This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Halldór Laxness’s well-known novel Paradísarheimt (Paradise Reclaimed).On the occasion of this anniversary, I wish to revisit this fine work and address some of the salient facts behind the fiction of Laxness’s novel as well as his relationship with the Latter-day Saints. I approach this subject not as a literary scholar but as a historian of religion and immigration. I will briefly sketch the Icelandic Latter-day Saint experience and share biographical information on a few key figures as well as the historical background from which the book was framed. In addition, I will demonstrate that Laxness enjoyed a pleasant association with the Latter-day Saints and respected their lifestyle, though he approached the topic with a bit of irony and satire and took poetic license in his writing of this work.
LDS missionary work in Iceland commenced in 1851 but came to an abrupt halt on the eve of World War I, when Laxness was about twelve years old.For the next six decades (1914–1974), there was no official, organized ecclesiastical unit in Iceland for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the same year that Laxness won the Nobel Prize for literature (1955), Elder Spencer W. Kimball, a member of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, visited the Danish Mission and wrote a letter to Church President David O. McKay and his counselors, stating, “I wonder if further consideration should be given to the inclusion of this area [Iceland] in the Danish Mission because of the language, to be made an independent mission later if and when it is secure enough.”
Two years later, in mid-September 1957, Laxness came to the United States at the invitation of the American-Scandinavian Foundation. Though he was branded by some as a “notorious Communist” and people knew he did not want an American base in Iceland, he still managed to say a few good things about America, even if they were only diplomatic expressions. Laxness and his wife, Auður, visited several American cities, including Salt Lake City, where they met a Mormon bishop named John Bearnson.Bearnson, who was associated with the American-Scandinavian Foundation, had contacted Laxness via telegram to make arrangements for their initial meeting.
Less than two months later, Laxness sent a letter to the Bearnsons thanking both John and his wife, Birdella, for their “generous hospitality,” noting that he was pleased to have met a Latter-day Saint who had the high standards that Bishop Bearnson possessed. Laxness warned that Bearnson “must be prepared to receive letters from me bye and bye, in which I shall be asking of you small services.” Laxness also noted, “As I told you, the struggle of the early Mormons has been intriguing me for a long time and if I ever should get down to writing a little novel about the Icelandic Mormons, some chapters must be placed in the Mormon state itself.”
Not everything in the Mormon state pleased Laxness. In describing this Utah visit, Halldór Guðmundsson notes that though “the Mormons were very helpful,” Laxness “was not exactly enthusiastic in Utah: it did not sit well with him to spend a lot of time with people who offered neither coffee nor alcohol. Halldór always thought water an unofferable drink when people gathered.”
Ambassador David B. Timmins Meets Laxness
The following year, Laxness would again come into contact with the Mormons, but this time it would be on his native soil. A twenty-eight-year-old Latter-day Saint named David B. Timmins arrived with his young family to work as the American consul at the U.S. embassy in Iceland. Consul Timmins later wrote, “When my wife and I arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland, with our two small sons in early 1958 for my posting to the U.S. Embassy there we immediately found ourselves to be objects of great interest because of the fact that we were Utahns and Mormons. We quickly learned that virtually everyone in Iceland has relatives in Utah—most in the Spanish Fork area.”Timmins further related, “We soon found ourselves invited to any number of receptions, where we were besieged with questions about Utah and the Church. And the local newspaper soon arrived to interview and photograph us and our three children [their third child was born after their arrival] for a front page article.” Soon thereafter, Timmins was told that the Lutheran bishop of Iceland, Ásmundur Guðmundsson, was teaching a comparative religion course at the University of Iceland and wanted him to discuss Mormon doctrine with his students. Timmins reported:
The Bishop, who proved to be a most distinguished and courteous gentleman, came to our home for a period of one night a week for six or eight weeks while we explored Mormon doctrine in detail, and in the process we became good friends. At the end of our relationship two years later when we were about to depart Iceland, he told me that he would be pleased to welcome Mormon missionaries back to Iceland (where they had not been for over a hundred years) because he felt we had a message which would improve the moral climate of his countrymen which he considered to be deteriorating.
