It's an island. With less ice than you would expect.
Iceland (Icelandic: Ísland) is a Northern European country and the westernmost country in Europe (politically, at any rate; for geography see below. If you include autonomous regions, Azores is actually the westernmost part of Europe). It's notable for having a population more or less on par with a mid-sized European city (330 000 inhabitants). Situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a geological faultline, Iceland has a lot of volcanoes and new islands pop up from time to time (e.g. see the isle of Surtsey, a classic study in ecology). On account of its placement on the Ridge, it is therefore technically both in Europe and North America (or rather the Eurasian and North American geological plates), with the capital Reykjavik being on the North American side. One particular volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, erupted in the summer of 2010, causing a massive ash cloud that essentially closed most of Europe's airspace.
Medieval Iceland was renowned for its storytelling culture, and most of the famous Norse sagas (including the Eddas, our best source of Norse Mythology) were written there in the forms we know them today.
First settled in 874, Iceland ended up as part of Norway in the mid 13th century, then went to Denmark in the 16th century (after the dissolution of the Kalmar Union). Iceland is the home of the world's oldest parliament, the Althing, founded in 930 A.D.
When Denmark fell to the Germans in 1940, the island was cut off and decided to act independently. The British invaded, believing that they would stop the Germans going after it (they weren't planning to do so). The Icelandic government protested, but resigned themselves to cooperating after the British promised compensation and a withdrawal after the war. As British forces were needed elsewhere, occupation was handed over to the United States. There were more U.S. forces (40,000) than adult male locals, and many of the former married the local women.
U.S. forces left in 1946, but returned in 1951, two years after Iceland joined NATO.
Iceland was of vital strategic and economic importance to NATO. A stopping point for shorter-ranged aircraft travelling the Atlantic (it is also a divert point for transatlantic flights), Iceland lacked the capacity to defend itself—the British invasion had been done with fewer than 1,000 men. If the Warsaw Pact took over the place, it would provide them with Tu-22M "Backfire" coverage of a good part of the North Atlantic, causing major problems for convoys bringing supplies and troops across the Atlantic.
The United States set up a Naval Air Station at Keflavík Airport, which was a base for U.S. interceptors, like the F-15. The civilian terminal was in the middle of the airbase, meaning that travellers had to go through military checkpoints, until the terminal was re-sited in 1987. This base stayed open until 2006. Keflavík is now a solely civilian-run airport, but military flights do use it. The other NATO air forces now provide air defence on Iceland on a rotational basis. The airport can take the Space Shuttle.
Iceland is by far the largest nation on Earth which has no standing army (the next ones being Panama and Costa Rica). However, it has some special police forces and a capable coast guard with a small air unit that can act as an impromptu defence force. Other than that, most of the defence in a time of crisis would be up to Norway and other NATO countries. During a short period of the 19th century, there was also a small Icelandic garrison of the Danish royal army.
The majority of the electricity in Iceland is generated through Hydro Power, with the rest being geothermal. Iceland is a one of the leading nations in the usage of renewable power and plans to completely phase out carbon fuels by 2050. Or so the politicos claim...
Got into a few disagreements with the UK in 1958, 1972-1973 and 1975-1976 about exactly where its territorial waters were - this was important, as said waters are rich in cod. The UK claimed that the waters were international, so they could fish there. Iceland said they couldn't, because it was their territorial waters. The Royal Navy was sent in to protect the British trawlers and the whole fracas was dignified with the name "The Cod Wars". One shot - possibly a blank - was fired during the three Cod Wars. Of course Iceland won... by threatening to close the NATO base at Keflavík unless the British backed down.
Also, Reykjavík's where Reagan and Gorbachev met in October 1986 to continue ultimately failed discussions about scaling down their European missile arsenals. You might get extra points on your Cold War quizzes if you mention that.
Suffered a large scale banking collapse and a drop in the value of its currency in 2008. This led to an odd situation where money and Vendor Trash earned in EVE Online was worth more than their real currency (CCP Games is based in Iceland and the game's currency has the same code, ISK, as Iceland's krónur). The collapse was sufficiently bad that Iceland applied to the IMF for currency stabilization (something that rich countries haven't done on a large scale in quite some time) and applied to the EU for membership (before, Icelanders hadn't decided they needed it). However, the EU membership bid seems doomed since only one party supports it (and not whole-heartedly at that) and also because the question will have to be decided in a referendum, and polls show that as of now, about 70% of the population is against it. It doesn't help that Icelanders were left pretty cold by what happened to some countries that received the EU's "help", like Greece. The banking collapse affected the UK, where a lot of councils had banked with Icelandic banks.
In 2013, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson was elected prime minister on the promise that he would crack down on Iceland's foreign creditors. Three years later, the leaked "Panama Papers" revealed that Sigmundur's wife possessed millions in an offshore bank account, money which was housed by the same shell corporation which was a creditor for the collapsed Icelandic banks. In other words, Sigmundur's wife was one of the very creditors he promised to go after. Sigmundur resigned soon after the leaks, raising the possibility of a snap election.
