Category Archives: World War I

Death and Life in Iceland

The sea and the land have teeth.

p1310144The Ölfusá Meets the Atlantic at Óseyartangi

For human beasts, life and death are a series of crossings. For earth, water and wind, three  living forces humans wade through, it is a great mixing together.

p1310194The Ölfusá Meets Tides and Waves in the Wind

In a country in which the social lives of humans, and all they have built together, appear less substantial than the forces they live among …

p1310065… they stand nonetheless.

p1310064Church in Laugarbakka

Barely. With a lot of improvisation.


It is enough. In this land, lighthouses are not just about visible light.


In a country in which a beach is the sound of the keel of a ship being hauled by men on pebbles up out of the surf (strand) or of men walking through the dunes (sand), houses and lights are all shores.

p1310284What you wash up as is not always your choice. Every landing is also a strand-ing. You might live or you might die. For centuries, Icelandic men went to sea in wooden boats, and came in through the surf to land, not always well.

strand2Your fate is not whether you make it alive or dead, but how you face it. That’s grim, but then some things are. Gunnar Gunnarsson wrote about this fateful beach surrounding Iceland during the devastation of World War I. The book was Livets Strand. In German, it was translated as Strand des Lebens.

15580902594In English, the title would be The Shore of Life, but it has never been translated into English. It is an allegory of that war, set in a remote Icelandic fjord. It is the unique, life-affirming, and devastating story of a pastor wrestling with his faith in terrible circumstances, tried by the beauty and horror of life and the often-times inability to distinguish it from death. It is a writer wrestling with how to tell the difference. In an Icelandic context, it is a shore. In this time in which we need it, in many languages. We are at sea.

p1310163We need help help both going out and coming back.

Elves and Men in Iceland

In his Book Livet’s Strand (The Shore of Life), written in 1915 during the height of the Great War that destroyed Western Civilization and left us all trying to make sense of the ruins, Gunnar Gunnarsson explored the idea (to heartbreaking length) that the earth is a shore on which life crashes again and again and again. On this shore, life is rescued and lost, celebrated and lost again, and in the end only endured. Today, 98 years later, I’d like to rescue that earth from this apocalyptic image — without denying its truth and the very real anguish which gave birth to it. To set the scene, two posts ago I gave this image of the living sea in the Skaga Fjord, in which I suggested that the sea was life itself and all other life is only a replication of it …

aliveThe Greenland Sea

Very much alive in Skagafjörður

Today I’d like to modify Gunnar’s rather black and white statement with the observation that the land has its own life. For evidence of it, a journey to Skudustaðir on Myvatn (The Lake of the Midges), is well advised. There is life within the stone there — life intimately connected with human consciousness, too. Here, for example …

P1320873House and Barn

That’s Elf House and Human Barn, actually, and the road going north and south. Folk wisdom holds that elves are more beautiful than people and reveal themselves only when they wish. No argument there.

Sure, Tolkein dreamed of his elves and so did the Victorian fabulists, but these are not those elves. Those ones are social and linguistic constructs and physical animations rising from the literalism of Christian civilization. I have deep respect for Christian tradition, but would like to show that in the North it has a very specific and illuminating context. These “elves” or “other people” are bodily perceptions that humans brought here from older continental traditions stretching back into the deep stone age. Here’s some charmed rock …


The Other World

Or, to give life to an old phrase that now is a name for bedrock: the living rock. It is not a metaphor, but neither is it one of Tolkein’s stories.

There is, for one thing, a world within the rock, with faces frozen into stone. Now, I will be following up on those faces in the next few days, but today I’m laying down words about the rock as the sculpture that it is …


Rock Entrails in Skutustaðir

Open up a human body and you get much the same thing.

In the 18th Century, the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder wrote a vital book on aesthetics that shows light on this kind of art. It has been impeccably translated in a new edition from the University of Chicago.


The Publisher’s Page on this Book is Here.

In this book, Herder argues that sculpture is a representation of the human body, seen at the intersection of time and space — that three-dimensionality is just this intersection. Intriguingly, to observe this form of mirror, a human must walk around the sculpture, to see it unfold in time. It is a way of movement that anyone knows who has gone walking in the hills and seen their story unfold with each footstep, and sensed them moving behind one’s back. And what does a human see when his or her body is glimpsed within the earth, rather than within the sea, or on Gunnar’s shore?

elfin4Elves in the Their Kingdom

One also sees their sheep…

elfinElvin Ram

These effects are not just observable in the intestines of the stone, mind you. Even the surface stone, it’s skin, the shape it takes on exposure to the sun and human sight, is alive …

elfin6Elvin Sheep Skull with A Halo of LIchen

What do I mean by “alive” in this context? I mean that the stone has the power to cast forth shapes within the observing mind. It is a kind of template. The mind I’m talking about is a point of intersection between humans, earth …

lakeelves1 Lake Elf in the Spring Sun

Skutustaðir, Iceland

 … and with other wanderers from the sea, like these lichens …

head2Lake Elf with Jewels of Lichen

The orange lichen blooms in the faeces of birds. Cool!

Even more dramatically …

elfsnow2Lake Elf Replicated in Lichen

Sometimes the patterns laid down by the stone allow for these type of human readings to rise directly from the lichens themselves, as the stone is read in time …

elflichen3Lichen Elf

Skutustaðir, Iceland

This is the way the human mind reads the earth. In contemporary terms, ‘reading’ refers to decoding marks on paper, which spell out words, which encapsulate ideas and signify the things of the world, all coloured by human “spells”, traditions, conventions, and cognitive biases. Reading the earth operates on the same principle, with the difference that it came long before spells and words, and is a way of “reading” or participating in the earth with the body, rather than with the mind. Gunnar’s anguish during the Great War was that the link to God had been lost, and that God cared nothing for his people, and was remorseless — as remorseless as nature. That is, in itself, a very modern reading, but in no way does it negate the physical context in which it stands, in which humans stand upon and within the earth, bring forth children upon it, and tell this most ancient story, not of earth as a shore of death on which life, or God, shall we say, crashes and breaks again and again like waves of untrained and disastrously led soldiers marching into the machine guns of the Somme, but is alive. Who are the other people? The question is absurd. They are our selves, built upon the forms of the earth, continually springing to life, indominatable, and enduring.


Tomorrow I will continue this discussion by extending it into the forms of human sight, the line, and the basics of art. Now, I’m going out to walk among the horses of Iceland. Bless bless!