Tag Archives: Icelandic Literature

The Shore of Life

When Gunnar wrote the shore of life in 1915 and noted the land is ringed with a deadly surf, that one must cross, either for fish or for the world and back home again for shelter, I think he had the eiðars in mind. Look at them here in Neskaupstaðir, fishing with their chicks in the swells. Some of the chicks get tossed a metre into the air, and then dragged down a metre under the waves.

And yet they must be here. If I’m right, this is Gunnar’s image of World War I. So much has gone into portrayals of its butchery and horror and senselessness for a century now. At the time, to deal with his own horror, Gunnar chose an image of life, and one at the heart of the Icelandic soul.

The Shore of Life. Gunnar wrote and published in Danish. Most copies, however, were in German.

The Icelandic Past Lives On, Even Though the Angels Have Fallen

Thor’s Shield, the shield volcano after which all the rest are named, has been cross-stitched with pylons, in this highly-industrialized landscape off the beaten tourist path. That is “nature” in Iceland, and yet look at the ancient stone bird in the foreground. The old country is here, too, but not as a metaphor and not as a transfer of energy into modern forms.

Skaldbreið and Pylons  from Uxahryggir

These are the old forms, continuous with forms yet unborn. I am waiting for the writers of Iceland to be the guides that the writers of the sagas were once, who gave us a completely new take on the world, an alternative to East or West.  It’s not my place to say whether Iceland’s writers should walk down a path to the yarn-telling of crime literature or not (although most are), but it should give pause that Gunnar Gunnarsson ‘s The Black Cliffs was the first crime novel in Iceland, and it did not shy away from ambiguity, irony, contemporary themes or the deep, deep past in which they are embedded, just as the fallen angel-bird above is embedded in this mountain pass equally with Thor’s Shield or the power line from contentious dams to an American aluminum plant. In other words, the past is with us. It is not possible to forget it, only to silence it, and, thereby, to end the present.

Gunnar Weaves the World with the Stony Face of Traditional Icelandic Verse

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.

Splitting the Earth Wide Open

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.

Valdimar Goes to Church

Note that he borrows Jacob’s Ladder, just like Gunnar did in Vikivaki.p1350310


Now Jacob went out from Beersheba and went toward Haran. So he came to a certain place and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of that place and put it at his head, and he lay down in that place to sleep.Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it….


Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” Genesis 28


At the end, you might have to jump. This is called “a leap of faith.” Good knot work to hold the ladder in place will make that easier for you.


The White Christ

This is Öxarárfoss, diverted a thousand years ago off of  the Kerlingar Lava Field to bring water to the Alþing, or parliament, at þingvellir, the meeting wall.


Here it is up close.


Closer? Sure!


I mention these famous falls because of Gunnar’s book Hvide Krist, or The White Christ. It appeared in 1934.


In 1935, it appeared in German, as Der Weiße Krist.


This term, “The White Christ” doesn’t mean “Racially-white Christ” in nordic culture, although I suspect it was read that way in 1935 Germany, which was attempting to convert the Christian church to its racial programs. It is, actually, obscure. Some theories are that it’s a reference to the white baptismal robes that initiates had to wear in early Icelandic Catholicism, that it’s a reference to submission, a perception of a lack of manliness in the insistence of priests not to father children, and that it’s a reference to Christ’s Origin in the Mediterranean, the White Sea of the ancient cultures at the middle of the earth (Turkey and the Caucasus), who wandered north to become the scandinavians and which the viking founders of Iceland would have known well. Here is the ancient Turkish compassflag

In this conception, the Red Sea is to the South, the Black Sea is to the North, the White Sea (the mediterranean) is to the West, and the blue waters of the Caspian Sea to the East. The map comes into even better focus when overlaid over Jerusalem:


This is the compass. Christ is the eastern direction, towards the rising sun. Now, with that in mind, let’s look again at the Meeting Wall and its waterfall.


