- Iceland Imagined: Nature, Culture, and Storytelling in the North Atlantic by Karen Oslund
“Iceland Imagined examines how Iceland and the rest of the North Atlantic region, which includes Greenland, northern Norway, and the Faroe Islands . . . have been envisioned by travelers and observers from the eighteenth century to the time of the Second World War,” Karen Oslund states in the introduction to this provocative book. But this is not her only goal, because the “book is also a cultural history of the North Atlantic as a European periphery. The North Atlantic, which was in the eighteenth century a marginalized region of the Danish-Norwegian kingdom, was gradually transformed—culturally, environmentally, and technologically—into modernity” (p. 7). Iceland Imagined deals therefore with both how the North Atlantic was perceived by observers coming from the outside and how the various areas in the region were slowly drawn into the “modern” world.
This is a tall order for a short book, because the North Atlantic, especially as it is defined here—stretching from Greenland’s west coast to northern Norway—spans an immense geographic space that has a great variety of cultures. Moreover, it became a popular destination for European and American tourists and scientists in the period investigated in the book, and therefore Oslund has a large corpus of travel books to work with. She solves this challenge by focusing on a few fairly disparate themes—including travelers’ visions of Icelandic [End Page 465] nature, accounts of Inuit hunting methods in Greenland, and language debates in the Faroe Islands—that together illustrate what can be called gradual “Europeanization” of the various societies in the region and the “domestication” of its natural environment. At the same time as the cultures of the perceived “savages” or “uncivilized natives” of the North were transformed into—or at least connected to—“Europe,” the wild and exotic nature of the region was tamed by placing it into the scientific systems developed from the time of the European Enlightenment to the present.
Oslund’s approach is clearly inspired by Edward Said’s influential study Orientalism (cf. pp. x, 9–11). Using travel literature, she demonstrates how the outsiders (“the Europeans”) constructed their image of the “Boreal” world. To them, the peoples of the region were primitive, poor, and simple, thus positioning the North in clear contrast with the “civilized West” or, in the nineteenth century thinking, with “Europe.” Oslund convincingly demonstrates, however, that while what can be termed as the “Borealist” vision of the North was strikingly similar to the Orientalism analyzed by Said, these perceptions were not identical; “the North” was, after all, partly in “Europe” and the aim was always to bring it from the cold into the “European civilization.”
Iceland Imagined can thus be read as a critical study of the construction of alterity; that is, of how “Europeans” defined themselves through their investigation—and imagination—of the “other.” But it is striking though how uncritically Oslund accepts some of the fundamental premises of the Borealist eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discourses. Thus the basic geographic and cultural categories of the book—the “North Atlantic” and “Europe” on the one hand, and “the natives of the North Atlantic” and “the Europeans” on the other (cf. p. 155)—are not questioned in any systematic manner, in part, perhaps, because the North Atlantic looks equally exotic to her as it did to the explorers of the past. Travelers of today, she writes, feel the same “sense of confusion, of disorientation bordering on illness” as their eighteenth-century counterparts when they arrive in Iceland for the first time. “This confusion is one of the ways in which the traveler realizes that he or she has arrived in the borderlands, a place that is just slightly off the edges of the map of the known world” (p. 169). She observes similar exoticness in the Icelandic society. The modern appearance of Reykjavík is, for example, a mere façade, masking the Icelanders’ obsession with their distant past: “The architecture and sounds...