In This Review

How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island
How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island
By Egill Bjarnason
Penguin Books, 2021, 288 pp
Norse America: The Story of a Founding Myth
Norse America: The Story of a Founding Myth
By Gordon Campbell
Oxford University Press, 2021, 272 pp

Two recent books chart the global reach of Scandinavian societies. Every nation harbors its own myths of world-historical greatness—even Iceland. No one is a more enthusiastic advocate for this tiny island than Bjarnason, a journalist who left to make a successful career in the Anglophone world. Reading his account, one would think Iceland is the Forrest Gump of countries: the inadvertent pivot of every major event in modern history. Its volcanic eruptions triggered the French Revolution. Its harbors secured the Allied victory in World War II. Its discreet diplomats helped found Israel, powered the American Bobby Fischer to the world chess title, and aided Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in ending the Cold War. The tales of an Icelandic nanny inspired J. R. R. Tolkien’s sagas. Icelandic scientists prepared U.S. astronauts to walk on the moon, pioneered renewable energy, and provided the data behind gene splicing. And not least, Icelanders living in Greenland came to North America in the eleventh century. 

Campbell’s book seems, at first glance, to be designed to debunk this last claim. He details the remarkable range of fraud and fakery that has characterized efforts to explain the United States’ racial and ethnic origins. Since the Pilgrims landed, religious leaders have been forging archaeological and textual evidence to show that Native Americans were descended from Canaanite and Jewish tribes. Secular scholars have advanced similarly questionable claims about the feats of African, Chinese, Scottish, Turkish, and Welsh explorers. In this vein, racist white Anglo-Saxons in the nineteenth century propounded manufactured claims about a Nordic discovery of the Americas to marginalize Italian Americans, who claimed that honor for Christopher Columbus, as well as Native Americans, who got there first. Yet Campbell ultimately acknowledges the existence of overwhelming archaeological evidence that Greenlanders did, in fact, create the first European settlements in North America, although they appear to have stayed only long enough to harvest lumber and resupply their fishermen.