This is an island and therefore Unreal.
—W. H. Auden
Letters from Iceland
At the shore of Lake Lagarfljot in the east fjords, we waited for the monster.
From the main road through the town of Egilsstadir, we had walked a gravel drive to a guest house on the lake, and on to this secluded spot on a bit of gravely beach, where even we, who were not paying guests, were unlikely to be disturbed. It looked as good a place as any to see a monster, the long lovely lake drawn out in front of us, its glacial waters edged in low mountains to the sky now mostly covered over in dark clouds. It was just mid-day, but darker than any clear summer night at this latitude. Scott poured out a dram of spirits into our tin cups, because we were travelers traveling in a foreign land, and when you are such, the break from all routine allows concession. We sat and drank and watched the lake for any ripple or rising form, for any disturbance we might claim: we could not explain it.
“Do you think the monster will appear?” I asked Scott, my old friend and traveling companion.
“Certainly not,” he said, “but we should at least give it a chance.”
“Right,” I said. “It should have a chance. This might be the day.”
“As good a day as any,” he said.
Largarfljotsormurinn, the monster of the lake, is said to be a great serpent, a terrible water-worm some 300 meters long, with great humps on its back and covered in nasty spikes. It has lived in these waters a long time, as sightings date back to 1345, the Age of the Sagas, and has been seen as recently as 2012, when a local farmer watched it from his kitchen window while having a morning coffee. He shot some video footage, and yes, you can find it on YouTube. In 1589, the worm breeched the lake’s surface and made an arch so high of its great back a ship could have sailed under it. In 1987, the monster was seen coiled up like a pit viper in an inlet near the popular Atlavik campsite, up the lake from our current location. Other reports claim the monster is an even larger beast, as long as the lake itself (or maybe it is the lake), which is the longest lake in Iceland at 25 kilometers. The lake is as much a wide spot in a river, the River Largarfljot, which flows from the great Vatnajokull glacier (the largest glacier on earth outside the poles), and so down its great and narrow length, a current snakes through, waving from bank to bank and blown willy-nilly on the wind. Glacial water offers poor visibility, a milky blue distinction of glacial silt, and so like all such monsters, it only appears in the darkest occlusion of its murky home.
Undaunted by our task, and with our courage in our cups, Scott and I sat like stoic Vikings at an outpost, waiting for the monster to appear. There was hardly a thing to say, or a thing to say it about, though we went ahead and said it anyway.
“You know Auden traveled here in Iceland, and wrote a book about it,” I said, drawing on my recent reading.
“Is that so,” Scott said. “Interesting.”
“It is,” I said. “_Letters from Iceland_, an unusual form. It’s a series of letters home, but many of them written in verse (Auden was a poet after all), and four of those letters are written to Lord Byron, who, by the way, is dead.”
“Now see,” Scott said. “How does a book like that get published? An odd form. Written as letters in verse. And to a dead poet, no less. Non-traditional as travel books go. And yet, it makes its mark.”
“Well, he’s Auden,” I said. “Or he was. For he is also dead.”
“That seems to be it,” Scott said, “not the dead part, but the name. Who he was. Politics maybe? Or about fame or something?”
“It can be,” I agreed, “but then, you do have to have a good book.”
“Yeah,” Scott said, staring onto the lake. “A good book.”
“I think the secret remains to never give up.”
“Yeah,” Scott said, “I’ve heard that one before.”
And not giving up, we stared into the murky distance to see nothing at all but the rippling waters pushed into shore on a light wind. Some say the lake is dead, that a massive hydroelectric project in the eastern highlands (built 2002-2006) serving Alcoa’s great aluminum smelter down stream, has dramatically increased the water’s turbidity, killing off aquatic vegetation, fish, and bird life. On the surface, Iceland appears to be the world as it once was: clean water and air, a sustainable human population, a place where, in Darwin’s words, “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Turns out, no place on earth is safe from the appetites of nations. How can the monster survive without the fish and birds, unless it takes its sustenance from some other realm?
“I think I see the monster,” I said. “Out in those little waves.”