Timmins was welcomed not only by this kindly bishop, but he and his wife were also invited to spend an evening in the country home of Halldór Laxness. Here in the Laxness home, the Timminses had the opportunity to mingle with other guests who were numbered among Iceland’s aristocracy. During the course of the evening, Laxness invited Timmins privately into his library and related to him that Iceland’s bishop had told Laxness about the Mormon from the embassy.Timmins explains what followed:
It turned out that he was considering a Mormon theme for his next novel and had been put on to me by our mutual acquaintance the Bishop. We talked history and doctrine for about three hours, and at the end of the evening he asked my assistance in arranging contacts and interviews for his intended visit to Utah to gather background for his novel.
I thereupon wrote my father, W. Mont Timmins, a bishop, patriarch, and historian, who agreed to make further appointments and escort Mr. Laxness during his visit to Utah. I also wrote a couple of General Authority acquaintances. . . . Mr. Laxness made his trip, later informing me how courteously he’d been received and how delighted he was with his trip. While I’d by that time left Iceland for Harvard University, Mr. Laxness sent me an English language copy of his new book which he called Paradise Regained [sic].
In an interview in spring 2008, Timmins noted additional things related to his visit to the Laxness home:
He had a nice two-story country estate. . . . Laxness invited us to the dinner party at his house. I had no idea why. . . . We got to Laxness’s house and were welcomed, and it was an English-speaking evening, I think in honor of us. . . . We had dinner, and we started visiting after dinner, and Laxness took me by the elbow and led me upstairs to his very lovely study and left my wife and the others downstairs to entertain themselves, which they did very well. He told me he wanted to learn more about Mormonism, that he was thinking about writing a novel about the Mormon experience in Iceland. I didn’t tell him, but this was going to present some problems because this was the height of the Cold War, as I repeat again, it was after the McCarthy era, but just barely, and Washington took very seriously the provisions of the Immigration Act, which banned entry to the United States of Communists or Communist sympathizers, and we had a very deep, far-reaching, inquisitive, extensive Intelligence Program in Iceland because Iceland had been on the verge of turning Communist at an early stage of the Cold War. . . . At one point, Laxness, being the author of An Independent People, had demonstrated considerable sympathy with the Communist movement, which never emphasized the world Communist movement, but rather the independent Communist structure. I didn’t know how we were going to get Laxness a visa and . . . we constantly had problems with visas. [Yet] there was a provision in the Immigration Law which said that “the Attorney General of the United States could for good and sufficient reasons, grant a waiver of this ban.” I did . . . talk to Ambassador Muchio and we felt that this was a significant case and a worthy case to ask for a visa waiver for a petition to be approved, and so I wrote a telegram, and we sent it off to the state department for translation to the Attorney General, and in ten days or two weeks we got an approval.
Timmins’s assignment as a U.S. diplomat in Iceland ended in 1960. Still, the catalytic events he experienced over a period of two brief years proved consequential to the reemergence of the LDS Church in Iceland, and he paved the way for Laxness not only to get his visa but also to launch his research in Utah. Timmins recalled that he told Halldór on the evening of the party, “I was sure my father [W. Mont Timmins], who was a bishop, and fairly well connected, could make appointments with leaders and the arrangements and what not.” Timmins further noted: “And he did; he did. And Laxness was delighted with his [Utah] visit; he thought he’d been given red carpet treatment everywhere he went. . . . He was a good guy, and he was a seeker; he was looking for truth and he wasn’t afraid to look into things.”
Laxness Visits Utah
Halldór was a truth seeker from the beginning. His own sacred and secular search had carried him “from country to country, from Catholicism to socialism and finally to renunciation. As a young convert to Catholicism, he had entered a Benedictine monastery in Luxembourg where for five years he wrestled to reconcile enormous spiritual and intellectual tensions.”It appears that this inner quest led him to explore Utah in 1957 and 1959, though he had first entered the Latter-day Saints’ “promised land” in the fall of 1927.
On his first visit to the Mormon mecca, Halldór explained what appeared to be an amusing experience when he passed through U.S. Customs and was presented with a series of questions. One of these questions was “‘Are you a polygamist?’ I, of course answered this ‘No. . . .’ Then I read the next question, which presented me for the first time with great difficulty: ‘Are you in sympathy with polygamists?’ To this day I haven’t been able to solve this difficulty.”
