Vitality Brook

Chapter I

This was in the days when the life of the Icelandic nation hung by a thread. Around midsummer in the year of our Lord 1783, the earth’s crust tore open at Skaftárjökull Glacier, west of the great Vatnajökull glacier, and filled the nearby settlements with a mass of molten lava; the fiery fissure belched blasts of pumice and ash that obscured the sun. Flames spouted high into the sky, and it was said that the fire could be seen from a distance of a six- or even seven-days’ journey, despite the air being shrouded in a gray haze. Due to the ash-spewing character of these convulsions, these calamitous times became commonly known as the “Haze Hardships”. Another characteristic of these eruptions was their unparalleled longevity; the earth continued to spew fire and ash for almost an entire year, leading many to believe, the longer they went on, that this time the fires would never go out.
A hard, slushy-yellow and copper-colored mass covered the land, hindering the growth of grass in the south and elsewhere; in the east, people battled fire and flying rocks, while prevailing southerlies covered the countryside to the north with pumice and ash, choking vegetation; people fumbled their way through smoke. The following season was cold, and the sunlight was black, as it says in an old poem.
These particular eruptions, however, were far from extraordinary at this point in Iceland’s history— in fact, news of them often prompted some simply to mutter “so it has begun burning there, as well.” Earlier that century, the Grímsvötn volcano itself erupted— the earth kindled where it was wettest— and starting in 1717, tumultuous eruptions took place in the Eastern glaciers, darkening the sky and spewing sand over the Þingeyjar district and Eyjafjörður. Four years later, a tremendous eruption occurred at the Kötlugjá gorge, one of the mouths of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, producing a dense, sandy cloud, thick smoke and fiery blasts, and a terrible flood of water over the Mýrdalssandur plain, causing severe damage and hardship.
In 1766, Mount Hekla began burning, causing the same sort of damage as Katla: farms were abandoned, and people and livestock fell dead on the pumice-covered earth, producing puffs of ash upon falling, as the sun shone blood red through the smoke and sandy haze. The damage was greatest in the Húnavatn and Skagafjörður districts, where the southerlies carried most of the ash fall. The same year that the Haze Hardships began, an eruption took place off the Reykjanes peninsula, raising an island from the sea, which our King, Christian VII, named, straightforwardly, Nýey— New Island. A surviving royal edict urges Chamberlain Levetzow and Magnús Stephensen to attempt to land there and “claim the island for the king,” which was in fact impossible due to the ongoing eruptions. It was considered exceptional that the Danish king had expanded his territory without waging war. Some time later, the previously mentioned Skaftá Fires began, inspiring that curious statement, heard widely, that it had begun burning there as well— but what no one could have predicted was the magnitude and length of these eruptions, which outdid all previous ones.
This is not to say, however, that the aforementioned eruptions were the only calamities suffered by the Icelanders at that period in history. Here, in fact, the old adage fits best, that rarely is one wave not followed by another. Great floods washed over the lowland settlements, up to 1,500 fathoms onto dry land, while sea ice lapped at the land for much of the winter, which was so cold that the sea froze. People could walk from Reykjavik straight over to Akranes without wetting their clothes, as they did from one Breiðafjörður island to the next. As a result, there was a general failure of fishing catches from the Feast of the Cross in the fall of 1783 until the end of the year, on top of the utter devastation of livestock. Scientists of the time kept surprisingly accurate records, still preserved, of the numbers of dead, both humans and livestock. The shortage of grass led horses to consume dead horses, as well as the walls, posts, and paneling of abandoned farms, while sheep ate their own wool; both sickened and died. People had nothing to eat but old horse carcasses, after which, they sickened and died, while cattle died mainly of starvation and internal maladies, or from failed respiratory systems. The biography of a priest who did not flee the Skaftá area states that in densely populated areas, corpses were piled coffinless in mass graves and covered over with earth.
This was called “holing” people.
The figures tell the story. In 1784, the number of Icelanders decreased by 4,289, horses by 28,000; cattle were reduced by 11,461, and sheep declined by 190,488. These are astonishingly precise figures; in its own way, it is remarkable how much information about Death and his victims was preserved, considering the scope of the catastrophe.
To crown the devastation, one of the worst outbreaks of the Great Pox (smallpox) ever recorded harried the country at that same time, in addition to dysentery, scurvy, streptococcus, and mumps, while infants died mainly of asthma and cough, pox, gastritis, and measles. Then there was pneumonia, which followed hard in the wake of the Great Pox. The number of lepers grew rapidly, due mainly, in the opinion of our Physician General Bjarni Pálsson, to remissness and uncleanliness. All of these calamities were carried aboard foreign ships to this country’s harbors; although the ships’ wares saved some people from starvation, they actually killed far more.
