In his speech “Our Land”, with which he tried to prevent a German invasion of Iceland in 1940, Gunnar Gunnarsson wrote that the long months of Icelandic winter darkness were as much a part of the Icelandic soul, in a positive way, as the long months of light, and that an Icelander, a person of the land, could not be removed from it. I read that as an attempt at planting the suggestion in Hitler’s head that an Icelander was a true person of the land, and a German was not — either in Germany or Iceland. Those were dangerous and courageous words, whether they were true or not. There is a report that after Gunnar gave this speech in forty cities in Germany and Occupied Europe, Hitler screamed at him and threatened him with … wedon’t know with what, but most writers threatened by Hitler and his inner circle were threatened with death should they ever write again. Gunnar scarcely did. Was it that he was frightened? Or was it that his work was over, because the British invaded within two weeks, denying any possible German foothold? The answers are lost to history, but the observations about the land remain. I have come in these months of darkness to try to understand. Look how dark it is here:
What do you think? Is this darkness?
In his book Advent, another of Gunnar’s psychological manipulations, Gunnar wrote about a man’s true friends, a dog, a ram and a horse, and how they gave their lives freely to a man who one day would have to take those lives.
In Advent, Gunnar was writing about many things: Christ, writing, Gunnar, and the Germany of 1936. Was he telling his German readers that Hitler would ask for their death one day, in ways without the Christian mercy or poetic symbolism of his own faith? We will never know (although it seems likely), but the animals remain, as human companions in this vast space.
And, let’s face it, with his lines about darkness, Gunnar was not talking about Iceland. He was talking about something symbolic, something psychological, something that did not come from a world of light but which was expressed, in Gunnar’s Iceland, in a world of light. It is not something which falls easily into non-Icelandic categoreis. The image below shows a place of human habitation in Gunnar’s world.
Notice how the house is not a dwelling. The land is the dwelling. The house is a small shelter to protect human weakness, but the dwelling place is out in the fields, between stone and sky. Even the water flows with primal force here: the sky made liquid.
Even the setting sun. This is Borgarfjördur, where Gunnar bought property from his book sales, before moving back to East Iceland from Denmark in 1939, shortly before his disastrous (or successful?) speaking tour in wartime Germany. This would be the land and darkness he was talking about, here in one of the seats of Christian Iceland, on the shoulders of its darkest pre-Christian sagas. Let this be a warning to all of us trained in post-Christian intellectual traditions: we do courageous men such as Gunnar wrong to read him outside of his faith.