Halldór also recounted how he was “confronted with the straight up-and-down, stern, and simple forms of the Mormon Temple of Salt Lake City, and the flat Tabernacle opposite made to look like the mouth of God.”In addition, Laxness said that as he looked at the temple it brought back memories of his boyhood reading of the extended travels of “the little man [Eiríkur Ólafsson á Brúnum] through the kingdoms of the world in search of the Promised Land, and the still more hazardous adventures of his poor family who set off to join him later, all this was brought to my mind again, this time with a force of reality that did not leave me in peace for over thirty years.”
Three decades after his initial visit, Laxness returned to Utah. Then two years later, following the additional groundwork that Timmins had laid, he returned to Utah for a third time.On this trip he was hosted by several Latter-day Saint families, including John Bearnson. Writing from Utah to Auður in a letter dated October 4, 1959, Halldór related, “Recently, I spent four days visiting Bearnson and spoke with the people in Spanish Fork, Provo and Springville, mostly of Icelandic origin, dozens of them, some of them I visited from morning to evening, each after another. I learned incredibly much and gained a tremendous amount of solid knowledge about Icelandic pioneering from first hand.”
Shortly after his 1959 visit to Utah, Laxness wrote, “Bishop Jon [sic] Bearnson of Springville [was] my host there in the state.” He further noted, “This kind-hearted man spared no pains to see that I was invited to stay in the Salt Lake Valley and even offered us wayfarers full disposal of his house for the duration of our stay.”Judge A. Sherman Christensen and his wife, Lois Bowen Christensen, a descendant of Icelandic immigrants, were also involved with hosting Laxness. In another letter written to Auður, Laxness noted that he had visited a federal judge whose wife was of Icelandic ancestry. Speaking of Judge Christensen and his wife, Laxness said, “They were extremely friendly and nice people, the wife was particularly attractive, like Icelandic people can be at their best. She is the third generation here. . . . It is unbelievable how Icelanders keep up their national roots even without knowing it. They stick together as Icelanders for many generations even though they have no Icelandic traditions to keep it up.”
Laxness wrote to Judge Christensen several years later, telling him that he was mailing an English copy of Paradise Reclaimed and noted that he was “writing into it a few personal words for your wife.” In addition, Laxness wrote, “I am keeping in thankful memory the visit at your home in 1959 and the long talk I had with you and your wife about Mormon personal history and related subjects. Your wife gave me some remarkable points about this, thus enriching my material for Paradise Reclaimed with substantial facts.” Halldór further noted, “The picture she gave me of some old Utah settlers of her family I pinned up over my desk while doing the final work on the book in Switzerland, and I think the Mormon house in my book has something to do with that wonderful picture; and very decidedly the pram in the picture is the one described in Paradise.”
Two and a half years later, the Christensens visited Laxness in his homeland, where their generosity was reciprocated.Laxness publicly noted on another occasion that during his fall 1959 trip to Utah, “I was helped along with my research work by genial Mormons of all ranks, in Salt Lake City and Provo, in Springville and Spanish Fork.” However, when he went to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform in Salt Lake City at the Tabernacle, he did not care for the selection of music, saying, “The program was rather poor, and I do not understand why so many tremendously good singers are being woken up at eight o’clock in the morning to weep ‘Londonderry Air’ and songs like that.”
In order to retain the memories of this trip and especially to collect information for his novel, Halldór kept a minnisbók (daily planner). Among other things, he had several pages containing what he called “Questions in Utah.”
1. On what points do Mormons consider the Mormon doctrine right where other religious doctrines are wrong? For instance baptism. In what way is baptism by immersion better than baptism by other methods? (Probably because practiced in the case of Christ?).
2. Is Mormonism the true Christian religion? Or is it nearer to the true Christian religion than other Christian beliefs. Or does not the Mormon religion claim to be Christian at all?
3. Which are the religious practices in Mormonism that are different from other general Christian practices? Articles of Faith by Talmage.
