On May 30th, 1917, Stephan G began his trip to Iceland. First from New York to Halifax and from there to Iceland. On board the Gullfoss, everyone treated him kindly and with respect. In Canada, there were some who had tried to have him charged with treason and put in prison because he disagreed with them about the slaughter in Europe. They saw glory in it. He saw nothing but tragedy and wasted lives. On the Gullfoss, people only wanted to honour him.
Of course, one has to remember that the attitude of people in Iceland, a country that was a non-combatant, was different from that in Canada which, as a colony of England, had soldiers at the battlefront. In Canada, some Icelanders hoped that the participation of young Icelandic men in the war would help Icelandic immigrants gain an honorable place in Canadian society.
However, Laxness describes in the section of Independent People called “The Years of Prosperity”, the attitude prevalent in Iceland. “This so-called World War, perhaps the most bountiful blessing that God has sent our country since the Napoleonic Wars saved the nation from the consequences of the Great Eruption and raised our culture from the ruins with an increased demand for fish and whale-oil, yes, this beautiful war, and may the Almighty grant us another equally beautiful at the earliest possible moment”. WWI wasn’t Iceland’s war. It was an opportunity to sell wool and meat and fish to a host of “various ill-disposed citizens that…kept on hacking one another to pieces like suet in a trough, for four consecutive years and more.”
On June 16, the ship arrived in the Reykjavik harbour. The invitation committee came onto the ship. A crowd gathered at the harbour to cheer Stephan. The next day was June 17th. There was a banquet that night with fine food and coffee. There were speeches, including one by Stephan.
He was a guest of honour at Women’s Day. He gave another speech and poetic toast. According to Viðar, “Stephan took long walks with some of Iceland´s most prominent intellectuals and attended an endless round of receptions and parties.” He went sightseeing and even managed, in spite of prohibition, to find a drink or two.
He traveled by boat along the coast, then by horseback. All this time, he was writing poetry.
It was at this spot in Wakeful Nights that I had to pause in my reading, deeply touched by the Icelanders’ greeting to him. To understand the significance of what happens, you have to understand the importance of hay making and the precarious weather of Iceland. There is only one crop, hay. No grain will ripen. The hay must feed the milk cows and sheep for it is upon them that everyone’s life depends. In good weather, people will cut and rake hay for twenty-four hours a day. They work as if their lives depend on it and, in fact, their lives did depend on it.
“The group then took a ferry across the glacial river Jökulsá, while four men waited on the west side to accompany them through the geothermal pass known as Mámaskarð and down to Lake Mývatn.”
“as he and his companions descended from the pass, Stephan was astounded to encounter a crowd of people singing and celebrating as they rode to meet him. ‘There, on the rocky path…where harsh lava and human habitation merge, people came riding in a long procession, evidently on their way to some gathering.’ Stephan first thought they must be riding to town, but then recalled that any towns were by the sea, not inland. When these people in the procession dismounted from their horses and waited for him he realized that this was in fact a display of Icelandic hospitality. Although it was a good dry day in the middle of the haying, people had left the hayfield to come and meet him.”
Stephan was escorted from farm to farm. He came to Iceland as a great poet but also as a farmer who had worked all his life to create a farm that would support his family and, as a farmer, he was interested in agriculture in Iceland.
“Wherever Stephan went on this trip, he was greeted with flags, speeches, and song. At Ytra-Fjall in the valley of Aðaldalur he had a lively discussion with farmer-poet Indriði Þorkelsson….Indriði had been mowing hay with his sons. He stopped cutting unusually early, however, went inside, washed his hands, and put on a clean jacket.” He was going to meet Stephan.
“As the group approached the village of Húsavík at 6 o´clock in the morning, the poet Hulda, together with her husband and a few dignitaries, rode out to meet them. That evening, a gathering was held in Stephan´s honour.”
As he traveled about the country, he was greeted as a great poet in a country which revered poetry. There were those who refused to participate in this homecoming, but from what I read in Wakeful Nights, it was not religious conflict that kept them away but secular conflict, the distaste of the wealthy and privileged for a poet who writes of financial and social injustice. What else can one expect? If the poet writes about the exploitation of the ordinary person by the privileged why should the privileged cheer him? If Stephan were alive today, he would surely have been composing poems about the banksters and politicians responsible for the kreppa. One would hardly expect the objects of his scorn to honour him.
