Over the summer, several people have asked me, after I tell them what I’m researching, whether the books I’m looking at are actually enjoyable to read or just another dry primary source, as dreary and monotonous as many travelers found Iceland’s vistas during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As with most things, the answer depends (largely on the book and certain chapters of each book), but for the most part I’ve flipped through hundreds of pages of travel literature with pleasure, not only because I know I’m being productive despite the beautiful day two floors above me outside Cornell’s Olin Library, but also because I find the Victorian British style of these authors–most of the works I’ve read so far were published between 1850 and 1880–quite engaging and fun to read.
Consider, for example, the following excerpts from Sabine Baring-Gould’s description of Námarskarð, an area full of hot mud springs in northern Iceland, in his 1863 book, Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas:
Passing through the Námar-skarth, a winding cleft in the mountain, I came upon a most appalling scene.
Picture to yourself a plain of mud, the wash from the hills, bounded by a lava field; the mountains steaming to their very tops, and depositing sulphur, the primrose hue of which gives extraordinary brightness to the landscape. From the plain vast clouds of steam rise into the air and roll in heavy whorls before the wind, whilst a low drumming sound proceeding from them tells of the fearful agencies at work.
What I like about this paragraph is that when I follow his instructions and picture the scene in my mind, what I see is not ‘appalling’, but fantastic and beautiful, something like the modern photograph above. The divide between what was considered ‘natural beauty’ in the 1860s and today is one that will be a very important part of my work, making Baring-Gould’s account useful for examining perceptions of Icelandic landscape in addition to being humorous and interesting for the lay reader. On the next page, the Britisher elaborates on the experience:
It is not pleasant walking over the mud; you feel that only a thin crust separates you from the scalding mater below, which is relieving itself at the steaming vents … The thundering and throbbing of these boilers, the thud, thud of the hot waves chafing their barriers, the hissing and spluttering of the smaller fumaroles, the plop-plop of the little mudpools, and above all, the scream of a steam-whistle at the edge of a blue slime-pond, produce an effect truly horrible.
In some of the chaldrons [sic] mud is boiling furiously, sending sundry squirts into the air; in others, bells of black filth rise and explode into scalding sprinklings; in one, a foaming curd forms on the fluid, and the whole mass palpitates gently for a minute, then throbs violently, surges up the well, and bursts into a frenzied roaring pool of slush, squirting, reeling, whirling, in paroxysms, against the crumbling sides, which melt like butter before its fury.
The poetical detail imbued with Baring-Gould’s disgust is truly remarkable; before reading the lyrical invective describing Námarskarð I never would have guessed that someone could detest so strongly–or even illustrate so wonderfully–a natural feature like hot mud springs. It’s accounts like these that keep me turning pages, hoping to find another gem where the author takes half a chapter to recount for his reader a marvel hellish enough to be the product of ‘fearful agencies’, and knowing that the descriptions aren’t necessarily exaggerated (although Baring-Gould claimed to experience the pits of Námarskarð in his nightmares).
When men like Baring-Gould were treading carefully around mud pits and steaming vents with the smell of brimstone (i.e. sulfur) in the air, it was easy for them to imagine their surroundings as the domain of demons and ghosts, and play their descriptions up to appear even more infernal. But overall it was the lava–wild, black, and jagged–that bore the brunt of travelers’ abuse and made the most frequent impressions on the author’s mind, and I’ll share some amusing passages I’ve found in my next post on Iceland.