Re-tell a story enough times and it ceases being a story. Leaving the more earthly concerns of reality behind, it rises to the loftiest stratosphere of myth. At this altitude, time and space are relative, characters become magnified, and natural laws shift; what was once fixed in time and place has expanded into a much larger, and more flexible, archetypal model of who we are. The characters in this model may change over time to suit our changing ideologies and needs--the mythic gunfighter Daniel Boone, for instance, morphing into the mythic character of Rambo during the post-Vietnam era--but the myth remains essentially the same.
It is this myth of what the American historian Richard Slotkin calls "regeneration through violence" thats of particular significance to Americans-- particular as this myth is incarnated, for Americans, in the lone maverick. We may deny its effects on us, insist for our childrens sake that the world has become a safe place, that our frontiers have been secured, that we dont believe in violence anymore, that Disney characters can tell us all we need to know about how we fit in the world. But the demand for the constant resurrection of the blood-lusting mythic gunslinger shows us perhaps the more honest vision of our inner-most selves.
It is precisely this that makes Halldór Laxnesss 1946 novel Independent People (for which Laxness won the 1955 Nobel Prize for literature) one of my favorite books of the twentieth century. The characters are vivid and real, the language breathtaking, the story unforgettable. But it is Laxnesss interest in the power of the myth (behind) the story that moves me most. For it is through myth that his created world can leave its location in Iceland, cross the breadth of a century, a language, a culture and several continents, and arrive at my door in New Mexico, demanding to speak directly about who I am.
How? In the beginning, with nothing more than a fairy tale. A darkly bloody fairytale ("which dates back long before the days of Sheriff Jon") about a woman named Gunnvor who, having made an "unholy compact" with an evil spirit, kills her children, devours her husband, and feeds on the meat and marrow of unsuspecting travelers until she herself is dismembered by her horrified neighbors. Afterward, her spirit remains behind as a curse, ready to trick, terrorize, and ruin any pioneer who attempts to settle in her valley, a place known as Winterhouses.
Laxness presents the evil of Gunnvor in a humorously understated way ("a woman of a most forceful nature"), and as if trying to thaw out the chill of her curse (which only helps to ice it further) throws in a childs lullaby of nonsense, one stanza of which reads:
Who sings lullabyes like this to soothe their children to sleep? Rather than answer that directly, Laxness rushes on, introducing us to his protagonist, a man afraid of nothing. Described as "an Icelandic pioneer in the thirtieth generation," Bjartur is a crofter--a sheep farmer dependent on a landlord--who, through years of brutalizing work and semi-starvation, has finally managed to buy the one thing he values above all: a piece of unencumbered land. This isolated valley represents, for Bjartur, freedom--but it is also, unfortunately, the place where Gunnvors curse awaits.
Arrogant, ornery, narrow-minded, and proud, Bjartur is far too independent to believe in supernatural curses. Yet his first spoken word is addressed to the blood-thirsty ghost of Gunnvor--a resounding "No" as he admires his new valley--and when his first decision as a landholder is to change the valleys name from Winterhouses to Summerhouses, the reader feels a distinct shiver in the air. The gauntlet has been tossed. The war is on.
Modern Americans, of course, consider themselves too sensible to believe in ghosts. We dont have any Gunnvors, and most of us have never experienced the various forms of starvation, isolation, brutality, and terror in the wilderness that Bjartur and his family face in their tiny, snow-buried crofthouse. That doesnt mean, however, that we cant relate. Our fear of chaos (better known as bad luck) is part of what makes us human, and when it hits, regardless of whether we believe in natural or supernatural causes, we turn to our myths to help explain why. We turn to pioneers and warriors, the superheros of unflinching fortitude who, while not necessarily articulate or clever, fought far greater foes than we ever did, accomplishing great deeds and risking their lives uncomplainingly. No wonder we instantly understand when Laxness describes Bjartur as "ready and eager to wage his war of independence with hostile powers, natural and supernatural, and undaunted, set the world at naught." Bjartur may be facing down supernatural Icelandic evil (along with bad weather, poverty, loneliness, hardship, and loss) but we recognize at once hes our kind of hero, the American frontiersman who battles for freedom and loves the land and whose contradictory nature will not be tamed. An American audience senses from the first that he has less hope of winning his battles than Davy Crockett had at the Alamo. But because hes so eager to fight anyway, we hold our breaths and read on.
Laxness writes scenes so vivid they seem more like primal dreams than fiction: the night Bjarturs first wife, already half out of her mind from starvation and fear of ghosts, is left alone in the smoke-filled croft with a hapless sheep named Gullbra; the day Bjartur decides for the sake of his sheep to slaughter his sickly second wifes only hope, her cow; the horrendous scene in the frigid darkness of the sheepcote when the curse of Gunnvor decides to pay a personal visit. Perhaps Laxnesss most ebullient sense of rising mythic grandeur is conveyed in the chapter in which Bjartur decides to go find his missing sheep, Gullbra (the one he unwittingly has just finished eating): "He began to feel that there was something strange about it all, and it weighed heavily on his mind. It was the old story of the lost sheep." Thus introduced, the "old story" expands into a heroic journey in which Bjartur, after sleeping happily on a boulder in an ice-cold cave, comes across an enormous bull reindeer. With nothing to kill it except "those two articles that are most indispensible to a man on a journey, a knife and some string," Bjartur crawls out of the Glacier River hours later, exhausted, frozen, soaked to the skin, and sans reindeer. From there he must face a howling blizzard and a walk that will take at least 48 hours:
Bjarturs battles are marvelous, not only because he faces mythic-sized opponents and uses heroic Icelandic poetry to spur himself on, but also because we understand from the first that hes doomed. The same hubris by which he survives will lead directly to the ludicrous behavior that destroys his family (when he becomes as monstrous as anything Gunnvor could dream up) and eventually causes his downfall. Pig-headed, insensitive, doomed: Bjartur reminds us all too clearly of our own frontiersmen, who came West on their do-or-die missions to tame the wilderness and conquer the land. The details of his struggle may be different, but through the expansiveness of his creators vision, he enters the same mythic battle for independence that our American heroes fought, lived by, and died for. That he is unforgettable is no surprise. That in his strange and mythic Icelandic adventures with spirits, we discern our own troubled identity as Americans is wondrous.