An Icelandic “Lord’s Prayer”

At a moment in “Independent People,” when the community of sheep farmers was faced with another death, they searched for a way to honor the deceased. They passed around a borrowed copy of Hallgrimur Pjetursson’s “Passion Hymns,” only to discover that none in their party attend church frequently enough to know the tune of the chosen hymn. Reaching deeper into memory, Old Thorthur of Nithurkot was asked to recite the “Lord’s Prayer.” Laxness gave this recitation a unique anchoring to the lives of these Icelandic farmers as the sheep gathered near, the horse’s stood ready-saddled for the upcoming journey, and the company’s dogs whined and shivered in the cold.

“So the old man wept the Lord’s Prayer, without ceasing to tremble, without lifting his head, without taking the handkerchief from his eyes. More than half the words were drowned in the heaving of his sobs; it was not so easy to make out what he said: “Our Father, which art in Heaven, yes, so infinitely far away that no one knows where You are, almost nowhere, give us this day just a few crumbs to eat in the name of Thy Glory, and forgive us if we can’t pay the dealer and our creditors and let us not, above all be tempted to be happy, for Thine is the Kingdom” – perhaps it was difficult to imagine a place equally well chosen for this engaging prayer; it was as if the Redeemer had written it for the occasion. They stood with bowed heads, all except Bjartur, who would never dream of bowing his head for an unrhymed prayer.”

In this passage, Laxness expertly brings together the spare lives of these near subsistence farmers against the sharp edged divide between their desperate lives of endless toil, of crushing debt and the eternal–a different world they can scarcely envision. The existence of this other world is highly doubtful to Bjartur, since the words used to shape this vision fall short of his personal requirement for poetic expression.

Have you found other passages in “Independent People” that jumped off the page?

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