4. Which are the special Mormon terms for religious practices as f. inst. baptism, marriage, burial rites. The term ‘to seal’ used for marrying people. What is the special Mormon term for baptizing people who are dead? Called baptism for the dead.
5. Only 2% were allowed to practice it [polygamy]. What were the special reasons for polygamy? Are those arguments, now that polygamy has been given up, considered to be invalid? Or do they still hold true, although they are no longer the base of a practice? Or are they held in suspense? 1894 abolished.
6. How was jealousy kept away in the households where there were many wives?
7. Who is nearer to the heart of the Mormons, Joseph Smith or Jesus Christ?
8. What is the reason for Mormons being tea-totallers as far as coffee, tea or liquors go?
9. Organization of education within the Church.
10. Is it the true gospel?
In addition, Laxness made notations on a number of doctrinal issues, including the following:
1. Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost: healing of
2. Every male member leading a good life may have the priesthood. Holds such so long as he remains righteous.
3. Communion: called Sacrament. The broken Bread. Use water instead of wine.
4. Ordinances—compare to ordination, blessing, healing of the sick.
5. Believed there was an apostasy in Christianity from ca. 3rd century to the appearance of Joseph Smith. Therefore no prophet in this period. Whom do you consider the last Christian prophet before Joseph Smith entered the scene?
Furthermore, Laxness had information on the history of early Icelandic Mormons who settled in Spanish Fork, Utah, including the 1938 erection of the monument dedicated to the town’s early Icelandic settlers. In addition, he made mention of “Vigdís Bjarnadóttir [sic] Holt doctor, nurse, mid-wife, jack of all trades . . . of the Bearnson brothers.” Halldór also included notes to remind him of what to gather from the Utah Genealogical Society:
Get from the Geneological Society’s files . . .
1. Loftur Jónsson (Halldóra Arnason, wife)
2. Gísli Bjarnason—Halldóra Árnadóttir 1st wife, Mara (?)(2nd wife) all children & progeny
3. Samuel Bjarnason family
4. Magnus Bjarnason—? (1st wife) ? (2nd wife) Guðný Erasmusdóttir (3rd wife?)
5. Vigdís Björnsdóttir Holt
Laxness also mentioned LDS Church organizations such as the Sunday School and the Mutual Improvement Association established for the Mormon youth. In addition, he made this general assessment concerning the intellectual nature of the Saints: “I am not impressed with how the intelligence of the Mormons could have ended up being so little, for it is not very great. I do admire, on the other hand, their ignorance. However mistaken, their ignorance has caused to lift them. I consider their ignorance to be greater, for it has taken them farther than their wisdom.”
This evaluation is followed by a brief comment that later would become a part of the story of Paradísarheimt: “Þjóðrekur gives Steinar money . . . to go west [to] Utah.” And Laxness further makes the notation “brick layer Mormon in Spanish Fork in Utah.”
Plot Elements of Paradísarheimt
After several months of gathering information in Utah, Laxness returned to Iceland and developed the plot of his Mormon-based novel: An Icelandic farmer named Steinar has desires of having his family obtain a promised land. Steinar initially thinks to obtain such a land by giving a special pony to a Danish king who visits Iceland in 1874. Instead of the anticipated land, Steinar receives only autographed photographs that he decides to trade for four needles.
Steinar is later assured by a Latter-day Saint missionary, Bishop Þjóðrekur, that the promised land he seeks is in Utah. Thus, Steinar sets out for the Mormon mecca in the western United States. After arriving in Utah, he does not fully assimilate, and during his absence from his Icelandic homeland, his family suffers physically and economically. Later his wife dies traveling to Utah, but his children finally arrive in the promised land, assuming that by this time their father has passed away. Steinar returns to Iceland as a missionary and in due course ends up back at his humble farm. The book concludes with Steinar laying stones to repair the wall surrounding his old farm. As he is doing so, a stranger passes by.
“Who are you?” asked the traveller. The other replied, “I am the man who reclaimed Paradise after it had been lost, and gave it to his children.” “What is such a man doing here?” asked the passer-by. “I have found the truth, and the land in which it lives. . . . But now the most important thing is to build up this wall again.”
