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The Saga of Halldór Laxness

Discussed in this essay:

Wayward Heroes, by Halldór Laxness. Archipelago. 500 pages. $20.

Nobel novelist, declared the headline of a 1971 New York Times profile, wants more readers. “I have tried to publish commercially in the United States,” Halldór Laxness complained, “but there seems to be no interest.” Iceland’s sole Nobel laureate was sixty-eight years old, his big Stateside hit already a quarter-century behind him. That book was Independent People, a tragicomedy about a stunningly stubborn shepherd named Bjartur and his long-suffering family (and sheep). It was conceived partly as a rejoinder to another Scandinavian novel, Growth of the Soil by Norway’s Knut Hamsun, which Laxness felt was disingenuous in the way it romanticized individualism while ignoring the extreme hardships of rural subsistence farming. Independent People is a paean to humanism and socialism in the guise of five hundred pages of a man shoveling shit, nearly freezing to death, struggling to protect his flock from lungworm, and butting heads with the foster daughter whose independence of spirit is a rare match for his own.


“Untitled, Iceland,” from the series North, by Mark Hartman © The artist

Laxness’s style is wry, with frills of whimsy, but his stories are of hardscrabble lives marked by sorrow, beauty, and loss. Bjartur, though a brute, is a devotee of rímur, a traditional and difficult Icelandic verse form. His foster daughter, Ásta Sóllilja, observes of Bjartur that “his poetry was technically so complex that it could never attain any noteworthy content; and thus it was with his life itself.” “Some day Father will build a big house for the flower of his life, but it won’t be this year,” Bjartur tells Ásta Sóllilja. “Nor was it,” adds Laxness in a sentence set off in its own paragraph; Bjartur builds a new shed for his ewes instead.

The poet and critic Brad Leithauser has noted that Independent People is “as much mock as genuine epic” — a hallmark of Laxness’s work. Those who read Bjartur as a paragon of libertarian virtue are looking in the right direction through the wrong end of the binoculars. Beneath the drollery and the pathos is a stern moral critique of an ideology that inclines people to regard one another as rivals rather than as neighbors. Bjartur’s desire for independence is understandable, even laudable: he labored for eighteen years to free himself from debt bondage and attain his scrap of land. But his self-reliance is so severe that it prevents him from engaging in the basic reciprocities that allow societies and families to function; his freedom ends up costing him everything he has.

The first volume of Independent People came out in 1934; the second appeared the next year. The book was a massive success at home, as well as throughout Europe and in the U.S.S.R. It is regularly ranked among the great books of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t until 1946 that Alfred A. Knopf brought Independent People to the U.S. in a single volume and made it a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. It sold an astonishing 450,000 copies — and attracted the interest of J. Edgar Hoover, who believed Laxness was funneling his profits to Communist groups. Hoover was personally invested in the FBI’s investigation of Laxness and saw him effectively blacklisted by American publishers, who do not, as a general rule, respond to a smash hit by refusing to work with its author ever again.1 Iceland’s conservative foreign minister conspired with the U.S. Embassy in Reykjavík to charge Laxness with tax evasion relating to royalties for Independent People, a harassment scheme that dragged on for a decade and nearly cost him his house.

Hoover need not have troubled himself. Laxness had indeed been a true-believing Communist — he’d published hundreds of polemical essays, including some outright propaganda, and had visited the Soviet Union as a guest of the state — but in the ten years between Independent People’s original publication and its U.S. debut, he’d undergone a substantial (if admittedly halting) ideological shift. Anyway, he wasn’t about to spend his hard-earned royalties bankrolling the Comintern. An erstwhile farm boy from a cultural and economic backwater, with a family of his own to support, Laxness needed the money. Moreover, in 1944, he had been deeply moved by Iceland’s long-awaited independence, seven hundred years in the making.2 Though far too slow to renounce Soviet repression or his own work as a propagandist, Laxness had by the late 1940s come to realize that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union had his homeland’s best interests at heart.