From the blood of the birches, bleeding out of the earth, the landscape rises to white heights in the east. The falls are in balance, in the centre. The white mountains can also be viewed as purity, ascension to Heaven, wisdom, or the bald head of an old man, who also signifies wisdom, but that’s likely a stretch. The red blood …



…can be seen as both Christ’s sacrifice and the blood law of the pagans who shared early Iceland with its early Christians. A balance was found at the Alþing of 999-1000; Christianity was adopted, to end vicious, counter-productive blood feuds; paganism was permitted, but not in public. In other words, the Church became the public face of the state; what happened in a man’s house or his heart was his own affair. This dual nature of the country was rearranged violently over the centuries, but that’s another story. In this one, one more issue is important. It’s this:


This is the Oxá, the Ox River, after it breaches the upper rift of the Alþing and enters the parliamentary centre proper. It was here that in the violent history of Iceland’s colonialization witches were drowned and criminals were beheaded, right here…p1330534

… right where the white blood of the glaciers enters Christian law before spilling out onto a plain of blood. An accident? I hardly think so. So, what was Gunnar up to in this book published by the Propaganda Ministry of the Third Reich?der-weise-krist-von-gunnar-gunnarsson-1935


Just telling a Christian story in early iceland? Giving a warning that could be read any way his readers wanted? As a parable of a populist Lutheran belief in a satanic pope at the head of a bloody church, the roman emperor himself and thus the man who threw Christians to lions for sport? As a warning about the dangers of assuming a messianic role, and the blood that would follow? All of them? None? Some for the Germans perhaps, even if not for Gunnar?


Grave Figure, Freiburg, Germany

The Christian Philosopher Martin Heidegger was running the ancient university of Freiburg for the Nazis in that year. He would have known this sculpture well. It wasn’t a year for staying on the sidelines.

1934 was the year that the Third Reich, under its ‘messiah’ Adolf Hitler, who believed in blood as a mystical force, attempted to unify Nazism and Christianity under a nationalist banner: truly a Western and not an Eastern anti-Christ. Only a close reading of Gunnar’s book will unpack Gunnar’s method. Until I get to that, here’s the Christ who glances to the east at death, and, just out the window behind me as I took this image, Gunnar’s grave on Viðey.

p1340064Has this figure been whitewashed? I leave you with this contemplation of the point at which Christianity and the land meet. Is this not, in a land-sense, the cross?


A Dictionary of Atlantis

When I left Skriðuklaustur a little less than a year ago, a fox ran beside me as I turned away from the lake towards Egilsstaðir and a glorious, sunny flight (with Air Iceland chocolate) to Reykjavik. I took it as a good omen. On my hard drive, I had the notes towards a book written during four weeks of becoming so immersed in Gunnar Gunnarsson’s work that it was written in the death-dance style of his novel Vikivaki. It is now finished and ready to find its way into the world. It begins like this:

A DICTIONARY OF ATLANTIS, by Harold Johanesson

An introduction to Gunnar Gunnarsson’s books of literary spy craft Islands in a Giant Sea, The Shore of Life, The Black Cliffs, Vikivaki, The Gray Man, and The Good Shepherd by Gunnar Gunnarsson, in the form of Vikivaki and in the light cast upon them by the essay, Our Land, which Gunnarsson presented to Hitler and Goebbels in the wartime spring of 1940.

Atlantis? Yes, Gunnar took a cruise there with his mistress and a group of Danish and German intellectuals and literary figures dabbling in racial theory, in June of 1928. The trip changed his life and set him on a twelve-year-long program as a secret spy working entirely on his own, without confiding in anyone, to change the course of the foreign and military policy of the Third Reich. Here’s the image that haunts me, of the day in the spring of 1940, just after he hoped to stand triumphantly before Hitler. Quite the opposite was the case.


Secret Agent Gunnar (in the black coat).

Note the fencing thrust of the right leg of the SS Officer next to him. That’s Otto Baum, who would soon capture Norway for Hitler.

