Marked up to be included in the Scandinavian-Canadian Journal
ABSTRACT: This article attempts to draw a parallel between the way the supernatural is used in
RÉSUMÉ: L’article établit un parallèle entre la façon dont le surnaturel est utilisé dans la
Afew weeks before I began writing this paper I was sitting in front of my television set in Reykjavik, as I do too often, mindlessly flipping channels, when I came upon a program on the Discovery Channel about the astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason. Bjarni was born in Iceland but brought up in Canada. He is a Canadian citizen and as such he has participated in one of the space shuttle missions in order to perform scientific experiments. On the program, they showed some of the photos Bjarni had taken of the Earth from space. NASA actually encourages the personnel aboard the space shuttle to take pictures whenever they have some spare time, which of course is not very often. Why? Aren’t there plenty of automatic cameras attached to the shuttle, taking pictures regularly as it circles the globe? Not to mention all the satellites photographing our planet probably every minute of the day? However, as NASA has learned, pictures taken by machines do not appeal to the public and therefore cannot be used for promotional purposes in the same way as pictures taken by astronauts. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that also means that for us to respond to such pictures, they need to have been taken by other human beings, who themselves have responded to the reality before them with their interests, their tastes, their fears and desires, conscious or subconscious.
The photos that were shown were truly beautiful. Bjarni’s attention had been caught by voluptuous cloud-masses rising from the atmosphere, and terrifying vortexes making you feel giddy, even in the security of your TV chair, also delicate shadings of blue, green, brown, reminiscent of a cool stream in a forest clearing on a hot summer’s day, or of the subtle coloring of someone’s eyes. Finally, the rim of the earth becoming incandescent as it slowly reveals the glory of the fiery sun.
I couldn’t help thinking that this would be an excellent introduction to what I wanted to say about how the sagas have continued to shape Icelandic literature in our century. It has little to do with the fact that Bjarni happens to be of Icelandic origin. That is only the reason I paid attention to this particular television program. It is much rather connected to the problem of realism in art in general and in literature in particular. Ever since the early nineteenth century, when Stendhal developed his famous simile of the novel as a mirror carried along a road reflecting whatever it comes upon, novelists, critics and readers have recognized the problematic nature of the relationship between reality and its representation. Though it is true that the novel, like the mirror, reflects the part of reality it is turned to, it is also true that what and how it reflects also depends on who is holding it and, equally important, who is looking at the reflection in the mirror. This problem can be formulated in the same way as the one NASA faces: even though cameras reflect on film whatever they’re pointed at, the important thing is that a human being is pointing the camera, communicating thereby his subjective experience of reality to other human beings.
Transposed to the realist novel, this tells us that though its ambition is to convey something about reality it must humanize it, in order to make this reality interesting to us—make it subjective. What I would like to show here is how one Icelandic author, Halldór Laxness, solved this problem for himself by using some of the same techniques the saga authors had developed several hundred years earlier. He thereby achieved two things. He created a link between the saga tradition and the more recent development of the realist novel in the Western world. He also made an important contribution to the art of the novel in general, a contribution that was to prove very potent in years to follow.
The novel I will be looking at is
I now come to the supernatural, which is in my title, and its relationship to realism in the sagas. The supernatural is present in very many, if not all, of the sagas of Icelanders. This is not sufficient to deem them unrealistic. As Carl Bayerschmidt argued quite a long time ago, the supernatural events they relate do not go against their author’s perception of what could happen in the real world. After all, these were people living in the Middle Ages, long before the Enlightenment and later scientific revolutions. Things we perceive as outside the boundaries of the real would have seemed entirely plausible to them.
It could be said that
The sagas are notoriously quiet about what goes on inside their protagonists’ heads. I don’t know why this is, because they obviously take an interest in the inner lives of at least their main characters. I suspect that the silence is in part due to the fact that when vernacular literature appeared in Iceland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, there did not exist the same poetic tradition as for example in France, where troubadours had for quite a while been singing of the suffering of the soul burning with desire for its true love. The embryonic inner monologues which can for instance be found in Chrétien’s narrative poems and already hint at the psychological analysis which the French novel tradition will later develop, use the language of the troubadours and
trouvères to express the inner life of the characters. This language does not exist in the Icelandic tradition, and I propose that this might be one of the reasons for the sagas’ silence about their protagonists’ inner life. Their authors simply didn’t have the discursive tools to be very eloquent about what goes on in the soul.
