Independent People

book cover

I just finished reading Independent People by Halldór Laxness. This was originally published in two volumes in 1934 and 1935 in Icelandic (Sjálfstætt fólk). It was translated into English by J. A. Thompson in 1946.

Icelandic sheep


Here are some words I looked up while reading. Some of them I think I already knew, but I didn't realize it until after I had looked them up, so I guess I didn't really know them.

apothegm (also apophthegm): An apothegm is a short, pithy, instructive saying (e.g., "haste makes waste"); a terse remark, conveying some important truth; a sententious precept or maxim.

bier: A bier is a handbarrow or portable frame on which a corpse is placed or borne to the grave.

a bier

bigging: To big is to build. A bigging is a building, especially an outbuilding. An older meaning is a home.

bilberry: Bilberries, or occasionally European blueberries, are a primarily Eurasian species of low-growing shrubs in the genus Vaccinium (family Ericaceae), bearing edible, dark blue berries. Iceland has the main bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) and the bog bilberry (Vaccinium ulignosum).


bogle (also boggle): A bogle is a goblin; a specter; a frightful phantom; a bogy; a bugbear.

cairn: A cairn is a man-made pile or stack of stones.

a cairn

chancel: The chancel is the area around the altar of a church for the clergy and choir. It is often enclosed by a lattice or railing.

chilblain: Chilblain is inflammation of the hands and feet caused by exposure to cold and moisture.

crag: A crag is a steep rugged rock or cliff.

croft, crofter: A croft is a fenced or enclosed area of land, usually small and arable, and usually, but not always, with a crofter's dwelling thereon. A crofter is one who has tenure and use of the land, typically as a tenant farmer, especially in rural areas. The protagonist in Independent People is a crofter, but he owns his land. Some of the other crofters also buy their crofts during the book, so they are no longer tenants.

a croft

descry: To descry is to catch sight of; to spy out or discover by the eye, as objects distant or obscure; to espy; to recognize; to discern; to discover.

dewlap: Dewlap is the pendulous skin under the neck of an ox, which laps or licks the dew in grazing. Or the flesh upon the human throat, especially when with age. In the book, she's touching the dewlap of their cow.

cows with dewlaps

dingle: A dingle is a small wooded hollow. A narrow dale; a small dell; a small, secluded, and embowered valley.

dip: A dip is a candle that is made by repeated dipping in a pool of wax or tallow.

eiderdown: An eiderdown is a soft quilt usually filled with the down of the eider. An eider is one of several species of large seaduck. Iceland has the common eider (Somateria mollissima), the largest duck in the Northern Hemisphere. An eider uses its wings to swim below the surface, just like guillemots and penguins. Most other diving ducks use only their legs.

eider ducks (male and female)

flit: To flit can mean to remove from one place of habitation to another.

fodder: Fodder is feed for livestock, especially coarsely chopped hay or straw. "…chaw is chaw and fodder is fodder."

fulling: Fulling is the process of cleansing, shrinking, and thickening cloth by moisture, heat, and pressure. This sounds like what we now call felting, but that's only part of it. The surname Fuller comes from this process (also, Tucker and Walker).

harmonium: A harmonium is a musical instrument, resembling a small organ and especially designed for church music, in which the tones are produced by forcing air by means of a bellows so as to cause the vibration of free metallic reeds. It is now made with one or two keyboards, and has pedals and stops.


heath: A heath is a shrub (Erica or Calluna), but can also mean a place overgrown with heath; any cheerless tract of country overgrown with shrubs or coarse herbage.

hoyden: A hoyden is a girl who behaves in a boyish manner; a rude, bold girl; a romp.

hummock: A hummock is a small, natural hill. a rounded knoll or hillock; a rise of ground of no great extent, above a level surface.

idyll (American idyl): An idyll is a short poem, descriptive of rustic life. More generally, it is a very happy, peaceful, and simple situation or period of time, especially in the countryside. It can also be prose, a musical composition, or a painting that evokes rural or pastoral life. Oh– of course– idyllic is very common!

inimical: Inimical is having the disposition or temper of an enemy; unfriendly; – chiefly applied to private, as hostile is to public, enmity. Opposed in tendency, influence, or effects; antagonistic; unfavorable; inconsistent; incompatible; adverse; repugnant.

jerkin: A jerkin is a jacket or short coat; a close waistcoat; a tight sleeveless and collarless jacket (often made of leather).

kelpie: A kelpie is an imaginary spirit of the waters, horselike in form, vulgarly believed to warn, by preternatural noises and lights, those who are to be drowned.

nankeen: Nankeen is a durable fabric formerly loomed by hand in China from natural cotton having a yellowish color.

phalarope: A phalarope is any of three living species of slender-necked shorebirds in the genus Phalaropus of the bird family Scolopacidae. Red-necked Phalaropes have lobed toes and are therefore good swimmers. They nest in fertile wetlands all around Iceland.

Red-necked Phalarope

popery: Popery means the religion of the Roman Catholic Church, comprehending doctrines and practices; – generally used in an opprobrious sense.

redshank: A redshank (Tringa totanus) is a common Old World wading bird with long red legs.

Common Redshank

refractory: Refractory is not responding to treatment; temporarily unresponsive or not fully responsive to nervous or sexual stimuli; stubbornly resistant to authority or control.

rick, ricking, ricker: A rick is a stack of hay, so ricking is making such a pile. And a ricker is a machine to help such a task.

rill: A rill is a small stream; a small channel (as one formed by soil erosion).

rime: Rime is white frost; hoarfrost; congealed dew or vapor.

roan: A roan is a horse having a brownish coat thickly sprinkled with white or gray.


scrim: Scrim is a kind of light cotton or linen fabric, often woven in openwork patterns. It is used for curtains, etc.

sprinkle: To sprinkle can mean mean to baptize. "Oh, I expect you've sprinkled a few that died a stranger death than my Rosa."

staggers: The staggers is Coenurosis, a parasitic disease of the central nervous system. It is fairly uncommon, but seen in certain geographical areas. It is caused by a tapeworm (cestode) called Taenia multiceps, which lives relatively benignly in the definitive canine host (including dogs, foxes, jackals and coyote) but causes significant disease in the intermediate host, where the larval stage of the tapeworm migrates to the brain and spinal cord and matures into a fluid-filled cyst. Sheep are the main intermediate host but there have been rare cases reported in cattle, pigs, deer, horses and humans.

sward: Sward is the surface layer of ground containing a mat of grass and grass roots.

termagant: A termagant is a scolding, nagging, bad-tempered woman.

thane: A thane is a feudal lord or baron; a man ranking above an ordinary freeman and below a noble in Anglo-Saxon England (especially one who gave military service in exchange for land).

tripe: Tripe is the lining of the stomach of a ruminant (especially a bovine) used as food.

tussock: A tussock is a bunch of hair or feathers or growing grass.

verdure: Verdure is green foliage; the lush appearance of flourishing vegetation.

Whit Sunday: Whit Sunday is Pentecost (seven weeks after Easter).


In the book, they refer to their cow as a sea-cow, but I don't know why. Most of us have heard of Icelandic sheep and Icelandic horses. Apparently, there are also Icelandic cows. Icelandic cattle were brought over with Norway’s earliest settlers and have since developed unique traits. They are, for example, smaller than their European counterparts and very susceptible to foreign diseases. So their cow may have been a particular kind of cow, but why sea-cow?

They don't say what kind of dog their sheepdog is, but there are also Icelandic sheepdogs. I think our dog Kasey was an "icey," though I didn't know it at the time. So that's what I pictured while I was reading.

Icelandic sheepdog