Short summary - Iceland's Bell (Íslandsklukkan) - Halldór Kiljan Laxness

Scandinavian literature summaries - 2023

Short summary - Iceland's Bell (Íslandsklukkan)
Halldór Kiljan Laxness

The action of the novel-trilogy by Halldor Laksness (part one - "The Icelandic Bell", part two - "The Golden-Haired Maiden", part three - "Fire in Copenhagen") takes place at the end of the 16th - beginning of the 17th century. in Iceland and Denmark, as well as in Holland and Germany, where one of the main characters, a poor peasant Joun Hreggvidsson, ends up during his wanderings.

The meaning of the name of the trilogy is revealed in the very first chapter, when, on the orders of the royal executioner, the arrested Jón Hreggvidsson throws down and breaks into pieces an ancient bell - an ancient shrine of Iceland. The Danish crown, which at that time owned Iceland and waged protracted wars, needed copper and bronze.

In the center of the story are the figures of three people, whose fates are bizarrely intertwined against the backdrop of real historical events. In addition to Ioun Hreggvidsson, this is the daughter of a judge, a representative of one of the most noble families, the "Sun of Iceland", the golden-haired Jomfru Snayfridur and a learned historian who devoted his whole life to finding and preserving ancient Icelandic manuscripts, close to the Danish king Arnas Arneus.

Jón Hreggvidsson, who lives in absolute poverty and rents his plot of land from Jesus Christ, does not disdain additional “earnings”, such as: he can steal a piece of rope for repairing fishing tackle or a fishing hook (working on the ground is difficult to feed; the main source of food the food of the Icelanders is the sea). For these crimes, Jone is periodically imprisoned and subjected to other punishments, such as flogging.

He is eventually framed for the murder of the royal executioner and sentenced to death.

However, by an unknown whim of fate, it is in the wretched hut of this poor peasant that a priceless treasure is stored - several sheets of parchment of the 13th century. with a fragment of the text “Skalda”, an Icelandic legend about the heroes of antiquity, applied to them. Literally the day after the corpse of the executioner was discovered in the swamp, but even before Jón Hreggvidsson was tried for murder, Arnas Arnaeus, accompanied by his beloved Snajfridur, comes to the hut and buys from Jón's mother these priceless parchment sheets, unsuitable even for to mend shoes.

Later, this episode was destined to become decisive for the fate of both Jon and other heroes.

Jón is tried and sentenced to death.

On the eve of his execution, Snaifridur bribes a guard and saves Jone from death.

Only one person can achieve a review of the case - this is Arnas Arneus, who had left for Denmark by that time. Snaifridur gives Jone his ring and helps him escape the country. Through Holland and Germany, having endured numerous hardships, several times miraculously escaping death, but still retaining the ring of Jomfru Snayfridur, Ioun finally gets to Copenhagen and meets Arneus, who by that time had spent almost all his fortune on the purchase of Icelandic antiquities and was forced to marry on a rich but ugly hunchback.

In the end, Arneus manages to ensure that the murder case will be reviewed. Jón Hreggvidsson receives a safe-conduct, with which he returns to his homeland, where his case must be heard again. Judge Eidalin, father of Yomfru Snayfridur, apparently fearing the publicity of the old story about how his daughter helped a convicted criminal escape, enters into an agreement with the peasant: no one will touch him, but he, in turn, must be silent about his case.

Fifteen or sixteen years elapse between the events of the first and second books of the trilogy. During this time, Jomfru Snayfridur, desperate to wait for her lover, marries a drunkard and rude Magnus Sigurdsson, who squanders his entire fortune during his long binges, and in the end even sells his own wife to two crooks for a keg of vodka.

Snayfridur steadfastly bears her cross, refusing all attempts to persuade her to divorce her husband and find a more worthy spouse, which could be her "patient fiancé" pastor Sigurdur Sveinsson. Since she cannot have the best and most desirable share, she is ready to endure humiliation and deprivation, but does not agree to something in between.

Meanwhile, Arnas Arnaeus returns to Iceland from Denmark, having broad powers given to him by the king. He seeks to alleviate the plight of the Icelanders, as far as possible, who suffer both from the hardships caused by the harsh conditions of life on the island, and from the merciless exploitation by the mother country, which has monopoly rights to all external relations of Iceland. In particular, Arneus orders to destroy all the flour brought by Danish merchants, since it is unsuitable for food - it is teeming with ticks and worms.

Arnaeus is also starting to review some of the old cases, in which, as it seems to him, unjust sentences were passed in the past.

The Jón Hreggvidsson case also comes up. It becomes the reason for initiating a case against Judge Eidalin himself, who entered into a secret agreement with the convict and dared to violate the order contained in the royal charter.

