No Taste for Monarchy
`IT is our sacred place,'' an Icelander told me once. The words seemed to clash with a landscape so unforgiving that it looks as if it were hammered into being by Thor himself. I am standing at Thingvellir, a lava bed of prehistoric origin that slopes magnificently towards Iceland's largest lake, Thingvalla. Thingvellir is where the Icelandic parliament was established in 930. Dark, barren, and exposed, it looks like the face of the most hardbitten Icelandic farmer, yet in that volcanic countenance is encased the heart and spirit of Icelandic nationalism.Skip to next paragraph
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It might seem odd that the Norwegian outlaws who settled Iceland in the 9th century should establish the world's first representative government. But consider that these people were fleeing the rule of an oppressive king, Harald Fairhair, and it is little wonder that they arrived on Iceland's windswept shores with little taste for monarchy. In fact, they shunned the idea of any highly centralized authority at all, opting instead for a parliament, or ``Althing,'' which would act in the interests of all Icelanders. Further, its gathering place had to be of sufficient majesty to suit the old gods themselves. Thingvellir seemed ideal.
More than a thousand years later, Thingvellir remains essentially unchanged. A more profiteering people might have erected a city on the site, or studded its hallowed ground with souvenir stands. But aside from the modest church and prime minister's summer residence, there is nothing here but the wide plain, the bordering cliffs of naked basalt, and the little river "Oxar'a, glistening like a silver ribbon as it courses serenely towards Lake Thingvalla.
As I walk through a narrow pass bordered by basalt walls, I am conscious of treading the same ground as those Vikings of the saga age. It is the old processional route they followed at the annual opening of the Althing, which convened for two weeks every summer, when there was light and warmth enough to be able to conduct business in relative comfort. I ascend a grassy brae and arrive atop a prominence from which I am able to look down upon the whole of Thingvellir - past the "Oxar'a, toward the far mountains crusted with snow. Over this almost greenless expanse lies a dome of the bluest sky I have ever seen. I am standing upon the Mount of Laws, from which the Law Speaker would recite, from memory, passages from the legal code of old Iceland. I realize that he must have had phenomenal lung power to reach the ears of the crowds mustered on the plain below.
The Althing was led by the 39 powerful chieftains of Iceland, but anyone was free to attend. It was the great event of the year, socially as well as politically. Marriages were contracted, expeditions to foreign lands arranged, and news in general was exchanged in an atmosphere of conviviality. But the central business of the gathering was to hear the law, after which the various litigants would present their cases.