Arctic Iceland, as seen through the Mystic Henge
Most tourists never make it to Raufarhöfn, Iceland, but one man wants to change that.
For Erlingur B. Thoroddsen, it all began with a love of the midnight sun and the desire to frame it. Thoroddsen came to northeastern Iceland because he loved the Arctic light, and for the past 15 years he’s been doing some heavy lifting to show it off to the rest of the world. Thoroddsen is the main man behind Arctic Henge, a project that he refers to as a hobby, which seems an inadequate description given its massive scale.
I arrived in the town of Raufarhöfn in thick fog, late at night and met Thoroddsen, a tall man with wire-rimmed glasses and white hair who manages the local hotel. After a generous bowl of homemade soup, he introduced me to Arctic Henge with a tour of the model he keeps on the table.
The model looked like a version of Stonehenge made to order for Lord of the Rings. There was a central tower surrounded by four other arches, one of which would frame the sun during summer solstice. Other special features include custom structures with names like the Polar Star Pointer, Fire and Water, the Beam Salon, and a Throne of the Sun.
Thoroddsen explained that the entire structure would be made from locally quarried stone and surrounded by representations of 72 dwarves that he and his artist friends have drawn from history and folklore. Each dwarf represents a specific span of calendar dates, like signs of the Zodiac, so you can look up your birthday dwarf and what it stands for. (Mine is the dwarf that “will always surprise people.”)
Thoroddsen hopes Arctic Henge will bring some of Iceland’s 1.3 million visitors to Raufarhöfn. Although he worries that his country may overdose on tourism, he’d like to bring some of those tourists – less than 1 percent will do – to his town. It could change local fortunes.
Raufarhöfn used to be a busy fishing town. The hotel that Thoroddsen manages was built in 1957 to house the workers. When the herring fishery collapsed in 1968, the town became very quiet. It is still passed over by most visitors because it is off the beaten path, and many car rental companies discourage travelers from leaving the ring road. Also, the northeast corner has fewer mountains and more of an Arctic feel. It is beautiful, but it doesn’t quite fit the image of the glaciated, volcanic Iceland that is being exported.
Thoroddsen is committed to seeing Arctic Henge through to the end. “It took 1,500 years to finish Stonehenge,” he said.
Thoroddsen’s plan is to lure tourists to Raufarhöfn with the midnight sun. Add the meals and overnight stays people will need, plus the T-shirts and trinkets they can buy to show off their birthday dwarf – and it just might work. He expects it would bring 15-20 jobs to town, and it would fit with a tourism plan to sell this area as Arctic Iceland.
Thoroddsen has an endless string of ideas for Arctic Henge. There will be a web camera inside the Throne of the Sun for visitors to connect with friends and family. “The only thing that [the extraterrestrial] E.T. needed was to phone home. He tried everything to get connection. Now we have everything, and we can let people phone home,” said Thoroddsen. He also likes the idea of making Arctic Henge a pilgrimage for Rolling Stones fans – if only he could get his hands on Keith Richards’ ashes when the time comes. (There’s no indication that Richards would choose Arctic Henge as his final resting place.)
But time and money are keeping Thoroddsen from realizing his dreams. He has been working on Arctic Henge for more than 15 years. Construction began in 2003 and continued slowly but surely until the economic crash of 2008; it has been hard to get things rolling again. He had originally planned to finish the project in 2007, but it’s far from complete.
Thoroddsen tells me they need 18 months and $1.5 million to achieve the vision, but he doesn’t know where it will come from. “I’m getting old. We don’t know how long we live, but I would like to see it finished,” he said. He admitted to me that dreams can become nightmares and that despite his big ideas “if I was a businessman, I wouldn’t live here.”
Still, Thoroddsen is committed to seeing Arctic Henge through to the end. “It took 1,500 years to finish Stonehenge,” he said.
The morning skies are overcast and there is a stiff wind blowing across the tundra when Thoroddsen and I arrive at Arctic Henge the next morning. The central tower and its four surrounding arches stand about 30 feet high and cut an impressive silhouette against the sky. The grey stones are roughly hewn, and they lean heavily against each other.
We wandered among the towers and talked about the future. This man is trying something new. He sees the changes coming to his country, and he has chosen a creative path to participate in the future.
After all, Thoroddsen’s birthday dwarf is the dwarf who makes fresh things.
This article was first published at Arctic Deeply on Aug. 4, 2016