Under the Glacier
Graveyard, Snæfellsness, Iceland
Emily’s Saga connection to Glacier:
Snæfellsjökull is the extinct volcano that is the starting-point for the journey to the centre of the earth that Jules Verne writes about in his book of that name. A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a copy of his Around the World in 80 Days as an evening alternative to saga-reading. Seeing me with the book in my hands, a German friend of mine asked if I knew about the Halldór Laxness Film Festival that was about to take place at a cinema in Reykajvík, and whether I would be interested in seeing a film called Kristnihald Undir Jökli (Christianity Under the Glacier). I said yes, but that I had better read the book first, over the weekend.
The book tells of a young man who calls himself ‘Umbi’ (short for ‘umboðsmaður biskups’, ‘Emissary of the Bishop’ > 'Embi’ in the English translation by Magnus Magnusson). Umbi is sent to Snæfellsnes by the Bishop of Iceland to try to get an idea of what the local priest (who is beyond eccentric, or perhaps wiser than everyone else in the world put together) is up to. It is in turn and all at once brilliantly funny, utterly perplexing, deeply philosophical, uncompromisingly serious, a huge spoof, endlessly colourful in the detail Umbi reports and the situations he finds himself in. And in one of the early chapters, lo and behold, a reference to a certain Phileas Fogg, whose journey around the world young Umbi finds more impressive than Otto Lidenbrock’s descent into Snæfellsjökull.
I was further drawn in by the way Laxness weaves Eyrbyggja saga into his book. The story of a certain Þórgunna, a strange Hebridean woman who stays at a Snæfellsnes farm called Fróðá (where there are some very strange hauntings), is told in Eyrbyggja and retold in Kristnihald. The mysterious Úa in Laxness's book is in some ways a reincarnation of this remarkable Þórgunna...both are the kind of women who are never seen to wash but are always clean, are never seen to eat but are always plump, are never seen to sleep but are always ready for anything, are never seen to age and one day, just disappear... And then come back from the grave, in a benevolent way.
Eyrbyggja saga describes how Þórgunna dies, and how—according to her last wishes as a Christian—her corpse is carried in a coffin to Skálholt where she wants to be buried, since Skálholt will become one of the two Icelandic bishoprics. The journey is a tough and long one for the coffin-bearers; at one place where they stop for the night they are grudgingly given lodgings but no food. A great clattering noise is heard in the night and when the coffin-bearers investigate, they see the stark-naked Þórgunna risen from the dead, preparing food for them. Þorgunna chastises the miserly host; átu gestir mat sinn, ok sakaði engan mann, þótt Þórgunna hefði matbúit (Eyrbyggja saga, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson 1935, p. 144; "The guests ate their food and it harmed no-one, though Þórgunna had prepared it"). There's no sequence in the film of Kristnihald of Þórgunna’s original naked chef exploits; many beguiling shots of Snæfellsjökull though.
I talked to a few people with Snæfellsnes connections about Laxness's book and the film: “Well, of course, Laxness based the character of Pastor Jón partly on X, partly on Y, and partly on Z. And the thread in the book about the red horse and the grey horse who always run away alternately...that episode was directly based on this time when...” And the film was made by Laxness's daughter, Guðný Halldórsdóttir. One of the most remarkable things for me about Iceland is how pieces of the puzzle just seem to fit together like they do nowhere else I know of. A biography in several volumes of the Snæfellsnes priest Árni Þórarinsson (born 1860, died 1948), written by Þorbergur Þórðarson and recommended to me by several people, is next on my reading list; my Snæfellsjökull puzzle will doubtless expand in all kinds of directions.