What they had instead was skaldic poetry. Skaldic poetry has two characteristics that I believe are of relevance for understanding the relationship between the supernatural and the inner lives of saga characters. The first is that a skaldic strophe is an enigma that has to be decoded and interpreted. A parallel can be drawn between this and famous episodes of the sagas, such as Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir’s mysterious reply to her son:
The other characteristic of skaldic poetry which is helpful when we try to understand the saga’s particular brand of
The episode I just mentioned from
I now come to
After the episode, however, the reader is convinced of Grettir’s intrinsic heroic nature. Despite it, his destiny will be that of an outlaw, finishing his life miserably. This is also an enigma, which the saga author solves by resorting to the supernatural. I am referring here to Grettir’s fight with the ghost Glámr. This famous episode has been studied by many scholars, among whom I will only mention Hermann Pálsson who has elucidated its links to Christian views of the supernatural. What interests me is how the author uses this ghost story to give us insight into Grettir’s psyche.
He does this in several ways. The most obvious one is when Glámr, before expiring a second time, lays a curse on Grettir, telling him that what he has seen in his ghostly eyes will stay with him for the rest of his life, making him unable to be alone at night but also turning most of his actions against him
It therefore becomes even more interesting to consider how this experience of the fight with Glámr can be interpreted from a psychoanalytic perspective. This is made possible by the saga’s use of intertextuality. Indeed, the closest model for the Glámr episode in the saga literature is to be found in
Obviously, Glámr is not Grettir’s father. However, some of the Glámr’s characteristics, such as size and hair colouring, resemble those of Ásmundr. If this is linked to other aspects of Grettir’s life, for example the close relationship to his mother and the difficult one with his father, it becomes tempting to use Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex to explain Grettir’s problem. Of course, this is quite an anachronistic thing to do to a text from the fourteenth century, but the fact that it can be done
After having first considered a Canadian with an Icelandic name photographing Earth while orbiting the planet, and then an Icelander whose name is lost, steering his feather pen over the parchment somewhere in medieval Iceland, let us now take a look at one more Icelander, whose
as limited and positivistic. It does not permit strong poetic flight eins takmarkað og rammpósívistiskt eins og hún; hún bannar öll sterk vængjatök
The twenties and thirties are exciting times for novelists: Proust, Gide, Joyce, Faulkner, Hemingway, Gorky, Musil are just a few of the great authors whose work is making an impact on other writers during this period. They are experimenting with new techniques of narration, of point of view, of composition, of style. The novel is the major literary genre of the time and, like his contemporaries, Halldór Laxness is very conscious of the fact that what he is doing is art.
It would be a worthwhile task to undertake a careful study of the evolution of Laxness’s art, especially during this crucial fourth decade of our century. Such a study would evidently benefit from Peter Hallberg’s excellent work from the fifties, sixties and seventies, to which I am indebted, as is anyone who takes an interest in Laxness as a writer. What I will say here is only a minor contribution to a picture Hallberg has already done more than outline, but is still not complete.
Originally intended as a movie script, his next novel,
Despite its undeniable qualities,
While still writing
No one has ever written such prose in Icelandic,
One of the problems Laxness had been battling with when he abandoned the book temporarily was how to get his readers to sympathize with these people who were so poor and miserable it could seem doubtful that they even had any inner lives. In
Space does not allow me to go into this in any sort of detail. Those who know the novel will remember for example how Bjartur’s second wife Finna and her children are comforted by stories of elves, telling them that in the stones they inhabit there is a better world, where people are kind and life is beautiful. In his grief after Finna’s death, Helgi, Bjartur’s eldest son, will try to enter this world, but the stones are hard and cold and won’t open up to let him in. His grief turns into despair and with despair comes madness. Here again it is through the staging of an event from folklore, the ghostly sheep murders, that the inner anguish of the character is expressed.
Many other examples could be named, such as the way Ásta Sóllilja’s nascent sexuality is suggested through the rhymed romances she learns, or the way the whole episode of the cow which is given to the family is suffused with the Icelandic tale of Búkolla, a cow which disappears one day from the farm, the unloved son of the farmers being sent to look for it. Búkolla has been taken away by trolls and when the boy and the cow are fleeing them together the magic that saves them comes from the cow’s tail.
Of course, the Gunnvör story with its ominous forebodings tells us, right at the very beginning of the novel, that we are in a world where the old folk-beliefs are very potent, and all through the novel a wealth of allusions to the treasures of Icelandic folklore are used to make the lonely inhabitants of the desolate Summerhouses come alive to us. One could say that the folk-tales are to them what the camera is to Bjarni Tryggvason. They are the instrument of their subjectivity making their world accessible to us. Through them we acquire a strong sense of what’s going on in the hearts and souls of these people, except maybe that of Bjartur.
This is because, alongside his use of folklore, Laxness has now made his peace with the saga tradition. Indeed, after shunning it for so long, he creates the extraordinary Bjartur who, as many have remarked, has so many characteristics of a saga hero, with the strong sense of individuality he shares with figures such as Egill and Grettir
Indeed, for them he is above all a tyrant, imposing on them the hardships the economic system is subjecting him to. There is, however, one thing that makes him human, the tenderness he cannot suppress for the eldest of his children, Ásta Sóllilja, the baby he found barely breathing beside the dead body of his first wife, Rósa, when he came back from his eventful search for the lost sheep. She is not his child, but the bastard of the land-owner’s son, the proof that his so-called independence is only an illusion, serving the interests of those who exploit not only the labour of his limbs but also his very soul, making him believe that he could ever be an independent man, that he could ever marry a woman who loved him.
