The travel and tourism industry of Iceland is happy to advertise how more than half of its country’s inhabitants carry a sincere belief in elves, faeries, lake monsters, and other mythical, if normally invisible, types of life. I’ve since seen this statistic thrown into question, the chief argument being how the polling was skewed into meaninglessness. But it hasn’t mattered. The idea – though not the only contributing factor – was part of the imaginative web or growing root structure that quickly became my obsession with the region. And I do mean obsession. Granted, it wasn’t the only thing, but it fit somehow so perfectly into this compelling idea of place that I’d come to form. It became part of the silent history of this geography of the imagination.
I think the process got its real start some years ago when a former colleague, a cinematographer, posted some offhand comment on Facebook about traveling to Iceland on a job. I was filled with envy for my acquaintance’s peripatetic lifestyle, more than having any specific ideas yet about the region. When some time later I read in an issue of music magazine The Wire about Australian composer Ben Frost’s having relocated to Reykjavik to help found the Bedroom Community record label there, the place itself became more apparent, and more specific. Apparent, that is, and specific as an idea. I knew nothing at the time of Frost, but his comments during the interview set up a curious resonance with me, and I soon became acquainted with his harsh, post-industrial, post-punk noise and orchestral music, and was deeply affected. But aside from this, it was the fact that he’d chosen Iceland, of all places, to live.
While I have no insight into Frost’s reasons for his move, the thought became a seed in my own mind. Soon, I couldn’t stop thinking about the place. People pick up and move – or at least one person moves – to Iceland. There is something there.
I began to think of the movie industry, and again of my cinematographer acquaintance. Iceland is frequently chosen as a prime location for its unique and varied landscape. Batman Begins. Alright. Game of Thrones. Certainly. The recent Aronofsky film Noah. Nice, very.
But none of this adds up to the sheer, obsessive force of what had grown in my imagination. Iceland as a mythic place, Iceland as idea. I knew that I had to go there. I thought about going and never coming back – knowing all the while and full well that an idea about a thing is not the same as the actual thing. I had to go and compare the two and sort it out for myself, if only to dispel this obsession, since it simply wouldn’t leave me alone. It was in the midst of my research that I came across the above-mentioned statistic: more than half of Icelanders quite sincerely believe in faeries. This is often presented, at least in the touristic materials, in an Aren’t we simply so quaint? Don’t you love how silly we can be? sort of tone. But I’d had my own relation to the fae – and while I don’t characterize my relation as belief, exactly, I had given the matter an amount of serious thought. To my reckoning, these critters were delightful, insightful, sometimes helpful (maybe even lifesaving), but just as likely to be capricious, dangerous and downright treacherous. They can turn on you in an eyeblink, and you may not know the reasons why you’ve pissed them off – or if what you’ve done is any part of the equation. They do what they like. They have their reasons. They don’t make sense to us.
Thing or idea? But ideas are things.
And this is the level at which I chose to work – that at which an idea, or an image, or a dream, is a thing. Not a thing like a rock or a landscape, or money (or wait – money actually is an idea, just one that everyone agrees upon), but a thing within its own context of thoughtspace. This is a place where things as ideas can and do have a life of their own. As a novelist, I cultivate this space carefully and work to observe its contents in their development, seeing as how they are both a part of myself and potentially quite something else. Characters take on their own lives. Situations develop spontaneously and surprisingly. Worlds are built, cohere for a time, and then crumble away. Content such as faeries, or UFOs and their attendant intelligence, while perhaps of themselves transcending this realm alone, do inhabit here very well, at least part of the time. The question of the so-called objective reality of these forms is secondary to the work of observation, but the fact that their behavior may oftentimes spill over from one realm to the next, from thoughtspace into objectivity (and back) is, I’ve found, both extraordinary and common; in a word, paradoxical.
As part of this magical spillover of thought and concretized thing, between the mythic and the literal, Iceland – now as faeryland – became a symbol, a constellation of longing. I bought my tickets early, while they were still cheap. I made my plans. I was inwardly terrified, perhaps because I knew that no single place could possibly match up to what my needs were for it, once such longing had crystallized; there is likely nothing that can satisfy that. But I was still going, knowing that on some level the venture would have to be a failure.