Jules Verne & Icelandic Horse

During random internet surfing, I discovered the web site for Icelandic Mountain Horses, owned by Sharon and Garry Snook.  Their site features the following intriguing quote from A Journey to the Center of the Earth, published by Jules Verne in 1864: "I begin to think no animal is more intelligent than an Icelandic Horse. Snow, tempest, impracticable roads, rocks, icebergs - nothing stops him. He is brave; he is sober; he is safe; he never makes a false step, never glides nor slips from his path."   How did Jules Verne get to know Icelandic horses so well, I wondered?  Having come across the quote, I just had to research how Jules Verne ever came up with such an appealing description of these fascinating horses. 

To start, I re-read A Journey to the Center of the Earth to discover why Icelandic horses are mentioned in the novel.  The novel begins with Harry, the unwilling and not very brave protagonist of the novel, living with his uncle, Professor Hardwigg, in Hamburg, Germany.  The Professor, an expert in mineralogy and geology, finds an old manuscript written by Arne Saknussemm, a learned Icelandic scholar and alchemist in the 1500s.  The manuscript is written in code in the old Runic language of Iceland— (“Runic alphabet,” 2011).  Harry and the Professor experience a great deal of frustration trying to decipher this document. 

If you have ever struggled to type the names of Icelandic horses in their Icelandic version (which are at least based on Latin characters) using the modern letters  “ó” “ő” or “þ” on an English keyboard, you will have just a small sense of the difficulty the heroes faced in this task.  As Harry laments, “Now I had a strong conviction that the Runic alphabet and dialect were simply an invention to mystify poor human nature…” (Verne, 1993 ed., p. 436).  Harry and Professor Hardwigg finally decode the manuscript after trying the old words-are-spelled-backwards stratagem. 

Etching of Snaefell Jökull—Iceland  Source 1
The mysterious manuscript reveals that the Icelander Arne Saknussemm found an entrance to the center of the earth through the crater of the extinct volcano Mount Sneffels in Iceland.     Harry argues that “All scientific teaching, theoretical and practical, shows it to be impossible” (Verne, 1993 ed., p. 453) since scientists believe that the center of the earth is molten.  The Professor cares nothing for theories and responds that “the only way to learn is, like Arne Saknusssemm, to go and see” (Verne, 1993 ed., p. 454).  (After all, why should a little science ever get in the way of a good science fiction story?)  So after this heated debate, the Professor organizes an expedition to Iceland— which Harry reluctantly accompanies. 

Verne succinctly describes their journey from Hamburg to Copenhagen to Reykjawik (Verne’s spelling).  Surprisingly, almost one fourth of the novel focuses on the journey through Iceland to Mount Sneffels.  One of the more amusing stories involves Professor Hardwigg visiting the public library in Reykjawik to search for additional works by Arne Saknussemm.  The Professor is flummoxed to find mostly empty shelves and points out the lack of books to his local host Mr. Fridriksson, who cheerfully explains that the library contains 8,000 volumes.  When the Professor asks where they are, Mr. Fridriksson elucidates: “Scattered over the country, Professor Hardwigg.  We are very studious, my dear sir, though we do live in Iceland.  Every farmer, every laborer, every fisherman can both read and write—and we think that books instead of being locked up in cupboards, far from the sight of students, should be distributed as widely as possible.  The books of our library are, therefore, passed from hand to hand without returning to the library shelves perhaps for years” (Verne, 1993 ed., p. 468).  Travelers visiting Iceland in the nineteenth century frequently remarked on the high literacy rate in Iceland.
la Corvette la Reine Hortense  Source 3
Verne spends a considerable amount of time describing aspects of Icelandic life such as the native costumes of Iceland, a walking tour of the streets of Reykjawik, and the importance of harvesting eider duck feathers to the local economy.  It was after his detailed description of lunch at a farmhouse which included lichen soup, fish served with sour butter, biscuits, juniper berry juice, and “skyr”, a type of yogurt, that I began to suspect that Jules Verne had to have travelled in Iceland extensively.  Let’s face it, you have be born in Iceland or have visited Iceland or know a homesick Islander to know about “skyr.” 

