Magnus Magnusson left Iceland as an infant, but has remained fascinated by its elvish folklore and spectacular volcanoes. The doyen of the TV quiz takes Jackie McGlone on a tour of his homeland
Saturday 27 March 2004
Briar pipe clamped firmly between his teeth, Magnus Magnusson emerges from Iceland's Garden of Eden with a wide grin on his craggy face. This Eden is a vast market garden-cum-supermarket on the road to Reykjavik. In its smoking area, the 74-year-old former
Mastermind interrogator has encountered his country's leading astro-physicist, who is holding a seminar on how the northern lights affect the migration patterns of wild geese.
Briar pipe clamped firmly between his teeth, Magnus Magnusson emerges from Iceland's Garden of Eden with a wide grin on his craggy face. This Eden is a vast market garden-cum-supermarket on the road to Reykjavik. In its smoking area, the 74-year-old former Mastermind interrogator has encountered his country's leading astro-physicist, who is holding a seminar on how the northern lights affect the migration patterns of wild geese.
"Fascinating," he exclaims through a wreath of tobacco smoke, his blue eyes bright with excitement. "I sat there and listened to this man talking about birds and the aurora borealis and had a good puff on my pipe."
While Magnus enjoyed the combination of lecture and tobacco, I have been picking and tasting bananas with his eldest daughter, Sally. All manner of exotic plants thrive in tropical heat generated by the hot springs bubbling beneath Hveragerdi, a small town which suffers close to 100 earthquakes a day. Fortunately, few are strong enough to register on the Richter scale. Hveragerdi sums up modern Iceland - a highly technological place forever on the boil and always on the edge of chaos.
Outside, the sun shines in a cloudless blue sky, the clear air sparkles like champagne and the temperature is well below freezing, even though it is four years since Icelanders saw anything resembling serious snow. Even Magnus, who has been determined to show his Viking mettle by slipping and sliding over ice-encrusted lava fields wearing nothing more than flannels, a checked shirt and tweed jacket, has been persuaded to borrow a cosy fleece and an anorak from our driver.
It's our second day in Iceland and Magnus has effortlessly assumed the role of tour guide, talking enthusiastically about the land of his birth while obligingly posing for British tourists who can't believe they have stumbled across Iceland's most famous son at the Great Geysir, one of the most famous spouting hot springs in the world. What a photo opportunity. At home he is a national hero and locals shyly welcome him back. Sally Magnusson reckons that walking around Reykjavik with her father is akin to wandering around Edinburgh in the company of Sean Connery.
We are here for some sightseeing and to publicise the launch of Sally's book, Dreaming of Iceland. This is rapidly turning out to be a saga tour: not a holiday for the over-50s, but a journey through the legends and folklore of this explosive nation. Magnusson is a beguiling storyteller and, in the late 1960s, actually was a professional saga tour guide. "I live in an Icelandic time-warp," he confesses. "My world is that of people who lived by preposterous heroic principles."
Magnusson's father was Iceland's consul in Edinburgh, and his parents, Sigursteinn and Ingibjorg, took him to Britain when he was eight months old. Despite spending such a short time in the land of his birth, Magnus speaks fluent Icelandic and is steeped in the island's culture - particularly its epic medieval stories about heroes and giants, many written in the years immediately after the first settlers arrived on the island.
"Ah, those were the days when men were men and - by a very happy coincidence - women were women," sighs the broadcaster and writer. Magnusson may have grown up in bourgeois Britain but he has remained a stoical Viking at heart, with a grand passion for his homeland.
Sally, a BBC broadcaster who is best known for presenting Songs of Praise, says her father comes from a country that is built on words. Accordingly, he is a stickler for correct grammar in both English or Icelandic. Indeed, he is so fastidious that she describes travelling around Iceland with him in 2000 to research her book as "like hanging out with Dr Johnson".
"Viking" may be useful shorthand to describe Icelanders, but Magnusson rarely uses the word. The Vikings - probably taking their name from the old norse word vik, or bay - were in reality a multi-national tribe of Nordic seafarers who did not exist as a single people. "It's important to get it right," says the erstwhile quiz master, who spent a quarter of a century grilling Mastermind contestants for answers.