My book shows both what Gunnar had in mind and how his use of literature to further his cause created a genre both ancient and 75 years ahead of his time. My next tasks are to find a publisher for this book, to write a play about Gunnar’s meeting with Hitler, and to open the book up into a series of literary essays about Gunnar’s works, their form and their context. 20th Century literature has lost one of its central stories. By sheer good fortune I have found it. There is much exciting work to be done.

Gunnar Gunnarsson Secret Agent: Part III

Today I’d like to walk around within the country shared by Modernist Icelandic Writing and Hamlet, which should be fun. I’m also going to try a little experiment in adapting modernist Icelandic literary method to the journey as it unfolds. First, though, I’d like to introduce you to a literary movement and historical period called the Icelandic Enlightenment. That’s a term I coined this morning, to describe a kind of ongoing clash of worlds that followed hard on the heels of the Celtic Renaissance and the French literary genre Surrealism. It looks a bit like this some days:


Power and Security, Old and New at Landhus Farm

First the sod house, then the enlightened version, the hydroelectric grid, the modernist Icelandic writer Gunnar Gunnarsson, who was raised across the river from this farm, was trying to keep both forms of being in the world both alive.

And now, an apology. I wrote river, but in this valley where the lake is a river and there’s no clear point at which the river becomes the lake that is a river, this part of the river is not a river at all but a Penstock Outrace Canal for East Iceland’s controversial Fljótsdalur hydroelectric power station, so I guess I’d better show that to you, too, and come clean from romance …


The water, you see, descends a couple thousand metres vertically down through a tunnel bored into the mountain, drives the turbines in the power station, pours out here back into the light, and then, ta da …


… into the canal and around this, um, this , ah… well, look …


That’s art, that is. A life-sized ship, apparently made out of some approximation of strapping tape plastic-machéd together by techno-sorcery by Olaf Þorðarson, and the whole thing translates into the new Latin, the new commercial trade language of the world, English, like this …


Well, Almost English.

More like German modernist poetry, really, which explored such forms of atomic compression. More like “A boat loaded with cargo-of-“goods-and-expectations” in an endless-sailing-into-the-future. Nice to see the peoples of Northern Europe coming together in such an unexpected spot for a moment together in the sun. Thanks, Olafur!

Well, and all I wanted today was to tell you about Gunnar and the Nazis, because there’s a story for sure …

Gunnar: (Interjecting.) I was no Nazi! I am sick of people coming to my house in the country and calling me a Nazi because the house has grass on the roof, because my friend Fritz designed it and he joined the Party because it was the only way to secure work, because his design blends North-German, Danish and Tyrolean agricultural folk architecture into a statement about a farmer’s house fitting into the land rather than intruding upon it like a, like a … oh, grrrrrr.

Oh, hi, Gunnar.


Gunnar Gunnarsson, Skald

After that imaginary outburst, he is being a bit tight-lipped today.

A secret agent, even beyond death. Clever.

(Gunnar grumbles inaudibly.)

So … well… that silent battle of wills went on for awhile … no need to bore you with that, but, um, let’s face it. That is the kind of silence one gets when one attempts to talk to the dead. To hear Gunnar better, because I really did wish I could have a talk with him, on his own terms, so to speak, I started translating his book “The Northern Kingdom”, and realized, sheesh, power plants and public art notwithstanding, I forgot to set the scene. I mean, “Icelandic Enlightenment”? I reckon if I’m going to throw terms like that around like spring waterfalls split rocks from their cliffs with a sound like artillery fire…


Hengifoss, a High Waterfall just up the Road from Gunnar’s House

Soundtrack: Roar…. BOOOOMMM! …. Roar ….. BOOOOOOOMMMMMM! It’s enough to make one start seeing trolls.

