Long before George R R Martin ever conceived of Westeros, a true realm of Ice and Fire existed in our world in the form of Iceland. So-called because of the oddity of glaciers and ice fields existing in a land that also has volcanoes and hot springs, this land of ice and fire has a coastline deeply indented by inlets called fjords; mountains, some of which are active volcanoes, that rise from the plateau and sometimes erupt; many geysers that spout steam and scalding water; and massive glaciers that cover one-eighth of its surface – Vatnajokull in the southeast alone is half the size of Wales. Iceland is the most thinly populated country in Europe. However, this small country produced a national literature which became the greatest in Europe during the early middle ages. Although the quality of Icelandic literature fell off somewhat after the middle ages, the country has never lacked poets and writers, and their verses and prose have been strongly influenced by the style of the sagas – a special kind of heroic story, or group of stories. The most famous of these storytellers was Snorri Sturluson, and his best known saga is called the Heimskringla, a historical saga about the rulers of Norway. This storytelling tradition continues to this day when, relative to the size of its population, Iceland publishes more books than almost any other country.
Much of Iceland’s early history is known from the sagas – prose stories of the Norse kings and of Icelandic heroes. There was much fine poetry as well. Most of the stories and poems were handed down by word of mouth before they were written down, and many of them were collected in a 13th century manuscript called the Edda. The Icelandic skalds, or minstrel poets, were well known in northern Europe and sometimes became court bards. From them it is known that a group of Norsemen who had quarrelled with King Harald the Fairhaired of Norway and most of whom were of noble birth, settled in Iceland under the leadership of Ingolfur Arnarson in AD 874. When close to the island, Arnarson threw overboard two great posts from his old house in Norway and said he would build his new home where they floated ashore. They were found in a pleasant inlet near some steaming volcanic springs and the place was named Reykjavik – ‘smoky bay’. Other settlers who followed them lived by fishing and hunting, and those in each district were ruled by a chief who acted as judge and as the leader in their heathen rites, until the coming of Christianity in AD 1000.
The Norse deities were not always worshipped in elaborate temples and holy buildings. Sites of natural beauty were sometimes chosen as idyllic settings in which to venerate the gods. A beautiful lake at Thingvellir near Reykjavik was probably held to be sacred, for example, since the island’s Althing (an annual assembly of free men, which eventually evolved into the nation’s parliament) met nearby during the Viking era. Literary sources also tell of sacrifices brought to groves, rocks and stones, which were believed to represent patron gods. In the poem Hyndluljod, the goddess Freyja tells how her human protege, Ottar, set up a cairn in her honour. Helgafell (‘Holy Mountain’) in Snaefellsness, western Iceland, is mentioned in the Eyrbyggja Saga. Thorolf Mostur-Beard, a devoted follower of the god Thor who emigrated to Iceland, held this mountain to be so sacred that no one was even allowed to look at it if they were unwashed, and no living creature, man nor beast, was to be harmed there.
A sense of foreboding, struggle and hostility pervades Norse creation myths in particular, reflecting the harsh environment typified by much of the Icelandic landscape. The engendering of life, the formation of the cosmos, and the establishment of the heavenly bodies were all seen as determined by the dramatic collision of heat with cold, most vividly typified by volcanic activity in a sub-arctic landscape. The most important source for these Norse beliefs are the tenth-century Voluspa and the thirteenth-century Grimnismal and Vafthrudnismal, three poems which the Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturluson expanded upon from other unknown sources in his detailed account in the Prose Edda. It was in Iceland that most of the Norse myths took the shape in which they have survived until today, and this is not surprising. The idea of intense heat meeting cold to generate life could well have originated in a place where this unusual juxtaposition is commonly seen: Iceland’s ice-covered volcanoes erupt, spewing out boiling lava, flames and steam, and the ice caps melt, flooding the valleys below. In this way, whilst recognisable places do not feature in the Norse creation myths, specific sites or natural features can be identified in this land of ice and fire that provided the inspiration for both the important aspects of Icelandic sagas and, much later, the fantasy novels based on this rich source material.