Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Summerhouses. Small farm, formerly wintering pens for sheep, in a mountain valley of north-central Iceland. The story’s protagonist, Gudbjartur Jonsson, fulfills his dream of becoming an independent man by buying Summerhouses, a marginal tract of heath, and raising his own flock. To the south rise desolate mountains with glaciers, and ranges extend to the east and west, making the farmstead an island of fertile land within the surrounding desert highlands. Furthermore, it lies under a legendary curse, haunted by the Irish sorcerer Kolumkilli and the witch Gunnvor. In a major theme, these spirits symbolize the harsh, alien hostility of the environment to human occupation; everyone before Bjartur has been driven from Summerhouses. To avoid the humiliation of eating the bread of others or accepting charity of any kind, Bjartur must have stony resolution as unforgiving as the natural environment. In the best of years the heath barely supports enough sheep to feed a family; during bad years Bjartur loses two wives and several children to starvation and disease. Bjartur represents all poor people who dream of standing on their own land and controlling their own fortunes, and his fate—he eventually loses Summerhouses after decades of struggle—reveals the brittleness of that dream.


*Iceland. North Atlantic island nation, whose countryside contains natural features that are both beautiful and terrifying—desert, heath, hot springs, freezing rivers, volcanic vents—all of it snowbound much of the year. On the northern part of Iceland, Bjartur and his family respond to the conditions variously. Bjartur himself finds nature a foe to tame with his strength and steadfastness. The summer pastures and native creatures...

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