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Bjartur of Summerhouses: The Last Viking

Iceland gave us the sagas; stories about Vikings and stories about farmers. Stories that

blend the historical with the fictional, and reality with the magical and describe the struggles of

an antiauthoritarian society that is constantly aware that the end is coming soon. These stories

incorporate both the fantastical (trolls, giants, gods, and dragons) along with the realistic

(farmers, family, and politics). Stylistically the sagas are simple. Written in an objective fashion

where few details are given and nothing is superfluous; everything is written as though it were a

fact. And in some cases it was.

The sagas were written in the 13 th and 14 th centuries, but describe events that took place

during the 10 th and 11 th centuries. The authorship of most of these stories is left unknown.

Anonymity of the authors and the fact that they were written in prose sets these tales apart from

anything else written in Europe during that time. Because they were writing long narratives in

prose before anyone else, Icelanders say that they invented the modern novel.

It is impossible to ignore the sagas‟ influence in the world of literature today. This not

only applies to Scandinavia, but the world at large. J.R.R. Tolkien used the sagas as inspiration,

as did William Morris, William Blake, and countless others.

Even graphic novels are based on

sagas. Sagas and their Vikings are in literature; they are in popular culture. They are influential;

they are important.

However they are more influential, and more important to Icelanders. In 1955 Icelandic

author Halldor Laxness became the only Icelander to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. The

presentation speech was given by E. Wessén, and he said, “In Iceland the saga has always been

held in great honour. To the Icelanders themselves it has given consolation and strength during

dark centuries of poverty and hardship.” Thus Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize for “his

vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland" (Wessén 1). Literature is

important to Icelanders, and Icelandic literature is important to us. It is impossible to separate

Icelandic literature from the sagas and Eddas. Sigurdur Magnusson says in his article “The

World of Halldor Laxness”, “No doubt the literary excellence of the Icelanders during the past

century and a half owes much to the old and distinguished tradition of the Edda and the Saga.”

(1). Halldor Laxness, being Iceland‟s definitive modern writer is also impossible to separate

from the sagas and Eddas.

Iceland gave us the sagas; they gave us the novel, and although the sagas are still read,

studied, and loved by people worldwide, little is known about modern Icelandic literature.

Considering the small country‟s literary past this is absurd. It is important to see how such a

strong literary tradition has translated through the years. Later in his article Magnuson says,

“Halldor Laxness works in the tradition of the anonymous saga writers and has actually found

some of his subject matter in early Icelandic literature.” (1) By examining the life of Iceland‟s

only Nobel Laureate, Halldor Laxness, and looking at how the Vikings and the sagas‟ play a role

in his most widely read novel, Independent People one can see how Iceland‟s literary tradition

has carried on through the centuries. By looking at a few themes in old Norse literature,

specifically doom, farmers vs. cheiftans, distaste for authority, and heroism, and seeing how

Laxness applies them to Independent People it will be apparent how Viking ideals have from the

golden age of the sagas to the modern age of the novel. How they succeed in a modern world,

and how they fail.

Independent People is Laxness‟s most well known and widely read novel. Without a

doubt it was a large part of what won him the Nobel Prize. It tells the story of a man, Bjartur of

Summerhouses, who has been working in servitude to the parish Bailiff for the last 18 years. He

finally bought his own land, and his own sheep. He just got married. He is going to start his

own independent life. Unfortunately his first wife and him do not get along. She dies birthing

their child. He names her Asta Solilja (Beloved Sunflower). Bjartur marries another woman and

has three sons. One dies in the snow. The other moves to America. The third stays with him

until the end of the novel. Bjartur‟s second wife dies. Asta Solilja gets pregnant, and Bjartur

kicks her out of his home. Then he tells her that she was not his child, but that she was a bastard.

The daughter of the Bailiff‟s son. In the end Bjartur loses his land, and his sheep. His last son

joins a band of working class villains, who steal bread and fight the authorities, but he makes

amends with Asta Solillja, his one soul flower, and moves to a new part of Iceland where he will

start all over again.