Nor may it be forgotten that as early as 1781, poverty compelled the general population to buy cheap barley from the Danish Chamber of Revenue’s Compagnie, which was obligated to send so-called “famine grain.” Due, however, to delirium and malnutrition, as well as a general lack of information from the Royal Trade Company, people made the mistake of eating the barley whole— bristles, husks, and all— leading to widespread dysentery and other stomach ailments, and consequent loss of life. Immoderate consumption of Greenland shark killed numerous people in the western and northwestern parts of the country— mainly due to a shortage of brennivín, which is a necessary drink with this sort of food, particularly if it is eaten straight from the pile being cured. Worms got to the little vegetation that managed to grow in spite of the ash and pumice in 1784, wiping out the birch copses. Fruit trees died. Attempts to cultivate grain bore no results, and no one gave a thought to the tobacco plants, which seemed to be the only thing that could endure the ash and smoke. Whale strandings were small comfort; these carcasses heat up on the inside as decay sets in, and the intestines burst and spoil the flesh. Thus, many good people lost their lives to washed-up whales— people who thought that their lives were saved for the time being.
While the hardships caused by these natural disasters did away with most of the paupers and wastrels, decrepit old folk, the marginalized and filthy rabble, the profligate and the sick, horse eaters, sluggards, and landlopers— perhaps most tragic was that the pestilence killed the most promising members of society, in the blossom of their youth, those who were strongest and had endured the worst of the depravations.
In itself, life simply could not thrive.
It was impossible— to live.
Word of the conditions in our little land spread widely, not least in the many different countries that found themselves subject to the dark ash cloud that settled over the world’s Northern Hemisphere from Siberia to Alaska and south to Italy, where grapes failed to develop fully due to the cold. The crop failures and resulting hardships in the northerly regions of the European continent are said by some to have contributed to subsequent major revolutions.


People were disagreed as to whether God or the Devil was behind these things, or whether the two were perhaps working in cooperation; in other words, the one deciding to reef the sails of mercy due to men’s bad behavior, and thereby giving the other free rein to unleash his worst. Yet now there were those who claimed that neither of them was behind these things— men who wrote that churches that were blown off their foundations or buried in lava were “redundant,” and did not mourn. These were men of the new era, who blew like a fresh wind through our part of the world; this was the new man, who was going to overcome nature with the strict hand of science and tame it with his inventiveness and intuition according to the laws of the great clockwork of the Lord. Everything could be measured, understood, and separated into purpose-made categories, and when the correct niche had been found for each thing, as the great scientific revolutionary Descartes taught, the task of science was to probe the nature of the thing in and of itself, and not in relation to other things, because the older “signatura” doctrine was now viewed as obsolete, monkish error— for instance, concocting remedies for head ailments from walnuts due to the nuts’ resemblance to the human brain. People were not to believe anything without having empirical evidence for it; they were to doubt all the old ideas and ways that had been followed without critical thought. The new men thought; those who did not think or question— did not exist, in their own way.
These new men stated: “Neither God nor the Devil are behind this; these are disasters of blind nature!” Volcanists asserted that the Earth had torn open as if from internal tension, and its fiery lava had poured out like blood from a deep abrasion; down below, it was all one burning pit of molten lava. There was no mouth of Hell on Mount Hekla; rather, it was an opening into the same fire that burns below and bursts out through the scales of the Earth’s crust. It was her nature and laws, and her blind powers were never a respecter of persons. Or how might it be explained that the Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen burned to ashes while the brothel next door stood there unscathed? For poverty and misery, man had only himself to blame; natural disasters were the fault of blind nature. God had nothing to do with these matters.
Where was I, now?
Yes, it appears that in those days, life was, to say it plainly, impossible. But others besides the Icelanders had realized that, and had begun to formulate certain schemes to ensure that the inhabitants of that country would not be wiped off the face of the Earth.