The hottest tourist spot on this volcanic island, which is home to just over 280,000 people and a smattering of tourists, is the Blue Lagoon, a steamy, sulphur-laden pool just off the main highway between Keflavik airport and Reykjavik. On our way there we travel along "the road to nowhere", a highway that cuts through a dark, primeval landscape closely resembling the surface of the moon. There are places in Iceland where American astronauts practised for their lunar landing, while scenes from the Angelina Jolie film Tomb Raider, and an eight-minute chase sequence for the Bond movie Die Another Day, were filmed here.
It is obvious why movie directors warm to this bizarre volcanic wilderness. "Look," Magnus urges, excitedly pointing out eerie forms amid the moss-covered lava boulders. "There's a troll! And over there that could be an evil spirit... and is that an ogre?" He imbues bare rocks with malignant life and is convinced that the elves - the "Hidden People" - are everywhere.
Launching into another enthralling folk tale, he explains how some Icelandic roads have been realigned out of respect for an elf-mound or a dwarf-rock. "The elves were created by God when He visited Adam and Eve unannounced one Saturday, traditionally bath night in Iceland," he says. "After only managing to bathe half her children before their visitor arrived, Eve panicked. Ashamed to place dirty children before Him, she hid them. When God asked if the well-scrubbed line-up represented all her children, she said yes. Her lie was instantly detected and her punishment pronounced - since Eve had not let God see these children they were to be kept from the sight of men as well, for the rest of time. So the "Hidden People" became the elves - life-sized beings living parallel lives to ours, but who are never seen."
Sally raises an eyebrow at this story, even though it appears in her book. As we drive past Hafnarfjordur, a harbour town on the outskirts of Reykjavik, she claims that she was once told that "20,000 people live here - the ones you can see, anyway". The rest are said to live among the rampaging lava on which the town is built. The Hafnarfjordur tourist industry is increasingly dependent on the elves - visitors are now taken on a "seeing is believing" tour that explores the hidden worlds of Icelandic folklore, while the town's publicity material claims it is "is home to Iceland's largest community of elves, dwarfs and Hidden People".
We drive past the Chapel of the Lava, a small ruined shrine on the edge of a lava quarry. Uncovered by archaelogists in the 1950s along with a 15th-century figurine of St Barbara, patron saint of dynamiters, it's a place that Magnus loves for its plangent sense of history.
"I find it every bit as romantic as the discovery of Troy," he says. "Imagine walking across this kind of terrain in the Middle Ages, with no lights anywhere, and hoping against hope that you would get through, especially in winter. Then you would suddenly find this wayside chapel where you could shelter overnight and pray to the patron saint. As we whizz along this Icelandic M25, remember the terrible ordeal people faced to travel anywhere. The only reason they could do so was the Icelandic horse, that great coloniser of Iceland, for which I have enormous affection. It's said that you cannot fall off one since it sidesteps beneath you. I once hoped to bring a test case of being drunk in charge of an Icelandic horse - my defence would have been that the horse was in charge of me."
We pull into the Blue Lagoon, which is actually a huge, natural bath created by the run-off from a nearby geothermal plant. There's an elegant chalet-style hotel here which is the epitome of Nordic cool: all polished wood and gleaming glass with lava on the walls. The restaurant was recently voted one of the top 50 in the world by a gourmet magazine, a reputation that is fully deserved if our meal of lobster bisque and lamb that melts in the mouth is typical fare.
"Have you brought your swimming costume?" Sally mischievously asks her father. "Of course not - I don't even own one. As you well know, I've never soiled myself in those sulphurous waters, so to speak," he replies. With that he moseys off to puff on his pipe as everyone else takes a dip in the milky pool. While bathers wallow in the heat, their faces tingling in the sharp night air, they slap on handfuls of squelchy grey mud. The main ingredient of this is silica clay, reputedly good for skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema.
The following morning, Magnusson shares the microphone with Susanna, our tourist office guide, whose knowledge of the country is encyclopaedic. We plan to explore some of Iceland's most historic sites and Magnusson is determined to show off those famous horses, which someone has foolishly described as looking "like an overgrown Shetland pony". "What a solecism," he snorts.
