Tag Archives: Sod House

The Novelist, Sod Roofs, and the Other People

Today I’d like to walk some paths between sod houses, Iceland, and Gunnar Gunnarsson’s inner world. All paths link in a vast web, each link of which is a starting point. My starting point today is a passage from Gunnar Gunnarsson’s novel, The Sworn Brothers, written during the First World War and translated into an English that was archaic even in 1921, when it was published in New York. A better contemporary title might be The Blood Brothers, especially for the passage quoted below, which tells of the ceremony by which Ingolf and Leif, the heroes of the book, become brothers by oath.


The Oath

Note the turf arch. From the German Book Club Edition of 1933 (Hamburg).

Here’s the story illustrated by that image. First, the cutting of the turf …

Ingolf and Leif had now cut loose the piece of turf, and went together to lift it. They raised it carefully till it stood straight up and formed an arch. Then Atle Jarl stepped in and placed his spear in the middle of the arch to hold the turf up. He himself stood and supported the spear while Ingolf and Leif cut loose an oblong turf under the arch. Their blood was not to run on the greensward, but was to mingle on the bare earth.

… and then the drawing of blood …

Ingolf thrust his knife-point well in and cut a deep gash. Leif put his knife right through so that the point projected a couple of inches on the other side of his calf. He had difficulty in drawing it out again. The blood ran down in red streams. The spectators felt a strange shuddering thrill at seeing how it oozed out from under the naked soles of their feet.

… the mixing of it with the earth …

Leif watched the course of his blood attentively as it approached Ingolf’s on the brown scar of earth between them. As it seemed to him to go too slowly, he stooped down, directed the streams of blood with the point of his knife, and stirred the blood and earth round between him and Ingolf. A laugh then rang out in the air from hundreds of throats.

… the proclamation of brotherhood …

Atle Jarl now proclaimed that Ingolf Arnarson and Leif Rodmarsson had entered into legal brotherhood, and named the witnesses. With that the solemn ceremony was at an end.

… and the re-laying of the turf …

The grass-turfs were carefully laid down again in order that they might grow firm and be incorporated with the earth’s life. Ingolf and Leif were now joined together by the strongest bonds that exist the blood-tie between brothers, the most sacred and inviolable of all blood and family ties. The earth by which they had been formed in different mothers’ wombs had now drunk their blood mingled, and had at the same time given them new birth, since they had passed together under the turf arch, a part of earth’s living frame. The earth knew now, and had recognized their covenant a covenant no power could break.

And now, from Iceland, a few observations. First, a turf arch …

Egilstadur to Ardalur 039Turf Doorway, Bustarfell

In Gunnar’s representation, the sacred, pre-Christian earth that lies beneath its cloak of sod, and which figures so powerfully in The Sworn Brothers, once lay at the heart of every Icelandic house. In fact, they were cut out of it.

Next, Gunnar’s house at Skriðuklaustur, with its sod roof (designed by Fritz Höger, a German architect who shared Gunnarsson’s romance with pan-Nordic culture) …



Note how the space of earth inside a traditional sod house (containing darkness) has been replaced by a space of air (containing light). The sacred grass covering remains, but as it is no longer connected to the living earth, it is only symbolic. In other words, this house is a poem. It is an act of human will. It is the space into which Ingolf and Leif shed their blood, as conceived of in Gunnar’s imagination.

Below the house, the old cloister below the house is being excavated. It’s worth a look, too …


The Red Earth of the Cloister Floor (Klaustrið að Skriðu)

For perspective on the theme, a little journey north to Husavik is recommended. Besides a beautiful Christ in the form of a polar bear in its graveyard, the harbour church also has this moving painting as an altar…


Christ, Bringing Lazarus from the Dead

Right out of the mid-Atlantic Rift in Þingvellir, yet. The painting is the work of Sveinn Thorarinsson, an artist from Kilakot farm in the spreading estuary of Kelduhverfi county (1930-1931). 

This is a splendidly nationalistic work. So were Gunnar’s novels. So was Gunnar’s house. Poetically thinking, Gunnar, who had returned to Iceland to build his house, had returned from the dead (Exile in Denmark, the colonial power; exile from the land and farms of his childhood, and so on.). In keeping with his modern saga, “The Sworn Brothers,” to swear his oath, he needed a sod roof, to cover the earth upon which he swore it. Here’s another variation on the theme:


Elf House

Like a human house, it is covered with sod — just a bit more dramatically. (Out of respect for the privacy of the elves, I will not give you the locations of their houses.)

Not all elf houses are the same. Here’s one with a chimney…


… and here’s one without sod, and with its smoke hole plugged …

crossElf Fortress, with its Roof Plugged by a Cross

It has been like this since the day the settlers arrived. As the story goes, a Christianized chieftaness sailed up the fjord, spotted this volcanic plug, and dealt with it right then and there. Luckily for the elves, there is a whole complex of plugs in the area, but, still: ouch.

A house part elf city, part peasant hut, and part elf dwelling … that’s what Gunnar was making, both out of stone, wood, glass and sod, but also out of words, between the pages of his books and in the minds of his readers (he hoped.) Considering it all poetically, and leaving aside for now questions regarding the appropriateness or timeliness of the gesture, he was bringing his books to life, through the construction of a man, or a space for a man, out of the stuff of Iceland, energized by his will.

Next: Why Elves?

Icelandic Houses, Part 1

The following description of Icelandic architecture dates from a book called “The North-west Peninsula of Iceland: being the journal of a tour in Iceland in the spring and summer of 1862, by Charles William Shepherd. You can view it here. It is a distressing and unsympathetic piece of work, which in its basic details could as easily have been written about any farmhouse through Europe, but isn’t, perhaps to shock his audience, perhaps to create some romantic sympathy, perhaps to warn against it. In other words, it has more to do with England and its politics than with Iceland, but, still, it provides some glimpses into the past, which might be useful.