Chapter II

The horse-drawn coaches come clattering from different directions along the cobblestone streets toward Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen. At this time, the city is surrounded by a great ring fortification and canals, built as defenses against the Swedes and slung around the city in frills, like the lace ruffles on people’s clothing. Some of the coaches come from the area around the so-called western gate of this fortification, Vesterport, while others come from areas around the other gates. In the poor visibility of the misty drizzle, the coaches resemble dragons as they speed past elegantly dressed ladies of pleasure who fawn on hatted men in the tall archways that jut out from the palace. There in the archways, oil lamps hang like glowing orbs in the fog, gray at the periphery, and hoofbeats echo.
Most of the men in the carriages have either hung up their wigs on hooks or hold them in their laps for the drive, but start fiddling with putting them back on as soon as the coachmen turn up Slotsholm Street. A canal lies alongside this street, which opens into Christiansborg Palace Square, a small plaza fronting a red building with a massive relief over its entrance. Towering over the center of the relief is Christian IV, surrounded by weapons and banners, anchors, barrels, and sundry inscriptions. This is the renowned Chancellery building, which houses the Royal Chamber of Revenue.
Wigs have become so weighty that officials pull them off their heads whenever they are not engaged in their public duties; their heads sweat beneath them, and what is more, lice and fleas congregate in these wigs as never before, for this is the era of the white peruke, with all its powders and dressings of flour and chalk over the suet-smeared hair.
A pervasive fragrance of orange blossoms and lavender assails the nose when the ecosystem comprising one of these wigs is disturbed. Most gentlemen wear large Campaign perukes, with a veritable plague of whopping curls from the forehead down, combed into a widow’s peak and with a whorled pig’s tail at the back, hanging down to the hips. The era of the wig is beginning to draw to a close, and when something approaches its end, it frequently becomes extravagant; the Campaign peruke being an excellent example. Others, especially the younger officials, find the pomp appalling, and have instead begun wearing a combination of a skullcap and hair called a Toupee even in Copenhagen, where most everything having to do with fashion, the theater, the arts, sciences, and literature is expressed in French terms. Letters begin with the words monfrere or amice, and this time period is called florissante— flourishing— by the well-moneyed mercantile elite that delight in displaying themselves on the streets and squares in gaudy finery from France. The first thing that the men do after clambering down from the coaches at the front steps of the Chancellery building is brush the powder from their wigs off of their trousers.
Most start complaining about the weather, the unparalleled cold; complaints that, in fact, almost all Europeans can agree with. A footman takes the cloaks, togs, overcoats, and keffiyehs that the men remove and hand to him. Conversations are struck up in the foyer, the men giving barely a glance to the door decorations painted in the Rococo style or the statues of Christian the Sixth’s drinking horns, overflowing with gold coins. There is so much to discuss. The men sit down at marble console tables with gilded feet, a servant standing by with a platter of glasses of spiced wine. Several of the men are discussing an idea proposed by the French and published recently in the evening paper, to release hundreds of ravenous wolves in the British Isles and let them devour a large percentage of the population there.
That would certainly change things for us and our interests if it were to happen. The men nod in agreement. Spiced wine. There is a sudden commotion at one table, so disruptive that the others quit their small talk for the moment. Tempers have risen over something that appeared in yesterday’s Copenhagen Post-Times: a précis of the work of the aforementioned naturalist de Buffon, translated into Danish, in which he asserts that the earth is 168,000 years old! Now this heresy would spread among the commoners! Like a plague! What next?!
Until now, everyone knew that the Earth had been created in a week, though with a rest on the weekend, of course— and this had happened just over three thousand five hundred years ago. Whale bones found on a mountain in Norway, however, raised questions that had no coherent answers. Some took this as an indication that the Earth must be over three thousand years old, as mountains were formed so slowly. Others clung tightly to Holy Scripture, and in fact took the whale-bone discovery to be empirical evidence for the Biblical Flood; the whale had obviously been swimming over that particular mountain when God stopped the downpour and the floodwaters drained away.
“Now, it may be that our Holy Scripture is not being literal when it speaks of days,” says a man with a pointy nose, a high forehead, reddish cheeks and a dimpled chin, “and if there were ten thousand years in a day, then, perhaps, de Buffon’s estimation of the age of the Earth would not be far off.” The speaker is the young, ambitious Reventlow; the older men respond to his remarks with poohs and pshaws.
An oldish man, three double chins beneath his spherical head and imposing peruke, replies in a gruff voice: “What next? Begin doubting the existence of our Lord? That the journey of Moses to the Promised Land is nothing but a fantasy, and our Lord Jesus Christ’s feeding the multitude with three fishes is a mere folktale? If such rakishness were not commonplace now, this heretic de Buffon would have been consigned to the fire already, like that Dominican monk— what was his name, again?”
