Dear fellow Icelanders, dear guests.
It is appropriate that we should be celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of our sovereignty here in Harpa, with a cultural event where the history of our sovereignty is told through art. There are many ways to take the gauge of a society, but when we look at the history of humanity it is precisely art and culture that tend to mark a nation’s place in history, rather than their state finances or warmongering – although both of these can of course have historical impacts. The history of Iceland has, from the beginning, since settlement times, assuredly been a history of culture.
The Icelandic people started writing their history as soon as they settled the new country. The Book of the Settlement of Iceland and the Book of Icelanders were like telephone registries of their time, where you could see who lived where. Family histories, the histories of kings, of poets, were written down, contemporary stories in which we learned of the destinies of men and women and children. Oral stories were told of elves, trolls, dwarves and outlaws. We, the Icelanders, sang lullabies and nursery rhymes, and folk ballads and vikivaki tunes. We wove tapestries, embroidered, made jewellery and hair combs, spears and axes. We wrote verses about all things between heaven and earth. And those who got the chance sailed for Norway or other foreign lands, performed the verses and brought gifts of Icelandic handiwork to foreign chieftains.
During the sovereign era this history has grown and prospered. Foreign musicians came here and brought us new musical influences. Halldor Laxness won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his exceptional body of work. The first film was made. The National Theatre was established; public libraries became part of all communities. A dance company and an opera house were established. Old and new masters of the visual arts have been acknowledged all over the world. The works of Icelandic crime writers fill foreign book shops – they have finally been able to sell the Icelandic darkness.
Tonight, we celebrate Icelandic culture especially. I could mention much else: nature, sportspeople, scholars, all the people of this country who do their daily and important jobs, that all matter for keeping the community going and hopefully make the world a better place.
Icelandic culture has made a reputation for us all over the world, but it has also made our lives worth living. Art casts a new light on the community, the wider world and ourselves. It makes us think. It lights up a dark day. It gives meaning and substance to existence. It changes our lives.