William’s musings on intergalactic resurrection…
The title of this edition which is called Under the Glacier instead of Christianity Under Glacier offends me. It offends me in the same way that the White House calling a Christmas tree a holiday tree offends me. The titles of books are usually chosen by marketing departments. The author has little, or even, no say in the title. Nor do his descendants. I assume that Kristanhald Under Jökli was renamed with the idea that dropping the word, Christian, from the title would increase sales. Since the entire book, from the first word to the last, is about the condition of Christianity in Glacier and, by implication, in Iceland, leaving Christian out is both misleading and absurd. Like, we’ll leave Christian out of the title and trick people into buying this book because they’ll think its about glaciers. As for the book itself, I often found the satire hilarious. As a Lutheran with an Icelandic background, I frequently recognized the foibles and pretensions of myself and my community. But there’s the rub. A satire, to be appreciated, needs readers who know intimately what is being satirized. Unlike previous novels of Laxness’s that I have read, that contain within them all the necessary information for understanding and appreciation, this novel does not.
The novel begins with Embi, a not particularly committed theology student who isn’t much interested in becoming ordained, being chosen to investigate the state of Christianity at Glacier. With Embi being chosen for a task that should rightly belong to a devout theologian, the satire has begun. What has sparked the investigation are rumours of odd happenings at Glacier. Burials are often delayed, baptisms and confirmations not performed, and there supposedly has been a strange burial on the glacier instead of in hallowed ground. The church building itself is reported to be in disrepair and a much larger secular building has been built next to the church so the church is overshadowed.
Embi travels to Glacier. On his arrival, he notices a sign that says: “PRIMUSES REPAIRED HERE.” Embi discovers that the local pastor, called Jón Primus, has a stellar reputation, not as a theologian, but as a repairer of primus stoves. The irony and satire of Jón Primus and his many technical skills would be lost on a non-Icelandic audience. The wry smile and laughter would come from the knowledgeable reader who knew how they needed to raise sheep and go fishing to survive. Religious duties for such men had to come second to getting in the hay for without hay their sheep would die and without sheep, the pastor would die. Although there were tithes of sheep and fish for the pastor at some times, by some people, many pastors depended on their secular skills to survive. It is no wonder that it is their secular skills for which they are named and appreciated.
Henderson, when he traveled in Iceland in 1814-15 distributing and selling Bibles, commented extensively on the condition of the clergy:
“The total number of parishes in Iceland amounts to 184; but as many of them occupy a great space of ground, it has been found necessary to build in some parts two or three churches in a parish, which has increased the number of churches to 305.” The ministers are “… all natives of the island, and are maintained partly from certain tithes raised among the peasants. The provision made for their support is exceedingly scanty. The richest living on the island does not produce 200 rix-dollars; twenty and thirty rix-dollars are the whole of the stipend annexed to many of the parishes; and there are some in which it is even as low as five.”
Ministers needed, also, to perform many other duties. Henderson says that “besides attending to the spiritual wants of his people, Sira Jon (Jón Jónson of Audabrecka) devotes a considerable portion of his time to the healing of their bodies, and is celebrated all over the north for his skill in medicine. Since last new year, he has had more than two hundred cases.” In 1872, when Burton is in Iceland, conditions hadn’t changed much. He says in Ultima Thule that while the bishop’s salary is $3416.33 Danish dollars, thirty-nine ministers make only about 300 rigs dollars a year. This is a very small amount of money and while he says the ministers have some other sources of income, he admits that the clergy are “compelled to be farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen.”
The naming of Jón Primus is an occasion for a smile or a laugh for the tradition of naming people according to their work was so strong that it survived the emigration to Ameríka. In Gimli, Manitoba, and elsewhere in New Iceland, there were many Valdis and Helgis and so the butcher became Valdi Butch and the garage man, Helgi Highway. Much of the naming was, and still is, ironic. When Embi asks Tumi Jónsen for the whereabouts of the pastor, Tumi says that he has gone to Ness to shoe a herd of horses. Jón Primus also does electrical work. He’s handy to have around. However, when Embi asks about the pastor’s doctrine, Tumi says, “We’ve never been aware that Pastor Jón had any particular doctrine.”
Poor Embi, hopeless, hapless, making notes and tape recordings, he tries to make sense of Christianity at Glacier. The answers to even his simplest questions are convoluted and evasive. The rumour that a burial has taken place on the glacier turns out to be true.
