Iceland's Stoic, Sardonic 'Independent People'

Independent People
Independent People
By Halldor Laxness
Paperback, 512 pages
Vintage
Price: $15.95

Read An Excerpt.

Christina Sunley

Christina Sunley is the author of the The Tricking of Freya, a novel inspired by her Icelandic family history. She was born in New York City and currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Courtesy of Christina Sunley hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Christina Sunley

I'd like to introduce you to the most maddening person I've ever encountered in my life: Bjartur of Summerhouses.

I've known him for 15 years, and he never fails to infuriate me; he is querulous, contrary, hard-hearted and stubborn.

And yet, I find myself drawn to him again and again.

Please do not let the fact that he is fictitious — or Icelandic, or an impoverished sheep farmer — deter you from entering his world, which is brilliantly conjured in the pages of Halldor Laxness' novel Independent People.

When I first opened this book, it was with a feeling of trepidation and a hefty dose of familial obligation. My mother had sent it to me in the mail, accompanied by a note that said "You must read this" — a phrase that was underlined three times. "It's written by Halldor Laxness," she wrote. "He is one of Our People."

My mother was referring to the Icelanders; her parents' families had fled Iceland for North America in the 1800s after a devastating volcanic eruption, but she still referred to all Icelanders as "Our People."

And that is how I came to encounter the flinty yet endearing Bjartur of Summerhouses, a gritty, practical farmer who composes poetry as he strides through blizzards searching for lost sheep.

As the novel opens, Bjartur — who spent 18 bitter years as a servant on another man's farm — is surveying the first thing he has ever owned. It is a dark, dank, turf-roofed farmhouse on a glacial moor, where the family members inhabit one common room upstairs and the sheep, horse, cow and dog occupy the entire first floor.

But this miserable hovel is also Bjartur's palace. The character's sole quest in life — and one of the novel's great themes — is to live as an independent man, in debt to no one. It's a desire that comes with a price, especially in a harsh climate where interdependence is the only means of survival; Bjartur's wife, children and neighbors all bear the brunt of his obsession for independence.

If all of this seems too grim, keep reading. One of the great surprises of the novel is the author's deliciously sardonic humor and marvelous grasp of human foibles at all levels of society.

As a devout fan of Independent People, I'm in excellent company. Annie Proulx calls it "brilliant," one of her 10 favorite books of all time. Jane Smiley says she "can't imagine any greater delight than coming to Independent People for the first time."

A bestseller when it was first published in the U.S. in 1946, Independent People eventually contributed to Laxness winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. Yet if you've never heard of this great masterpiece, you're not alone. Sadly, this marvelous book was out of print in English for over 50 years — possibly because of McCarthy era perceptions about Laxness' communist sympathies.

But now it has been reissued in a beautiful paperback edition, and so I find myself repeating to you the words of my late mother: You must read this!

Perhaps the author Halldor Laxness will become one of your people, too.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'Independent People'

Independent People
By Halldor Laxness
Paperback, 512 pages
Vintage
Price: $15.95

KOLIMKILLI

In early times, say the Icelandic chronicles, men from the Western Islands came to live in this country, and when they departed, left behind them crosses, bells, and other objects used in the practice of sorcery. From Latin sources may be learned the names of those who sailed here from the Western Islands in the early days of the Papacy. Their leader was Kolumkilli the Irish, a sorcerer of wide repute. In those days there was great fertility of the soil in Iceland. But when the Norsemen came to settle here, the Western sorcerers were forced to flee the land, and old writings say that Kolumkilli, determined on revenge, laid a curse on the invaders, swearing that they would never prosper here, and more in the same spirit, much of which has since, to all appearances, been fulfilled. Later in history the Norsemen in Iceland began to stray from their true beliefs and to embrace the idolatries of unrelated peoples. Then there was chaos throughout the land; the gods of the Norsemen were held to derision and new gods and new saints were introduced, some from the east and some from the west.

The chronicles tell how at this time a church was built to Kolumkilli in the valley where later stood the bigging Albogastathir on the Moor. This in the old days had been the residence of a chieftain. Much information relating to this moorland valley was collected by Sheriff Jon Reykdalin of Rauthsmyri after the bigging was last destroyed in the great spectral visitations of the year 1750. The Sheriff himself both saw and heard the sundry unnatural happenings that took place there, as is shown in his well-known Account of the Albogastathir Fiend. The ghost was heard chanting aloud in the bigging from Mid-Thorri to well past Whitsuntide, when the folk fled; twice he named his name in the Sheriff's ear, but answered all other questions with "odious Latin verses and shameless obscenities."

Of the many stories that have been told of this lonely bigging in its moorland valley, the most remarkable is undoubtedly one which dates back to long before the days of Sheriff Jon, and it may not be out of place to recall it for the pleasure of such people as have not fared along the level stretches by the river, where the centuries lie side by side in unequally overgrown paths cut by the horses of the past; or of those who may wish to visit the old site on the hillock in the marshes as they make their way through the valley.

It could not have been later than towards the end of Bishop Gudbrandur's ministry that a certain couple farmed Albogastathir on the Moor. The husband's name is not chronicled, but the wife was called Gunnvor or Gudvor, a woman of a most forceful nature, reputed to be skilled in occult lore and capable of changing her form. Her husband, who appears to have been the most craven-hearted of wretches, had little freedom, being kept completely under her domination.

They did not prosper greatly in their husbandry to begin with, and few indeed were the work-people they kept. Legend says that the woman, because of their poverty and their many offspring, forced her husband to carry their new-born children out into the desert and leave them to die. Some he laid under flat rocks on the mountain; their wails may still be heard in early spring about the time when the snow thaws. To others he tied stones, then sank them in the lake, whence their weeping may yet be heard in the mid-winter moonlight, especially in frost or before a storm.