At the same time, Snajfridur's husband Magnus Sigurdsson files a complaint against Arnas Arneus himself, accusing him of a criminal relationship with his wife. Magnus is also supported by pastor Sigurdur Sveinsson, who once revered the highly learned husband Arnas Arnaeus, but now sees in his activities a threat to the ruling elite of Icelandic society and personally to the father of his "bride". After much litigation, Arneus manages to win both cases. Judge Eidalin is stripped of his honor and of all positions, and his property becomes the property of the Danish crown.

However, the judicial victory costs Arnas Arnaeus dearly. Not only did he not gain popularity among the people, but, on the contrary, everyone, even pardoned criminals, began to curse him for destroying the age-old foundations of society and insulting respectable, respected people, including Judge Eidalin. Arneus is also charged with the fact that, having destroyed the worm meal, he actually deprived the Icelanders of food and doomed them to starvation, since, apart from Denmark, the Icelanders have no other sources of food (except for fish).

In the year or two that have passed between the events of the second and third books, dramatic changes take place in the fate of the heroes, and above all Yomfru Snayfridur and Arnas Arneus. A plague epidemic in Iceland takes the lives of Jomfru's sister and her sister's husband, the Bishop of Skalholt. The yomfru's father, Judge Eidalin, also dies. In Denmark, the former king dies, who encouraged Arneus to study Icelandic antiquities. The interests of the new king lie in a completely different area - he is only interested in hunting, balls and other amusements. Arnas Arneus falls out of favor at the court and loses his former strength and power, which his enemies did not fail to take advantage of, in particular the rogue Jon Marteinsson, who steals books from the Arneus library and secretly sells them to the Swedes. Among the books he stole is the priceless Skalda.

The same Jón Marteinsson in every possible way helps the opponents of Arneus to seek a review of old sentences handed down in the past in cases that Arneus considered, having authority from the former king of Denmark. In particular, he succeeds in getting the yomfru's husband Snajfridur Magnus Sigurdsson to win the old case of insulting his dignity by Arnaeus. However, on the same evening when the case was won, Jón Marteinsson kills Magnus.

Yomfru Snayfridur herself begins a lawsuit against Arnaeus in order to restore her father's good name and return his possessions. Again, the case of Jón Hreggvidsson emerges, who is arrested again and brought under escort to Denmark, where he is imprisoned, but then released, and he becomes a servant in the house of Arnas Arneus. The disfavor of the king, the lack of support at court - everything suggests that this time fate has turned its back on Arneus and he is destined to lose the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the king of Denmark, whose treasury has become empty as a result of a lavish lifestyle, decides to sell Iceland, which is too expensive to maintain. Already in the past, the Danish crown negotiated the sale of the island, making such proposals to England, but then the deal did not take place. This time Hanseatic merchants from Germany became seriously interested in her. The point is small - you need to find a person who could become the governor of the island. It must certainly be an Icelander - history has already shown that any outsiders in this position do not stay alive for long, arriving in Iceland. This should be a person who is respected in his homeland. The natural choice of merchants is Arnas Arnaeus.

Having received such an offer, Arneus finds himself in a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, the monopoly right of the Danish crown to own the island and the merciless exploitation of its inhabitants lead to incalculable suffering for the Icelanders, which means that the transition of Iceland under the rule of the German emperor can ease the fate of the people. On the other hand, Arneus understands that this is only a transition to a new, albeit more well-fed, slavery, from which there will be no way out. “Icelanders will at best become fat servants in a German vassal state,” he says. “And a fat servant can't be a great man. The beaten slave is a great man, for freedom lives in his heart.” Arneus does not want such a fate for the people who composed the greatest stories, and therefore rejects the offer of the German merchants, although for himself the new position promised the greatest benefits, including the opportunity to arrange a personal destiny together with his beloved.

Striking changes are taking place in the very characters of the main characters. At the end of the story, Arnas Arneus is no longer that brilliant nobleman and highly learned man, full of great plans to save the national heritage of his homeland. This is an infinitely tired person, he was not even too upset by the loss of the main treasure of his life - "Skalda". Moreover, when the fire that breaks out in Copenhagen destroys his entire library, Arnas Arnaeus watches the rampage of fire with some detached indifference.

The character of Yomfru Snayfridur is also changing. Despite the fact that she manages to defend her father's good name in court and regain all his estates, this brings her little joy. Once proud and independent in her thoughts and actions, a woman who dreamed of the time when she would ride white horses with her lover, resigns herself to her fate and agrees to marry the “patient groom” of Pastor Sveinsson, who was appointed to the position of bishop in Skalholte instead of the deceased husband of Snajfridur's sister.

In the final scene of the novel, the greatly aged Jón Hreggvidsson, who this time apparently received a final forgiveness for his case, watches as the married couple go to their place of permanent residence, Skalholt. Black horses gleam in the morning sun.