“I’m sure you do,” Scott said. “Or you will, if we finish this bottle. Here, have another slug.”
The story of the origin of the monster first appeared in print in Icelandic writer Jon Arnason’s two volume collection Icelandic Folktales and Legends (1862 and 1864), and is retold in Jacqueline Simpson’s 1972 book by that same title. It goes like this: long ago, a woman living near the lake gave her daughter a gold ring, and told her to place it beneath a baby lyngorm, a mythical dragon-like creature that loves gold. As the lyngorm grows, she told her daughter, the gold will multiply and make you rich. (Did you think Tolkien made all that up? He was deeply influenced by Icelandic Sagas, as well as Iceland’s landscape. See also Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas, based on Norse myths, which Tolkien claimed has nothing to do with his epic, The Lord of the You-Know-What, but is, nonetheless, too nearly identical.) The girl did as she was instructed, placing the ring and a tiny lyngorm in a box. Days later, she discovered the lyngorm had grown so large the box had begun to split. Frightened, she threw it into the lake: lyngorm, gold, and all. Now set free, the little beast grew into a great monster, and terrorized the local farms and towns. Two men from Finland were called in to destroy it (apparently good at such things), and succeeded only in fettering it to the bottom of the lake. Now mostly harmless, Largarfljotsormurinn rears above the waves now and again, and the sight of it is a sign of things bad to come: foul weather, failed crops, a visit from the mother-in-law.
It’s either that, or this, as suggested by Avram Davidson (American fantasy writer, 1923-1993): notice the parallel between the word “lyngorm” and “long worm,” and the extension to “lingam,” the Sanskrit for the male energy through the phallus (see my first dispatch from Iceland for a deeper exploration of the theme). So instead of a literal reading (little girl catches a little monster that becomes a big monster), try Davidson’s figurative reading: little girl meets a man who develops an erection (the long worm), and then loses her virginity (the splitting box), which, naturally, frightens her. You choose, but take care not to overlook the more important question: is there gold at the bottom of the lake?
Drinking rum and waiting for the monster, Scott and I came to know one of the greatest pleasures of foreign travel: idleness, complete, unfettered freedom to do whatever wherever, and to do it whenever you wish. The only struggle we had was that we are both industrious people, and so imagine how we suffered doing nothing at all, and in doing nothing, still finding nothing more that needed doing.
“Maybe we’re wasting our time,” I finally said. “Sitting here and doing nothing.”
“We’re not doing nothing,” Scott said, checking me. “We’re drinking this rum. We’re waiting for the monster.”
“We are,” I said.
“And it’s a fine and ordinary thing to do,” Scott said.
“In an exotic place,” I added.
“Or an ordinary place,” Scott said, being reasonable. “At least it’s ordinary to the people who live here.”
He was right, of course, and yet Iceland’s image as an exoticism has persisted since Viking settlement a thousand years ago. By the 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans had come to believe that the laws of physics operated differently here, that the plants and animals could be found nowhere else on earth, that Iceland’s Mount Hekla housed the door to Hell, that Iceland was hell. In her fine book, Iceland Imagined, Karen Oslund writes that the image persisted as travelers brought back reports of Iceland as “an isolated place remote from the centers of civilization, covered with ice and fire, shrouded in clouds of poisonous smoke, the inhabitants like doomed souls, begging for relief.” Early maps too pictured Iceland swarming with monsters, and even into modern times the huldufolk, or hidden people (elves, and there are also trolls and whatnot), are a force in people’s lives, evidenced by the group Friends of Lava, who are even in 2014 raising concerns about the impact of a road project near Reykjavik on elvish culture. The eruption of the Laki volcano in 1783 (and later Hekla in 1845) enforced these perceptions, as it drove a famine that killed 20 percent of the population. Such bad press only encourages travelers and adventure seekers, who, in their enthusiasm for the fantastic, regarded Iceland as a place of terrible power and rarified beauty.