The first theme discussed, and most prevalent in Viking literature is doom. Scandinavia

has a ubiquitous sense of impending doom and this is clearly illustrated in the first poem of The

Poetic Edda, “The Seeress Prophecy”, where the end of the world is described:

The sun turns black, earth sinks into the sea,

the bright stars vanish from the sky;

steam rises up in the conflagration,

a high flame plays against heaven itself.

The Poetic Edda is considered one of the few definitive Norse texts. This poem is not only a part

of the text, but it is the first poem one reads when reading the Edda. From the very start Vikings

have felt like the end is near. It is a thought that never leaves the minds of Vikings, and carries

all the way through to the 20 th century. Halldor Laxness knows The Poetic Edda and also knows

how Iceland as a country has always had a defeated, worried, and paranoid mentality; it has

never changed, and will probably never change. Even if something good happens, bad is on its

way.

Fittingly Laxness opens Independent People by giving the reader a sense of inevitable

destruction. Bjartur earned his freedom, bought his land, bought his sheep, and married his wife.

Things are appear to be going well for Bjartur. However, while this is fortunate, good and

encouraging, we are also told an anecdote about a sorcerer named Kolumkilli, who first settled

the land that Bjartur just purchased. When dying and bitter Kolumkilli cursed the land where he

lived. Immediately following is another anecdote about a woman named Gunnvor, who lived on

the land. She had her husband kill their children by either tying stones to their chests and putting

them in the lake, or by going out to the mountain, laying the children on the ground, and placing

a heavy stone on their chest. Brutality that can only bring to mind Vikings. Later in life

Gunnvor begins to “thirst greatly for human blood. And she hungered for human marrow.” (6)

She kills her husband, and begins taking guests, and killing them as well. Gunnvor is the

spiritual wife of Kolumkilli, terrorizing the parish. When people find out what she has been

doing they kill her, dismembered, then beheaded. Her head and limbs are put into a sack and

buried in a cairn. It is said that whenever one passes the cairn they must throw a stone on it, or

they will receive bad luck. Death is not the end of Gunnvor. She still haunts the land as a

monster. Some say troll. Some say serpent. Whatever form the land is cursed and referred to as

„Winterhouses‟. No one has lived there in years. The ones that tried, received only the worst

luck and moved away. The land lay barren for a number of years, until Bjartur buys it, and

promptly renames it „Summerhouses‟. Bjartur being the stubborn, free man that he is refuses to

put a stone in Gunnvor‟s cairn (5-11). He is cursed.

Something good is happening in the life of Bjartur, but Laxness knows that nothing

purely good can ever come to a Norseman, so the story of Kolumkilli and Gunnvor remind the

reader that everything is hopeless; everything is doomed from the start. Bjartur should know

this, but chooses to ignore it. More than that he wants to take the future into his own hands, and

change it. He is an independent man afterall. Hence the switch from „Winterhouses‟ to

„Summerhouses‟. He will take this land and make it his own; and make it successful.

There is a scene in another famous Norse epic, Beowulf, where Beowulf returns home

after killing both Grendel and Grendel‟s mother and the king asks Beowulf how things went.

Beowulf replies by telling the king that he killed the monsters, but the Geats were still in a

terrible place because of a proposed marriage, and they would never succeed. Beowulf said that

they were doomed (Heaney 139). This can be paralleled to Independent People. Something

good is happening (for the Geats and for Bjartur), but is being overshadowed by impending

misfortune, and ever present hopelessness. Laxness opens his book by presenting us with a

fortunate situation (Bjartur buys his freedom, his land, and his sheep), but by juxtaposing it with

the story of Kolumkilli and Gunnvor, and the curse the reader is made aware of the ever-present

hopelessness and inevitable evil. Similarly Beowulf killed two monsters, but cannot stop the

Geats from ruin. The reader knows that Bjartur cannot succeed, even if Bjartur is still hopeful.