A local Icelander, Gudmundur Sigmundsson, has made a great deal of money abroad, and is the owner of the secular building on church property, a building much larger than the church. He returns. He now calls himself Godman Singmann. Although this book was published in 1968, the Occupy protesters would recognize someone who thinks he’s Godman and belongs to the one percent. Today, he would definitely be an Icelandic banker. Godman espouses a new religion that believes in biotelekinesis and intergaltic communication and intergalactic resurrection. Pastor Jón, in spite of his secular activities, has literally nailed the doors of the church shut against such things and refuses its use for an experiment in secular resurrection. Jón Primus, in reply to Godman’s theories, says “That water is good.” He sticks to simple truths instead of bafflegab mixed together from an assortment of religions. Great fun is made with the stereotypes in the novel, with the theories and fads, with the quirks of Icelandic society. This novel contains the famous scenes of Embi never being offered anything but cakes instead of meals. Many a host, both in Iceland and North America, has said “There are good treats here but not seventeen cakes.” Icelanders and Icelandic North Americans alike know that it is Pestle-Thóra, Jón Primus’s housekeeper and her many cakes that is being referred to.
I would put this book under the Christmas tree but only for someone who knows Iceland and some Icelandic history. Otherwise, the reader is likely to stop reading among the conversations Embi has with people when he first arrives at Glacier. It would also help if the reader cared about Christianity in Iceland (and elsewhere) for beyond the irony and satire there are serious points made and questions raised. For the knowledgeable reader, this book is as relevant today as it was when it was first published.
Misbehaving clergymen and a disruptive Icelandic volcano have been dominating the headlines, and I just happen to have finished a novel featuring both: Under the Glacier, by the Nobel prize-winning Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness.
A young theologian is sent by his Bishop to investigate a priest who is reported to have lost his faith. Pastor Jon supposedly refuses to baptize infants or bury the dead or hold services, and Embi, as the Emissary of the Bishop is called, is told to journey to Snaefellsjokull (the Snaefells Glacier, which lies atop a volcano), listen without argument to pastor Jon and his associates, note down everything that is relevant, and report back to the Bishop.
Embi protests that he’s too young (twenty-five!) and too ignorant for such a task, but he’s sent anyway. Almost immediately, he lands in a theatre of the absurd. The church is nailed shut and the Pastor is missing, off shoeing horses. At the parsonage, Embi is served a dinner of mouldy coffee and innumerable cakes by a woman who tells him about a “fairy ram” she once saw. The unhealthy-looking calf tethered outside the parsonage, we learn, lives on coffee and cake too.
At this point, you can either throw the book away or, like Embi, attempt to listen without argument. I chose the latter path.
As you might guess, there is little point in further describing the plot of such a novel. Suffice to say that Embi meets a variety of characters (including the elusive pastor) with whom he has philosophical and religious discussions; inevitably, his everyman views are rattled to the core. This book was written in the sixties and reflects the ethos of an age when all long-rooted beliefs seemed ripe for questioning. Laxness, in essence, asks us to reconsider all we think of as normal, including the “normal” structure of the novel form.
I’ve never met a book less easy to classify. If Under the Glacier was an animal, it’d be a chimera–a lion with a goat’s head growing out of its middle, and a serpent for a tail. To call this book a fable is to name the serpent and ignore the other heads; to call it a critique of Christianity is to name the lion alone, and to call it a comic novel is to term the goat an ass. But if you accept the right of this fabulous beast to exist, the co-existence of three heads, then this book makes sense, albeit on its own terms.