…it would be best to show you what I mean. So, to be a better host, and I do mean to make you feel at home here in my grassy house on its grassy hill nestled into its grassy island of Japanese cars in its cold blue sea, here’s another view of that Enlightenment…


Angels of the Universe, Reykjavik Harbour

None of this old-fashioned monkishness and cloisterly prayer here, I tell you. Actually, I think Gunnar might have liked this. Not the graffiti, though. He would’ve sent a man out there with a bucket of white wash.

So, that was still a bit obscure, darn it, but I’m a writer, just like Gunnar, so, hey, maybe some words will help. Maybe if you could hear a Canadian writer humming and hawing out loud you’d know how things were going with the world today, here in what’s lovingly known as the Northeast, except if you’re on the Faero Islands it’s the Northwest and if you’re on Greenland it’s, um, well…. Oh, bother, we need a writer to sort these things out, that’s what we need. Ah, let me see, yes, here’s that writer, right down the hall here … ah …. yes. Here is is. Um … Harold?

Canadian Writer: (Startling awake from his writerly dreams, or maybe not awake at all.) “The Enlightenment” was the period in 17th and 18th century European history when the human capacity for reason gained cultural ground over the capacity for faith and started to create the scientific world out of a poetic one.

I know, like whew! Get a writer talking and, worse yet, thinking out loud, and words start flapping around like that, and like this, too, I might add …


Black Words in the Lagarfljot…

… flying off to check out the sheep folds at the first sign of a writer pulling a camera out of his pocket.

and like this …

Canadian Writer: It was largely a French, German and English business. It hit Iceland late, in the early twentieth century, in the writings of Gunnar Gunnarsson, composer of semi-autobiographical, poetic, political “novels” that brought poetic forms of Icelandic thought into the light — with one crucial difference: this ‘light’ was modernism, not rationalism, as it had been in the original Enlightenment. Big difference, actually.

Raven 1: Aha! You mean, instead of constructing rational, scientific structures for organizing the world based upon the administrative structures of the French court, as did the philosophers and scientific pioneers of the Enlightenment …

Raven 2: Whee!

Raven 3: What a nice day for flying!


(They fly off looking for some sheep’s entrails to read. Disappointed, the writer puts his camera away.)

Ah, writers. They’re always wandering off. I guess there’s nothing for it but to continue on bravely without them and hope for the best. As I understand it, denied by the age of his birth the benefits of emerging into a developing culture organized around rational structures, including Science, Mathematics and Engineering, Gunnar was stuck with writing “novels” instead — a kind of intellectual activity that in the post-rational world of his birth and coming of age was most often considered “entertainment” or “fantasy.” Well, actually, most often it was. Yeah. there’s that. Like this 1908 American novel about a girl from a rather hopeless, helpless farm who comes to the, um, big city of, um, God and wins out by her true heart…


… or this beautiful 1970s German version of the Nobel Prize-Winning 1908 Swedish novel Tösen från Stormyrtorpet (The Lass from the Stormy Croft) about a girl from the isolated poverty of the northern wilderness, who, well, look at the strength in her eyes, eh …images-2

Such was Gunnar’s readership. Not the ideal one for a modernist writer, a man from the Icelandic Enlightenment, but, still, you had to buck up and start somewhere, right, trusting to luck and youth and hope? You most certainly did.


The Hopefully Uncertain Young Gunnar

With his big Scandinavian farmer’s hands, newly-planted in Denmark. I don’t know about you, but does it, um, look like his pupils have been inked in by a photographer cursed with red-eye?

Fortunately for Gunnar, it was a foundation stone of modernism (and its revolutionary and energizing core) that these entertaining objects could have political and economic ends, if a man (seemingly, men did this kind of thing) put his mind to it — and it was this that Gunnar was counting on. His contemporary, the American Ezra Pound, was as well. Pound, who was a gifted lyrical poet, was pushed by the catastrophe of the First World War to write stuff like this:

The first thing for a man to think of when proposing an economic system is; 
WHAT IS IT FOR? And the answer is: to make sure that the whole people shall be 
able to eat (in a healthy manner), to be housed (decently) and be clothed (in a 
way adequate to the climate).

