Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Novelist, Sod Roofs, and the Other People

Today I’d like to walk some paths between sod houses, Iceland, and Gunnar Gunnarsson’s inner world. All paths link in a vast web, each link of which is a starting point. My starting point today is a passage from Gunnar Gunnarsson’s novel, The Sworn Brothers, written during the First World War and translated into an English that was archaic even in 1921, when it was published in New York. A better contemporary title might be The Blood Brothers, especially for the passage quoted below, which tells of the ceremony by which Ingolf and Leif, the heroes of the book, become brothers by oath.


The Oath

Note the turf arch. From the German Book Club Edition of 1933 (Hamburg).

Here’s the story illustrated by that image. First, the cutting of the turf …

Ingolf and Leif had now cut loose the piece of turf, and went together to lift it. They raised it carefully till it stood straight up and formed an arch. Then Atle Jarl stepped in and placed his spear in the middle of the arch to hold the turf up. He himself stood and supported the spear while Ingolf and Leif cut loose an oblong turf under the arch. Their blood was not to run on the greensward, but was to mingle on the bare earth.

… and then the drawing of blood …

Ingolf thrust his knife-point well in and cut a deep gash. Leif put his knife right through so that the point projected a couple of inches on the other side of his calf. He had difficulty in drawing it out again. The blood ran down in red streams. The spectators felt a strange shuddering thrill at seeing how it oozed out from under the naked soles of their feet.

… the mixing of it with the earth …

Leif watched the course of his blood attentively as it approached Ingolf’s on the brown scar of earth between them. As it seemed to him to go too slowly, he stooped down, directed the streams of blood with the point of his knife, and stirred the blood and earth round between him and Ingolf. A laugh then rang out in the air from hundreds of throats.

… the proclamation of brotherhood …

Atle Jarl now proclaimed that Ingolf Arnarson and Leif Rodmarsson had entered into legal brotherhood, and named the witnesses. With that the solemn ceremony was at an end.

… and the re-laying of the turf …

The grass-turfs were carefully laid down again in order that they might grow firm and be incorporated with the earth’s life. Ingolf and Leif were now joined together by the strongest bonds that exist the blood-tie between brothers, the most sacred and inviolable of all blood and family ties. The earth by which they had been formed in different mothers’ wombs had now drunk their blood mingled, and had at the same time given them new birth, since they had passed together under the turf arch, a part of earth’s living frame. The earth knew now, and had recognized their covenant a covenant no power could break.

And now, from Iceland, a few observations. First, a turf arch …

Egilstadur to Ardalur 039Turf Doorway, Bustarfell

In Gunnar’s representation, the sacred, pre-Christian earth that lies beneath its cloak of sod, and which figures so powerfully in The Sworn Brothers, once lay at the heart of every Icelandic house. In fact, they were cut out of it.

Next, Gunnar’s house at Skriðuklaustur, with its sod roof (designed by Fritz Höger, a German architect who shared Gunnarsson’s romance with pan-Nordic culture) …



Note how the space of earth inside a traditional sod house (containing darkness) has been replaced by a space of air (containing light). The sacred grass covering remains, but as it is no longer connected to the living earth, it is only symbolic. In other words, this house is a poem. It is an act of human will. It is the space into which Ingolf and Leif shed their blood, as conceived of in Gunnar’s imagination.

Below the house, the old cloister below the house is being excavated. It’s worth a look, too …


The Red Earth of the Cloister Floor (Klaustrið að Skriðu)

For perspective on the theme, a little journey north to Husavik is recommended. Besides a beautiful Christ in the form of a polar bear in its graveyard, the harbour church also has this moving painting as an altar…


Christ, Bringing Lazarus from the Dead

Right out of the mid-Atlantic Rift in Þingvellir, yet. The painting is the work of Sveinn Thorarinsson, an artist from Kilakot farm in the spreading estuary of Kelduhverfi county (1930-1931). 

This is a splendidly nationalistic work. So were Gunnar’s novels. So was Gunnar’s house. Poetically thinking, Gunnar, who had returned to Iceland to build his house, had returned from the dead (Exile in Denmark, the colonial power; exile from the land and farms of his childhood, and so on.). In keeping with his modern saga, “The Sworn Brothers,” to swear his oath, he needed a sod roof, to cover the earth upon which he swore it. Here’s another variation on the theme:


Elf House

Like a human house, it is covered with sod — just a bit more dramatically. (Out of respect for the privacy of the elves, I will not give you the locations of their houses.)

Not all elf houses are the same. Here’s one with a chimney…


… and here’s one without sod, and with its smoke hole plugged …

crossElf Fortress, with its Roof Plugged by a Cross

It has been like this since the day the settlers arrived. As the story goes, a Christianized chieftaness sailed up the fjord, spotted this volcanic plug, and dealt with it right then and there. Luckily for the elves, there is a whole complex of plugs in the area, but, still: ouch.