Also notable is the language. North Germanic languages are already known for their conservative tendencies among the Germanic languages, but Icelandic takes it Up to Eleven by practically being a carbon-copy of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings when they first settled the island in the 9th century, making it a real-life example of an Eternal English (or should we say, Eternal Norse?). Icelanders can simply read the works of Snorri Sturluson (helps that he's also an Icelandic Viking) without any prior learning of Old Norse at all; though the works might feel a bit archaic at times, it's still perfectly understandable for them than it is to, say, the Danes. Icelandic orthography also preserves many archaic letters that have been long lost in other modern Germanic languages, like the Þ (basically what would happen if th is a single letter). Faroese, the language of Iceland's closest neighbor, the Faroese Islands, is closely related to Icelandic and also famously conservative.
When looking at this list, note that Iceland is one of the few cultures today to still use a strict Patronymic (or Matronymic) naming system rather than using family names. This sometimes causes problems for Icelandic families travelling internationally, where children who have a different second name to any adult travelling with them tend to flag up abduction alerts.
- Egill Skallagrímsson, 10th century Viking and poet immortalized in a Saga named after him.
- Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, former president (1980-1996), the first democratically elected female head of state (also a single mother and cancer survivor).
- Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, the first openly homosexual head of government.
- The 80's Alternative Rock band The Sugarcubes.
- Ethereal post-rock band Sigur Rós
- Hera Hjartardóttir, known more commonly as Hera, a singer-songwriter who was born in Reykjavik but moved to New Zealand when she was 13
- Of Monsters and Men
- Snorri Sturluson, medieval chieftain, poet and historian who composed the Prose Edda and Heimskringla.
- Eythora Thorsdóttir, senior international elite artistic gymnast (b. 1998), who currently competes for the Netherlands.
- Halldór Laxness, novelist, poet, playwright and the winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature.
- Magnus Magnusson, who emigrated to Great Britain and became a BBC household name, mainly for the intellectual general knowledge quiz Mastermind which he presided over for twenty-five years (1972-1997). He also presented historical, arts and science documentaries.
- Magnús Ver Magnússon, a famous strongman who won the World's Strongest Man competition 4 times during the 90s.
- Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, another strongman (inspired to become one by the aforementioned Magnús Ver Magnússon, after a knee injury ended his budding basketball career), best known for playing The Mountain in Game of Thrones.
Iceland in fiction
- Red Storm Rising
- Journey to the Center of the Earth starts in Iceland, following the writings of an Icelandic explorer.
- The main villain in Die Another Day has built an ice palace in Iceland for his quests.
- Axis Powers Hetalia personifies Iceland as having a Sugar-and-Ice Personality with white hair and a puffin. His older brother is Norway though he vehemently refuses to call him that.
- Scandinavia and the World personifies Iceland as a Pretty Boy with a disturbing mind and a love of extreme sports. Oh, and he sparkles. He's also the least metal country among the Nordics.
- The Icelandic Sagas, natch.
- Appears in a chapter or two of Protect and Survive: A Timeline.
- Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2:The final level takes place in Iceland, where the heroes need to take over one of the Fold towers.
- Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 has a mission set in Iceland, where the invading Soviets destroy a major Allied air base.
- The final arc of the second Atlantis: The Lost Empire takes place on Iceland.
- The first level of Splinter Cell Double Agent takes place in Iceland.
- Riley Blue (née Gunnarsdóttir), one of the main characters of Sense8, is an Icelandic DJ and sensate living in London, though she later returns home to Reykjavik. Yrsa is another Icelandic sensate, and she serves as a protector to Riley.
- The webcomic Stand Still, Stay Silent is set in a post-apocalyptic world where Iceland is the largest "safe area". Of the main characters, stowaway Reynir Arnason is Icelandic, and Icelandic lore and language sneaks in among the other Nordic-country elements.
- Indiana Jones travels to Iceland in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, to the site of one of his earliest digs, to look for clues to the location of Atlantis. Later on Indy learns that one of Atlantis' three colonies was in Iceland.
- Early 11th century Iceland is depicted in Vinland Saga as Thorfinn's birthplace which he eventually returns to after being freed from slavery
- Totally Spies!: Iceland appears twice:
- Once in Passion Patties, when Dr. Bittersweet plans to go to her warehouse in Reykjavik and hopefully get the Icelandic people hooked on her cookies.
- In The Getaway, the girls go to Iceland to get help from Jerry's friend Dr. Sorenson, who they ask about all the volcanoes errupting aound the world at the same time. It is also the only Nordic country they've been to.
- Nancy Drew Sea of Darkness takes place in Iceland during January.
- American Gods ends in Iceland, and mentions that the language has changed very little, which probably accounts for the original Odin still being there.
The Icelandic flag