Under the Glacier is a slippery, whimsical thing, almost impossible to get hold of. At times, I felt I was reading the work of a genius, but equally, at other times, Laxness seemed to write like a preternaturally clever but naughty schoolboy. (And sometimes, I figured Laxness was merely stoned.) I think one of the most unsettling aspects of this novel–more than the fairy ram, the woman who was turned into a fish, or the proposed resurrection of a corpse in the glacier–is Laxness’s absolute objectivity in handling his story. The book features two narratives–Embi’s written report to the Bishop, and his account of the adventures befalling him, and neither is designed to engender the reader’s comfort. Laxness’s creations simply do their thing, and we readers grope around, looking in vain for a familiar hook upon which to hang our beliefs, for a character with whom we might feel a thrill of recognition.
Now, my previous attempt at a Laxness was a notable failure, for Paradise Reclaimed drove to me to such anger and despair that I quit halfway. But I did finish Under the Glacier, right down to a shocking (and yet, in retrospect, not entirely unexpected) climax. This sort of text insists on being revisited; I have no doubt that book will convey something entirely new to me when I re-read it in a year or ten. Read it or skip it, at equal peril.
Abi’s describes a new favorite book…
A novel ostensibly about an emissary of the Bishop of Iceland, who is
sent to the remote town of ‘Glacier’ to investigate the rumour that
Pastor Jon is not burying the dead, that the church is boarded up, and
that in general Christianity is being ‘tampered with’. The investigation
leaves the emissary moiled in confusion and improbability as he
discovers that the church being boarded up is one of the least strange
things about Glacier. One of the characters is a woman named Úa who may
or may not have been killed, turned into a fish, frozen under the
glacier, and then later defrosted and resurrected by a group of
traveling American hippies. If that doesn’t sound like a fun and
interesting read to you, then what does? Even if it doesn’t, trust me,
This is fast becoming one of my favourite Laxness books. Although the
issues that concern Laxness are closer to the surface than in much of his
other work, they remain intriguing and the upside is that Laxness appears
to give his own philosophies a freer rein; it’s more obviously a book about
thought rather than things. Not in a crude, force-it-down-your-throat way,
though, and not to say the plot isn’t charming, because it is. It is a
commentary on history, art, literature, identity, mythology, science and
religion. There’s a lot to get out of this little volume, and the novel is
highly rewarding for the reader who allows themselves to be swept up in the
baffling but amusing eccentricities of the Glacier community.
The novel as a whole is bewildering, but pleasantly so, leaving the reader feeling
refreshed and enchanted, if more than a little uncertain about how to
feel. The joy of the unfamiliar is uplifting, like walking the first
footsteps into fresh-fallen snow. Any preconceptions you bring to this
novel are almost certain to be proven wrong, even if like me, you had
already read a number of Laxness novels (this was my fifth). I know I
wasn’t expecting to enjoy it so much after the reviews I had read of it.
It’s also very different from his other novels, the one that shows the
scantest disregard for the boundaries between Icelandic sagas &
folklore and reality. The writing is classic Laxness, though: wry;
laconic; beautiful. Embi is one of his most endearing characters, Pastor
Jon his most philosophical, Jodinus Alfberg one of his most interesting,
Úa definitely one of his most confusing. I hope I’ve done a better job of
translating the wonder of Under the Glacier, but it is unlikely.
Under the Glacier is a minor classic and deserves a lot more attention
than, sadly, it will ever get; even less than the glorious Independent People.
Bringing a knowledge of the sagas and of Icelandic folklore will enable
a reader to get a bit more out of this particular Laxness experience.
It’s by no means necessary, but they are a fairly important layer in the
Arie’s review: “I Need Someone to Go on a Little Journey for Me”
That is what the Bishop of Reykjavik told the “Undersigned” (from then onwards known as “EmBi”: Emissary of the Bishop) in Halldór Laxness’ strange novel Under the Glacier. I had begun reading the book in 2009 and it took me slightly over three years to finish a “simple” 200-pages novel.
I guess that in order to write a review of a work of literature like this, one has to let go of everything that one knows about literary reviews (based mainly on theoretical prejudice) and adopt a singular point of view in which the plot, characters and the actual dramatic climax are not the most important element or lens.
