Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

The history of the family at Borg—a more literal translation of Borgslægtens historie—is a four-part novel that tells the story of the family at Borg, of a father and his two sons, and of the illegitimate child of one of his sons. Guest the One-Eyed is an abridged English translation.

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Gunnar Gunnarsson is concerned with humanity’s lot on earth, with struggle, and, ultimately, death. Iceland may be stony, misty, and barren, and sin may be a fact of life, but ultimately, his book makes clear, there is reason to hope and to expect humanity to prevail. Gunnarsson’s novel is of traditional form, made particularly fascinating by its Icelandic setting. The atmosphere of the ancient sagas pervades Guest the One-Eyed, putting its characters into association with the past while making the present nonetheless convincing. The drama of the novel is essentially moral, and the ethical dilemmas into which the characters fall are neither gross nor abnormal. Gunnarsson is adept at capturing the Icelandic character and the Icelandic atmosphere; the human beings about whom he writes move with dignity and passion across barren, stony, but beautiful northern plains.

Although Gunnarsson retains a tragic view of life, regarding human beings as helpless before forces more powerful than themselves, he never loses sight of the alleviating influences of love, humor, and tradition. Generation succeeds generation in his novels, and although individuals fall, families persevere, so that Icelandic traditions are strengthened and, in turn, strengthen those who share them. There are elements of melodrama in Guest the One-Eyed, but the effect is that of tragedy. To have been able to portray such extremes of character—Ormarr sacrifices his own concerns to marry Runa, while Ketill sacrifices his own family to win power and wealth—without making the characters mere devices for the development of plot is evidence of Gunnarsson’s skill as a novelist.

The author’s audacity also leads him to create a complete reversal in the character of Ketill. A cold, scheming Icelandic Judas, Ketill becomes someone very much like Christ. There is perhaps no more difficult task in literature than the portrayal of a saintlike character. Readers are ready to accept the fact of evil, and there is no act so base that one cannot readily believe someone capable of it. Extreme selflessness and Christlike love, however, is an ideal, hinted at in the Scriptures, and hardly to be found in the community. Presuming to create a character who, having been in the depths of sin, becomes a lovable, living incarnation of virtue, Gunnarson confronts himself with the final challenge of the writing craft in the character Guest the One-Eyed. The novel has at once the characteristics of a myth and the characteristics of a modern saga.

Guest the One-Eyed ends affirmatively with the prospective marriage. Iceland may be stony, misty, barren, and demanding, but it is also a land of sunshine and changing moods, like the characters about whom Gunnarsson writes. In the end, the family continues to hope.

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