Iceland: Portrait of an Island Nation, 1938

Pix Inc.—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Pix Inc.—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Top left and right: In the middle of green meadow-land boiling hot water spurts from earth. Bottom left and right: A "mud volcano," practically inactive. The striking mud in its crater is continuously boiling, but is hardly ever expelled. All located in the Haukadalur geothermal area east of Reykjavik.
Culture
'30s

With a population of just over 300,000 people and an alternately forbidding  and breathtaking landscape of lava fields, geysers, seascapes and majestic waterfalls, Iceland has always been something of a curiosity to the rest of the globe. Small in stature, the island nation can seem, at times, like a land outside of time.

In recent years, Iceland has been in the news more frequently than usual, for reasons as varied as the major disruption of European and North American air traffic during the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption in 2010 to its swift economic near-collapse — and rapid recovery — a few years ago, while the 17-nation eurozone (of which Iceland is not a member) remains convulsed by incessant predictions of financial collapse.

In July of 1941, Iceland was in the news as American troops landed on the island to protect a critical North Atlantic seaway — replacing British and Canadian troops who had served there while the Second World War raged in Europe. (The U.S. Navy would maintain a post in Iceland until 2006.)

In the July 21, 1941, issue of LIFE, the magazine touched on preconceived notions that Americans may have harbored about the Nordic land a mere 2,600 miles from New York City:

“The U.S. sailors and marines who landed in Iceland last week could reasonably be pardoned if they expected to meet Eskimos, for Americans have never taken much interest in this Kentucky-sized island which they considered far off the beaten paths. Actually, Icelanders are a highly civilized nation of mixed Norwegian and Irish descent, with world’s oldest parliament (founded in 930), a literature which rates 7.5 pages in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and a capital (Reykjavik) which looks not unlike the better sections of Brooklyn, N.Y.”

Here, LIFE.com offers a series of images — most of which never ran in that 1941 issue of LIFE — shot in 1938 by a photographer whose name, alas, is lost to history. The only details included on the prints from which these digital images were made suggest the photos were made by someone perhaps based “in Germany.” But whoever the photographer might have been, one aspect of the shoot is perfectly clear: he or she was fortunate enough, more than 70 years ago, to experience a striking beauty and a singular, distinguished culture in a way that will not feel at all unfamiliar to anyone lucky enough to visit Iceland today.

Liz Ronk is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

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