Ask Icelanders about the bad old times under Danish rule and they will probably tell you about how the Danes periodically whipped Icelandic farmers if they dared trade with merchants from other countries or how they stole our bell to pay for their incessant warfare on the continent. These are terrifying examples to be sure, but they don’t come from history books; they come from Halldór Laxness’s novel, ‘Iceland’s Bell.’ The bell itself is sent off to Denmark in the first chapter, never to be seen or heard from again. Small wonder that this is uppermost in people’s minds, as everyone here is made to read the novel in around the ninth grade.
While Halldór felt compelled to add the disclaimer, “The author would like to note that this is not a work of historical fiction. The characters, style and events are entirely subservient to the needs of the work itself,” the book is well researched. Halldór pored over annals from the period and virtually all characters have real-life counterparts. The language too, a curious mixture of Icelandic, Latin and Danish, feels authentic for the time.
At the turn of the 20th Century, independence was the main issue in Icelandic politics, and it was with this backdrop that Halldór started writing ‘Iceland’s Bell,’ which came out in three parts, respectively in 1943, ‘44 and ‘46. The first part focuses on the farmer Jón Hreggvi›sson, a proletarian hero, who also has elements of the picaresque. It is he who is given the task of cutting down the titular bell so that it can be transported to Denmark to pay the King’s bills.
After coming home, he beats up his wife and children and we never learn if he in fact committed the murder he is accused of, as he is too drunk to remember himself. His increasingly improbable adventures, which include being drafted into the Danish army, witnessing the great fire in Copenhagen and trekking back and forth between Denmark and Iceland while continually running into the same people, are also reminiscent of Enlightenment novels such as Voltaire’s ‘Candide,’ which Halldór himself translated into Icelandic at the time of writing ‘Iceland’s Bell.’
A SYMBOLIC RETURN
The second part focuses on Snæfrí›ur Íslandssól, the fairest woman in Iceland, who marries a drunkard because she can’t have the man she wants most. The one she wants is Arne Arnæus, the hero of the third part who works directly for the king and has dedicated his life to collecting old manuscripts so that the nation may survive these dark times and eventually become free.
The book prophesies that Iceland will in the future cast off the yoke while the rest of the world burns. It seems that Halldór was determined to construct a grand narrative of Icelandic history where it would eventually be propelled towards freedom as long as its literature survived. In this, he was successful. When Iceland eventually held a referendum on its independence in 1944, more than 90% of the population voted in favour. And Iceland’s Bell did become the preeminent novel of the new Republic. A stage version premiered at the opening of the Icelandic National Theatre in 1950, and the novel has been taught in schools ever since.
The bell itself, if it ever existed, has never been returned. However, the return of the saga manuscripts from Denmark in 1971 marked a symbolic return of Iceland’s treasures and a considerable part of Iceland’s population made its way to Reykjavík harbour to welcome them back. A similar triumphant return was made by Laxness himself in 1955, when he returned from Stockholm with Iceland’s first and only Nobel Prize. In this sense, Iceland’s bell had been returned, and its name was Halldór Laxness.”