Each superpower was obsessed with drawing Iceland into its sphere of influence. Iceland’s decision, in March of 1949, to join NATO (and have the United States administer its obligations thereto) had been highly controversial, with many — including Laxness — arguing that giving up neutrality was a bigger risk than gaining protection. He was a divisive figure, to say the least, but Independent People had confirmed his reputation as a major novelist, and single-handedly established Iceland as a player on the world stage of arts and letters. Divisive or not, everyone knew that if the prize was going to go to an Icelander, nobody deserved it more than he did.

Laxness was first in serious contention for the prize in 1948, and then every year thereafter until he won. Along the way he lost to, among others, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway, who supposedly sent Laxness, his Icelandic translator, a telegram that said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get it next time.” He did, in 1955. The revolutionary firebrand became a patriotic success story, a cultural hero. That year the Icelandic government finally stopped bugging him about his taxes.

Laxness’s Nobel citation commends his “vivid epic power, which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland.” The allusion is to the sagas, Iceland’s chief cultural treasure, a vast body of prose narratives composed and compiled between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. The sagas record the lives and exploits of Icelanders from the settlement generation in the ninth century to near the end of the medieval period, including Leif Eriksson and his famous voyage to America. An inextricable mixture of myth and history, they are central to Iceland’s popular imagination and constituted its major contribution to world literature — at least until Laxness came along. They are narrated in a style we’d now describe as minimalist-realism, inflected at times by a surprisingly modern sense of irony. Milan Kundera was being cheeky, but he wasn’t exaggerating, when he said that had they been written “in the language of one of the major nations,” we “would have regarded the sagas as an anticipation or even the foundation of the European novel.”

Since the sagas are notable in no small part for what they include, it is equally important to take note of what they omit. Psychological interiority is not so much proscribed as inconceivable. Self-reflection is excluded a priori as a possibility for the characters, as it apparently was for the authors. People are what they do, not what they feel about what they’ve done, and though concepts of honor and loyalty figure strongly, practical application of these principles is typically restricted to a willingness to kill, to die, or to pay somebody off for having killed his kin. One killing or battle breeds the next, ensuring that more sagas will be written.

Whatever else they are, the sagas are “poems of force” in precisely the sense meant by Simone Weil when she wrote of the Iliad, “The true hero, the true subject, the center . . . is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away.” The sagas, tales, and related lore would make up several dozen Iliads. If this was his cultural heritage, Laxness must have wondered, what exactly had he inherited? And if this was his nation’s greatest cultural currency, how could he think of it as anything but blood money?

Though it is not mentioned specifically in the Nobel citation, Laxness’s novel Gerpla (1952) was surely on the Swedish Academy’s mind when they gave him the prize. The novel, which has never before been published in the United States, appears now as Wayward Heroes, in a translation by Philip Roughton. It is the first new English translation of the novel in almost sixty years and the first ever to be made directly from the Icelandic, Katherine John’s 1958 translation (which she called The Happy Warriors) having been made secondhand from the Swedish, and published only in the U.K. Set at the tail end of the saga era, and in large part a revisionist retelling of two classics of the genre, The Saga of the Sworn Brothers and The Saga of St. Olaf, Wayward Heroes is the most historical and the most epic of Laxness’s historical epics, though there’s plenty of mockery in it, too.

Brilliant, bleak, uproariously funny, and still alarmingly prescient, Wayward Heroes belongs in the pantheon of the antiwar novel alongside such touchstones as Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22. The heroes of the title are the “sworn brothers” Þorgeir Hávarsson and Þormóður Bessason.3 Since it is a retelling, it begins as the brothers’ saga must, with a formative experience from each man’s youth — what we today might call a trauma.

