Gunnar Gunnarsson was Icelandic and a Christian. He was, in other words, an Icelandic Christian — a faith that saw few points of breakage between Nordic ethical norms and Christian ones. What it mostly found instead was a purification of them. That’s no real surprise. It is a faith which settled the Island at the same time as Norse belief, and came to accept a shared relationship with it, ratified at the Thing of 999/1000 and cemented by Thorgeir casting his house gods into the Goðafoss and letting the water carry them away into the spirit of the land.
With such a conjoined history behind him, Gunnar the Icelandic Christian felt that his calling as a Skjald, a shield poet in the old Nordic style, enabled him to speak truth, which his faith demanded, to power (Hitler, on March 28, 1940), and protected him from retribution — not as a Norse skald but as an Icelandic Christian one (the English word that comes from the skald tradition is scold). Cultural couplings abound. In Icelandic Christianity, for example, we see Eve giving birth to two groups of children: the hidden ones and the revealed ones. The hidden ones are the elves — usually a nordic element; certainly not a standard Christian one. The revealed ones are human — a more familiar Christian motif. Sure, this is a folk story and not part of canonical faith, but it’s one that comes from a country in which the Lutheran faith did not arise out of princely protest against the circumscription of regional and local power by a distant papal authority, couched in terms of a popular uprising against cynicism, as it did in the Holy Roman Empire German Nation (now Germany). Those were Luther’s stresses, and if he retreated into his faith, singing “Ein Fester Burg ist Unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”) he can be forgiven for trying to find something solid in a world that treated faith as a weapon in the hands of power rather than a weapon against such abuses of power.
The Poet Goethe Sketched The Wartburg in 1777
Because of this sketch, it became the romantic symbol of the call to a German State. Goethe and Luther could have had a lengthy discussion across the divide of their different centuries about being conscripted into being symbols of power.
There’s an old story in Wartburg Castle above Eisenach, Germany, of Luther sitting in his small room behind the guard room, translating the Bible into German, when he was interrupted by the devil and threw his ink bottle at him in frustration. The ink stain is still on the wall, the tour guides will happily show you, although they can be forgiven for leaving out the detail that it has been artfully repainted many times over the years. The thing is: Luther was not in the castle of his own free will. After being excommunicated from the Catholic Faith in Worms, on the Rhine, he made his way back along the ancient road, the via regia, to his home in the East as an outlaw. Luther was born just off the road in the forests and coal mines of Hessen and knew about the road and the forest. By day, the road belonged to the king. By night, it belonged to bandits likely as not to kill you for a button. He fully expected death, and then was kidnapped, brought up to the Wartburg, told he was being a fool, and entreated to translate the Bible instead of giving up his life.
The Wartburg in 2010
That little room behind the guard’s room? Come on. The castle had a lot of rooms. This one was a jail, where his warders could keep close watch on him and bring him bread and water from time to time until he agreed to hand over a fully translated work. The devil? The prince, of course, who demanded this text to strengthen the hand of German princes fighting for independence from Rome. The way to escape from imprisonment in the great Wartburg castle? Through faith. Hence the hymn about the Mighty (Mightier) Fortress. It was the way in which St. Elizabeth of Hungary escaped the Wartburg centuries before, as well: she gave the poor the bread and water given to her by her confessor for defying the king, and thereby starved herself to death. There were miracles along the way (forbidden bread for the poor transformed into roses by faith), which tell a story of a true heart overcoming all — a standard folk motif, and a standard Christian one.
In the next several days I am going to speak about Gunnar’s Christianity, within his books and within his contemporary context, but today I’d like to point out a parallel: Gunnar and Luther are spiritual brothers. Neither were true protestants: Luther never did want to dispose of allegiance to the Pope; Gunnar was buried in a Catholic graveyard in Iceland.
Gunnar’s Resting Place, Viðey
Both Gunnar and Luther spoke truth to power, Luther to papal power and Gunnar to Hitler. Both were feverish writers and polemicists. Both attempted to influence power and were used by it for its own ends: Luther became the spokesperson for a break with papal power; Gunnar, who wanted to assert Nordic independence, was given fame, wealth and readership by being published by the German propaganda ministry, to further the annexation of Scandinavia to Germany. Both were imprisoned for their principals, left in the end with nothing but their faith: Luther in the Wartburg and a new faith imposed on him by political circumstances and machinations, that did not always fit him well; Gunnar in Skriðuklaustur, banished there and told not to say another word, on pain of physical and spiritual annihilation. That’s a guess about Gunnar, but not a wild one. It is precisely what the German writer Ernst Wiechert was told after he spoke publicly against Hitler — twice. After six weeks in the Buchenwald concentration camp, which nearly killed him, Wiechert was sent home under house arrest, which lasted from 1937 to 1945; after returning home in 1940, Gunnar hardly wrote at all. He had become an Icelandic protestant, protesting the very notion of restrictions to his power as a skjald. His form of protest? Silence. An exact representation of his place in the world of power and of Iceland itself, and an exact embodiment of the power of his rather individual faith.
Tomorrow: Gunnar and Dürrenmatt. Soon: Gunnar and silence.