“You mean Bruno,” says a third man, who is middle-aged and speaks in a deep, even-tempered voice that has a certain charm. His long jacket is so exquisitely embroidered that the garment must have taken months to make.
The group that had gathered in the foyer of the Chancellery building now sets off down the tiled, black-and-white checkered stone floor of a corridor in the main building, past the offices of the German Chancellery and other key bureaus within the Danish government; it is here that the ministers play their power games, making their strategic moves in the virtual chess matches that determine the fates of nations. At the end of the corridor, just beyond the boudoir of His Majesty’s mistresses, the group is still conversing energetically as it passes through a wooden doorway carved with leaves and vines and enters the assembly room of the Chamber of Revenue.
Upon entering, most of the men bow their heads slightly in the direction of a painting hanging on the wall by the door. It is their supreme lord: King Christian VII. Some appear to smirk slightly or even give little snorts as they bow their heads. Word on the street is that the king has recently taken a turn for the worse. Some say that he has become little more than a beast, plain and simple, having deteriorated steadily ever since Struensee was beheaded for his affair with the queen. He is far too amorous, knowing moderation neither there nor in drink, which is truly unbecoming of a king. Rumor has it that members of the Chancellery have advocated amending the law in order to relieve the king of his duties and replace him with Crown Prince Frederick.
Let us turn our attention to two men standing somewhat apart from the Danish gentlemen, near a large tile stove in the corner of the room. They seem to be speaking in a different language than the others, though their conversation is sprinkled with Latin, Danish, and French words and expressions. One of them has a proud bearing; he is bright-complexioned, red-cheeked like an adolescent boy and curly-haired, has a white silk kerchief around his neck and lace frills on his lapels, and is wearing an elegant velvet jacket with a pattern that stands out like a bas-relief from the fabric.
The other seems almost ashamed of being so tall— toward the top, he appears almost sickle-shaped. The men’s jackets have large, baggy sleeves, their cuffs embroidered fancily. The figure of the tall man, with his rounded shoulders, slightly hunched back and sunken chest, hints strongly at personal afflictions. His face appears much younger than the rest of his figure, despite the dark bulges around the black eyes in his lantern-jawed face. He is as lean as a fish. He looks at the young, bright man with the silk kerchief. His jowls are grizzled and his skin grayish, yet this is not the face of an old man— although this assertion cannot be substantiated. Some things can never be substantiated, but intuition and feeling— such things are unfashionable in this day and age.
Entering the room, one encounters two long tables perpendicular to a rostrum of dark oak, the room itself wood-paneled halfway up its whitewashed walls, with damask on the chairs and at the windows. Various men of power in perukes adorn the walls, some of them painted in bright colors, with white-powdered cheeks, red lips, birthmarks at their cheekbones. There are older kings such as Frederick III, the book-loving collector of antiquities, and Christian V, who introduced Lutheranism and the Grand Decree to Iceland, the latter being an attempt to reduce adultery and improve morality through strict prohibitions and punishments. The harsh prohibitions appear to have had precisely the opposite effect, resulting in little more than a substantial increase in the number of Icelandic women drowned and the faces of exposed infants appearing in windows in lullabies— but now we are getting sidetracked. We were describing the meeting of the Royal Chamber of Revenue at the Chancellery in Copenhagen in the winter of 1784.
The Lord Chamberlain Levetzow steps onto the rostrum. He has recently returned from a long journey to Iceland, where, among other things, he dwelled in a tent in the eastern part of the country, a short distance from the fire-spewing fissure itself. He is given to dramatic flair, and speaks loudly and authoritatively. His nose is stubby-tipped— what is sometimes called “bottlenosed”— and imposing sideburns reach down below his chin, framing his marzipan face. He speaks with conviction, driving his thesis steadily toward a rationally established conclusion. There is, however, little rhetorical flourish and scant use of Latin in his speech, revealing him to be no learned man, despite the requirements of his position. He will soon be appointed governor of our little country; let us listen in on his address:
“62,000 rixdollars, gentlemen, 62,000 rixdollars that our king has ladled into the so-called ‘new implementations’ of Steward Skúli Magnussen— the entire sum for the establishment of industry in Reykjavik, including wool-dyeing facilities and a fulling mill, and what has it profited us? Gentlemen, I ask: where is the textile factory that was promised to our king, and which was to have helped make the Icelanders more self-sufficient in their struggle for existence?”