As Winston Churchill said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in y our life.” Stephan stood up for something all his life.
I admire the Icelandic people because they honoured Stephan G in spite of the fact that he struggled all his life to be a good farmer yet never made much money. They honoured him for his poetry, for his talent, for his intelligence and for his bravery. Few of us are brave enough to stand up to those who are wealthy or hold positions of power. Then and now, those who are adept at making money, are quick to assume that having done so means that they are superior to others who have not done as well financially, and that their opinions on all things must also be superior. There is something about the making of money that feeds vanity.
However, Icelanders were well acquainted with men like Björn of Leirur from Paradise Reclaimed. Björn had married for money, had become “an agent for the Scots, buying up ponies and sheep on their behalf for gold.” He was always ready to take advantage of anyone who had fallen on hard times. He used bribery and attached himself to important people. Paradise Reclaimed is a novel by Laxness, a fictional account of life around the time of emigration to North America, but it is also an accurate account of the behaviour of many of those who prospered while others, faced with a harsh climate, harsh Danish rule and harsh local laws, worked endlessly just to feed themselves and their families. Björn is part of a small, corrupt group of the priviliged class. It is people like these that the emigrants fled. The people who emigrated did so for an opportunity to own their own land, to have a chance to better themselves and their families. However, there were those who came with them who wanted to perpetuate the old system. Stephan, to his credit, did not write in praise of the wealthy in order to receive gifts or favours from them.
There is no more dangerous person than the one who will stand up for his beliefs. Ask the Poles about Lech Walesa. Communism laid claim to represent the ordinary working class. It represented only the ruling class. To exploit others, you don’t have to be a capitalist. Every economic, religious, and social system contains within it, people who will use the system to benefit themselves at the expense of others. To them, the person who reveals what is being done is the enemy for such a person would incite others to take away privilege, distribute resources more fairly, and demand honesty.
Today, more than ever, we need Stephan G, we need ten or a hundred or a thousand Stephan Gs, writing, speaking, publishing, broadcasting, investigating in the face of ever greater accumulation of wealth by the few and political and economic power by even fewer.
Meeting Stephan, many people were surprised, taken aback, because they saw a small, weather worn farmer when they’d expected a giant. He was a giant, a giant of words.
Like the people of Myvatn, we need to ride out to greet him, to honour him, to sing his praise, for it is of us and for us that he writes.
I do not understand the religious conflicts in which Stephan participated in Canada. Wakeful Nights refers to them but does not discuss them. From the perspective of 2012, with the sharpest rate of membership decline being in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, with empty pews and few new clergy, the conflicts within the Lutheran church during the late 1800s and the early 1900s, seem strange, self-destructive, more about opinionated, self-righteous individuals and social class than about theology. Those conflicts have divided and weakened the church and driven away its members.
That’s not to criticize any of those involved in the conflicts. To criticize, I’d have to have a historical understanding and know enough about religion at the time to draw a conclusion about who was and who wasn’t being reasonable. Religion is not based on reason but on faith and history so that makes it even more difficult to understand. It may be that to understand the religious conflicts referred to, one would have to have a companion volume describing the positions taken and the reasons for them. Would anyone actually read it? I doubt it.
To me, the finest writing in Wakeful Nights is this section describing Stephan’s visit to Iceland. It describes Icelanders in a way that makes me proud of my Icelandic background. The people ride toward him and sing just as they rode to greet King Christian IX in 1874. Their action reveals not just the esteem in which they hold the author of Andvökur but also their values, values that do them honour. This is Iceland at its best.
When I was editor of Logberg-Heimskringla, I had a number of people say, in one way or another, “I’m a proud Icelander.” Or “I’m proud of my Icelandic background.” When I asked them what they were proud of, they seldom could pin it down to something specific. Buy Wakeful Nights, read it, if you don’t read all of it, read the section describing Stephan G’s triumphant visit to Iceland. Imagine the landscape, the mountains, the glaciers, the rivers, the narrow trails. Imagine the people on the farms setting aside their scythes and rakes, mounting their horses and riding to meet the poet of the Rocky Mountains.