Laxness the Phantagormastic!


A ghost is always the result of botched work; a ghost means an unsuccessful resurrection, a shadow of an image that has perhaps once been alive, a kind of abortion in the universe (125).

There are few texts in the world that allow me to stand back from the writing in total awe, turn to the author, and if he were not already dead, which is usually the case, I’d begin to scream, “Get out of my dreams; get into my car.”


Icelandic novelist and Nobel Prize winner Halldor Laxness has always been the one riding in the passenger seat, basically since Day 1, beginning with my reading of his absolutely gorgeous and incredibly consuming novel, Independent People (Sjálfstætt fólk, 1934)… consuming in a Post-Colonial way, of course (the only path to true love, let the Congregation say ‘Amen’.) Since then, I’ve been slowly moving through his lesser known novels, which have so far included Iceland’s Bell (Íslandsklukkan, 1943-46), a novel that should only be used for pure description of post-colonial theory in Western culture, The Fish Can Sing (Brekkukotsannáll, 1957), a dreadfully confusing book about a young man who can sing with the likes of Pavarotti but continues to starve with his shark eating ancestors, and now, Under the Glacier (Kristnihald undir Jökli, 1968) one of the most beautiful and most bizarre combinations of Judeo-Christian theology, existentialism, string theory, and aliens one could hope to find.

If you are like me and have a tendency to geek at biblical allegories or the intertwining of Abrahamic religions, Norse mythology, and aliens for the sake of creating an interesting plot, I urge you to read Under the Glacier as soon as you possibly can.  Not only is Under the Glacier hilarious and witty beyond all reason, it is by far one of the most theologically ambitious novels I’ve come across.

The plot centers on the sudden disbursement of Embi, short for the Emissary to the Bishop of Iceland, to a small rural village called Glacier where the Christianity is in shambles. Embi is sent to investigate for the Bishop. The Bishop is concerned that the Church is boarded up, the dead aren’t being buried, Christmas or Easter Mass hasn’t been said in years, communion is never offered, but most importantly, why the absentee pastor, Pastor Jon Primus, hasn’t divorced his wife, a mysterious woman only know as Ua (because when men look at her, they’re so entranced they can only say, “Ooh, ahh”) who is rumored never to have bathed, eaten or slept in her existence and has been missing in Glacier for 45 years. When Embi arrives, he is forced to attempt to make sense of a nonsensical situation that not only involves itself in the ancient lore of the Icelandic Sagas but in galaxies far, far away.

The style of writing in Under the Glacier is perhaps the most drastic change from Laxness’ other works. This text is known as his visionary text, one that so elegantly and humorously combines Laxness’ adoration for the cultural influences of the Sagas themselves and the philosophy that binds us to the very core of why such lore exists. The novel is written in a play format, lines given to each character when it is their turn to speak, but there is often random switching between 1st and 3rd narration, especially for Embi, and it can become quite confusing if one is not following closely.

The personal library of Halldor Laxness

The personal library of Halldor Laxness

Under the Glacier also engages all the typical Laxness features that fans have come to expect in his novels, particularly with the the bizarre culmination of characters who you’d think should never actually be in the same room together. Embi is one of my favorites because you couldn’t help but feel bad for the little guy who desperately attempts to make sense of what can never make sense. Pastor Jon, even in all of his brutal honesty and questionable character, is pretty fabulous too, certainly a pastor I’d consider keeping around.

Embi: This calf met the undersigned on arrival last last.
Pastor Jon: Didn’t you think he looks rather philosophical? Hnallpora thinks he’ll die. I think he’ll live. Spring is on the side of calves.
Embi: In a way, a good representative.
Pastor Jon: Certainly closer to the Creation of the world than the parish pastor.
Embi: I don’t doubt that a calf fulfills his role in the Creation of the world even if he’s dying of starvation. The parish pastor, on the other hand, has the role of preaching to farmers. Why does he not fulfill that role?
Pastor Jon: Farmers have cattle and kinsfolk.
Embi: Cattle die, kinsfolk die.
Pastor Jon: It doesn’t matter.
Embi: We ourselves must also die.
Pastor Jon: Allah is Allah.
Embi: No revelation?
Pastor Jon: The lilies of the field.
Embi: Yes…Isn’t it ideal to preach about [lilies]–at Christmas, for instance?
Pastor Jon: Oh no, better to be silent. That is what the glacier does. That is what the lilies of the field do.
Embi: Are you sure the flowers are silent? If a sensitive enough microphone were placed beside them?
Pastor Jon: You are welcome to take the pulpit, young man. We’ll have the nails out of the church door in a trice. -60-61


The Icelandic Sagas

As in most Laxness novels, there is also an underlying commentary on the micro v. the macrocosm, particular with Iceland v. the world. This can be seen strongly in the way Christianity is conducted in Glacier as opposed to how it is supposed to be conducted. Religion and faith are literally thrown to the wind yet somehow still balanced in the everyday lives of Glacier’s inhabitants. Glacier and Laxness’ writing is also the place where the supernatural exist, the meeting place of our world with the Other, particularly through the use of mysterious, supernatural, gorgeous women like Ua.

In Lacanian psychoanalysis, Glacier becomes the single place within all the galaxies and the human mind where the characters come into contact with the Real. The characters come into contact with what Lois Tyson explains as, “the uninterpretable dimension of existence…the existence without the filters and buffers of our signifying or meaning-making systems” (32). Embi, once he learns what is actually occurring in Glacier and the Christianity within it, comes into contact with the Real and the breaking of the Sublime, that which his mind has no meaning for.

There’s something incredibly haunting when it comes to Icelandic literature, probably because it was commonly thought in the Middle Ages that Hell was located in Iceland, that ghosts and monsters were created in this corner of Europe, but in this haunting, there is a beauty of the people who have used their strength and their humor to survive. But if anything, at least the writing of their Nobel laureate will make you swoon.


Estonian author Kaur Kender’s Petty God (Kirsi Ansper, 2010)


Under the Glacier:
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-friendly Guide. New York: Garland Pub., 1999. Print.


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