Between the times that Beowulf, The Poetic Edda and Independent People were all written the

overall mentality of Iceland did not change. Everything continues to be hopeless.

There is a scene in Independent People where where one sheep is lost Bjartur goes

looking for it. He knows the area better than anyone else and is sure that he will be able to find

the lost sheep. When his wife, Rosa, complains he reminds her of the story in the Bible where

the shepherd leaves behind 99 sheep to go after one missing sheep. While he is out a blizzard

comes in. He is freezing to death, and blinded by the snow. The sheep is nowhere to be found,

because unbeknownst to Bjartur Rosa had killed the sheep months earlier. He finds a reindeer

and tries to ride it across a large river. Of course he falls in. Of course he almost dies. Through

all this misery and bad weather he only thinks about poetry and sagas. He compares himself to

Grimur over and over again, quoting lines from the sagas, as well as any other poem he can

remember.

Seldom had he recited so much poetry in any one night; he had recited all his

father’s poetry, all the ballads he could remember, all his own palindromes

backwards and forwards in forty-eight different ways, whole processions of dirty

poems, one hymn that he had learned from his mother and all the lampoons that

had been known in the Fourthing from time immemorial about bailiffs, merchants,

and sheriffs. (97)

This passage illustrates an important point. And that point is importance of Icelandic literature in

the everyday life of an average Icelander. Like Wessen said, Icelanders have found comfort in

the poems and sagas. Bjartur is an Icelander much like any other Icelander, and when he is faced

with freezing temperatures, blinding blizzards, raging rivers at subzero temperatures, starvation

and impending death he does not turn to God or religion, family, or love. He does not think of

his wife at home, or the child she is pregnant with. No, he does not become nostalgic, or sad, but

rather he turns to his country‟s literature for comfort; for warmth. He finds comfort in the

literature from his ancestors. He continues on in stubbornness; stubbornness that is present in the

character of the heroes of his favorite sagas; stubbornness that is both his greatest weakness and

only strength. Stubbornness that in her article “A Song of Sympathy” Katie Grant described as,

“the heroic, hard, bitter dignity which was the crofter‟s only effective weapon against the hard

bitter conditions of life.” (Grant 2). Bjartur survives the blizzard, and returns home to find his

wife dead on the floor of his house. There is a baby hidden in his dog‟s fur; only kept alive by

the warmth found in the dog‟s body (100). When Bjartur was about to die in the wilderness he

did not think about his dying wife, and unborn child. To Bjartur Icelandic literature is paramount

and it also suggests the author‟s feeling on the subject.

The anecdote is another example of the hopelessness that is woven through the entire

novel, as well as Norse literature as a whole. Bjartur survived the weather. Bjartur‟s daughter

was born, but his wife died. His wife died cold and alone, while giving birth cold and alone.

Celebrating is impossible under such circumstances. There are countless other examples of

uncompromising misery falling upon Bjartur and everyone close to him throughout the entire

novel.

One vessel of hopelessness in the sagas in a fued or struggle between small farmers and

chieftains. For example, Egil’s Saga is about a farmer, Viking and poet and his inability to

coexist with the king. Kvedulfr, Egil‟s grandfather, had two sons. One went work for the king,

even though Kvedulfr adviced against it. Eventually the king brings about the death of the son.

Kvedulfr‟s other son gives birth to Egil. Egil terrorizes the king his whole life. While this is not

a perfect example of impending doom carried through a feud between farmer and chieftain, it is a

good example of a life long feud in an Iceland saga.