Ezra Pound, "What is Money For"

A Very Upper Middle Class English Sentiment, but then, Pound had spent the War in England, and the decade before it, too, where he had gone to discuss Fairyland and the Celtic Renaissance with the poet W.B. Yeats, and had married into this class. I trust you see the pattern …


Yeats’ Dreamy Romantic Fairyland: an Unlikely Start for Ultra-Modernist Poetics

OK, Ireland is not exactly Scandinavian, but it is a green island in a cold sea, and a lot of Irish women, slaves or otherwise spoils of war, were the ancestors of a lot of contemporary Icelanders, so not that distant, really. The romanticism and the romanticized renaissance of ancient land-based ways of poetry and spirituality is, however, very much the point, indeed.

Pound’s new father-in-law did not approve of his new son-in-law’s poetic dandering around. Lawyering was more to his taste, but, still, he loved his daughter, and so did Ezra, so they were stuck with each other, circling around each other like cocks in a betting pit.


Dorothy Shakespear Pound

The last of the those Nordic fantasists, the pre-Raphaelites, before the World Went All to Hell.

Pound and Dorothy used to sit before the fire, where Pound declaimed his poems and his enthusiasms and a lot of spiritual stuff about jewels and the love poets of Provence and such like. They went off painting watercolours together. She was quite good at it. He fussed about, trying to get his palette mathematically perfect. Eventually, he came to hate her. Irony of ironies: later, when he was declared insane (Fascist sympathies were, by the logic of the American 1940s, insane.), she was legally declared his keeper.

Raven 1: (Flying by.) For a fuller treatment of this story, I recommend Gunnar Gunnarsson’s great, semi-autobiographical novel, “The Black Cliffs”.

Raven 2: (Doing cartwheels around him.) They’re all semi-autobiographical, dear.

Raven 3: (Bravely keeping up.) Puff puff. Yeah … Puff puff. you’re right.

(They fly off to the Black Cliffs, croaking in ravenish laughter.)

Oh, right. I have to remember that this art form, the essay-fiction-blog-drama-for-page-and-screen thing based on Gunnar’s techniques needs a bit of tweaking now and then, a bit of cognitive lens-focusing, so to speak, a bit of drawing-of-the-curtains that words are naturally heir to. Let me see. (Fiddle fiddle fiddle.) Ah. Yes. There the ravens go … see them?


If you read one book by Gunnar, make it this one. Bonus: it’s in English.

Ignore the fact that the ravens look like seagulls overexposed against the sun, because, you know, maybe they are.

Raven 1: Hey! I heard that.

Shh. Here’s the plot: Two couples on a remote farm in the West Fjords (even today, it’s faster on a bicycle than a car, and a horse would be better, or a tunnel — that’s how remote the place is. It’s a good thing it’s beautiful.) run into a spot of trouble, that ends with two of them, a man and a woman, killing their spouses, who they have come to loathe, in order to be together. A lovely political allegory, with Nazi ties, which we will explore another day, that is based on a true Icelandic murder in the dark days of the past winters, before anti-depressants and solariums cheered all the Icelanders up a merry lot.


Gunnar, the Famous Writer

Still working on his cheerful look.

Pound’s solution for marrying the worlds of politics, commerce, lawyerliness and poetry was to write a poem, a lyrical entertainment, as that old way of thinking (poetry) had come to be known in the ‘modern’ world. Precisely, he hoped to write a poem that contained so many clear  and innovative connections between history, mythology, literature, philosophy and economics that all thinking men and all men in government would have to read it, if they could hope to do their jobs well, or at all. Out of close to thirty years of that, he was writing stuff like this:


Imprisoned in the American Detention Centre in Pisa Italy in 1943 …

… Pound started his great Pisan Cantos on a sheet of toilet paper. When he won the inaugural Library of Congress Bollingen Prize for the completed sequence (among other things, mourning the death of his fascist heroes, and while still under a charge of treason, to boot), the common people of the United States were enraged (Mind you, that doesn’t really take much. It is a kind of quintessentially American entertainment that even Pound indulged in in his own way. Besides, they wanted romantic novels, not poetry.)