Farmhouse Tools, Bustarfell

My grandfather and even my father were trained in the same tools as these in Europe. My childhood was spent with tools just like this in Canada. We didn’t let them rust, as this museum is, mind you. We took them out and used them.  This is what the industrial revolution looks like at the end of the road, where it is paid for by hard, personal work.

Curiously, when Gunnar Gunnarsson went to Germany in 1940, he spoke about the one thing that was on his mind: farm houses. It is a carefully coded political statement, that is best viewed in context. Today, I’d like to give some of that context. First, an Icelandic farmhouse:


Farmhouse, Holar

Here’s Shepherd (the images are mine): “Icelandic farm-houses are invariably embedded in walls of turf from two to four feet, or even more, in thickness, through which embrasures are cut for the windows.


House Window, Bustarfell

Three sides of the house are thus coated, the front being generally left unprotected, but sometimes the house is entirely surrounded by turf walls, and the roof also has a coating of turf upon it externally. In front it has the appearance of several low bams, with their gable ends towards the approach, in the centre of one of which a low door is cut, while in the others a few small windows are placed here and there in no regular order, and each gable has a weather-cock on its summit. The interior of an Icelandic farm-house, however, it is no easy matter to describe.

P1030757Turf Walls, Holar

The stranger who enters them is as often as not suffering from a more or less severe concussion of the brain, his head having come in forcible contact with the top of the low door-way. I have often crept through a door not more than three feet high; the general height, however, is between four and five feet Then, there is a descent of a step or two to an uneven, damp earthen floor, which is sometimes in puddles.


Farmhouse Entranceway, Holar

All is pitch dark; and the height of the passage barely admits of a person standing upright; nay, not infrequently a half-dried cod, or halibut, suspended from the ceiling, meets the intruder face to face. After a few yards there is an invariable stumble over a door-sill into another passage equally dark, which runs at right angles to the former, and of which there is no knowledge till the opposing earthen wall gives an unpleasant intimation of its presence.


Hallway, Holar

This passage right and lefl is sometimes straight, but always has either its floor or its roof uneven, so that the explorer is continually in danger either of falling down, or of hitting his head against a rolling ceiling. The passage leads on the right and left to rooms which are the best in the house. They are from ten to fourteen feet square, and are coated entirely with deal, and often painted in various colours. One is set apart for visitors, and generally contains a bed, sometimes a four-poster, situated very often in a recess in the wall, before which a curtain is drawn in the day-time ; also, a little table under the window, looking out through a turf embrasure, two or three chairs, a chest of drawers, a small looking-glass, a few Danish prints hanging against the wall, and sometimes a shelf or two of books. A bottle of schnapps and two liquor glasses stand upon the drawers, or window-sill.


Upper Room, Holar

The floor of these rooms is raised a step above the rest of the ground-floor. Upstairs, over these rooms, are lofts, in which the inhabitants sleep. They are long low rooms, surrounded by a raised bench, from eighteen to twenty-four inches high, and three or four feet in width, on which the sleepers range themselves. The staircase is very irregular and dangerous, being often a ladder with half its spokes broken or loose, and, besides, it is in total darkness.


Work Room, Bustarfell

The kitchen, placed on the ground floor and at the back of the house behind the best rooms, is, like the passage leading to it, dark and without windows. It is generally a large room, with a peat fire smouldering in its centre. A round hole in the roof is the only vent for the smoke, so that everything is coated with soot. Quantities of peat and birch-wood are stored around, two or three tubs of water stand at hand, and a huge kettle is always on the large stones that form the fire-place, while many changes of damp garments hang and blacken on the rafters above.


Upper Window, Bustarfell

In addition to the kitchen there are other dark apartments, store-rooms, and sleeping-rooms; but the smells from dried fish and half-cured mutton, the choking effect of condensed smoke, the accumulated rubbish and smuts of ages, as well as the danger of breaking the head or neck, completely cured any curiosity we ever possessed of peering into these dark abodes.”


Out the Window, Holar

If you haven’t figured out that a traditional Icelandic relationship to darkness, light, and up and down is not the same as that of the 21st century, let alone of those people living in gaslit England, it might be helpful to scroll back up over these images again.

Here’s Shepherd again, in a piece remarkably prophetic of Gunnarsson’s intent…

“The farmer and his family, with his labourers and their families, all live under the same roof. There are no such things as labourers’ cottages in the country; in fact, two houses together are very seldom seen, except in the small towns and fishing villages. The whole household generally take their meals together, and seem outwardly to live on in equality. In the winter, for four or five months, they seldom move far beyond their immediate outbuildings, in which their cows and sheep are stalled.


Outbuildings, Bustarfell

These poor animals are stowed away in dark houses like large oblong earth-mounds, with a small door at one end, but with no window; as a substitute, however, the turf on the flat-ridged gable is left loose, so that on fine days a little light and air can be admitted. There are several such buildings adjoining every farm-house, and the mud and filth about their door-ways are truly distressing.”

grasshouse2Sod House Given Back to the Grass, North of Hvitserkur

Life was hard (and windy!) in this location and no man or woman can be blamed in any way for leaving. Nonetheless, anyone who left this land also left the map of his or her unconscious that the sod house represented and embodied, with its passages between darkness and light, of low and high space, and of different qualities of light for different functions, moods and different levels of sociability. This map of the unconscious was also Gunnarsson’s map of Iceland. I’ll talk about that in the next post.