The lantern-jawed, round-shouldered man gets to his feet; clear now is the way that his face has been marked by prolonged concerns. He speaks humbly, and the locals can hear that he himself is from that fire-scorched island, despite nothing in his vocabulary giving him away. His wig, which is slightly askew and too thick, does not suit him; he has no aristocratic air, per se. The man courteously points out that this sum certainly did not evaporate into thin air, as the esteemed, most gracious Lord Chamberlain indicates; rather, that it was now in the hands of both sundry Danish companies and the Royal Iceland Trade. “The various merchants have demanded extremely high sums in start capital; 20,000 rixdollars went toward the cargo of the Navy alone. The representatives of the Copenhagen Chandlers’ Guild have utterly wrecked that project by means of rifts and schemes and placed its remains in the hands of the mercantile companies; it is they who wish to obstruct all progress…”
He is booed into silence by members of the Royal Chamber of Revenue. Curly perukes quiver as the human lowing fills the room; this is an entirely different response than that accorded the address of the Chamberlain, who seizes the opportunity and continues:
“Here I identified only one example out of hundreds, Mister Erichsen, and you know as well as I how much has been squandered on that barbaric land to the north, to the depletion of our state coffers during these most recent and worst of times, the planting of fruit trees for 5,000 rixdollars, all of which were killed, grain crops on every farm, which yielded not so much as a single ear, horticultural brochures and John Grimsen sent throughout the country, 4,000; the importation of fine-wooled rams: 7,000 rixdollars, which yielded nothing but death by pestilence, since no Icelander realized the danger of sheep plague…”
Now the younger man in the silk kerchief stands and speaks: “Might I point out to the honorable Chamberlain that the oft-mentioned Swedish baron who advocated the improvements to the Icelandic sheep stock, His Grace Hastfer, was in fact the one who did not take pains to ensure that the Spanish rams did not become infected on their way to Iceland, and that, at his order, a hundred ewes were given to those rams in their infected and infectious state. It was representatives of the Danish Navy who gave our people the order to…”
“Do not attempt to mislead us, Mister Studiosus Stephensen! Are we Danes now to be blamed for the sheep plague?!” The man on the rostrum holds the floor, and declares that no matter where one looks in this sad story, all attempts at improvement have yielded nothing but debt, every act and subsidy of our gracious king has done nothing to inspire industriousness among the Icelanders, who are mired in thievery, addiction to drink and tobacco, and sloth. “How did those people respond when our agent was sent to all the farms to teach horticulture? ‘Are we now to eat grass like our livestock?’ That was their answer in every corner of the country: ‘You wish us to eat grass, like livestock!’ And then those people laughed disparagingly at their teacher!”
No no no, this simply will not do, went a murmur through the assembly.
“Such foolishness and obstinacy have cost thousands of lives, because if the Icelanders had had vegetable patches in these recent periods of famine, they would have made do. And now, gentlemen, after the earth has ripped asunder in the Skaftafell district, spreading fire and ash everywhere, the Icelanders’ mettle will certainly never strengthen. How many thousands of rixdollars went into the expeditions of Thoroddi and Olavius, who were sent throughout the country in search of lignite, porcelenum, and graphite—and which they in fact found everywhere— but then what?”
“Hundreds, would be more precise,” said the lantern-jawed man.
“No one does anything! No factory has been established; our Compagnie men make no effort, as, according to medieval Icelandic laws, they are not permitted to go about their work there in the north in the winter, and the Icelanders are shiftless and ruled by ingrown dullness and sluggishness. It matters not, gentlemen, where one sets foot in that land; as long as there are no enlightened people to provide the commonfolk with discipline and manners, and Icelanders do not give up their laws, no industry will ever be established in that country. How did it go with the tobacco plants, which did in fact manage to survive? No one took it upon himself to follow up on that project or to see to shoveling the ash off of them, yet the Icelanders’ tobacco usage has increased threefold— and I saw many such tobacco fiends who were incapable of doing any work or who had no food. The sowing of flax and hemp— no one continued it! Potatoes, which could be for the Icelanders the equivalent of flour— no one lifts a finger to plant them any longer! Hundreds of cauldrons transported to all quarters of the country to teach potash burning— and people use the cauldrons as hitching blocks for their horses! Windmills transported there— only to lie unconstructed in their crates! That entire population is utterly hopeless and spiritless!”