Þorgeir is all of seven years old when his father, Hávar — a former raider turned local thug — is murdered in front of him by neighbors tired of his thieving and bullying. Þorgeir is raised alone by his mother, who caters to his every whim and puffs him up with legends of his father’s glory days:

His eyes were opened to the only world that could matter to a champion: where helmet-crowned heroes lord it over folk, serve noble kings, slay evildoers and sorcerers, and fight duels with their peers in courage and valor, their reputations remaining intact whether they stand or fall.

A few fjords down, Þormóður has earned early renown as a poetic prodigy, a reciter and composer of skaldic verse, which is characterized by its intricate meter and use of compound metaphors, or kennings, such as “whale-road” for the sea. While visiting his uncle Vermundur, a chieftain, he meets Kolbrún, a woman who is rumored to be a witch. (She is also one of his uncle’s former concubines.) Egged on by one of Vermundur’s minions, Þormóður composes a lay about Kolbrún, though not only was such poetry poorly regarded, “it was considered such an affront to address verses to a woman that her relatives had the right to avenge it with murder.” Kolbrún, who has no kinsmen, replies that “men who composed love songs were incapable of enjoying women in other ways.” She calls Þormóður to her bedside, where after a cursory reprimand she delivers a prophecy: “When you have become a man, Þormóður, you shall ever and always be drawn to me, wherever you go, yet shall never be nearer than when you set your course farthest.” Þormóður is thereafter nicknamed Kolbrúnarskáld: the Skald of Coal-Brow.

The boys meet when Vermundur leads a delegation south to the Alþingi, Iceland’s national parliament. They stop for the night at the house of Þorgils Arason, a chieftain to whom Þorgeir has been sent by his mother to learn kingly manners. However, he is only interested in following in his father’s footsteps — which means, first and foremost, avenging his murder. Þormóður’s first glimpse of Þorgeir is of “a young man standing in the yard, with a shark knife hanging from his belt, a heavy meat cleaver perched on his shoulder, and a kettle lid in his hand, as a shield.” He is a young Quixote. The boys become fast friends.

Their conversation frequently turned to the contemptible state of things in Iceland, when free men were forced to haul fish or chase sheep in place of pursuing wealth through war, heroism, and manslaughter, or doing other deeds worthy to be praised in poetry, such as those their forefathers had accomplished in Norway. . . . They deemed it a shame and an abomination that the land should be kingless . . . [and] agreed to lead warriors’ lives, paying not a whit of regard to the opinions of churls and slaves.

This longing for a lost age of valor is a dangerous folie à deux. Their fantasy of a place that has forsaken its heritage is in fact a description of a land where civilization has triumphed over barbarity (though try telling that to Kolbrún’s Irish slave). The Iceland the boys reject is agricultural, peaceful, flourishing, and — crucially — unconquered by any foreign power. “The days are long past when men earned their keep through conflict,” Þorgils warns his young charge. To anyone else, this news would come as a relief. But the aspiring hero knows that without conflict there is no victory, and the aspiring skald knows that without heroes there is no fit subject for epic verse. They need each other.

The most consequential difference between the two heroes is that Þormóður is a ladies’ man. Though he wrote Kolbrún’s poem more or less on a dare, he would surely have gone to bed with her if he could have, and that his nickname, Kolbrúnarskáld, replaces his last name is a big deal. Þorgeir Hávarsson’s destiny is encoded in his patronymic. For Þormóður Bessason to become Þormóður Kolbrúnarskáld is in a sense a chance at cheating fate. (A chance Laxness took himself, by the way. He was born Halldór Guðjónsson and changed his name in 1923, the year he turned twenty-one. Laxnes was the name of the farmstead where he grew up.) Indeed, while Þorgeir is tracking down his father’s killers, Þormóður gets involved with a girl named Þórdís, who persuades him to rewrite his lay for Kolbrún in her honor. Kolbrún does not take this lightly, and issues a curse that leaves him bedridden for months. (You can only cheat fate so much.) Þormóður will spend the entire novel bouncing between these two women, whom he often dreams of as mystical beings like the Fates, sitting together tossing his fragile “life-egg” back and forth. Their competing claims on Þormóður’s erotic attention cause problems, but the ancillary effect of the triangle is to secure his connection to the non-fantasy world around him (the only realm in which desire can be satisfied) and to see him educated in the realpolitik of love.