But as the mistress Gunnvor grew older in years, says the story, she began to thirst greatly for human blood. And she hungered for human marrow. It is even said that she took the blood of her surviving children and drank it with her mouth. She had a scaffold built for incantation behind the house, where in fire and reek she used to chant to the fiend Kolumkilli on autumn evenings. It is said that her husband tried to escape and publish her evil doings abroad, but she pursued him and, overtaking him on Rauthsmyri Ridge, killed him with stones and mutilated his corpse. She carried his bones home to her scaffold, but the flesh and the bowels she left behind for the ravens, and had it given out in the district that he had perished while searching the mountains for sheep that had strayed.

From that day forward the mistress Gunnvor began to prosper and everyone believed that it was due to her evil compact with Kolumkilli, and soon she was the owner of many good horses.

There was much journeying through the district in those days, both in the summertime when men went to the fishing under Jokull, and in the springtime, when men journeyed from afar to Jokull to buy their stockfish. As time went on, however, it was rumoured throughout the district that the more horses Gunnvor acquired, the less hospitable towards these travelers did she grow, and though she was a woman who attended church regularly, as was the custom in that age, it is told in the Annals that on Whit Sunday she could not see the sun in a cloudless sky after the service at Rauthsmyri Church.

Rumours now began to be whispered abroad concerning the fate of Gunnvor's husband, and how she murdered men, some for their possessions, others for their blood and marrow, and rode after some on the mountains. Now, there lies in the valley, to the south but not at a great distance from the bigging, a stagnant lake called Igulvatn, which name it bears to this day.

The mistress killed her guests in the middle of the night, and this was the manner of their death: she attacked them with a short sword as they slept, bit them in the throat and drank their blood, then, after dismembering their bodies, used their bones as playthings for herself and the fiend Kolumkilli. Some she pursued over the moors and assailed with her sword, and brightly flashed the blade as she made an end of them. In strength she was the equal of any man, and she had in addition the help of the Devil. Clots of blood may still be seen in the snow on the ridges, especially before Yule. She bore their carrion down into the valley and sank it in the lake, after tying stones to it. Then she stole their possessions, their clothes and horses and money, if any. Her children were idiots all and would bark from the housetop like any dog, or squat in imbecility on the paving and bite men, for the Fiend had deprived them of common sense and human tongue. To this very day this lullaby is sung in districts on both sides of the high moors:

Guest of Gunnvor was one man,
With pony of price,
Through his heart her sword she ran,
Lullabalulla,
Running blood
reddens the blade,
Lullabalulla.

Guest of Gunnvor was no man
With God or good grace,
She has broken my rib-bone, my leg-bone, my hip-bone,
Lullabalulla,
Running blood reddens the blade,
Lullabalulla.

If Kolumkilli call me should,
This is what he'd say:
Bones and red blood, bones and red blood,
And dododo,
Runs the blood in a flood,
So lullabalulla.

But in the end it came to pass that gunnvor's vile practices were unmasked. She had been the bane of many — men, women, and children alike — and had chanted at night to the fiend Kolumkilli. She was condemned at the district moot and broken at the lich-gate of Rauthsmyri Church on Trinity Sunday. Then she was dismembered, and last of all her head was cut off; and she took her death well, but cursed men with strange curses. Her trunk, head, and limbs were gathered into a skin bag, which was borne up to the ridge to the west of Albogastathir and buried in a cairn at the highest point. The cairn may be seen to this day, now overgrown with grass below and called latterly Gunnucairn. The people say that there will be no misfortune if the traveler casts a stone on the cairn on the first occasion that he crosses the ridge, but some throw a stone each time they pass that way, and hope therewith to buy themselves immunity.

Troublesome as the mistress Gunnvor may have seemed in living life, she far surpassed her former evil conduct after her burial; she was considered to rest ill in the barrow and walked at home on her farm. She woke up with her those several men whom she had destroyed, and folk at home in Albogastathir had little rest from disturbance once the night took to darkening. She resumed her former practices, tormenting living and dead alike, so that always there might be heard in the croft at night a loud yelling and howling as though flocks of tortured souls held lament on the roof and at the window because of their great misery and little rest. Sometimes it was as if the most powerful stench of brimstone erupted from the earth, filling the house with its gust so that men lay suffocating and dogs thrashed about as though mad.Sometimes Gunnvor rode the roof so that every timber shook, and in the end no building was thought safe from her evil pounding and shameful night-riding. She would climb on men's backs and on the backs of livestock and crush the cows; she would drive women and children mad and frighten old people, yielding neither to sign of the cross nor to magic spells. The story relates that finally the priest of Rauthsmyri was brought to lay her and that she fled before his most admirable learning into the mountain, splitting it where a cleft is now to be seen. Some people say that she took up her habitation in the mountain, in which case it is not unlikely that it was in the form of a troll. Others believe that she lives much in the lake in the form of some kind of serpent or water-monster; and indeed it is on all men's lips that a monster has now for many generations inhabited the lake and appeared to countless witnesses, who have testified to it upon oath, even those without second sight. Some people say that this monster had destroyed the bigging Albogastathir thrice, others seven times, so that no husbandman had any peace there longer and the farm was laid waste because specters in various likenesses continually disturbed it. So in the tie of Sheriff Jon Reykdalin it was added to the lands of Rautshmyri first as sheep-cotes for the winter, whence its later name of Winterhouses, but afterwards a lamb's fold.

Excerpted from Independent People by Halldor Laxness Copyright © 1946 by Halldor Laxness. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Purchase Featured Book

Independent People

Purchase Book

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Independent People
Author
Halldor Laxness

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

 

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.