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Þórarinn Eldjárn: Brotahöfuð (The Blue Tower)

This novel tells the story of Guðmundur Andrésson, a historical character who lived in Iceland in the first half of the seventeenth century. In 1564, the Great Edict had been issued by the Danish king (though, according to Guðmundur Andrésson in the book, mainly at the insistence of the Icelandic church) which was aimed to prevent immoral behaviour, such as incest, adultery and extramarital sex. It was ruthlessly enforced. Guðmundur Andrésson came from a relatively poor family but had managed to study at the cathedral school at Hólar. However, things did not work out well for him. He was unable to travel abroad, could not be ordained and lost the one position he had obtained (deacon) because of what he thought were false accusations. When he fathered a child out of wedlock, any chance of a position in the church vanished. At this time he wrote his Discursus oppositivus, damning the Great Edict which, he said, was contrary to the laws of God. When the authorities saw the work, he was arrested and condemned to the Blue Tower, a prison in Copenhagen. The book starts at this point, as he is taken to the Blue Tower.

The story alternates between his early life and his time in the tower. We learn that he had a poor background. Allegedly, the Icelandic hero, Grettir Ásmundarson, was buried on the property. Guðmundur went to work for the Reverend Arngrimur Jónsson as a farmhand. He had inherited a few books and had taken some with him. The reverend saw a lowly farmhand reading a book and assumed that he had taken them from the reverend’s own library, so he mildly berated the boy. One of Guðmundur’s faults, to which he readily admitted, was to easily take offence and fly off the handle. (His other fault, at least the one he admitted to, was an excessive tendency to ponder things that are better left untouched.) He did so in this case. Fortunately, the reverend was an understanding man and, learning that Guðmundur was studious and, indeed, had a rare book in his collection about Grettir Ásmundarson, offered to help him study. Later, he offers to send him to a school, where he will be scholarship boy, to which he will be admitted on the reverend’s recommendation and will be an alms boy, i.e. his tuition will be paid. Fortunately, he meets Einar Arfinnsson on the way, for it is Einar who will, at least initially, protect him. Because of his weakly appearance, because he is poor and because he does better at school than many of the sons of richer men, he is mocked, teased and bullied. He more or less holds his own, with Einar ‘s help. However, because he is able to mock them more than they can mock him, he makes many enemies, which will be to his detriment later in life. It is here that he meets and falls in love with Sigrídur Jonsdóttir.

His subsequent career does not turn out well, not least because he has annoyed the Bishop, who ran the school, and who has considerable influence. But, though he is quick to blame others for his failings, and there certainly seems some evidence that his enemies took advantage of his weaknesses to push him further down, his own behaviour is hardly exemplary. Apart from the faults mentioned above, he has two other faults. Firstly, he and Einar like carousing. On more than one occasion, they get seriously drunk, which leads to a bad reputation, bad behaviour and decidedly poor judgement. Einar, in particular, has a succession of women. (They have their uses, he would say of women, but it would be absurd to live with them.) He is very careful not to get them pregnant – he gives Guðmundur a detailed description of what he does to avoid this – but, eventually, he makes a mistake. She gets pregnant, Einar admits to the child and he is defrocked and moves away. This should have been a warning for Guðmundur but is not. However, he does not have Einar’s money nor Einar’s family influence, so he is back to being a farmhand on his parents’ farm. Even when he writes his Discursus oppositivus, it is his drinking that actually causes his problems.

This is a relatively straightforward historical novel, at least partially intended to show that life could be difficult for an intelligent and educated man if he did not have the right friends and background. But at least part of the story, as I have shown, indicates Guðmundur’s own failings. If he had kept his mouth shut, curtailed his drinking and been more careful in his sexual activities, perhaps marrying as his parents had suggested, he would not have ended up in the Blue Tower and might have gone on to greater things, if not emulating his hero, Grettir Ásmundarson, then at least making more of a name for himself as a scholar. But then we would not have had this enjoyable if not great novel.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Forlagið
First published in English 1999 by Mare’s Nest
Translated by Bernard Scudder