The one person with a stronger claim on Þormóður than either woman is Þorgeir, who seems to have no erotic interests whatsoever. (“He who truckles to a woman is lowest laid,” he says.) This lack of desire makes him a vector of pure ideology, a man for whom realpolitik is a categorical impossibility. The heroes’ friendship is put to its strongest test not on the battlefield or on account of Þormóður’s dalliances but when they are alone together, on a cliff by the sea, foraging for herbs. While Þormóður has his back turned, Þorgeir loses his footing and finds himself hanging off the cliff face. Rather than call out for help and thereby express unheroic weakness, Þorgeir hangs in grim silence, fully prepared to fall to a needless death. By sheer chance, Þormóður notices what has happened and rescues Þorgeir, who “did not thank his sworn brother for saving him . . . in fact, it seemed as if he harbored some sort of grudge against Þormóður for the incident, and things grew colder between the sworn brothers from that point on.” Þorgeir soon starts musing about which of them would win if they were to fight each other. Þormóður, ever the more perceptive, tells him, “I sense clearly that you have not yet come to terms with me saving your life this summer,” before instigating a trial separation. Þormóður goes home to Laugaból, where he strikes things back up with Þórdís — and disappears from the novel for about a hundred pages while the focus shifts to Þorgeir, who finally realizes his dream of joining a Viking band.

Wayward Heroes, like the sagas it reimagines, is episodic and jam-packed with subplots, especially once it moves to Europe, where there are many kings, courts, bishops, and battles to follow. Þorgeir and his companions, led by Thorkell the Tall, head off to England to go raiding. Trouble is, England is ruled by the aptly named Æthelred the Unready, a king who “considered hostile foreign armies less of a threat than his own subjects.”

Unlike the sagas, where a ruler’s authority is rarely questioned save by rivals for his power, it is axiomatic in Wayward Heroes that a king’s interests are in permanent conflict with those of the people he rules. Instead of giving the Vikings a fight, Æthelred hires them to protect him from his subjects, an inglorious but lucrative proposition that pleases everyone but Þorgeir. Next we meet an underling in Thorkell’s army, Olaf Haraldsson, who is too weak and fat to fight, but adept at torturing prisoners. He is a sadistic scoundrel with a gift for bloviating and an uncanny instinct for self-preservation. His powers of persuasion couple with his moral depravity to set him on a bloody path to success.

Olaf is a real historical figure. You may know him as St. Olaf, or as the heroic subject of Longfellow’s “The Saga of King Olaf.” Laxness’s revisionist takedown is part of his reckoning with the sagas, but his concerns about the whitewashing of history are neither merely historical nor exclusively Scandinavian. Olaf, in Laxness’s rendering, is equal parts silver-tongued demon and desperate oaf. By portraying him as a man at once repulsive and magnetic, Laxness acknowledges the way that figures such as Hitler or Stalin (or — why not — Trump) gain and hold power through their rare ability to cultivate the seeds of evil we all carry within us.

The Vikings march on London, where, to Æthelred’s horror, they are crushed by a well-organized citizen militia. Then the French enter the picture, and the Vikings wind up working for Richard, duke of Normandy, who sends them to kill Count Odo, ruler of Chartres, but insists they all convert to Christianity first. Olaf explains the proposition to the men:

In order for you to indulge blamelessly in the entertainments to be had from a victorious campaign of manslaughter, arson, plunder, and rape, Richard demands nothing of you in return, apart from the trifle of receiving baptism and the Holy Spirit and becoming Christians.

