Iceland is bankrupt. The króna is worthless, the banks are disasters, investors in England and Holland are livid, and people are bracing for difficult times. Nobody knows where they’re going from here, but this economic implosion also threatens Iceland’s cherished independence, a notable part of its medieval past.
You can still see where they did it, where Gizurr Thorvaldsson and his henchmen ambushed Snorri Sturluson. Priest, politician, lawyer, and poet, Snorri loved to lounge al fresco in his steamy pool at Reykholt. There, on his own property, on September 23, 1241, his enemies stabbed him to death, probably in his basement. He kind of had it coming: He had used his relatives as pawns in a series of grand political games that made him the wealthiest and most powerful man in Iceland, but also the greediest and most arrogant—until his former son-in-law sought all of those distinctions for himself.
At tiny Reykholt, modern Icelanders have honored Snorri with a statue. As the author of the Prose Edda, Snorri collected fading wisdom that otherwise would have been lost; Heimskringla, his history of the Norse kings, earned him a reputation as the Nordic Thucydides; and he may be the unnamed author of the brutal and humorous Egil’s Saga. All of that is lovely, but in an age that regards writers as rarely consequential, we ought to remember how belletrist Snorri Sturluson, through wild rapacity, helped bring his country to ruin.
In the 13th century, Icelanders saw themselves as a people in moral freefall. Men of all stations openly took mistresses, lawyers exploited the system, and family and friends broke faith with each other for money, all of which made the ninth through eleventh centuries—the earlier era described in the sagas—seem like a golden age. Iceland’s educated men wrote down those sagas; all the while, the kings of Norway looked for a way to take over.
In Heimskringla, Snorri describes the debate that arises when King Olaf of Norway asks the Icelanders to cede him a barren, outlying island. Some Icelanders are fine with the arrangement, but one man, Einar, plays the contrarian:
I am chary of my words about this business, because no one has asked me. But if you wish to have my opinion, then I would say that it were best for the people of our country not to subject themselves here to pay tribute to King Olaf, nor to all those taxes such as he has imposed on Norwegians. And we would impose that bondage not only on ourselves but both on ourselves and our sons and all our people who live in this land; and that bondage this land would never be free or rid of. And though this king be a good one, as I believe he is, yet it is likely to be the case, as always hitherto, that when there is a change in the succession there will be some kings who are good and some who are bad. But if our countrymen would preserve their freedom, such as they have had ever since they settled here, then it would be best not to let the king get any hold here, whether it be a piece of land or our promises to pay fixed taxes, which might be interpreted as due from subjects.
Snorri wrote that episode; he put those words in Einar’s mouth. But Snorri also sought the patronage of the Norwegian king, which made his countrymen suspicious of him; on the other hand, he smoothed over tensions with Norwegian merchants and averted a Norwegian invasion. But Snorri lived for Snorri, and when he visited Norway in 1237 with a seditious friend and then sailed for home in 1239 without the king’s permission, he was branded a traitor. After Snorri’s killing, the Norwegian king claimed his vast landholdings as compensation. Through recklessness and greed, Snorri had, in death, compromised his country’s independence by giving the Norwegian throne a foothold, thus ending Iceland’s four-century run as a monarchy-free, oligarchic commonwealth. Two decades later, most Icelanders swore oaths of loyalty to the king; within two years, Iceland belonged to Norway.
Independence has long been a hallmark of Icelandic exceptionalism, mostly because it’s been so elusive. After centuries of rule by Norway and Denmark, Iceland achieved independence in 1944 as Denmark was otherwise occupied. The establishment of a NATO base in 1951, so soon after independence, prompted noticeable grief in Iceland, but the latter half of the 20th century was a time of unprecedented wealth and progress—all of which came crashing down last week.
The likely solutions are troubling. There’s talk of an IMF bailout, the króna is being declared “history,” and Iceland may need to join the EU and adopt the euro as its currency. The Russians have offered a massive loan, which troubles old Norway, while strange rumors are circulating that Iceland will let Russia use the now-vacant NATO base. Ominously, the prime minister warned that in times of trouble, “one has to look for new friends.”
History doesn’t repeat itself; that’s a chestnut the Icelanders shouldn’t abide. Suffering now from the schemes of modern Snorris, they also can’t afford to pause and be cautious like Einar. Those of us who are fond of Iceland will hope for a leader who’s made for these times, someone who knows this crisis has no precedent but whose response will show an appreciation for that medieval love of independence—and the value of those first 400 years.