come a long way since the end of December, when the sun would only show itself for two hours here in Northern Iceland. It may not seem much, but instead we get spectacular dawns and sunsets, and Aurora Borealis from early evening and well into the morning. Skywise, we have very little reason to complain.

People say “This isn’t natural. Daybreak isn’t supposed to be this beautiful”

These last mornings have been extraordinarily beautiful. Local businesses, schools and shops have been forced to open late as people have been distracted on the way to work, making detours and leaving their cars to get a better look at the otherworldly colours in the clear, cold morning sky, every shade imaginable of green, blue, orange, pink and purple.

“This isn’t natural,” you hear people muttering from under scarves, hats and hoods of their parkas. “Daybreak isn’t supposed to be this beautiful.”

But it is, and it feels natural and otherworldly at the same time, all because of a volcanic outbreak in a different time and space. The phenomenon is called Polar Stratospheric Clouds, and scientists have traced it to the Hunga Tonga eruption on the other side of the planet, more than a year ago. The eruption happened underwater, blowing volcanic gasses and sea vapours into the stratosphere. Up there, water is rare, travelling slowly, cautiously making its way across the sky. It’s taken a whole year to reach the sky over Iceland, contributing, unfortunately, to the warming of the planet and thinning of the ozone layer. On the bright side, it’s creating some extraordinary dawns.

That’s the thing about volcanic eruptions – they turn up, in one form or another, when you least expect them. And they may destroy you, or their beauty may bring you to tears.

In my novel, I wanted to exploit the erupting earth as a powerful metaphor for the feminine: an emotional and erotic awakening

Normally, Iceland is very self-sufficient when it comes to volcanic activity – we don’t need Polynesian eruptions on top of our own. The country is basically a cluster of volcanoes, old and new, the tip of the Atlantic Ocean Ridge sticking out of the sea. On average, we see an eruption once every three or four years. Some are devastating, others merely beautiful spectacles, boosting our tourist industry.

“This is the entrance to Hell,” my aunt announced cheerfully on top of Mount Hekla, when I was about five years old. She’d taken the whole family up there for a picnic, scrambling up the slopes; someone must have carried me on their back for most of the way. I remember how peaceful it looked, how good it smelled, blueberries and wild thyme growing on the sides of the fearsome old volcano. My aunt told us how Hekla had ravaged the country in the past, laid waste to entire, fertile valleys, killing the inhabitants. It earned itself such a bad reputation that well into the eighteenth century nobody dared to climb it, as many people believed it actually was the gateway to Hell.

In my novel, I wanted to exploit the erupting earth as a powerful metaphor for the feminine: an emotional and erotic awakening

Since that sunny hike in 1979, Hekla has erupted three times, albeit harmlessly. It has been preparing its next eruption for 23 years now, more than twice as long as usual, the earth’s crust rising and throbbing like an enormous pregnant belly for kilometres around it. When Hekla finally blows, there will be about 30 minutes’ notice to clear the area. I wouldn’t go hiking there today.

Despite all this, Hekla is one of the most popular girl’s names in Iceland. We name our precious, little daughters after the old monster, as if she were a beloved, hot-headed great-aunt.

In my work as a television news journalist, I have always covered volcanic eruptions. My very first story, in 1999, was about a volcanic eruption, and I just might end my days covering one, perhaps falling out of a helicopter into the fiery abyss, shouting: “What a wonderful way to go!”

What can I say? They’re impossible not to love. Beautiful, dramatic, exciting, dangerous, and at the same time optimistically constructive, like a gang of German engineers, as they slowly, painstakingly expand the land, working tirelessly against the forces of erosion, wind, rain and sea. I always thought of eruptions as a super-realistic subject. The people I interviewed for my news stories were scientists, police officers and rescue squad leaders. Their job was to evacuate compromised areas; my job was to get the story and the footage, and tell people to get out of harm’s way. Even after I began writing fiction it didn’t occur to me to include volcanoes in my imagined worlds. Not at first, that is.

Volcanic activity has been a recurrent theme in Icelandic literature since the nineteenth century, when Romantic poets began campaigning for the independence of Iceland, convincing a nation of bookish peasants they were actually “a race bred by ice and fire”. Ever since then volcanoes have been an important part of Icelanders’ self-image, even though most people’s only contact with volcanic activity is basking in one of our excellent geothermal swimming pools, or enjoying cheap, plentiful heating in our homes.

There have been novels about eruptions written in Iceland, mostly historical novels, almost all of them written by men. I will risk generalising and say they deal with the volcanic outbreak as an obstacle, an enemy to be tackled by an enlightened, educated man, a brave knight charging against a dragon.

Peaceful-looking Mount Hekla is the most active volcano in Iceland

When the idea of writing a novel about a volcanic eruption finally came to me, I knew I needed to find a new perspective for the volcanic theme. I wanted to set my story in the present, and I wanted to exploit the erupting earth, not as a monster, but as a powerful metaphor for the feminine: an emotional and erotic awakening, the hidden power of the female body, birth, the constant battle between our intellect and our urges, the cataclysmic and formidable power of love.

I found myself in mostly uncharted waters. Of course, there is a fine literary tradition of upper-class women, such as Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, ruined by their adulterous passion, but they were portrayed by male authors in a different century, and all were young and dependent on their husbands. Their doom lay within their gilded cages, their gender and their times.

The passions of mature, independent women have not really interested that many authors – traditionally, women have been expected to fade into asexual, matronly respectability as they pass their 40s. Which is when, for many women, life becomes really interesting for the first time. I wanted to write about a modern woman – not a pampered, well-bred lady, but a respected, confident scientist who‘s tackled the biggest challenges of her life, raising her children, educating herself and fighting her way to the top of the professional ladder, only to find that she still has undiscovered worlds inside her, needs and dreams she hasn‘t allowed herself to explore.

But exploring these inner worlds may come at a cost, and she might risk destroying her old world as she opens up the hidden compartments in her soul. The volcano could crack open under a thriving, bustling city, vomiting death and destruction over the people living there. The world might never be same again. Nevertheless, I think we need to allow ourselves to climb that volcano, at some point in our lives, to break out of our gilded cages, to find out what beauty we’re capable of. We don’t know what we’ll find there, nor how the experience will change us.

The volcano may turn out to be a peaceful place, smelling of blueberries and wild thyme, or a burning inferno of unfulfilled desires, impossible dreams, failed relationships, an old pain that never healed. But there will be beauty on that journey, and freedom, and grief.

That‘s the thing about eruptions – they turn up, in one form or another, when you least expect them. And they may destroy you, or their beauty may bring you to tears.

Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir’s novel “The Fires” is out now (Amazon Crossing)

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February 2023, Life

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