Herein resides the enigma of Bjartur: why does he adopt the little girl? Is it charity for a newborn waif, an orphan abandoned by her real blood relations? Pride over being morally superior to them? The fascination of a coarse, ugly working man for the beauty he does not have and which he sees in Ásta, the grace of the upper classes?
Here, as the sagas do, Laxness hides and shows the answer to the mystery of Bjartur’s behaviour in an adventurous encounter with the supernatural. I am referring to one of the most memorable episodes of the novel, Bjartur’s trip to the mountains to search for the lost sheep
To understand this, we can begin by looking at
what’s in a name,
Let me. Ásta is the love he is giving to the little girl, the unrequited love he had for Rósa, the girl’s mother. Sól is the sun, making Bjartur, the bright one, a recipient of her light. Lilja, the lily, is a flower name, like Rósa, but this flower has no thorns. Ásta won’t hurt Bjartur, he will harm her, in her tender innocence, when he is on the verge of committing what is and is not incest, and again when he sends the poor girl away, when she is pregnant with the child of a drunk that Bjartur had sent to teach his children while he was away working as a fisherman. The flower metaphor is omnipresent in the novel, especially in Bjartur’s poetry, when he compares himself to a cold and lonely mountain cliff sheltering a tiny blossom, also in the last words he says to her at the very end of the novel:
As far as I know, no one has noticed yet how the whole episode of Bjartur’s search for the missing sheep is built on a folk-tale, the one I have already mentioned about the cow Búkolla. It is a typical adventure tale: the cow has been stolen by evil troll-women; the unloved son is sent out to find it and does so with the help of Búkolla herself, thwarting the troll-women’s attempts to capture it and bringing back the cow to the joy of his parents. Laxness uses the Búkolla tale as the basic pattern for this chapter but transforms and displaces its elements in order to adapt it to the underlying metaphorical structure of the novel. The boy’s quest for the lost cow, basically what could be called his quest for his parents’ recognition, becomes symbolically Bjartur’s existential quest, a sort of
mise en abyme of the plight which is his. Here it is a sheep which is missing and not a cow, but the links with folklore are suggested by the name which is given to it: Gullbrá. In place of the evil troll-woman, it is Rósa herself who has taken the sheep. Obviously, Bjartur won’t find it. Instead he comes across a flock of reindeer.
It is here that the author starts playing with the folklore elements in order to serve his more general purpose. Bjartur decides to try and capture one of the animals and bring it to his farm as a compensation for the loss of his sheep. He chooses the biggest and strongest one, the male. When he makes his attempt, however, the reindeer nearly impales him with his horns. The reindeer carries Bjartur into a glacier river, in which he barely escapes drowning and as he climbs out of the river, he finds himself on the opposite bank. It is a whole day’s walk to the nearest bridge. He is at least two days away from home and a violent storm is breaking loose. While he fights through the storm, he goes through all the poetry he knows, first metrical romances of heroes fighting terrible foes, then, when he is assailed by the need for rest, other romances about evil queens trying to lure their stepsons to sleep with them. More dead than alive, covered by ice, he finally stumbles into the first farm on his way. A peasant woman leads him into the farm, taking his clothes off and massaging the life back into him. The only thing he can say is:
Ég geing einn
… ég geing á eftir konunni með ljósið … I’ll follow the woman with the lamp
This is no small ordeal and many things suggest that it verges on being a supernatural one, for example the strange birds that Bjartur sees just before his encounter with the reindeer. More importantly, his adventure, like Grettir’s, plays out what is going on in his soul. When he sets out he is entangled in a thorny marriage, when he comes back, the Rose is dead. It has been replaced by the graceful Lily who has no thorns and will love him as he loves her, even though it will take him the rest of the novel to realize it. Also, the gender shifts in the objects of his quest, first a female sheep then a male reindeer, and then in the imaginary foes he conjures up in the poetry he recites during his long walk, first Vikings, then evil queens, mirror the conflict in which he finds himself. In the social logic of the novel, his foes are the male representatives of the dominant class. They keep him from attaining the real object of his quest, the right to be an independent man who can take a wife and build a home for his family. However, he is also confronted with female foes, who deceive him: the wife of the landowner and Rósa herself. Her replacement by Ásta Sóllilja can be seen as a symbol of the possibility for him to know true love and build himself a home outside the system of oppression and exploitation the novel portrays.
In his introduction to the recent English language edition of the novel, Brad Leithauser says that with