The title of this edition which is called Under the Glacier instead of Christianity Under Glacier offends me.
It offends me in the same way that the White House calling a Christmas tree a holiday tree offends me. The titles of books are usually chosen by marketing departments. The author has little, or even, no say in the title. Nor do his descendants. I assume that Kristanhald Under Jökli was renamed with the idea that dropping the word, Christian, from the title would increase sales. Since the entire book, from the first word to the last, is about the condition of Christianity in Glacier and, by implication, in Iceland, leaving Christian out is both misleading and absurd. Like, we´ll leave Christian out of the title and trick people into buying this book because they´ll think its about glaciers.
As for the book itself, I often found the satire hilarious. As a Lutheran with an Icelandic background, I frequently recognized the foibles and pretensions of myself and my community.
But there´s the rub. A satire, to be appreciated, needs readers who know intimately what is being satirized. Unlike previous novels of Laxness´s that I have read, that contain within them all the necessary information for understanding and appreciation, this novel does not.
The novel begins with Embi, a not particularly committed theology student who isn´t much interested in becoming ordained, being chosen to investigate the state of Christianity at Glacier. With Embi being chosen for a task that should rightly belong to a devout theologian, the satire has begun.
What has sparked the investigation are rumours of odd happenings at Glacier. Burials are often delayed, baptisms and confirmations not performed, and there supposedly has been a strange burial on the glacier instead of in hallowed ground. The church building itself is reported to be in disrepair and a much larger secular building has been built next to the church so the church is overshadowed.
Embi travels to Glacier. On his arrival, he notices a sign that says ‚ “PIMUSES REPAIRED HERE.” Embi discovers that the local pastor, called Jón Primus, has a stellar reputation, not as a theologian, but as a repairer of primus stoves.
The irony and satire of Jón Primus and his many technical skills would be lost on a non-Icelandic audience. The wry smile and laughter would come from the knowledgeable reader who knew how they needed to raise sheep and go fishing to survive. Religious duties for such men had to come second to getting in the hay for without hay their sheep would die and without sheep, the pastor would die. Although there were tithes of sheep and fish for the pastor at some times, by some people, many pastors depended on their secular skills to survive. It is no wonder that it is their secular skills for which they are named and appreciated.
Henderson, when he traveled in Iceland in 1814-15 distributing and selling Bibles, commented extensively on the condition of the clergy. “The total number of parishes in Iceland amounts to 184; but as many of them occupy a great space of ground, it has been found necessary to build in some parts two or three churches in a parish, which has increased the number of churches to 305.” The ministers are “all natives of the island, and are maintained partly from certain tithes raised among the peasants. The provision made for their support is exceedingly scanty. The richest living on the island does not produce 200 rix-dollars; twenty and thirty rix-dollars are the whole of the stipend annexed to many of the parishes; and there are some in which it is even as low as five.
Ministers needed, also, to perform many other duties. Henderson says that “besides attending to the spiritual wants of his people, Sira Jon (Jón Jónson of Audabrecka) devotes a considerable portion of his time to the healing of their bodies, and is celebrated all over the north for his skill in medicine. Since last new year, he has had more than two hundred cases.”
In 1872 when Burton is in Iceland, conditions hadn’t changed much. He says in Ultima Thule that while the bishop’s salary is $3416.33 Danish dollars, thirty-nine ministers make only about 300 rigs dollars a year. This is a very small amount of money and while he says the ministers have some other sources of income, he admits that the clergy are “compelled to be farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen.”
The naming of Jón Primus is an occasion for a smile or a laugh for the tradition of naming people according to their work was so strong that it survived the emigration to Ameríka. In Gimli, Manitoba, and elsewhere in New Iceland, there were many Valdis and Helgis and so the butcher became Valdi Butch and the garage man, Helgi Highway. Much of the naming was, and still is, ironic.
When Embi asks Tumi Jónsen for the whereabouts of the pastor, Tumi says that he has gone to Ness to shoe a herd of horses. Jón Primus also does electrical work. He´s handy to have around. However, when Embi asks about the pastor´s doctrine, Tumi says, “We’ve never been aware that Pastor Jón had any particular doctrine.”
Poor Embi, hopeless, hapless, making notes and tape recordings, he tries to make sense of Christianity at Glacier. The answers to even his simplest questions are convoluted and evasive. The rumour that a burial has taken place on the glacier turns out to be true.
A local Icelander, Gudmundur Sigmundsson, has made a great deal of money abroad, and is the owner of the secular building on church property, a building much larger than the church. He returns. He now calls himself Godman Singmann.
Although this book was published in 1968, the Occupy protesters would recognize someone who thinks he’s Godman and belongs to the one percent. Today, he would definitely be an Icelandic banker. Godman espouses a new religion that believes in biotelekinesis and intergaltic communication and intergalactic resurrection. Pastor Jón, in spite of his secular activities, has literally nailed the doors of the church shut against such things and refuses its use for an experiment in secular resurrection.
Jón Primus, in reply to Godman´s theories, replies , “That water is good.” He sticks to simple truths instead of bafflegab mixed together from an assortment of religions.
Great fun is made with the stereotypes in the novel, with the theories and fads, with the quirks of Icelandic society. This novel contains the famous scenes of Embi never being offered anything but cakes instead of meals. Many a host both in Iceland and North America has said “There are good treats here but not seventeen cakes.” Icelanders and Icelandic North Americans alike know that it is Pestle-Thóra , Jón Primus´s housekeeper and her many cakes that is being referred to .
I would put this book under the Christmas tree but only for someone who knows Iceland and some Icelandic history. Otherwise, the reader is likely to stop reading among the conversations Embi has with people when he first arrives at Glacier. It would also help if the reader cared about Christianity in Iceland (and elsewhere) for beyond the irony and satire there are serious points made and questions raised. For the knowledgeable reader, this book is as relevant today as it was when it was first published.