If Pound had only written this!


March 3, 1948

Definitely a missed opportunity, Ez.

The solution of post-modernist twentieth century writers, to embrace populism and effervescent, even contradictory and illogical points of view was not Pound’s way, and not Gunnar’s, either. That is actually quite understandable, given that the great populist politician of the time used to decorate his speeches like this:

Nuremberg Rally, 1934

Dangerous stuff. It was like shaking jars of nitroglycerine.

That is the plight of modernist writers even in countries or communities emerging into modernism today: they feel themselves the equals to kings, dictators, presidents, prime ministers and bridge engineers, yet all they are given to assert their practical status are tools that most people read as if they were the stuff of fairy tales and wall decoration.


The Lady of  Shallot, by John William Waterhouse

In 1907, Gunnar left Iceland for Denmark. In 1908, Pound left the United States for London. Waterhouses’s painting above is the world of modernism, on a foundation of Nordic fantasy, that they stepped into. It took them into at first differing but then converging directions. It was out of beginnings like this that Pound and Gunnar tried to counter Nazisms own modernized (so to speak) versions of Nordic myth. Entire literary genres sprang up along these lines, including the great German genre of the country physician, which became a dominant art form of the German propaganda ministry during the Third Reich and lives on gloriously in German television soap opera (which played, by the way, a strong role in bringing down the Iron Curtain.) These things live on, I tell you!

What a mess the world can be for a modernist writer hoping for a bit more push and a bit less pull, though. The Swiss playwright, Friederich Dürrenmatt, who had toyed with Nazism when he was young and was wracked by guilt about it for the rest of his life, chose to deal with it by creating plays that were not dramas at all but trials, very bitterly funny trials, of his audience. He hoped to show every audience member his or her own guilt (Yes, Original Sin can be read into that. Dürrenmatt was the son of a pastor, after all — a Swiss pastor, and that means a lot.), and to leave them talking over the ethical dilemna of his plays in the coffee houses of Bern and Zürich, where they could eventually resolve them — not on the stage but in Swiss society itself. Pretty brilliant, really. He was of the generation following Gunnar’s, yet very much of Gunnar’s time and dealing with the issues from a culture and society remarkably similar in many ways to that of Iceland earlier in the century.  Everyone was becoming modern, but no one knew the rules. The rulebook of God was more or less gone. It was left to the last holders of its traditions, novelists, of all things, to make a stab at rewriting it. Here’s one of Dürrenmatt’s attempts:


The Judge and His Hangman

One of Dürrenmatt’s comedic crime novel sermon adventure trial objects in a Cold War West German edition.

I hope you don’t mind my showing how Gunnar’s interests were actually central to his time and took place within a particular context, because it was that context he was responding to.

Raven 1: Get on with it. We’d rather you herded some sheep.

Raven 2: Yeah, isn’t it lambing time yet? There’s lots to eat at lambing time.

Hang on, guys, if it’s dead things you want, I think I have just the thing for you. It’s a little bit of a detour down a darker road, but …

Raven’s 1 & 2: Darkness? Oh, goody!


Laurence Olivier, Hamlet, 1948

The actor contemplates the war just past.

I thought you’d like that.

Ravens 1 and 2: Oh we do, we do!

Raven 1: Yes, we’re glad you’ve recognized that the plight of writers trapped within words and popular impressions of what words can do is not a problem unique to the 20th Century. Modernism started long before that, in England. We should know.

Raven 2: That’s true. Shakespeare recorded the moment in his play Hamlet, he did.

Raven 1: Well said, my love!

Raven 2: Why, thank you. There he wrote the clever and blatantly literal line, “Words, words, words,” and then, to get out of his own head, made his character, Hamlet, say them out loud …

Raven 1: … the poor duff …

Raven 2: So true! A melancholy Nordic philosopher prince who had returned to conservative, pre-modern, pre-humanist and Nordic Denmark from a modernist, Lutheran, self-confessional university in Germany on the cusp of humanism and modernism.