So how did Jules Verne ever become acquainted with this level of detail of life in Iceland?  Further research shows that Jules Verne, a Frenchman, traveled extensively—to Great Britain, Scotland, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Portugal, Gibraltar, Italy, Ireland, United States, Germany, Algiers, and other countries (Perez, de Vries, and Margot, n.d.).  Verne never made it to Iceland.  Dr. Delahoyde (2011), a professor at Washington State University, explains that Verne read an account of an expedition to the North Sea, including a visit to Iceland, published by Charles Edmond in 1857.  Thus many of the names of Icelandic people mentioned in the novel are the names of real people borrowed from Edmond’s account.  As Delahoyde explains, if there are differences in spelling of names it is more because Verne could not read his own handwriting from the notes he had taken than from any attempt to disguise the names.  (Hum, privacy rights and intellectual property rights in the 1800s seem to be protected by poor handwriting rather than intent.)  In fact, my research shows that Verne’s passage about the movable library in Reykjawik is a conversational retelling of a passage about the “scandale parmi les bibliomanes” or “scandal among booklovers” from Edmond’s (1857, p. 97) treatise.
Icelandic ponies fording a river Source 3
Back to the story, Harry and Professor Hardwigg hire Icelandic horses and a native guide Hans to travel from Reykjawik to the extinct volcano Mount Sneffels.  The Professor and Hans communicate in Danish since Iceland is a Danish colony at the time.  During the trip to Mount Sneffels, the group, like all of Iceland at the time, relies heavily on their Icelandic horses for riding and transportation of goods.  Verne (1993 ed.) waxes rapturously about the virtues of these animals:
Every now and then a spur of rock came down through the arid ground, leaving us scarcely room to pass.  Our horses, however, appeared not only well acquainted with the country, but by a kind of instinct, knew which was the best road.  My uncle had not even the satisfaction of urging forward his steed by whip, spur, or voice.  It was utterly useless to show any signs of impatience.  I could not help smiling to see him look so big on his little horse; his long legs now and then touching the ground made him look like a six-footed centaur.

“Good beast, good beast,” he would cry. “I assure you, Henry, that I begin to think no animal is more intelligent than an Icelandic horse.  Snow, tempest, impractical roads, rocks, icebergs—nothing stops him.  He is brave; he is sober; he is safe; he never makes a false step; never glides or slips from his path.  I dare to say that if any river, any fjord has to be crossed—and I have no doubt there will be many—you will see him enter the water without hesitation like an amphibious animal, and reach the opposite side in safety.  We must not, however, attempt to hurry him; we must allow him to have his own way, and I will undertake to say that between us we shall do our ten leagues a day.” (pp. 482-483)

Certainly, these are sentiments with which contemporary tourists who go horse trekking in Iceland would agree.  So where did Verne get his knowledge about the Icelandic horse?  Earlier in the article, we discussed how Jules Verne borrowed extensively from Charles Edmond, a Polish author who wrote in French.  Edmond was commissioned by Prince Napoleon to explore the North Sea.  Edmond wrote an account of his travels in Voyage dans les Mers du Nord à bord de la Corvette la Reine Hortense, published in 1857.  (This book is available in the original French via the on-line collection of the HathiTrust Digital Library.)  Charles Edmond (1857) also deeply appreciated “le cheval islandais”:

Les chevaux islandais sont petits, mais vigoureux; ils sont, en outre, doués de toutes les qualities que réclame le terrain fantasque de leur patrie. Qu’une rivière se présente, comme en Islande les ponts n’existent pas, par la même raison qu/il n’y a ni chemins ni voitures, le cheval, tout haletant de la course, se jette à l’eau et traverse la riviére à la nage.  Faut-il escalader une montagne, le cheval islandais s’accroche aux scories de lava; il glisse sur les dalles; il trouve un point d’appui dans le marais.  Descendu en plaine, il reprend son pas d’amble et égale en rapidité nos chevaux de poste.  Supérieur en force, il dépasse, en ce qui concerne sa tâche, l’homme en intelligence.  Dans les passages dangereux, le cheval résiste au cavalier, si les ordes de celui-ci portent à faux; il suit son instinct, car son instinct, c’est la vérité. (pp. 111-112)

With the help of an on-line translator and my college French, I have attempted to translate:
Icelandic horses are small, but hardy; they are, in addition, endowed with of all the qualities needed to cope with the fantastical terrain of their homeland.  When faced with a river, since no bridges exist in Iceland nor, for the same reason, does Iceland have thoroughfares or carriages, the horse, nostrils flaring as if in a race, throws itself into the water and swims across.  When it is necessary to climb a mountain, the Icelandic horse scrambles through the lava fields; it picks its way through the loose rocks; it finds firm footing through the marsh.  After descending to the plain, the horse resumes his ambling step, which is as fast as our post horses.  Powerfully built, it is more intelligent than man in doing his job.  During dangerous passages, the horse resists the rider if he gives an ill advised command; the horse follows his instincts because his instincts are true.