Biographical and Historical Facts behind the Fiction
As noted, the plot of the novel is based considerably on the life and writings of Eiríkur Ólafsson á Brúnum (1823–1900), who is depicted as Steinar in the text. Eiríkur Ólafsson was born in 1823 in Steinar, Rangarvalla County. He married Runhildur Runólfsdóttir, and they joined the LDS Church in 1881. A few months later, they left Iceland with their daughter Ingeveldur and grandson Þorbjörn as part of a group of twenty-two converts.
From Eiríkur’s own account, we know the following about his departure from Iceland:
On the evening of the 8th of July, 1881, I went on board the ship Camoens, a horse transport ship of Kökkels, after I, with some effort, a scuffle, and some tribulation of soul and body, was made to protect my grandson, of 14 months old, before 10 sturdy men of Reykjavík, who intended to attack my daughter and tear the child from her bosom at the command of the child’s father, who then wished to be such, but would not acknowledge the boy when newborn. I saw then no way to protect the child from this mob, except I prayed God, as I had the sense to do, to make it so, that they did not obtain the child, and he heard my prayer concerning this, so that she came on board with the child and to this place, who is now very hopeful.
The Utah-bound Icelanders steamed their way to Granton, Scotland, and then to Liverpool before embarking on July 16 on a Guion Line steam vessel known as the Nevada. They reached New York on July 28 and Salt Lake City on August 8.On the day of their arrival, the Salt Lake City Latter-day Saint Deseret Evening News reported the following:
From Iceland. A company of Saints numbering 21, all told, arrived in this city last evening from Iceland. The company left Iceland on the 8th of July and came by way of Granton, (Scotland), Liverpool and New York, crossing the ocean in the steamship “Nevada”. Twins were born July 20, 1881 two days before arriving in New York, to the wife of Halldur B. Jonsson, namely Halldur Atlantic and Victoria Nevada. One sister died on the overland route and was buried at North Platte. Brother John Eyvindson, President of the company, remained behind to attend to the funeral. Brother Jacob B. Johnson, returning missionary, brought the company on to this city, and they proceeded to Spanish Fork to-day.
The one sister who died along the way was Eiríkur’s wife, Runhildur, who was buried in North Platte, Nebraska.The following year Eiríkur left Utah on a self-appointed mission to Iceland. He returned to Utah in 1883 and remained in Spanish Fork for a decade. However, he returned to Iceland, remarried, and became disaffected from the LDS faith; he died in 1900.
Þórður Diðriksson, the Mormon Bishop
Following Runhildur’s death, Eiríkur’s daughter Ingeveldur and her infant son Thorbjorn (Þorbjörn Þorvaldsson) continued with the 1881 Mormon company to Utah, where they stayed with the Thordur Didriksson (Þórður Diðriksson) family in Spanish Fork. Eiríkur joined them three weeks later.Diðriksson is the Mormon bishop in Paradise Reclaimed, Bishop Þjóðrekur. Þórður, born in 1828, converted to Mormonism in Iceland in February 1855 and left Liverpool for Utah on December 12, 1855, on the ship John J. Boyd. Soon after arriving in Utah, Þórður’s family was very helpful to native Icelanders, who faced a sudden transition in assimilating into the American settlement of Spanish Fork in the mid-nineteenth century.
In 1875, Diðriksson and Samúel Bjarnason, who had previously immigrated to Utah, were called to proselyte in their Icelandic homeland for one year. Although they did not baptize anyone during this time, they established many friendships, and several Icelanders immigrated with them to Utah, where they arrived in the fall of 1876, having concluded their mission.Just three years later, Diðriksson wrote the first known missionary tract in Icelandic, a 186-page work titled Aðvörunar og sannleiksraust (A Voice of Warning and Truth), which proved to be a useful missionary tool in Iceland during the next century.
Byron Geslison’s Meeting with Halldór Laxness
A copy of this missionary tract would be given to Laxness as a gift when the Geslison family, a Mormon family of Icelandic descent from Spanish Fork, Utah, was sent to reopen missionary work in Iceland. Byron Geslison, his wife, Melva, and their twin sons, David and Daniel, arrived in Iceland in 1975 and later met Halldór at his country home in Iceland. In an interview I held with Byron Geslison and his son David in winter 2000, they reflected on this meeting a quarter of a century earlier. Byron recalled, “We drove out there, he had a summer home, . . . and we knocked on the door. He had been to Utah. And [when we] told him who it was and he invited me in, and I unveiled this book and took it out and handed it to him, he says, ‘Oh! I’ve been looking for 40 years for a copy of that book.’”