In Under the Glacier, this and that happens. Blah blah blah. The end is like this. The beginning is like that. Such and such dramas.
The story could be quite simple: The Bishop of Reykjavik sends a young theologian to investigate the status of Christianity and strange events in a town at the top of a mountain in Western Iceland, at the entrance of Snæfell glacier.
But the events are so strange that EmBi’s travelogue—and this is all that the novel is—becomes an epic legend about religion, reality and storytelling itself. The bishop instructs EmBi:
“Don’t forget that few people are likely to tell more than a small part of the truth: no one tells much of the truth, let alone the whole truth. Spoken words are facts in themselves, whether true or false. When people talk they reveal themselves, whether they’re lying or telling the truth.”
A stream of consciousness would be so unfitting a term. The idea of stream-of-consciousness doesn’t tell stories as much as capture situations and conditions. What storytelling is is better captured by Hannah Arendt:
“It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication the last word which we expect from the Day of Judgment”.
Susan Sontag tells us in the introduction to the novel’s English translation that the long prose fiction called the novel has yet to shake off the mandate of its own normality as promulgated in the 19th century. She goes on to add that narratives that deviate from the artificial “norm” of the novel and tell other kinds of stories are considered bizarre and mentions some of those genres:
Then concludes by saying: “The only novel I know that fits into all of them is Halldór Laxness’ wildly original, morose, uproarious Under the Glacier.”
Tale, fable, allegory
Literature of fantasy
It would be difficult to read Laxness without being familiar with Icelandic saga and the Icelandic tradition known as “kvöldvaka” (or the night-watch, similar to what is called in Yemen “samar”). In many farms in Iceland during the long winter nights, members of the household sat in the common room as they listened to Icelandic sagas read aloud, folktales about mysterious women, ghosts and magic or rhymes.
Stories about the creation of the world—in which Snæfell glacier and its entrance to the volcano underneath is the center of the universe—figure prominently in this tradition. And this is how Laxness’ novel ought to be read: As if it were one long story told orally during a night-watch: “The difference between a novelist and a historian is this: that the former tells lies deliberately and for the fun of it; the historian tells lies in his simplicity and imagines he is telling the truth”.
Can Christianity survive in the glacier? This question is answered by the priest of the Snæfell: “The closer you try to approach the facts through history, the deeper you sink into fiction.”
The only fitting review I could find for Laxness’ novel was a poem of Laxness’ predecessor, the poet Jónas Hallgrímsson, written in 1837. Hallgrímsson, like some of the characters that people Laxness’ curious novel, was a poet and scientist, interested in the mysteries of the universe—like a good Icelandic storyteller—and who used his extensive knowledge of science and nature to describe Icelandic nature in his poetry.
He even wrote a cosmological treatise: “On the Nature and Origin of the Earth” that leaves us without knowing whether it was scientific prose, a legend or a poem. His poem “The Vastness of the Universe,” based on one of the young Schiller, begins with a stanza that recreates the ambition of Laxness, more than a hundred years later:
Eg er sá geisli,
er guðs hönd skapanda
fyrr úr ginnunga
flýg eg á vinda
I am the speeding
spark of light
flung by God
from the forge of Chaos.
I soar on wings
swifter than wind
above the paths
of the pulsing stars.
First published in The Mantle, a forum for progressive critique.
Stephen’s convergence of three books…
“It’s all one great big bloody mire.”
Jar City, A Reykjavík Thriller, by Arnaldur Indriðason, Thomas Dunne Books, 2005
Promising Genomics, Iceland and deCODE Genetics in a World of Speculation, by Mike Fortun, University of California Press, 2008
Under the Glacier, by Halldór Laxness, Vintage International, 2005
These three books have converged on my consciousness this winter; I've referred to Jar City, (Original Icelandic title: Mýrin) several times before, but never given the book a proper review (as if I've ever given a "proper" review!) I had received it for Christmas (to replace a lost copy) from a blog-pal, and I recently got a glowing recommendation about it from another blog-pal. In the four years since my first reading of the book, I’ve read read four other Inspector Erlendur mysteries and was eager to revisit “the scene of the crime.” I’ve spent some time (not nearly enough!) prowling the streets of Reykjavík, including a stay in the Nordurmýri area (the foreground of the area pictured above) where the murder takes place. Arnaldur’s series seems authentic, indeed, the atmosphere of the settings and the psychology of Erlendur are more important than an actual crime. The plot-wrinkle in this book concerns genetic profiling, with references to a fictional “Genetics Research Centre.”