Raven 1: Poor Hamlet.

Raven 2: Heck, poor Gunnar.

Raven 1: So true. Still, like Hamlet, he tried to make the best of it. Here’s what Gunnar had to say about that.

(Dear Reader, ravens, like actors, like writers, try to have some fun with all this grim-ness …)


Kenneth Branagh Really Trying to Get Into His Role as a Melancholy Dane 

Shakespeare had more earnest designs for his character: he wanted him to read fate and receive clear answers, in the way a priest once read the Soul or the Book that was God’s World.  I mean, they were even in Capital Letters, so you could find them easily in a hedgerow of words and thoughts. In the modern world, of course, the self-confessional, Lutheran one, there are no clear answers. What was Hamlet left with? Harumph, Hamlet was busy trying to read his soul …

Soul: Definition from the Dictionary of Earth and Air, 1908 Edition

A new-fangled private thing, which had recently before been public, partly because in the world of the Medieval Church souls were public and partly because he was a Prince, and thus the state, yet whose rightful place in the social role accorded this public identity had been usurped by a murderous uncle.

Sigh, isn’t that the way. Anyway, while Hamlet was trying to read the pattern of his thoughts, like some kind of Nordic Buddha, the old courtier Polonius asked him what he was reading …


Polonius: What are you reading, my Lord?

And Hamlet? God’s minister of state on this vale of tears? Was he able to say, “Your soul, sinner?” No. He was stuck with the words of some author. There he was, a trained philosopher, in such an embarrassing position. But he was a trained philosopher, so he answered precisely, although not without frustration: “Words, words, words.” He held up his book to make his point. What were once words recording God’s creative speech that put the world into perfect order, were now just nearly inscrutable words on paper, that a man could make mean pretty well anything he wanted them to, that some “writer” was forcing him to speak, and which he had to figure out how to speak with some shard of dignity. What a task! He waved the book around for emphasis of his predicament, like this:


Polonius and Hamlet Can Hardly Believe the Embarrassment of It

It was as if Hamlet had been caught reading some kind of fantastical, titillating entertainment or something not befitting of an earnest, enlightened philosopher, like, oh…


… or this, of all things …fam200299

Actually, that was pretty much the case. Still, frustrating, right? Gunnar might have entered this story 4 centuries late (that’s how far Iceland was from England at that time), but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t rightfully feel some of the same bewilderment as Hamlet did at his own moment of crisis. As he told the students at Herthadalen on June 15, 1926 (He uses a shipping metaphor, because he has been trying to suggest that the countries of Scandinavia are naturally united and protected by the sea) …

Outside our port stands Fate. We do not see her, but she stands there. And even for those who see her, her face is veiled: no one can read in it!

(From “The Northern Kingdom”, 1927)

It’s a downer, for sure. It’s like looking off of the Icelandic shore towards Europe, or off of the Danish shore, anywhere, in the winter, and seeing only:


Another Cold Writer Staring Back

This is called the height of the Icelandic summer, Arctic Circle version.

And to think that all you wanted was a bit of light. Now, to be serious. I loved my day there at the northern tip of the Icelandic mainland, and my Canada is a nordic nation as well, which I will get into on another day, and as a man of northern earth, just as Gunnar was a man of northern earth, I know well enough that the fog is its own language and is full of light. Gunnar would come to that eventually, but it would take time. After all, he had been trained in literature, as was Hamlet, in a different tradition. In his novels, as in his politics, he tried to put them together into one. During these attempts he consistently avoided Shakespeare’s solution, tragedy, or Hitler’s, smarmy romance and shell-shock, or Pound’s, rage and bitterness and impotence, and tried to find a middle way. I admire that deeply. Tomorrow, I will honour it. For now, thank you for playing along.