Arriving in Chartres, they find that Odo has barricaded himself in a church. The newly baptized Vikings, unable to break through the barricade, aren’t sure how to proceed. They send envoys to the bishop of Rouen to ask whether Christ wishes for the church to be burned. The bishop’s reply is among the most sardonic passages in a novel that hardly lacks for them:

Assuredly, Christ holds it neither laudable nor just, for any reason whatsoever, to set fire to churches and burn kings inside them, or commoners, women and children, or other wretched folk. Yet it should be kept in mind that although Christ is a great fisherman, he will not be caught in his own net. He is too skilled a lawman to be snared in the laws that he himself has laid down . . . and Christians, for the love of Christ, must in fact burn children and women and other wretches, exterminate beasts and birds and grasses, and set fire to churches and holy relics, if, by this means, they are able to defeat the Enemy.

All this is lost on Þorgeir, whose thinking is so simple and so rigid that he is incapable of hypocrisy. While his warrior code makes him a terror among civilians, in an actual war zone he proves something of a stick-in-the-mud. He refuses to rape women, murder babies, or rob peasants, not because he thinks these things are wrong but because they won’t yield any glory. If it’s not fodder for skaldic poetry (ideally Þormóður’s), it’s a waste of time. Þorgeir’s earnestness makes him a laughingstock and a nuisance to the other Vikings. He is sent back to Iceland on a fool’s errand, and is soon killed by petty criminals — an almost exact repetition of his father’s fate.

Þorgeir’s head is stuck on a pike and delivered to Þormóður and Þórdís’s farmstead, shattering their domestic peace. Þormóður’s oath is reinforced rather than broken by the death of the man to whom he swore it. When the winter ends, he leaves his family, intending first to avenge Þorgeir’s murder, and then to offer his skaldic services to King Olaf — who by this time has supplanted Thorkell — on the grounds that any king worthy of Þorgeir’s loyalty must be worthy of his verse. Þormóður pursues his friend’s killers across Greenland, suffering all manner of hardship and at one point reuniting with Kolbrún, who forces him to revise his love lay a second time, making it once more an ode to her. Olaf, meanwhile, attempts to “liberate” Norway from its generations of peace and prosperity. Like the snake he is, Olaf slithers into the space that Þorgeir’s death has left vacant in the narrative. Instead of the poet and the warrior, we have the poet and the king.

Many critics have suggested that Wayward Heroes is in part a reckoning with Laxness’s own blinkered fealty to Soviet Communism. Halldór Guðmundsson, Laxness’s biographer, finds an element of self-portraiture in Þormóður, “the poet who honours the wrong king,” but he warns against reading Wayward Heroes as a novel of disillusionment in the tradition of, say, Darkness at Noon. Rather, Laxness is struggling with a paradigmatic, and probably unresolvable, leftist problem: how to pursue a project of universal emancipation when the very rhetoric and demands of universality leave the emancipatory project uniquely susceptible to hijacking by tyrants.

If fascism and Soviet Communism had turned out to be two sides of the same coin, the coin itself was imperial ambition. Laxness never lost sight of the fact that capitalism, in its more virulent forms, is yet another ideology in which violence, subjugation, and exploitation are understood to be essential not just for “growth” or “progress” but for the maintenance of the status quo. Wayward Heroes, with its despotic kings, hypocrite Christians, and bloodthirsty mercenaries, is not merely a medieval epic “as much mock as genuine” but a trenchant critique of that timeless avaricious urge we have grown regrettably accustomed to calling “market forces.” The term, stupefyingly impersonal by design, forecloses the prospect of glory or honor, but in exchange preemptively absolves individuals and nations alike of responsibility for the crimes they knowingly commit. Laxness looked from the ancient literature of his homeland to the novelties and cataclysms of the modern world around him, only to discover how little had changed in a thousand years.

is the author of three books of fiction, the most recent of which is Flings (HarperCollins). His article “Lucid Dreaming” appeared in the November 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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