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Under the Glacier

It’s a pity we don’t whistle at one another, like birds. Words are misleading. I am always trying to forget words. That is why I contemplate the lilies of the field, but in particular the glacier. If one looks at the glacier for long enough, words cease to have any meaning on God’s earth.

– Halldor Laxness, Under the Glacier

I found it at Kramerbooks one spring. It was in the recommended section, but on a lower shelf. A green cover, helvetica font, a simple painting at the top. It called to me amidst hundreds of other options. I picked it up, put it down, picked it up, and bought it without a second thought. Under the Glacier. I somehow knew I needed to read the book.

Later that spring Julia and I decided to celebrate our official graduation from college, even though we had both finished classes a year before. She was the first friend I made at AU; it felt fitting for us to take an adventure together to celebrate the end of that chapter. We traveled to Iceland as part of a Scandanavian adventure, but didn’t leave Reykjavik, so we weren’t able to visit the glacier.

The glacier in question is Snaefells, on the Snaefellsness Peninsula to the north of Reykjavik. Two years ago I finally made it there, on a trip with Drew to celebrate our 30th birthdays. Laxness didn’t make Snaefellskojul famous – Jules Verne did. With the sun of late summer, according to coded runes, the peak of the mountain will show which opening in the volcanic crater contains a tunnel leading deep into the core of our planet. Thus setting the plot for Journey to the Center of the Earth.

If Journey to the Center of the Earth is a work of science fiction or science fantasy, Under the Glacier is more difficult to categorize. Susan Sontag, in the introduction, describes it as science fiction, a philosophical novel, a dream novel, a comic novel, and a visionary one. I would agree with those descriptions and add these: The book is deeply funny, and quite absurd.

My experience of the glacier involved desolate, lava-rock landscapes, unexplained light forms, and heavy fog which dulled the senses. Under the Glacier involves a young emissary from the bishop of Iceland who is sent from Reykjavik to investigate odd rumours about the pastor – and town – of Snaefells glacier. in short order, this becomes an investigation of all things considering “Christianity at the glacier.” The investigation is hilarious. There were times reading the book when I thought it very well might be the funniest book I have ever read.

Christianity, taoism, hinduism, reincarnation, hatha yoga, nature poetry, biblical verse, mythical fish, intergalactic communication, horse abusers and imported french biscuits … all come together in the book’s pages, yet there is cohesion in the absurdity. Throughout the narrative there are gems of ideas which so captivated me, such as the bishop’s instructions to the emissary:

“No verifying! If people tell lies, that’s as may be. If they’ve come up with some credo or other, so much the better! … remember, any lie you are told, even if deliberately, is often a more significant fact than a truth told in all sincerity.”

Myth, legend, custom, mistake. What do we make of it all, anyway? As we drove down the road towards the end of the world, I saw peaks in the distance. I knew instantly which one was the glacier, it called to me just as it had through the book in the store in the district of Columbia. Right towards the glacier, under a snowy sky, I traveled home to myself.

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