Laxness and the Landscape: Revisiting Glaciers, Reconstructing Meaning | Tamara L. Beneyto

Natural sceneries appear to be instruments at the service of cyberspatial self-portrayals, and their contemplation anew is largely moulded these days by camera lenses and social networks. In such context, some literary works from the last century reveal meanings that seem to have been awaiting reconstruction in the current one, as if by virtue of some inexplicable anachronistic or prefigurative twist.

This is the case of Halldór Laxness’s novel Kristinhald Undir Jökli (1968), whose English version was edited in 2004 with the title Under the Glacier.[1] After a brief discussion of its main themes and narrative features, the present lines will look at the specific ways in which this book persuades the 21st-century reader to apprehend natural sceneries through bare sensory perception and thought, far from contemporary madding crowds flaunting cameras in anxious searches for their ultimate social-network picture.

A twenty-five-year old tutor of Danish and Maths is sent by the bishop of Iceland to Snæfellsjökull in order to carry out “the most important investigation at that world-famous mountain since the days of Jules Verne” (p. 5).[2] The young man is requested to look into three specific issues: how exactly religious services are being delivered in that part of the land, the local pastor’s actual marital status, and a reported mysterious action that might have once been carried out in the glacier.

In Snæfellsjökull, parishioners are hospitable in their own idiosyncratic way, yet reluctant to provide clear and straightforward answers to the enquiries of the investigator, whose task resembles that of a diligent research journalist or an unflinching detective attempting to unearth some forms of truth by means of interviews and direct observation. In the course of the young man’s quest, the background stories of the main characters gradually unfold. The initially bombastic, frivolous personae of some of them turn out to be not but masks that veil stories of old disloyalties, broken friendships, and constant affection for a homeland where those who once left eventually return in search for reunion and atonement. The narration develops as the investigation does, and the report that the young man writes therein —in which he refers to himself as Embi, an acronym for emissary of the bishop— is the novel itself. Throughout the pages of Under the Glacier, the reader comes across metaliterary remarks on the literary genre in question. One is told, for instance, that “the correct formula for a novel has never been found” (p. 15).[3] By including such a statement in his very own one, Laxness appears to be acknowledging the shortcomings of his craft, preemptively apologising to his readership with the confession that what they are reading is inexorably flawed.

Truth is indeed one major topic in the novel —truth and the possibility or rather impossibility of proper knowledge. Upon arrival in Snæfellsjökull, Embi had been told by one of the parishioners that “truth should often be left alone” (p. 41).[4] In this regard, also language as a means of cognition is a topic at stake. The local pastor Jón Prímus often digresses on its limitations, even noting that “nothing is so pointless as words” (p. 166),[5] and he even regrets that people do not whistle at one another like birds (p. 77),[6] seemingly conferring greater sense and authenticity to animal utterances over human speech.

A narrative correlate of the philosophical subject matter of knowledge and its boundaries is the device of perspectivism. Laxness’s novel is pervaded by such correlation in several ways. In the first place, it is highly symbolic that one parishioner is said to have once started to tell Eyrbyggja Saga[7] —a major hypotext in the plot— “in a style that consists principally of casting doubt on the story being told” (p. 45).[8] Furthermore, the very telling of the story is conditioned by a tape recorder (a state-of-the-art device at the time of publication) used by Embi in order to record his interviews. Whenever it malfunctions, it limits not merely what is reported but also what the reader can or cannot eventually learn. The gadget both enables and constrains the character’s report and, figuratively,  the very existence of the novel itself.

In close relation to the above mentioned theme of knowledge and its boundaries, Laxness also addresses epistemological issues that concern some academic disciplines. This is particularly conspicuous in statements such as “the closer you try to approach the facts through History, the deeper you sink into fiction” (p. 78).[9] Here the writer is placing historiography in the realm of storytelling, as if the attempt to unearth facts of the past was inevitably bound to become fiction-writing at some point. By means of emphasising the very narrative facet of History, Laxness appears to be narrowing the gap between the historian and the novelist. Such tenet otherwise mirrors the entire novel, since the character of Embi started out intending to write an objective report, only to soon find himself entering the domain of legend. Given that passages like the above-quoted ones are interwoven with fine comicality, the text never results in a repertoire of lofty subject matters.

One conspicuous aspect and highly meaningful quality of this multifaceted and richly layered text is the centrality of the natural landscape. The story recounted —set in the west of Iceland, a country where the human relation to nature is particularly immediate— is as quintessentially local as it can be rightly considered universal. The focus in what follows will be specifically placed on those textual characteristics that fall within the category of what some critical paradigms such as Ecocriticism have termed ecopoetic qualities.

In Under the Glacier, Laxness presents the reader with the multifarious ways in which individuals can relate to an overpoweringly magnificent natural environment such as Snæfellsjökull. The glacier is not only the main space in the story. It is likewise an element analogous to a silent —albeit persuasive— human character, for its majesty summons both outlanders from distant urban areas in search for new-age revelations, as well as natives who are willing to return to their homeland after periods of estrangement.