Hrafnkel’s Saga however is a story about a feud between a small farmer, and a chieftain,

and it ends in misery. Hrafnkel kills a servant. The servant‟s father, Þorbjörn gets upset and

wants a payment for the death of his son. Hrafnkel refuses to pay him, but offers to take care of

him for the rest of his days. It is not good enough and Þorbjörn decides to take Hrafnkel to court

at the Althing. Hrafnkel being a chieftain and Þorbjörn being a small farmer, it is hard to find

anyone to help go against Hrafnkel. Þorbjörn‟s nephew, Sámr, eventually decides to help his

uncle‟s cause and takes the case. Sámr wins and gives Hrafnkel a choice: immediate execution,

or he can live and work in servitude to Sámr forever. Hrafnkel chooses the latter, and works for

many years before eventually he becomes a respectable farmer and seeks revenge. Hrafnkel kills

Sámr‟s son, and then sneaks into Sámr‟s house and gives him the same choice that Sámr gave

Hrafnkel six years prior. Sámr chooses to live, but never gets revenge. A small farmer is

wronged and ends up working for the villain for the rest of his life.

Bjartur has a similar feud. Bjartur will feud against anyone that tries to offer him

assistance. It is an affront against his independence. And through the entire book Bailiff Jon, the

man Bjartur worked for for 18 years, offers Bjartur, advice, money, and a cow. The Bailiff‟s

intentions are most often true, but Bjartur views any help as questionable and offensive. So

Bjartur is in a constant struggle against Bailiff Jon, whether Jon wants it or not. The Bailiff gives

Bjartur a cow, so that his family can eat better. And they do. They put on weight, and every

notices that the kids go from looking like death to looking like health. Bjartur is so offended that

he kills the cow, and that in strange turn of events kills his second wife (225-226). However

both losses are insignificant compared to the loss of one‟s independence. Such a mindset brings

Bjartur nothing but strife, and anguish, but as long as he is independent it does not matter.

The second prominent theme in Viking literature is a fight between small farmers and

chieftains, or larger farmers, or anyone put in advantage over the little man. Sascha Talmor in

her article “Bjartur of Summerhouses – An Icelandic Sisyphus” she says that there are to main

themes in Independent People and The second theme of the novel: the peoples‟ struggle against

economic exploitation.” (90). The struggle between smaller farmers and chieftains still exists in

the time of Bjartur and Laxness. Although it has changed forms slightly.

After living on the West coast of America for 3 years Laxness developed a lasting

friendship with Upton Sinclair. This along with seeing the poor conditions of a lot of Americans

during the start of the Depression shaped Laxness political views, which can be easily summed

up in one word; Socialism. While never preaching, Laxness does not hide his political views.

And lucky for him the struggle between rich and poor, the unfair quality of life for the poor is a

theme present throughout his nation‟s literature. Laxness takes the idiom of small farmers

against kings from the old sagas, and turns it into an idiom for the modern world; socialism

against capitalism, where socialism is the economic system that best fits a small farmer and

capitalism is an economic system that benefits kings and ruins the common man.

For example, through most of the book the Bailiff tries to convince Bjartur to join a co-

op. Financially it would save Bjartur, but Bjartur views this as unwanted help; a threat on his

independence. Not only is this a struggle between a small farmer and a larger entity, it is a

struggle between socialism and capitalism. Bjartur wants to be a capitalist, he wants to work

hard, earn his living, provide for himself and his family and be entirely independent. It is so

important to him that he loses two wives and destroys his relationship with his children and his

friends. Towards the end of the novel Bjartur, his entire family, and his beloved sheep are in

such a poor state that he has no choice but to go to town and work for someone in the co-op.

Such a deed saves his sheep, his family and himself. Then he decides to join the co-op. The co-

op gives Bjartur a loan to build the house he has always wanted. Then the economy fails. He

loses his money; can‟t pay back the loan and he has to watch his home, his independence be sold

off in an auction to none other than Bailiff Jon. Capitalism ruins Bjartur.

Not just an example of a struggle between small farmers and chieftains or capitalism vs.

socialism, Bjartur is an example of the antiauthoritarian tendencies inherent in Viking society. In

Egil’s Saga they move from Norway to Iceland as a way of avoiding a king. And in Independent

People Laxness writes, “The love of freedom and independence has always been a characteristic

of the Icelandic people. Iceland was originally colonized by free-born chieftains who would

rather live and die in isolation than serve a foreign king.” (65). He takes it further by explaining

that not only do Icelanders love freedom, but they out rightly dislike kings. “We Icelanders have

never had any great respect for kings.” (373). Vikings hated authority. It is obvious in the sagas,

as well as in Icelandic history. The feeling is still present today, and personified by Bjartur of

Summerhouses and his drive for independence.