Like good writers throughout history, Jules Verne (1993 ed.) can take such sketchy source material and make it come to life as shown in the following vignette:

“Now, whatever may have been the intelligence of our horses, I had not the slightest reliance upon them, as a means of crossing a stormy arm of the sea.  To ride over salt water upon the back of a little horse seemed to be absurd.
If they are really intelligent,” I said to myself, “they will certainly not make the attempt.  In any case, I shall trust rather to my own intelligence than theirs.”
But my uncle was in no humor to wait.  He dug his heels into the sides of his steed, and made for the shore.  His horse went to the very edge of the water, sniffed at the approaching wave and retreated.

My uncle, who was, sooth to say, quite as obstinate as the beast he bestrode, insisted on him making the desired advance.   This attempt was followed by a new refusal on the part of the horse which quietly shook his head.  This demonstration of rebellion was followed by a volley of words and a stout application of whipcord; also followed by kicks on the part of the horse, which threw its head and heels upwards and tried to throw his rider.  At length the sturdy little pony, spreading out his legs, in a stiff and ludicrous attitude, got under the professor’s legs, and left him standing, with both feet on a separate stone, like the Colossus of Rhodes.

“Wretched animal!” cried my uncle, suddenly transformed into a foot passenger—and as angry and ashamed as a dismounted cavalry officer on the field of battle. (pp. 485-486)

The Icelandic guide Hans ends the Professor’s tirade with two words: “farja” and “tidvatten” or ferry and tide.  The horses know that the tide is too high—the Professor is not so intelligent.  The explorers and horses cross the fjord on the ferry and the journey continues.  The horses are soon left at a local farm since they will not be able to ascend Mount Sneffels.  At this point in the novel, I am going to end my review of the plot with the disappearance of the Icelandic horses from the narrative.  The reader would be well rewarded to take up the novel and follow Harry and Professor Hardwigg’s continued journey to the center of the earth.

Did Jules Verne ever encounter an Icelandic horse?  Probably not.  Jules Verne never made it to Iceland and my limited research failed to find any evidence that he ever rode an Icelandic horse.  (There is always a possibility that he encountered Icelandic horses in some of the Scandinavian countries he visited.)  Even so, Jules Verne manages to transmute the somewhat stark, dry descriptions provided by Edmond and create a charming portrait of these small horses with big personalities.  Those of us who work with Icelandic horses know how intelligent, brave, sober, safe, stubborn, and, oh so, entertaining they can be.  Verne was a master of imagination and visualization so it is easy to see why Hollywood has made four films based on A Journey to the Center of the Earth.  However, I do wish that the screenwriters would stop cutting the Icelandic horses from the script.

Edmond, C.  (1857).  Voyage dans les Mers du Nord à bord de la Corvette la Reine Hortense. Paris: Michel Lévy Frères. Retrieved February 11, 2011, from http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?seq=210&view=image&size=100&id=nyp.33433003338997&u=1&num=81
Verne, Jules.  (1993 ed.)  A Journey to the Center of the Earth.  In The Works of Jules Verne (pp. 427-735), Stanford, CT, Longmeadow Press.
Source 1: Aug 13. 1886, 11 P.M. Etched by Frank P Fellows from a sketch by the Author. 1888” From Alex-Tweedie, E. (1894). 

Source 2: Edmond, C.  (1857).  Voyage dans les Mers du Nord à bord de la Corvette la Reine Hortense. Paris: Michel Lévy Frères. Retrieved February 11, 2011, from http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?seq=210&view=image&size=100&id=nyp.33433003338997&u=1&num=81

Source 3: Photo from Alex-Tweedie, E. (1894).  A Girl's Ride in Iceland, Horace Cox, Windsor House, London.  Found at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26006/26006-h/26006-h.htm on February 13, 2011.