Nature is the scope of several lengthy descriptive passages about the fauna, the glacier, the snow… Some of them span over entire chapters, as is the case of the twenty-second and the twenty-eigth ones. Far from being ornamental vignettes, such passages interrelate closely with the way in which pastor Jón Prímus’s apprehends metaphysical matters, namely through the contemplation of his homeland’s scenery. He appears to be more interested in marvelling at the habitat that surrounds him, rather than in delivering religious services. Snæfellness and its ecosystem have deeply influenced his thought with regard to existence and faith: “those who love the metropolitan cities of the world would doubtless call it salvation to be allowed to sit here for the rest of their lives” (p. 103).[10]

Empirical disciplines such as Geology and Biology scientifically account for very many aspects of the magnificence of Iceland’s nature. Yet, such knowledge does not preclude awe upon contemplating the views, and any attempt to select precise terms to define the impression they make on the spectator is ultimately to no avail. It is justly in this light how the reader can fully grasp a statement by the fictional character of Jón Prímus such as “if one looks at the glacier for long enough, words cease to have any meaning” (p. 77).[11] Direct knowledge of the Icelandic countryside enables readers to fathom the semantic extent of this type of assertions in the novel. Those who have travelled in the North Atlantic island cannot but concede with Prímus that “[It is] better to be silent. That is what the glacier does. That is what the lilies of the field do” (p. 61),[12] for nothing is so pointless as words. Ultimately to note that direct knowledge of Iceland enables a more complete understanding of its literature is, in all likelihood, not but a plain obviousness.

It is, however, perhaps less of an obviousness to assert that Icelandic literature (Laxness’s narrative in this instance) conversely provides a more complete perception and understanding of the country’s landscape. Fifty-two years on, genuine interest in other lands for a specific reason has been to a large extent replaced by random decisions determined by fortuitous findings of plane-ticket deals, and by contemporary social anxieties about marketing oneself in social networks. Landscapes have become, for the most part, contingent upon shaping the cyberpersonae of travellers. In this very material and sociological context, Under the Glacier particularly compels contemporary readers and travellers to set aside both language and the camera, and experience the experience precisely like Jón Prímus does.

It therefore appears justified to conclude with a remark that can apply to any magisterial literary work that deals with natural environments in one way or another. Just as current critical frameworks like Ecocriticism allow for problematisation and discernment of specific qualities of literary works, conversely the latter —literary works themselves— can become critical paradigms that enable readers to enhance their appreciation of qualities of real landscapes. If we are to accept this premise, one can then maintain that Laxness’s novel Under the Glacier offers such a paradigm, specifically through the fictional character of Jón Prímus, whose words —in spite of being, in his view, pointless artefacts— compel current readers to apprehend natural sceneries freed from both camera lenses and anxieties about picture-posting. Our pastor at Snæfellsness is convinced that “words are misleading” (p. 77),[13] but so are camera lenses and pictures, this fictional character would have probably gone on to add, had he lived nowadays.

In this manner, Laxness’s novel is one further variable at play in our understanding and appreciation of the Icelandic landscape —it is decidedly an integral part of it. Literary works may well be apt to persuade contemporary readers and travellers to undertake specific approaches to the contemplation of natural sceneries; specific approaches nowadays so unaccustomed.

The author would like to kindly note that this essay does not convey any kind of religious proselytisation whatsoever, neither explicitly nor implicitly. One of the characters of the novel addressed in this book review is a clergyman of the Church of Iceland.This, however, is mereley circumstancial. The author is totally respectful towards all creeds and faiths that manifest themselves in peaceful and constructive ways, and would have likewise written the review if the character in question had belonged to any other creed, institution, or cultural heritage of the world.  


[1] Halldór Laxness, Kristinhald Undir Jökli (Reykjavík: Vaka-Helgafell Útgefandi, 1998), 300 pp. Halldór Laxness, Under the Glacier (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 240 pp. (Transl. by Magnus Magnusson).

[2] á þessu veraldarfjalli þá rannsókn sem mest hafi orðið síðan Jules Verne var á dögum  (p. 8).

[3] aldrei hefur fundist rétt formula að skáldsögu (p. 19).

[4] oft má satt kyrt liggja (p. 52).

[5] ekkert er eins útí bláinn og orð (p. 207).

[6] pað er leiðinlegt að við skulum ekki blístra hvor á annan einsog fuglarnir (p. 96).

[7] The source for the English translation of Eyrbyggja Saga has been Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards (translation, introduction and notes), London: Penguin Books, 1989.

[8] að segja fornsögur af list sem einkum er í pví fólgin að reingja þá sögu sem verið er að segja” (p. 57).

[9] og því nær sem þú reynir að komast staðreyndum með sagnfræði, því dýpra sökkurðu í skáldsögu (p. 98).

[10] þeir menn sem unna stórborgum heimsins mundu efalítið telja sig sáluhólpna að mega stija hér það sem eftir væri ævinnar (p. 128).

[11] ef horft er á jökulinn nógu leingi hætta orð að merkja nokkra guðs grein” (p. 96).

[12] betra að þegja. Svo gerir jökullinn. Svo gera akursins liljugrös sjálf (p. 75).

[13] orð eru villandi (p. 96).

Tamara Lobato Beneyto holds a Master of Arts degree in Classics from King´s College London.