The Poetic Edda gives a similar sentiment. It also says that being independent is the best

of all possible worlds. “Saying of The High One” clearly states:

A farm of your own is better, even if small,

Everyone’s someone at home;

Though he has two goats and a coarsely roofed house,

That is better than begging.

A farm or your own is better, even if small,

Everyone’s someone at home;

A man’s heart bleeds when he has to beg

For every single meal.

Bjartur truly takes this advice to heart, and while it is noble, it is also his downfall.

In the sagas no dates are given, however there are actual historical events mentioned and

because of that it is known roughly when the tales took place. This gives both the novel, and the

sagas a sense of timelessness, as well as lends itself to the magic realism present in both. While

the world described in both the sagas and Independent People resembles the real world, without

dates it could just as easily be any fictional world, and thus allowing giants, trolls, sorcerers and

other various forms of monsters to roam the stories. One does not have to suspend their disbelief

as much as long as we don‟t know when in time it happened.

These stories could take place in the past, present or future. The stories are equally

relevant regardless. Time does not matter, but the sagas reference actual historical events, and so

does Independent People. In Egil’s Saga they fought in the Battle of Brunanbburh. In Harold’s

Saga they fought at The Battle of Stamford Bridge. Likewise Indepenent People has World War

One.

Vikings sailed around the world pillaging and stealing, raping and ravaging, and they

enjoyed it. They benefited from the misfortune of others. Laxness‟s small Icelandic farmers

also benefited from the misfortune of others. While the rest of Europe was in turmoil Icelanders

were sitting around hoping “the Almighty grant us another equally beautiful at the earliest

possible moment” (373).

The final theme in Viking literature and Independent People is heroism. It is easy to

criticize the Vikings for being brutish, crude, and violent, but it is hard to deny that they had a

strong sense of right and wrong, which they followed regardless of what society dictated.

Vikings had the same “heroic, hard, bitter dignity” (2) that Grant attributed to Bjartur. In The

Sayings of the High one” Vikings are given proverbs and advice to live by. The subject matter

varies from drinking, to women, to farming, to friendship and beyond, but all the proverbs are

given through the veil of Viking heroism. If one follows the advice given in the poem they will

live like a Viking should, garnering no shame, but rather noble praise, and pride. One would be

a Viking hero.

As already overstated, Bjartur is well versed in these poems. He knows the stories, the

proverbs, and if he has learned one thing from them it is Viking heroism. Bjartur is hyperbolic in

this way. He is stubborn and prideful. Also overstated is how it is his downfall, but in the end it

also saves his family. There is something more to heroism than continuously fighting. Bjartur‟s

fight never ends, and he never gives up. What could be his greatest act of heroism in the novel is

when he has to move to town for a winter to work for a man in the co-op. He has to give up

some of his Viking pride, and temporarily sacrifice a small amount of his holy independence, the

only thing that matters to him, in order to save his life, the lives of his family, and his holy

independence. While working for a man in town, he sends an alcoholic vagrant to his home to

give school lessons to his children. One day Asta Solilja asks the man about her father. His

reply, “‟Yes, my dear,‟ said he, „he‟s a real Viking, that man‟” (312) shows that he sees

something worth admiring in Bjartur. His peers, his enemies, people who think him a fool, his

family, everyone can see in Bjartur a trait they find praiseworthy. It is his hard working,

unwavering attitude. It is his undeniable Viking heroism. However noble it is also his demise,

and maybe a commentary on why the Viking way of life could not survive in the modern world.

But Laxness is not criticizing the Viking way of life. Rather, Grant suggests that “he

demonstrates his unique ability to give this very particular Icelandic dignity a powerful,

unforgettable and melodious voice.” (2).

