In Burial Rites, the special place of writing and language in Icelandic culture quickly becomes apparent as Kent tells Agnes’s story. Language and literacy are essential aspects of Icelandic cultural history, as Iceland has long had one of the highest rates of literacy in the world.
Icelanders in Kent’s book place high value on literary knowledge and writing ability, showing how they value not only literacy itself, but also the quality of the literature being written and read. The poet Rósa enjoys a high amount of respect in her community for her ability to speak in verse and her skill at writing beautiful, moving poetry. Rósa’s poems clearly evoke strong emotional responses in readers, as Agnes describes them “making lamps out of people.”
Agnes’s superior, by-heart knowledge of the Icelandic sagas, meanwhile, is considered to be an extremely admirable quality, even if it is sometimes a source of jealousy from other characters. The Icelandic sagas are an unparalleled treasure trove of Norse mythology and literature and a source of Icelandic pride and identity. The sagas even seem to shape the way the characters see the world, as Kent suggests when Margrét thinks of the murderesses in the sagas while she’s trying to understand Agnes and quotes from the sagas in an attempt to make sense of the murder itself.
Notably, the writing Kent’s characters deal in is closely tied to another important aspect of Icelandic life: the climate and landscape. The striking Icelandic landscape shapes how characters in Burial Rites narrate their own stories and make metaphors. Agnes often describes her surroundings using metaphors from nature. At one point she describes Natan’s groaning as lingering in the air like “a cloud of ash over a volcano,” and in another instance, as Agnes is being transported from prison, she describes the crowd’s anger bursting forth like a “geyser.” These descriptions reflect the fact that Agnes’s vocabulary and sources for comparison come from nature and the volcanic and geothermal activity that is omnipresent in Iceland.
Not only does Agnes describe people and human things using natural terms, but she also personifies the island of Iceland and its nature. Agnes talks about the island of Iceland as “sulking” and days as “ill-tempered…full of spasms of snow.” At one point, the third-person narrator describes autumn as arriving like a “gasp.”
Although at times this landscape is harsh, it can also be beautiful, and often its beauty and harshness are inextricably linked. As characters go about their daily lives, they interact with the nature around them: stumbling over rocks, listening to seagulls, taking in views of the valleys. Although these encounters with the landscape are daily, they still inspire awe. Tóti, for example, describes the river near the Kornsá farm as “beautiful” while imagining Agnes’s throat being cut on the gray rocks. In another instance, Agnes, recounting what life was like at Natan’s farm, describes the driftwood appearing on the shore like “magic.” She talks about how, although miserable when the weather is bad, the ocean is “beautiful” on a clear day. These descriptions highlight how the power and splendor of nature in Iceland inspires both wonder and terror—essentially, the sense of the sublime often associated with poetry. Effectively, Kent shows how Icelandic nature inspires its rich tradition of writing, evoking strong emotions that poets translate into verse.
Literacy, Language, and the Icelandic Landscape ThemeTracker
Literacy, Language, and the Icelandic Landscape Quotes in Burial Rites
As he traveled over the north peninsula with its thin lip of ocean on the horizon, the clouds began to clear and the soft red light of the late June sun flooded the pass…The dread that Tóti had felt so firmly lining his stomach dissipated as he fell into a quiet appreciation of the countryside before him.
We are all God’s children, he thought to himself. This woman is my sister in Jesus, and I, as her spiritual brother, must guide her home… “I will save her,” he whispered.
How can I say what it was like to breathe again? I felt newborn. I staggered in the light of the world and took deep gulps of fresh sea air. It was late in the day: the wet mouth of the afternoon was full on my face. My soul blossomed in that brief moment as they led me out-of-doors. I fell, my skirts in the mud, and I turned my face upwards as if in prayer. I could have wept from the relief of light.
What sort of woman kills men?
The only murderesses Margrét had known were the women in the sagas, and even then, it was with words that they had killed men; orders given to servants to slay lovers or avenge the death of kin. Those women murdered from a distance and kept their fingers clean. But these times are not saga times…This woman is not a saga woman.
I prefer a story to a prayer. They whipped me for that at this farm, Kornsá, once, when I was young and fostered out to watch over the home field. The farmer Björn did not like that I knew the sagas better than him. You’re better off keeping company with the sheep, Agnes. Books written by man, not God, are faithless friends and not for your kind.
He built his church from wives’ tales and the secret language of weather; saw the blinking eye of God in the habits of the sea, the swooping merlin, the gnashing teeth of his ewes. When he caught me knitting on the doorstep he accused me of lengthening the winter. “Do not think nature is not watchful of us,” he warned me. “She is as awake as you and I.” He smiled at me. Passed the smooth breadth of his palm over my forehead. “And as secretive.”
When I was sixteen years old I dreamt that I was walking barefoot in a lava field…In every direction there was nothing but rock and snow, and great chasms and crack in the ground…Just when I thought I would die from fear, a young man appeared …and even though I was still terrified, I had his hand in mine, and it was a comfort. Then suddenly, in my dream, I felt the ground give way beneath my feet…and I fell into a chasm…I was dropped into the earth, buried in silence, and it was unbearable, and then I woke.
Agnes Jónsdóttir. I never thought it could be that easy to name yourself…Let everyone know whose bastard I truly am. Agnes Jónsdóttir. She sounds like the woman I should have been…She could even be the sister of Sigurlaug and Steinvör Jónsdóttir. Margrét’s daughter. Born blessed under a marriage. Born into a family that would not be ripped apart by poverty. Agnes Jónsdóttir would not have been so foolish as to love a man who spent his life opening veins, mouths, legs…She would have been assured of a place in heaven. She would have believed in heaven.
What else is God good for other than a distraction from the mire we’re all stranded in? We’re all shipwrecked. All beached in a peat bog of poverty. When was the last time I even attended church? Not while I was at Illugastadir…Perhaps things would have been different if Natan had let me go to church at Tjörn. I might have made friends there. I might have met a family to turn to when it all became twisted…But he didn’t let me go, and there was no other friend, no light to head towards in that wintered landscape.
Where would I have gone? I knew only the valley of Vatnsdalur; knew where it was scabbed with rock, knew the white-headed mountains and the lake alive with swans, and the wrinkled skins of turf by the river. And the ravens, the constant, circling ravens. But Illugastadir was different. I had no friends. I didn’t understand the landscape. Only the outlying tongues of rock scarred the perfect kiss of sea and sky— there was no one and nothing else. There was nowhere else to go.
I am crying and my mouth is open and filled with something, it is choking me and I spit it out. On the ground is a stone, and I look back at Margrét, and see that she did not notice. “The stone was in my mouth,” I say.