In 1914, local boy Johannes Kjarval was starving. Ladies in town asked him to paint an altar for the Bakkagerðiskirkja, the Bakkagerthi Church. He’d spent his childhood herding sheep on the mountain and dreaming of elves, so he painted Christ giving the Sermon on the Mount on the Alfaborg, the elf city behind the church, with all the townsfolk listening, elves and humans.
It has yet to be consecrated by any bishop! But if you go to visit it today, you can see his Iceland still. The elves have been replaced by tourists in campers, and the church remains in darkness, as all good Icelandic interiors are, with 1,000 years of turf houses in their memory.
The Icelandic subconscious lives in a darkness warmed by human presence and looks out through small windows into the light, which is the Earth and not the sun. It’s simply the way it is.
Think of Icelanders eking a living out of nearly bare soil in an inhospitable climate, and then think how much the world has profited by selling them useless things like fences. Think of how much land was eroded just to pay for this nonsense.
And then all those profits blown up in wars. Imagine what could have been.
While driving on the north shore of the Lagarfljót east of Gunnar’s house, I was keeping an eye out for the Wyrm who lives there. At first, I was convinced that the river of cloud holding above the lake was Wyrm enough for me.
I presume that the Wyrm is projecting this magical eye into the sky above the lake. I guess I might be looking for dragons, but that’s not to say they aren’t keeping an eye out for me.
Above the cliff in Akureyri, there’s a fine place to see the world, just a few kilometres below the Arctic Circle. Coming on these beauties on a July Evening is inspiring. In 1912, nine years after men began to plant trees in Iceland to reclaim their male Viking ancestors…
…the women of Akureyri started planting pretty things, bringing embroidery to life. Talk about writing on the land!
Don’t be fooled by the pounding of the surf. You don’t have to be a giant to approach the sea. You can be small, and quiet and even whisper. So much Icelandic cultural advertising approaches the world as a terrible, destructive force that wears people down, yet Iceland isn’t like that. In many ways, this approach is a marketing strategy, born in the romantic travel literature of 18th century England and the perennial problem of Icelanders feeling cut off from the world. These birds are scavenging on the shores of a powerful ocean, yes.
But to them, Icelanders the lot of them, the ocean is not destructive. This concept of “destructive” comes from human attempts to live here, despite all this energy, and failing almost as often as not. That is a human problem, though, which means you can approach the sea as a human without the limitation of fear. This is the sense of fate that Gunnar tried to tell the Germans about in 1936, that “life in the present” means “to act,” because all time is present. You can’t choose between past, present and future. You can integrate them, however, into action and be your fate. That doesn’t include romanticizing your isolation or fighting against it. Those are just cultural choices, for the most part from outside the country.
The greatest wealth, Gunnar said, is poverty. It makes everything that has washed in from the sea a treasure.
For four hundred years an ogre threw travellers over the cliff trail between Bakkagerði and Njarðvík. It was awfully steep and in the fog, dark, rain, snow and whatever else the East Fjords undoubtedly threw at them. It was terrifying and very dangerous.
A bit of Christian-Norse magic took care of that, though. The rocks at the cross’s base are funereal stones, left by travellers. The road was fixed up in 2019.