A Viking‟s unwillingness to waver their morals or ideals makes it hard to continue in an

ever changing world. A Viking will do what a Viking think is right regardless of what society

says. Likewise a Viking will punish a person that is doing or has done what a Viking deems

wrong, again, regardless of what society says. Vikings were given definition by the Eddas and

sagas, and there is not sign of that definition changing. Thus Vikings fell away and no longer

exist. At least not in the same way that they once did.

Bjartur is poorly placed. If he had been born in the era of the sagas he would have

thrived. He would be a hero. Instead he is a fool that successfully kills two of his wives and

drives away every one of his children. Bjartur could not succeed in his own time because

Vikings could not survive in the modern world. And it is too bad that one of the positive

qualities remembered about Vikings (unwavering heroism) is one of the reasons that they could

not perpetuate and prosper in the world.

The comparisons between Viking literature and Independent People are many. The

influence is not contained just within this one great novel, but rather Laxness‟s entire body of

work. Upon receiving the Nobel Prize he thanked his family, his countrymen, and the authors of

his beloved sagas. He said:

My thoughts fly to the old Icelandic storytellers who created our classics, whose

personalities were so bound up with the masses that their names, unlike their

lives' work, have not been preserved for posterity. They live in their immortal

creations and are as much a part of Iceland as her landscape. For century upon

dark century those nameless men and women sat in their mud huts writing books

without so much as asking themselves what their wages would be, what prize or

recognition would be theirs. There was no fire in their miserable dwellings at

which to warm their stiff fingers as they sat up late at night over their stories. Yet

they succeeded in creating not only a literary language which is among the most

beautiful and subtlest there is, but a separate literary genre. While their hearts

remained warm, they held on to their pens. (1)

Laxness had nothing but respect for the literature of his nation, and that bleeds through in every

aspect of his work. Not once does he deny it, and when he is rewarded for his work, without

hesitation he thanks the men and women from years past who wrote the books that he read and

loved growing up. When alive and writing Laxness did not merely revive the power of epic and

saga, but rather he bridged a gap between the ancient Icelandic literature and the blooming

modern Icelandic literature. Brad Leithauser in “The Bard of Fire and Ice” quotes literary critic

Kristjan Karlsson, who said, “It would be difficult to guess what our literary situation now would

be like without Laxness but there is much indication that we would be facing an irreparable

disruption between the old and the new.” He goes on, “He has created a new novelistic literature

with deep roots in the Icelandic tradition at a time when there was a great danger that our

literature might become dissociated from the past.” (Leithauser 3). Laxness constructed a bridge

between the old and new when no one else was willing. He revived, the Icelandic literary

tradition. He saved it. The Icelandic Sagas cannot be taken out of Halldor Laxness. And now

Halldor Laxness cannot be taken out of Icelandic Literature.

Works Cited

“Egil‟s Saga”. The Sagas of Icelanders Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition (World of the Sagas). New York: Penguin (Non-Classics), 2001. Print.

Hrafnkel's saga and other Icelandic stories. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971. Print.

The Poetic Edda. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.

Laxness, Halldor. Independent People. New York: Vintage 1997. Print.

Laxness, Halldor. "Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech." Nobelprize.org. Web. 18 Dec. 2009.

<http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1955/laxness-speech-e.html>.

Leithauser, Brad. "End of An Epic". New York Review of Books. Vol 45. Issue 5. Page 17-19. March 1998. Print.

Sturluson, Snorri. King Harald's Saga: Harald Hardradi of Norway From Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (Penguin Classics). New York: Penguin Classics, 1976. Print.

Talmor, Sacsha. "Bjartur of Summerhouses - An Icelandic Sisyphus". European Legacy. Vol

5. Issue 1. February 2000. Print.

Wessen, E. "Nobel Prize in Literature 1955 - Presentation Speech." Nobelprize.org. Web. 18 Dec. 2009. <http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1955/press.html>.