We call at Laxnes, the childhood home of the late Nobel prize-winning Icelandic novelist Halldor Laxness, whose work Magnusson has translated. "He has become this nation's darling, a very great man," says Magnusson as we drive up to the farmhouse. A bemused but obliging farmer instantly produces 50 sturdy Icelandic horses, their silky manes flowing in the icy wind, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be invaded by a minibusload of visitors led by Magnus Magnusson.
Clearly moved, Magnusson stands outside the small farmhouse where his literary hero and old friend grew up. "I've never been to this house before, although I visited Laxness at his estate nearby many times. This is a special moment," he says. He points out where the young author would sit in the lee of a huge rock and write furiously, convinced that he would die at 17. He lived to be 96, "an uncrowned king" in this most ardent of republics.
And so to the world's first parliament at Thingvellir, a great, grassy plain on the northern shore of the largest lake on the island. "This is a magical, incomparable place," says Magnusson. "It's the cradle of Iceland's history, the centre of stillness in the land, the heart and soul of the nation." Today it is also a national park, blessedly empty of man-made monuments, even though it is as significant as Westminster and Runnymede combined.
"It was here, on a day in late June 930, that the people of this country came together for the first time to found a state, after 60 years of pioneering settlement. What a birthplace," he says.
Thingvellir is indeed mystical. It is a huge natural arena, formed when the land collapsed in a convulsive episode of geological subsidence thousands of years ago. Left behind was a great depression some 40 kilometres long and ten kilometres wide, bounded on both sides by cliffs of riven lava.
There is space, shelter, water and pasture, along with a mighty rock from which the Speaker proclaimed the laws. "Every stick and every stone has a story to tell," says Magnus. In the year 1000, he says, Iceland converted from paganism to Christianity, "without the civil war and bloodshed which disfigured the conversion of so many other countries to the new faith. And for that we must give much credit to Thingvellir and the profound spiritual authority of this birthplace of the grandmother of parliaments".
Tempting as it is to linger at this spectacular spot, we are soon whisked off to Gullfoss. This translates as the Golden Falls, where the White River plunges over two broad thresholds and crowds into a thunderous canyon. On sunny afternoons there is a permanent rainbow arching over the falls from the constant curtain of fine spray. In hard frosts, the banks freeze over, and giant icicles create forests of natural chandeliers.
"Shall I tell you another story?" asks Magnusson. "The treacherous river above the falls was forded in 1696, when a young man on the west bank spied a lovely girl living on a farm on the eastern side. Without further ado, he shouted a proposal of marriage to her. She accepted, but only on condition that he prove his love, and his manhood, by coming over to get her straight away.
"Undaunted, he plunged into the river and crossed it safely; they married and became the progenitors of a noted Icelandic dynasty, the Thoroddsen family.
"A century later, their great-great-great-grandson, Jon Thoroddsen, became Iceland's first novelist. The title of his novel? Piltur og stulka -- A Boy and a Girl. Dead romantic, eh? Now, let me tell you about how, when the gods were angry, the lava on which we're standing would flow. Oh, that reminds me of the great Viking pledge which I have taken - to live to be 100 or die in the attempt, so that I can keep coming back to this land that is more than a homeland to me. It is a crusade." Magnus Magnusson is a true a Viking at heart.
You can fly from Heathrow or Glasgow to Keflavik, near the capital Reykjavik, on Icelandair (0845 758 1111; www.icelandair.co.uk). Tickets for travel in May are available at £134 from Heathrow, £156 from Glasgow. The no-frills alternative is Iceland Express (0870 850 0737, www.icelandexpress.com) from Stansted; a typical fare for May is £150 return.
There are hotels and guesthouses to suit all tastes and most budgets. At the lower end of the price scale you could try Icelandic Farm Holidays (00 354 570 2700; www.farmholidays.is) or youth and family hostels (00 354 553 8110; www.hostel.is), while for luxurious living try Reykjavik's magnificent and expensive Art Deco Hotel Borg, built by Iceland's strongest man. Icelandair has eight hotels in Iceland, including the four-star Nordica in Reykjavik (00 354 444 5000; www.icehotels.is).
The Reykjavik Arts Festival runs from May 14-31. Visit www.listahatid.is for details of the events on offer and to book tickets.
"Dreaming of Iceland: The Lure of a Family Legend" by Sally Magnusson is published by Hodder & Stoughton priced at £16.99
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