Auden too embraced Iceland as a land of smoke and monsters, and wrote extensively about Shakespeare’s great island drama, The Tempest. Cast away on a remote island, the play’s protagonist, Prospero, wields immense magical powers, but he and his daughter Miranda are cut off from the warmth and stability of social congress. He desires most to escape the island and return home to Milan, despite the fact that in order to do so he must break his staff and drown his book, the source of his power, and then face old age and death. The universal opposites of good and evil, spirit and body, freedom and imprisonment are separated into two characters of the island: Ariel, a sprite of the air; and Caliban, a half fish, half man of the earth, a “thing of darkness” (it was Shakespeare, not Tolkien, who dreamed-up Gollum). So the image of the island, writes Auden, “has two possibilities. Either it is the real earthly paradise, in which case it is a place of temporary refreshment for the exhausted hero, a foretaste of rewards to come . . . or it is . . . an illusion caused by black magic to tempt the hero to abandon his quest, and which, when the spell is broken, is seen to be really the desert of barren rock, or a place of horror.”
These images of Iceland, ranging from Earthly paradise to dark horror, did not encourage membership in a world of modernizing nations, and so, according to Oslund, during the Enlightenment, Danish and Icelandic writers “attempted to use their position of authority and privileged knowledge about Iceland… to counter… romantic and wild claims.” They worked hard to transform the image of their country into a more ordinary place. And an ordinary place Iceland is. Turns out, the laws of physics still hold here, Icelandic plant and animal species also live elsewhere, and it is highly unlikely that Mount Hekla is the door to Hell. Moreover, talk about modernizing: Iceland boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world, is friendly to women and same-sex couples, and offers free Wi-Fi everywhere. The wrench in such progress is that tourism has become the number two industry (fishing is number one), and idiot travelers still perpetuate this image of exoticism by sitting at the lake waiting for the monster.
“Well,” I said. “I don’t think it’s going to show.”
“Probably not,” Scott said, checking the bottle.
“Temperature is dropping,” I said.
“Here,” he said, pouring out more rum. “This will warm you up. Let’s wait a bit.”
When I have gone into wild places, my senses come alive, tuned to the earth and air, tuned to the smallest sound or sign of something’s presence or something passing. Though I have never seen a monster, I have always trusted, as Shakespeare knew, that there are more things in heaven and earth, that there is a spirit in the woods. Here, staring onto the lake, I held on to the hope that the monster would appear, and so prove to me that the universe we live in is deeper and wider than did ever plummet sound. I looked hard at the jiggling waters, hoping for a little light from the darkness. I had been imagining this moment for more than a year, imagining Iceland’s eastern fjords and lakes, imagining this lake and its monster. Waiting for a monster is a bit like waiting for the messiah to appear and lead you, a noble pursuit for the faithful, but you risk living out your life in limbo, not having really lived. Maybe the trick is to be ready, but not to wait, to lead yourself while in a state of readiness.
I stood up.
“Ready?” Scott said.
“Yeah,” I said, draining my cup.
Walking back into town, Scott stopped dead in his tracks.
“Shit, man,” he said. “There’s the monster.”
I looked, and sure enough, there along the long white wall of the Netto discount grocery, a painted black form of the monster, head pointed to the left, tail on the right. It had no eyes or fins or distinctions of any kind, just a long, wavy, black form, like a Rorschach.
“That’s her,” Scott said.
“Yeah,” I said. “We found her.”
The next morning, we returned to the Valney Café, where the day before we drank what we proclaimed was the best coffee in Iceland. The front door was open, so we walked in. The old woman, master and commander of the place, sat at a table, hunched over a bowl of something. She raised her head like a moose from a bog, and scowled at us. “No,” she said, her only English, and moved to chase us out the door.
We walked around to the back and sat on a public bench to wait. “The Wi-Fi is on,” Scott said. “We can at least read our mail and such.”
And just as we did so, the signal went out.
“Awe man,” Scott said. “She turned it off.”
“Yeah. She pulled the plug.”
We looked up to see her moosey face in the window, the dark circles of her penetrating eyes violating us.
“The east is failing,” Scott said.
An hour later, we were riding a bus south, to Hofn.