As a little girl, I always wanted a pony for Christmas. Santa never brought me a pony. So in my late 40s, I started taking horseback riding lessons. When I turned 50, I got my first horse, an Icelandic named Blessi (Veigar frá Búðardal). Little did I know how much fun life with an Icelandic was going to be. Blessi has a unique perspective on life. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoy Blessi. And you will probably read about my cats from time to time.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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:
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
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.”
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”:
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.
help of an on-line translator and my college French, I have attempted to
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.
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.