Finding Hope on the Hvita River

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism.
It is not the conviction that something will turn out well
but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out.
– Vaclav Havel, 1936-

Hvita River, Iceland

This image was taken from a one-lane bridge over the Hvita River, which means “white river” in Icelandic. The waterway’s milky appearance is attributable to its source—the Langjökull glacier in the highlands of Iceland. Catching sight of the rafters depicted here, my husband Tom shifted the car into park in the center of the small trestle and he and I both leapt out to vicariously enjoy their adventure from above.

We had been making our way on a winding ribbon of road through the eerie and dramatic countryside of the Iceland’s southwest. Despite traversing one of the country’s most popular routes, the “Golden Circle,” we hadn’t encountered a soul for many a mile, and the paddlers’ antics the Hvita River made for welcome comic relief. The Hvita River is considered Iceland’s most dangerous river due to frequent flooding; from the gleeful shouts and loud laughter wafting up from below, the rafters were clearly far from panic-stricken.

We were en route to Gullfoss, located 25 miles downstream from the glacier. In a country renowned for dramatic displays by Mother Nature, the spectacle of “the Golden Waterfall” stands out as a showpiece. Said to be Europe ‘s most powerful fall, it surges forward in a zig-zag course, its hammering force carving a lightning-bolt shape in the landscape. At each of two successive right angles, the water cascades down deep, broad thresholds, the first of which is a 36-feet drop facing in one direction; the second, an eight-story torrent, facing the opposite way. From there, the glacial waters plunge down 230 feet, disappearing into a gaping crevice.

Gullfoss is so immense there are two areas from which to view it.  As we approached the lower level, we were razzle-dazzled by its confounding configuration and technicolor aura. The horizon line obscures the abyss into which Gulfoss plummets, creating the surreal appearance that its mighty waters simply vanish into thin air. Above that enigma, multiple rainbows shimmer; I envisioned Disney ‘s Tinkerbell waving her wand and splashing the sky with color. Gullfoss commanded all our senses— the air was rich with the smell of moist earth, a wall of fine mist drenched us from scores of feet away, and the thunderous noise made us unable to hear each other ‘s shouts of delight.

Gullfoss is but one of Iceland ‘s many manifestations of magic and raw force confronted by its earliest settlers. Volcanoes and geysers are among other frightening and exhilarating exhibitions of omnipotent energy found throughout the land. Having been startled and awed by something I had expressly set out to see, something I already knew to be a source of wonder and mystery, I struggled to envision their effect on the Norse and Celtic people who made their way to Iceland in the 9th century.

“The landscape for Iceland’s people is like a book, full of stories, much like it was to ancient cultures in Norway and Ireland, and to Native Americans,” according to Terry Gunnell, professor of Folkloristics at the University of Iceland. “The geology here is full of really important significance. Iceland’s people explain their understanding of the world and their beliefs through stories.”

“Icelandic folktales are also moral maps, maps of behavior,” he told me. “Conditions were harsh and life could be very difficult. Stories were told on farms in the winter evenings, as families were carding wool, spinning, knitting or repairing farm equipment—warning kids not to go into that lake because there is a water horse there, not to go too far away from the farm because of the danger of outlaws or trolls or hidden people who might take you.”

“The folk tales tell you what you should do if you find a drowned body on the beach,” Gunnell continued. “The notion that if you turn a beggar away into the night, your family would be haunted teaches the principle of being hospitable, neighborly. If the map reflected in the legends was followed, you had a good chance of living in safety. If you broke it, you stood an equally good chance of ending up in a folk legend yourself, if not on a list of mortality statistics.”

Iceland has a strong literary tradition; if its folk tales seek to make sense of the unpredictable landscape, its Sagas, written between 1100 – 1300, are considered the cornerstone of the nation’s civilization. These medieval works are prose histories that reflect the human struggles and conflicts facing early Icelandic society. The stories offer timeless character studies of archetypes that have been credited with inspiring authors such as Walter Scott and J.R.R. Tolkien—the noble warrior, just king, vengeful outlaw, sensitive poet, wise matriarch, conniving lass. The dramas and deeds of this assorted cast are chronicled in sparse language; the sagas elegantly record supposed conversations and events, without the context of what the characters might be thinking, allowing the reader to draw his own conclusion.  These epic tales are read today by young Icelanders in much the same language they were originally written by Norse settlers.

A Gullfoss fable and ancient family history inspired the father of Iceland ‘s first modern novel. Jon Thoroddsen’s Piltur og stulka, or “A Lad and Lass,” published in 1850, follows the love story between a young boy and girl who overcome being separated by the treacherous waters here to unite, and, in fact, found a dynasty from which Thoroddsen himself is said to have descended.

Václav Havel, quoted above, is a Czech playwright and essayist, who became politically active in the 1960s. A dissident who opposed the Communist regime in power, his writings resulted in relentless government surveillance and harassment and multiple prison sentences, the longest a stay of four years. A passionate supporter of non-violent resistance, he became a leading figure in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the bloodless end to communism in Czechoslovakia. This role propelled him to become the tenth and last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic, leading the country to democracy.

Whether fighting a revolution, facing mysterious forces of nature, or finding meaning in the behavior of our fellows, the written word is a powerful source of hope. Certainly reading of others’ travails can provide me with perspective on my own dilemma. And, when I am struggling with an issue, the act of committing my thoughts about that quandary to paper, or keyboard as the case may be, makes processing that particular puzzle possible. As I write, the lesson magically becomes clearer, and the answer announces itself. It may not always be one I like, but through choosing to seek and trust its wisdom, I can better accept the enlightenment on offer by the universe.

For more pictures of Iceland, visit the Travel Photos section.


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