It pleased Byron that Laxness was so thrilled to get a copy of the tract. Laxness said, “How can I pay you?”
Geslison responded, “Well, I brought it for you and I don’t expect any pay. I am doing it out of good will and I’m glad to give it to you.”
Halldór replied, “Oh, well I’m so thrilled to get this. This is the most well written book that I have ever seen. This man is a great writer, and he gets it to your heart.”
Laxness then asked Byron, “Your people don’t like me very much, do they?”
Geslison replied, “Well, some of them do, and some of them maybe don’t, but we wondered about you because there are some critical things in there [Paradise Reclaimed] that are not true.”
Laxness said, “You know, we writers have a poetic license. You know that I didn’t mean all those things I said in there that weren’t complimentary to you.”
Byron said, “Well, I wondered about that. I’m glad to hear that from your lips.”
Laxness concluded, “Well, I know that it wasn’t all true, but I did it with my poetic, political license.”
Evidence reveals that for some time Laxness had been troubled by the reception of the book among the Utah Mormon community. For example, he wrote in a letter to his esteemed Latter-day Saint friend Judge A. Sherman Christensen, “I had the book sent in English to some of my distinguished Mormon friends and acquaintances in Utah, among whom John Bearnson in Springville and Mr. Christansen the Superintendent of the Genealogical Society, who both of them were very helpful to me in my research work.” Yet, Halldór noted, “To my great regret, I have not had a word from any of them, so I think they must be cross with me and this makes me sorry. I thought my book was completely free from malice towards Mormons. . . . Of course it is a book by a Gentile, but a friendly one, I hope.”
Why Laxness Wrote the Book and How He Defined a Promised Land
Shortly after Paradísarheimt was released in 1960, an interview with Halldór regarding the novel was published in the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið. When asked, “What was the impetus for writing about this subject?” Laxness answered,
Well, nothing else than that the motif has intrigued me since I visited Utah for the first time as a young man thirty years ago. I had read the account of Eiríkur á Brúnum, whose personal prophet was Thordur Didriksson. This is an alluding poetic subject about paradise and the millennial kingdom: it invites one’s thoughts to it. Yes, I have actually always found it intriguing since I first learned about it, and I’ve often pondered it without doing anything further. Some subjects follow one about for a long time yet are never written, others one completes at once.
Two years later, in 1962, in conjunction with the publication of the English version Paradise Reclaimed, Halldór wrote an eight-page pamphlet called The Origins of “Paradise Reclaimed,” in which he explained the book’s genesis and underlying idea. Here he again addressed the question of why he wrote the book: “Many readers have asked what could have moved me, a man from faraway parts, born and bred in Iceland, to write a novel with the center of its plot laid in Utah.” He answered, “It is all very simple. Many of us are to some extent believers in a Promised Land where truth and happiness shall prevail forever; and even if we do not believe it ourselves, we think it is wonderful when other people do so.”
Concerning the concept of a promised land, Laxness continued: “This wonderland is not primarily of a geographical nature, although it might coincide with a geographical location.”Commenting on this statement, Professor Steven Sondrup of BYU has written, “What must be particularly noted is Laxness’s explicit divorce of the Promised Land from geographical considerations. . . . Laxness rejected the concept of an ideal being linked too intimately to topology, geography. . . . Paradise is an ideal but not an ideal place.”
This statement is most interesting in light of the Mormon definition of Zion, in which Zion is understood to extend beyond the limits of a geographic location to include not only the state (or place) in which one lives but also the state (or inner life) of an individual. In Latter-day Saint scripture Zion is “the pure in heart.”It is defined as a people of “one heart and one mind . . . [who dwell] in righteousness; and . . . no poor among them.”
