Iceland's First Gay Lovers?

We chat with the psychiatrist who outed Njáll and Gunnar
10.8.2012
Words by Eli Petzold
Dr. Óttar Guðmundsson's bookshelf at his office at the Landspítali hospital’s psych ward is neatly divided into two sections. On the left are a variety of colourful books on psychiatry, psychology and gender studies—Michel Foucault's “History of Sexuality,” for instance. The right side of the shelf is lined with an impressive collection of nicely bound, uniform editions of the Icelandic sagas. But Óttar, a psychiatrist specializing in matters of sexuality and gender identity, doesn't see these as two separate collections—he has long used characters and events from the Icelandic sagas to illustrate various psychiatric disorders and conditions. In his 1990 book ‘Íslenska Kynlífsbókin’ (“The Icelandic Sex Reader”), he famously argued that Njáll and Gunnar, heroes of ‘Njáls Saga,’ were gay and in love with each other. In April of this year, he published an entire book, ‘Hetjur og hugarvíl’ (“Anxious Heroes”), devoted to psychoanalysing the main characters of some of the more prominent Icelandic Sagas. We sat down with Óttar, just in time for Pride, to hear more about his queer spin on the medieval canon.


NOBODY LIKES READING ABOUT NORMAL PEOPLE


How did the idea for your new book come about?

The idea is an old one. I've been using the Icelandic sagas for years in teaching, drawing examples from them. I thought it'd be fun to take the main characters from the sagas and diagnose them according to modern psychiatry, to see if they could be explained better or if you could, in any way, understand the line of events better.

I started doing this with ‘Njáls Saga,’ but my interest grew and I started reading many of the other main sagas. There's a patient-doctor relationship in the book: they come to my office and I ask them questions and they answer according to how I presume they would answer.

It almost seems that the characters' psychiatric problems are what set the stories in motion.


In many ways, yes. Nobody would be interested in reading about normal people. You see the characters of Shakespeare—they're very abnormal. Hamlet is not a normal man. Ophelia is not a normal young woman. Everyone writes about people that are different. It's a way of showing the extremes, how things can go in extremes and how everything can develop in the worst possible way.


THE GREATEST INSULT ONE COULD UTTER


So how did you come to the conclusion that Njáll and Gunnar are gay?

It is very obvious that the relationship between Hallgerður and Gunnar suffers because of his friendship with Njáll. Hallgerður has a disturbed personality, and she is very envious. Of course! She has moved across the country to start a life with her new husband, but he is never home because he's always visiting an older man. There are many, many things that point in that direction. Gunnar is very inexperienced. When he meets Hallgerður, she has been married twice. But Gunnar had never been in bed with a woman before he met her, so he was a male virgin. There's a lot of difference between them in experience.

Gunnar is always away with Njáll, conferring with him, and he doesn't have time for his wife. So she is very angry and then she starts to argue with Bergþóra, Njáll's wife. Gunnar always sides with Njáll and Bergþóra; he's never on the side of his wife.

At one point, Hallgerður calls Njáll and Gunnar "argur," the old Icelandic word for homosexual. It's almost the same word as the modern Icelandic "ragur," which means “coward.” This was the greatest insult that you could utter in an Icelandic saga. If Hallgerður suspected that they were gay, I think we can at least suspect the same thing.

But these insults of homosexuality run through Njáls Saga like a red thread. In the negotiations after the death of Höskuldr Hvítanesgoði, Flosi and Skarphéðinn, Njáll's son, come to a standstill. There's an exchange of words: Flosi asks him a question then Skarphéðinn answers. Then Flosi says that his father has no beard and nobody can see whether he's a woman or a man. Skarphéðinn answers: “What are you saying? You, who let a giant in the Svínafell fuck you every ninth night.”

Then everything, all the negotiations, come to an end and there was this Njálsbrenna [burning of Njáll and his home]. The burning was because they were insulting each other and in these insults, the main issue is the question of homosexuality. Being homosexual was something else, it was like being a woman and that was an insult to your masculinity.

But I should mention that I recently found out that I was not the first person to note Njáll and Gunnar's relationship. There was a gay organ player who wrote his memoirs in 1962 and they weren't published until this Christmas in an autobiography. There he says that 'Njáls Saga' was the favourite book of the Icelandic gay community between 1940 and 1962 because the two main characters in the book were gay.


GETTING PHYSICAL


Do you think the relationship between Njáll and Gunnar is manifested physically?

Of course it's manifested physically. I think that they were meeting and having some sort of a sexual relationship. Everyone is very suspicious—like Njáll's sons, Hallgerður and Bergþóra too. So everyone is feeling the same way, they feel that this relationship is not normal.

What was the initial response when you first published this idea?

A lot of people were very disgusted and angry. Icelanders have always been very sensitive about the sagas. In a way they have been a religion in Iceland. They are history, fiction, or maybe a blend of both. But the main characters have the roles of real characters. Other nations have freedom fighters or rebel leaders as national heroes. We have these fictional heroes as our national heroes, and Gunnar was in many ways one such hero. If you read letters from the seventeenth, eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, you realise this. A lot of women dream about him. He's a male symbol, a sex symbol. And he is of course a fictional hero. But in some way, he’s everywhere. And all of a sudden somebody comes and says this great national hero is gay—that's a sensitive issue. It's very difficult to say who was insulted. Maybe it was the university community because they have this feeling that there are only certain people who are allowed to write about the sagas.

Do you think that the negative responses to your original idea reveals some sort of homophobia still present in Iceland?

Yes, without doubt. But it's been twenty years since then and there has not been the same reaction since then. The whole atmosphere has changed. And of course I can see that as a doctor—I've been working with transgender people in Iceland for the last fifteen years and this whole scenario has changed tremendously in this year.


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