Chamberlain Levetzow tweaked his sideburns disheartenedly. “It is as if these people possess no self-esteem, which Mr. Smith, the Englishman, teaches is the root of all progress and prosperity. A linen-bleaching workshop, lime production, it all turns out the same! The people in this country turn up their noses at every good endeavor, and are incapable of accomplishment or progress. The new scythe-sharpening technique: they come and learn the technique, then return home and continue to sharpen their scythes the old way!” As the sparks of fervency began to fade in Chairman Levetzow’s speech, they were replaced by earnestness:
“Honorable ministers. Monstrous calamities, monstrous calamities have befallen and turned that island into hellish habitat of fire and ash. Men and beasts have been decimated, and where it was difficult to get the islanders to stand on their own two feet before, it is entirely unthinkable now. It is for this reason, and with a heavy heart, though no less a sense of obligation to the love of neighbor preached by our Lord Jesus Christ, that I solicit your endorsement for a letter of recommendation, attested to by you and addressed to our most merciful sire, Christian the Seventh, to be submitted to the Royal Chancellery, and which shall contain a request for a royal edict stipulating that those dying people be removed from that uninhabitable island— not hundreds, as the magistrate John Svendsen writes, not thousands, as we have discussed previously, but more specifically, around twenty-thousand of the able-bodied persons still to be found there. In my eyes, a better life can be provided for them here in our kingdom, once admonished and disciplined into honest labor— I know that many of you could very well find capable workers among them for your industries— an excellent, uncostly workforce could be created if the admonishments are successful; if you provide them honorable work in the name of the love of one’s neighbor, which we may not withhold from the needier among us in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We propose to put an end to the misery and helplessness of these people, which will, at the same, rectify the ceaseless expenditure of funds that returns nothing to our state coffers now that the tolls collected from the active Compagnies have plummeted, there being no goods to be had from that country nowadays. Continuously now for a year and a half, fires have burned there in the eastern part of the country, with no prospects of them stopping.
“This matter, I have discussed with His Most Merciful Governor, Mr. Thodal, who has expressed his wholehearted satisfaction with these plans, following the shining example that the English have displayed to the world with their Enclosures, by means of which they have saved people from hunger and debasement in the uninhabitable Highlands of Scotland and moved those people to more respectable jobs in new, beautiful factories in their cities, and in doing so, greatly improved the conditions of that land and people…”
The two Icelanders, the Privy Councilor Jón Eiríksson and Magnús Stephensen, currently a student, but soon Crown secretary and assessor, look at each other and smile embarrassedly. Beads of sweat are visible on Jón’s forehead and temples; sweat trickles from beneath his thick wig, until the members of the Royal Chamber of Revenue, along with the representatives of the West Indies Company, applaud Chamberlain Levetzow’s speech so boisterously that both of their faces pale, as an inexplicable shame spreads through their veins. Why, or whence, came this shame? It cannot be pinned down. Yet it certainly is palpable.
Jón Eiríksson, the gray man, rises from his seat; his eyes are sharp, though his voice is imbued with humility; this combination of qualities has most definitely been of advantage to him in retaining his position within the Danish government— as it must be: poise must be maintained, despite everything burning inside. He asks: “What of those who are not able-bodied? Who shall save them? Does the Lord Chamberlain not realize the double damage that will be done by removing the country’s young, able-bodied people? That doing so will hasten the utter ruination of the country?”
There is a great uproar and clamor among the men: “What about removing them all?” is heard in the chaos; someone declares that the population of Copenhagen is nearly 90,000, and that there is no room for any more; the fortification built when the population was 50,000 has become constrictive. Another points out that there is enough space in Jutland; what about Norway!? “Finnmark! Move them to Finnmark!” shouts a man standing off to the side, by the window. “They will all perish anyway! The eruptions will never cease!” Some try to address the assembly from the rostrum, but now, there is too much interruption and heckling; royal rules no longer govern the assembly. These enlightened men, who have been thoroughly educated in the latest scientific theories and trained in the application of rational thought, simply cannot grasp what principles are in operation here, depriving the members of the Royal Chamber of Revenue of their intellects and causing them to jabber like children. It is an old tradition for their meetings to conclude in chaos— no one knows why or how this happens, although it may be because the men are already drunk on aquavit or fatigued and give vent to their weariness in this way, but it typically only occurs when the discussion concerns Iceland, and had done so as far back as the oldest of them remember.