Promising Genomics is a non-fiction book about deCODE Genetics, a start-up company which raised millions on the promise of using the genetic data-base of the Icelandic population to decode inherited illnesses; the results could create new therapies and treatments. I was made aware of this book by yet another blog-pal and I was pleasantly surprised to find it an in-depth treatment of the actual institution which Arnaldur used so effectively in fiction. Mike Fortun does a good job explaining the irrational exuberance displayed by venture capitalists before, during and after the "internet bust" of 2002, when millions of dollars were raised and lost by deCODE on "promises" of scientific breakthroughs. The subject can be overwhelming at times, but Fortun cleverly models himself as a participant/observer, acknowledging and assuming the persona of “Embi”, a character from the Halldór Laxness novel Under the Glacier. The promoters of deCODE are portrayed as playing a con-game, but one in which there is just (barely) enough potential to keep it going. The book was published in 2008, so fallout from the failure of the Icelandic banking system was not covered.
Halldór Laxness’ great novel of ideas, Under the Glacier (Icelandic title: Kristnihald undir Jökli) seems (to me, at least) be getting better and better, the more I read it, and read of it. This book (published in 1968) is an examination of the modern dilemma, in all of its messy glory. Religion, technology, sex, morality and just plain everyday existence is hashed over in a uniquely Icelandic stew (Plokkfiskur?) Fortun’s book uses Glacier as a template, as well as references from Halldor’s other social satire The Atom Station. UTG is a hard book to dive into—many of a Western reader’s cultural landmarks have gone missing or are deconstructed with a ‘ironic fatalism’, for the lack of a better word. There are implied promises in Glacier as well: the promise that Embi's report will have meaning and that Úa's anima can save Embi. Like deCODE, the promise is there, but never quite fulfilled.
There is always a place, a place beyond the “focus” where converging lines diverge again. I appear to be at that place now with the overlapping of three such diverse books. Still, I’ve found that Erlendur’s search for the meaning of a murder, Fortun’s search for meaning in a business model, as well as Laxness using Embi’s search as a metaphor for the meaning of life itself, share similarities. When overlapped on my mental map of Icelandic culture patterns begin to emerge, still beyond my ken, but tantalizingly close.
The Solute’s blind read of Under the Glacier…
Michael’s Complete Review of Glacier…
Emanda looks at Snæfellsjökull as a backdrop for UTG…
Andrew’s Salon review of Glacier…
Cassandra takes on Glacier…
Jan-Maat’s discusses Am Gletscher in Goodreads…
Susan’s "discovery" of Glacier…
Vincent in Boston's ArtFuse on Glacier…
Andrew looks at Laxness’ most radical novel…
Roberta covers Glacier in Zest (Google translate)…
History of Coffee Culture re: Glacier
Kristnihald Undir Jökli,
Helgafell, Reykjavík, 1968
Translated by Magnus Magnusson:
Christianity at Glacier
Helgafell, Reykjavík, 1972
Under the Glacier
Random House, New York: 2004, introduction by Susan Sontag
Random House, Canada: 2022, introduction by Susan Sontag
Penguin, 2022, eBook, 2022, introduction by Susan Sontag
Tale, fable, allegory
Literature of fantasy
er guðs hönd skapanda
fyrr úr ginnunga
flýg eg á vinda
I am the speeding
spark of light
flung by God
from the forge of Chaos.
I soar on wings
swifter than wind
above the paths
of the pulsing stars.