Ring of Seasons:
Iceland - Its Culture and History

Terry G. Lacy

The University of Michigan Press 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003 http://dannyreviews.com/
Ring of Seasons is made up of more than thirty sections, most of which can stand alone. The longest are historical, collectively making up a continuous narrative history of Iceland, with separate treatment of some specialist topics. Interspersed among these are descriptions of events in the life of an imaginary modern Icelandic family, presented in the first person, and brief portions of myths, tales, and stories. The result offers variety not just in subject but in tone and form, and is an easy volume to browse.

Lacy begins with an introduction to Iceland and Icelanders. This includes pieces on the national temperament ("above all else, Icelanders remain rampant individualists"), geology (Iceland sits right over the mid-Atlantic Ridge), weather, language, eddas and sagas, flora and fauna, and seafaring traditions, ending with an account of a winter feast. The remainder of Ring of Seasons is split up into four parts, one for each season, with the linear history of Iceland mapped onto the year.

"Spring" covers the settlement of Iceland from Norway, touching on the extent of Celtic influence, and the early Commonwealth and the conversion to Christianity; sorcery and pagan survivals are treated separately. Our family is followed through a birth, a marriage, and a death and then through confirmation and Easter. An introduction to the Norse pantheon and creation myths is followed by the story of Thór's journey to Útgardar-Loki.

"Summer" covers the settlement of Greenland and North America, and the history of the Commonwealth to its end in 1262, when the Old Treaty pledged allegiance to the king of Norway. Our family enjoys the first day of summer and a birthday party, while we are treated to a tale about sealskins and some of the stories about Loki.

"Autumn" covers the period from 1262 down to the Reformation and the hard times from 1550 to 1830, beset by volcanoes, climate change, and international politics. There is a separate section on trolls, ghosts and elves ("41% of Icelanders report having had contact with the dead ... the European average was 25%, the Norwegian figure 9%"). There are descriptions of an afternoon coffee and a sausage-making day, and an outline of the story of the outlaw Eyvindur.

"Winter" covers the struggle for independence (achieved in 1918), and the subsequent history of Iceland (becoming a republic in 1944, the Cod Wars with Britain, the US base at Keflavik). A separate chapter "turf houses and filigree belts" surveys 19th century social history. Christmas and New Year's Eve close our family's year, with a comic tale about entry into heaven and stories of Baldur, Loki and Ragnarök as eschatological accompaniment.

Lacy is quite folksy in places, even including a few recipes, but in others she shows a fondness for statistics, incorporating details from polls, surveys, and economic data. And though the presentation is popular, it draws on an impressive range of sources — Cavalli-Sforza on Icelandic gene frequencies, for example — which are fully referenced in endnotes and bibliography. To supplement the text there are sixteen pages of colour photographs.

The result should be just right for the tourist, or anyone else, after a single book on Iceland with substantive content. Lacy is an outsider who has moved to Reykjavik, which may put her in an ideal position to explain Iceland to the world.

June 2003

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%T Ring of Seasons
%S Iceland - Its Culture and History
%A Lacy, Terry G.
%I The University of Michigan Press
%D 1998
%O hardcover, colour photographs, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 047210926X
%P 297pp