Before the meeting is adjourned, however, the men manage to agree to the Chamber of Revenue ratifying Chamberlain Levetzow’s proposal that a formal letter be sent to the Chancellery, petitioning for a royal edict stipulating the implementation of these rescue operations and the execution of the Icelanders’ removal by the will of His Most Gracious Majesty. In the foyer, perukes come off; the men have begun to itch beneath them, and they are relieved to no end when they are finally able to remove those lice-ridden monstrosities from their heads. They then go out to their coaches, which drive the animated authorities down the cobblestone street to the sounds of hoofbeats and clattering wheels— before receding into the grayness and changing back into the monsters that they were before.


The Icelanders converse as they walk out onto Christiansborg Palace Square, where they look for a coach. They are in agreement about providing Magistrate Skúli all the support that they can muster when he is required to respond to this proposal of the eminent chamberlain; the Chandlers’ Guild will certainly send a representative to meet him once the Royal Trade Authority receives a copy of Levetzow’s letter. They determine to go see Skúli the very next day— he being in Copenhagen at the moment, luckily.
“I am tired of fighting.”
The Privy Councillor, Jón Eiríksson, takes off his wig and sighs as they settle into the coach. He gazes vacantly at the canal bordering the muddy cobblestone street that passes beneath the coach. It has begun to rain.
“This might potentially mark the conclusion of our struggle,” he says distractedly through the coach window. “We fought in vain.” Stephensen lays his hand on Jón’s shoulder and waits until the Privy Councillor turns to face him. But the Privy Councillor has long since stopped looking into other people’s eyes, as there was nothing to be found in them.
“We shall never let this happen, Jón— we shall respond with the reasoning of educated men, and rational men will listen and understand. This shall never be!”
This being said, Privy Councillor Jón turns his gaze from the young man back to the street and replies as if in a trance, as if he believes that the ears of the world have gone deaf— which is why he has long since stopped addressing them, except in whispers.
“You are just a child, Magnús. Reason and education are drowned out by human desire, both in this matter as in any other. When have you ever met a man who was entirely ruled by reason?”
No reply.
“The fact is that ever since the eruptions began at Skaftá, the Danes have written more letters about falcons than people in Iceland. Whenever natural catastrophes wreak havoc in Iceland, the king worries whether he will get his falcons. The falcon ship set to sail in the spring will be loaded with cattle— intended as food for the falcons that are to be shipped here to Copenhagen, not for the island’s human inhabitants.” The gray man sighed:
“Levetzow spoke with great vigor of all the failed enterprises in Iceland. He did not mention that he himself received over a thousand rixdollars as a food allowance during the time that he spent in Iceland this past spring. More than the sum allotted to Olavius, Thoroddi, and Magnús Arason combined. Thrice what was allotted for the rebuilding of the farms nearest to the eruptions. It is unfathomable, the desire in their hearts, black and viscous, which no human power can counteract, and now I find myself…”
Jón sighs, before picking up his statement as if it were a hat that had fallen to the floor: “…now I find myself inclined to believe that the Lord God Almighty can do nothing about this, either.”
Now the coachman slows down as they approach the margin of a crowd of people on Nytorv Square, where one of the city’s prostitutes has been tied to a post and is being flogged.
The young man says: “The Lord is a universal primus motor that has wound the clockwork of the world. But this grand clockmaker has much to deal with, and concerns himself ever less with the workings of this world. My faith is in reason and education— these are the lights that we are meant to spread in his name. The church is corrupt and we need no more of its blather about sin and degrading hymns. Reason will not allow our people to be shipped off into forced labor in Denmark’s factories. That would be an outrage surpassing the Turkish Abductions— yes, it would make them look like an innocent adventure-tale in comparison!”
“It will not happen, I say,” repeats Stephensen, feeling as if his words are falling on deaf ears.
But it is as if the Privy Councillor has both heard him and not; perhaps the mouth of the world has stopped saying anything sensible as well, thus making it useless to pay it any heed. He is resolute:
“I have inquired of my God, and my God has spoken and said: You have lived in vain. While your own people starve to death, you spend tens of thousands of rixdollars outfitting an expedition to Greenland. That sum could have saved half of your people from starvation…”
“Your god is a stern god,” replies the other.
“And unreasonable.”