A house part elf city, part peasant hut, and part elf dwelling … that’s what Gunnar was making, both out of stone, wood, glass and sod, but also out of words, between the pages of his books and in the minds of his readers (he hoped.) Considering it all poetically, and leaving aside for now questions regarding the appropriateness or timeliness of the gesture, he was bringing his books to life, through the construction of a man, or a space for a man, out of the stuff of Iceland, energized by his will.

Next: Why Elves?

Icelandic Houses: Part 2 (Rock)

The Icelandic sod houses that largely vanished in the last half of the twentieth century reflected the interests of peoples’ lives and in turn moulded the way they thought. That’s another way of saying that they acted like poems.


Icelander, Looking Out of His Sod Poem

Long ago this was a seaside cliff. Now even the coastal plains are above sea level and covered with grass.

Another way to put that is to say that Icelandic houses were the subconscious mind of Icelanders. The house below shows the modern Icelandic method of keeping the imagination green and growing.


Bishopric at Holar

A combined Norwegian-Icelandic restoration project, complete with rooftop sprinkler.

These houses varied in design, but were all built of some combination of stone, driftwood and birch wattles, but mostly out of earth and sod — a lot more sod than in the image above. That was some fancy house. For an indication of a broader range of variations, there’s a collection of photographs of a number of these houses here, showing regional and historic variations. Here’s a variation with a cat…


A Cat and Its House in Borgarfjörður Eystri

It’s been in the ownership of one human family since the heady days of the 1970s-era back-to-the-land movements.

Although such traditional houses were built largely of sod, it’s not really sod that defines them, but shelter. In Iceland, an island in the the middle of the North Atlantic, that means shelter from the sea. In complex ways, this architecture was fundamental to Gunnar Gunnarsson’s project at Skriðuklaustur, sheltered far inland in the northeast from both the sea and the deteriorating politics of Europe. To get closer to that thought, I’ll be talking about its components, one piece at a time. Today: rock.


The “Church Floor” of Kirkjubæjarklaustur

Basalt Crystals Shaved Off by Ice

In terms of rock, near the core of the idea of Iceland and its houses being one, lies this thought of Gunnarsson’s on Iceland itself:

“The pillars of its cliffs are like the beams of a tightly-linked chain rhyme.”

from Our Land (1940)

Gunnarsson had in mind something like this:


Basalt Crystals West of Vik

With a frozen troll out in the water. (I’ll be getting to those trolls in a couple days.)

The connection between sod and stone is strong — and an obvious connection to people who are used to living in the earth. After all, sod covers rock.


Dettifoss: The Beginnings of Sod …

… over the poetry of the earth. Once the sod is skin deep, the poem is still there.

The kind of people who would intuitively see the connection between the earth and their bodies and the poems that speak to them are ones to whom a house is not a typical above-ground structure with four walls, a door, windows, and a roof but something that rises from the land and sinks back down into it again, like waves.

Egilstadur to Ardalur 039

Sod House, Bustarfell

People like that lived underground, in what were basically excavations into the poem that was the land. Such excavations drew underground space out into the light. Because of this simple, physical orientation to space, the poem was completed, and brought into the present, in the moment when a man, woman or child stepped out of the house. If you were one of those people, you carried time out with you. You were, in fact, the present of something very old and very dark.


Entering Present Time

 Here, the following series of images might show what I mean. First, a chain-linked poem …


Quickly Cooled Basalt Cap on Top of Slow-Cooled Pillars

Complete with a Door

And some Icelanders at home in in their poem …


Multiple Flows of Chain Rhyme Stopped by the Cold of the World

And a bunch of Icelanders, too, at home here on the boundary of the ocean and stone. Gunnarsson’s novel The Black Cliffs makes a clear connection between birds like these, on cliffs like these, and the dark recesses of human motivation. He intended it as a kind of Heart of Darkness.

I know. I’m thinking like a poet here, but so was Gunnarsson. At Skriðuklaustur he was trying to build an enlightenment, to bring, so to speak, the unconscious past into a conscious present. In mainland Europe, the Enlightenment was built out of the scientific and technical developments of the 18th and 19th centuries.

P1160057Enlightenment Era Cupid, Schloss Tiefurt, Germany

Gunnarsson was trying for a new Enlightenment, one built out of local patterns of belief rather than out of the imported classical models that were the rage in a National Socialist Germany that started out with dreams of becoming a Baltic, or Nordic, country, and became a Mediterranean one instead. Ironically, Gunnarsson’s house at Skriðuklaustur was profoundly German. (More on that soon.)



One important way it was German was that it was above ground. In his piece, Our Land, written for a reading tour he gave in Germany during the first year of the Second World War, Gunnarsson seems to have been musing that if Icelanders were going to start building houses aboveground, in the light, they would need some guidance — and not guidance that came purely from continental ideas. He was trying to offer it. Typically, he also wanted it to remain hidden.

Next: Hidden houses and other people.