As Gunnar (who was from the East) did.
In March 1940, Gunnar told Nazi Germany about Icelandic architecture that blended with the land. He meant a mixture of German and Icelandic styles, such as his house at Skriðuklaustur, designed by the Hamburg architect Fritz Höger and, well, countrified by its Icelandic workmen, who substituted Icelandic river stones for square cut German ones. Ooops. Nice turf roof, though. Blending in.
He was trying to avoid this:
Albert Speer’s Volkshalle (Hall of the People): architecture that luckily never was.
Dang. The poor man is turning over in his grave.
Got the turf right, though.
In the speech he read throughout the Third Reich in the spring of 1940, “Our Land” Gunnar spoke of how Icelandic rock rose in the chain-linked stanzas of traditional Icelandic verse. Here’s the gorge outside his house.
At its foot lies Melárett, the fold that was the largest public building in Iceland in his time, used to gather flocks in winter and separate them out, farm by farm: a place for people to work in unison, come together, and then separate by choice into their own private affairs.
I’m sure the two concepts were intimately linked in series in his mind. Hitler didn’t enjoy the suggestion, by the way.
In his novel Sworn Brothers, Gunnar writes engagingly of opening the green skin of the earth, forming it into an arch, and swearing an oath beneath it, before the sod is closed again, taking the oath into deep memory and deep time. So was the voyage that led to the founding of Iceland undertaken, with a few nudges from Oðin, that clever wanderer. One can see signs of this story throughout Iceland today. Have a look. The cairns will guide you to the opening.
Here we are at Geirstaðakirkja. Romantic, huh. Sturdy Viking stuff, machine-planed and the works. Note how the earth is split around the church, in traditional Icelandic turf house style. It’s a thing.
Note as well, that it’s not as romantic as it looks. Whew.
Even a Viking-Christian God needs some water for his sheep and a spare battery for his truck, and where to put that stuff, why, in behind the altar. Naturally. Power is power. But I jest. Look more closely at the surroundings. Here is Gunnar’s split Earth again. This time, a boulder broken by frost, and frost in Iceland is a force from beyond the world and deadly to humans.
Ironically, it also opens the Earth for them, and who steps forth but Lazarus drawn forth by the hand of Christ. You can go into their shared grave in the Earth…
… and you can step out again as a different person, into a different world, one cleansed by the journey…
… and then you can feast.
And then? Why, cross the sea.
With grass breaking across your prow and the wind for a sail.
After a long time between languages, it’s time to go down to the shore.
And put them down.
And the lair of dragons.
Give one last glance to the lake.
And begin again.
Being stone is enough when you are stone.
Gunnar Gunnarsson called basalt like this the chain-linked rhymes of traditional Icelandic verse. He meant, I think, nothing is unlinked. This raven, for instance, flying above that stone…
…nests in it. Poetry is natural architecture, in Gunnar’s world.
In 1955, the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness, Genius of Wordsmithing, Bane of Gunnar Gunnarsson the Scold, won the Nobel Prize, which Gunnar, who had friends in high Scandinavian places like Copenhagen and Oslo, thought would be his. Here’s Halldór, looking like the 1920s in 1984.
Halldór is rightfully famous for a number of books, but perhaps most importantly for Independent People, his masterpiece of Icelandic stubbornness, lack of planning and general nrrrghhhhh!
Right, here is the ogre in book form:
Sjálfstætt Fólk: Self-Standing People
In translation, it loses a little something:
And that’s the irony, eh. Gunnar and Halldór thought they were competing for a literary prize, but, really, it was a political one. In 1955, NATO needed Iceland as a military base blocking Soviet access out of the Arctic, which means it needed it to be independent, and with Icelandic leanings towards communism, who better than a reformed communist like either Gunnar or Halldór? Perfect. Even better, Halldór wrote like an American, while Gunnar wrote like a German, all tangled up with prayers and poetry and other bits and pieces of Icelandic Nrrrghhhhh!. Here, let his neighbour today show you:
Gunnar translated this neighbourly chat into his book Advent, which the Americans translated, complete with skis like a bazooka and a fur hat like a military helmet, to secure their WWII military base on Iceland:
Neither of them in their little wrestling match quite understood that right. Halldór’s Nobel prize speech is an example:
But if an Icelandic poet should forget his origin as a man of the people, if he should ever lose his sense of belonging with the humble of the earth, whom my old grandmother taught me to revere, and his duty toward them, then what is the good of fame and prosperity to him?
A dig at Gunnar, I’d say, who wangled his writing into fame on the European continent, especially with his friends in the German Propaganda Ministry, for whom he, nonetheless, wrote books about Icelandic peasants who would have been right at home in Halldór’s Independent People, although, ahem, Halldór also left Iceland when he was 17, and lived for decades abroad, mostly on the European continent, and it’s all so sad now, that old politics, because somewhere in their time, someone broke a shovel handle at Kirkujubær and just left it there in a spate of “Nrrrghhhhh!” (you can find it still, today at the sheepfold, one of Gunnar’s favourite spaces)…
In Gunnar’s Iceland, both wood and shovel would have been untold wealth.
… while the modern world that replaced that fierce stubbornness has also gone to ruin now for the same reasons:
“Nrrrghhhhh!, Back to Reykjavik!”
Ah, perhaps, we might give Halldór the last word:
It is not so strange perhaps that my thoughts turned then – as they still do, not least at this solemn moment – to all my friends and relations, to those who had been the companions of my youth and are dead now and buried in oblivion. Even in their lifetime, they were known to few, and today they are remembered by fewer still. All the same they have formed and influenced me and, to this day, their effect on me is greater than that of any of the world’s great masters or pioneers could possibly have been.
After all, not just the Nrrghhhhh but also the wealth remains:
Horse-Drawn Wealth-Spreader Waiting for Resurrection
Now that the West needs Iceland as a military base once more, I think we can expect the Nobel Committee to turn its eyes to Iceland once again, and writers being writers, I think we can be pretty sure that they will talk about words. Meanwhile…
The ogre waits.