“I could do nothing, and no one wanted to listen when the Chandlers’ Guild Iceland Company, those soulless creatures, failed to export necessities to Iceland during the famines of the 1750s. Eight thousand of our countrymen starved to death as I went from one magnate to another and ate roasted pork and drank French claret. It took over a year, Magnús— to get agreements annulled…”
After a short pause, Privy Councillor Jón Eiríksson continued: “I received a letter from my stepbrother in Suðursveit. He asked if I could send him one barrel of flour, because all of his livestock had died of starvation and his horse had been eaten. That was during the last fall equinox, with cold winter fast approaching. The children had stopped getting out of bed, he wrote; they either lay or sat there in the family-room bed, staring sunken-eyed with hunger. The youngest ones no longer cried. He described them in so much detail that it cut to the bone. He had nothing to give them; his wife had died in the spring from consumption. I made a payment to a Danish merchant in Hafnarfjörður, who sent a man to them with a horse loaded with flour and cured foodstuffs. I received an answer now, in late spring…”
He paused. His black eyes looked inward; the lips twitched. With great effort, the Privy Councillor groaned:
“My God has spoken… I have been unable to save anything, and I am unworthy of my position and my cloak. Reverend Jón Steingrímsson in Skaftafell has saved lives. Healed them of their afflictions and caught hundreds of seals in nets, wherewith he has saved his neighbors from starvation. I have accomplished nothing…”
The glow has faded from the eyes of the younger man with the silk cravat. The Privy Councillor’s depression has begun to besmirch his soul. He, too, falls silent and stares out the coach window. They sit like this for some time, until they reach the muddy roads at the outskirts of the city, where the clattering of the wheels ceases and the coach no longer sways, as on the cobblestone streets.
Finally, the younger man says to his older, weary companion: “You are not getting enough sleep.”
“Who sleeps well with sunken eyes staring at him from every nook and cranny? I have no refuge.”
Magnús fixes his eyes on the man before him. He feels that his reason has been blinded by heartache and irrationality. It is as if the rational principle is sleeping in him, as Aristotle warned. This professor sitting before him had been involved in book publishing for decades; he had published the Icelandic sagas and other Nordic texts, written detailed introductions and been behind the publication of important scientific treatises on Iceland, the most famous of them being Eggert and Bjarni’s Reise igennem Island, which he also improved in many ways. He had been the head of the Royal Library and ordered, arranged, and indexed everything there, wrote a biography of Tormod Torfæus, published the Travel Book of Olavius, etcetera. He has been the chairman of the Icelandic Literary Society for many years, a member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences, Councillor of Justice and Councillor of State, later Privy Councillor in charge of Icelandic, Faroese and Greenlandic Affairs. This man whom I now regard, thinks Stephensen, is the embodiment of the struggle for the better treatment by the Danes of the Icelanders and other inhabitants of Denmark’s colonies. It was he who had sought for and achieved the revocation of the licenses of the worst Compagnies, which made no emergency grain shipments during times of famine, he who had freed Iceland from the Chandlers’ Guild, with whom Skúli in Reykjavík had fought and into whose hands had lost the new implementations.
We ought to sculpt and display his bust while he is still alive, thinks Magnús to himself, taking note of the gleam from the oil lamps on posts along the road playing about the sideburns of the pale-gray man before him. The Learned Society could fund it. The oil that used to come from Iceland, he suddenly thinks, interrupting his own musings on the bust— but that does so no longer. Such hard times these are. The oil-supply ship has not sailed to Iceland for a long time, and the Danes have begun buying fish oil elsewhere. Has anyone thanked him? Ought I to thank him? This depressed professor. This worthless man.
“Disposition til tungsindighed” is how certain Danish documents describe Privy Councillor Jón Eiríksson. Shortly after our little story takes place, a lengthy dispute occurred between Jón and the aforementioned Herr Reventlow, who succeeded Levetzow as Chamberlain. It was the first and only time that Jón Eiríksson lost his temper with the Royal Chamber of Revenue— and in doing so, basically burned all his bridges, as might be expected.
According to witnesses, Privy Councillor Jón had spat curses and oaths in the Chamberlain’s face and called the entire Chamber of Revenue a collection of roguish scoundrels and idiots. Then he tore himself free from the grasp of the men there in the Chamber of Revenue, ran down the corridor with the white and black tiles and out onto the square, where he jumped into a coach. He hopped out of the coach at Langebro Bridge, and then off the bridge into the canal.
Privy Councillor Jón Eiríksson was fished up from the canal beneath Langebro. Some sources say that he was pulled out of the canal alive— but in any case, he died soon afterward. It was common for poor, unfortunate folk and burned-out prostitutes to be fished up from that canal. But it was extremely rare for a man in a tailored, gold-embroidered cope and waistcoat set with costly gilt buttons to be fished up from it— a man whom some said was an important professor.