Several Laxness scholars, including Þórður Einarsson, have suggested that Laxness was portraying himself more than he was Eiríkur in his work. Einarsson felt that Halldór was saying in his own way that in whatever concerns the truth and a millennial kingdom, it is the person of man, his personality and what he does to others and his environment, which is of most worth. This has some similarity to the Mormon concept of Zion.As BYU Professor George S. Tate notes, “Laxness is not writing a biography of Eiríkur á Brúnum or a story specifically about the Mormons. Paradise Reclaimed is at once personal and universal. There is something of Laxness in Steinar, something of his own spiritual or ideological odyssey that has taken him from monasticism, to socialism, to his present renunciation and mistrust of ideologies and dogmas.”
Concerning the relationship of Zion to the paradise of the novel’s title, Sondrup explains, “Not too long after Steinar [Eiríkur á Brúnum] would have returned to Iceland , the Mormon concept of Zion began to evolve and become more comprehensive.” Further, “once the continued existence of the church was no longer seriously in question and a center was secure, the admonition to emigrate to Utah—to gather to Zion in a literal and geographical sense—was replaced with the [counsel] to stay at home and establish Zion throughout the world.”
Laxness Praises the Life of the Latter-day Saints in Several Interviews
Whether Halldór was observing the Mormons in Iceland or in Utah, several statements he made both before and after the publication of Paradísarheimt in 1960 and the English Paradise Reclaimed in 1962 seem to demonstrate that he was impressed with the model of Zion that Latter-day Saints were trying to create at home and abroad. Hints of his admiration are apparent as early as 1957 when his novel Brekkukotsannáll (The Fish Can Sing) was published. Laxness’s narrator describes a woman fleeing Iceland whose passage to the United States was paid by the Mormons: “And indeed I know for a fact that amongst them are to be found some of the finest people in America.”Before Paradísarheimt was published, Laxness wrote that the Utah Mormon “community life seems to be directed to an upbringing, culminating in a wholesome and pure life.” In another article, he noted that the “remarkable” Utah kingdom had “achieved a status that makes the Mormons one of the most sterling and exemplary of America’s many prominent ethnic groups.”
Soon after Paradísarheimt was released three years later, Halldór noted in an interview with Morgunblaðið, “I didn’t think I would write a novel about the Mormons, but their attractive life enchanted me so much, and out of some inner reason which I don’t understand, I began collecting materials and information for this book.”In this same discussion he was asked, “And what do you yourself think of the truth of the Mormons, Halldór?” He responded, “If it is true that the truth is concealed in living well, then the Mormons have come closer to the truth than most men. They lead exceptionally beautiful and healthy lives, not merely in a moral sense, but in general. They live in a very agreeable society.”
In a later interview, a decade after Paradísarheimt was released, Laxness told Randi Bratteli, journalist wife of the Norwegian prime minister, “I was once interested in the Mormons and traveled twice to Utah. I have also written a book about them called Paradise Reclaimed. . . . Unfortunately there are no Mormons in Iceland, I would gladly have supported them.”Finally, in the pamphlet The Origins of “Paradise Reclaimed,” Halldór wrote, “In case these lines should reach any of my Utah friends, I want to express my gratitude to them with my apologies for what to them must look like childish superficiality in recording things with which they are conversant.” He further noted, “All the same I hope that not only the Mormons, but also other readers who in their fashion believe in the Promised Land, and might even have found it, shall not be doubtful of my intentions.”
Laxness enjoyed a warm friendship with several Mormon families in Utah and ultimately respected their lifestyle. After decades of correspondence, the last letter in the Laxness file of incoming correspondence from his dear friend Bishop Bearnson represents the general feeling shared by a number of Latter-day Saints in the Icelandic Utah community. By way of invitation to return to Utah, Bearnson told Laxness, “The door is wide and always open.”Laxness’s daughter Guðný recalled the feelings Laxness had for the Latter-day Saints: “My father was always very positive towards the Mormons and Utah.”
Though he took poetic license with the setting and characterization of Paradísarheimt, Laxness admired the Mormon culture, especially the ideals of hard work and community building as the Saints sought to create a new Zion and a new paradise. Laxness, like his Latter-day Saint friends, celebrated these ideals of hard work and community as he made his own quest to reclaim paradise.