Nov 16, 2008

The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd, by Gunnar Gunnarsson. Translated by Kenneth C. Kaufman. Illustrated by Masha Simkovitch. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1940. 84 pgs.

Gunnar Gunnarsson (1889-1975) was born and raised in poverty, on a farm in northeastern Iceland. (Interestingly, he was born the same year as Þórbergur Þórðarson.)He went to school and achieved fame as a writer in Denmark. He returned to Iceland with his wife and family in the 1930's, and lived there the remainder of his life.
Gunnarsson is buried on the island of Videy, so that he (a Lutheran) and his wife Franzisca (a Catholic) could rest together in consecrated ground.

This lovely little book (which could be considered a novella or short story), is beguilingly simple. It tells the story of shepherd Benedikt who has found meaning in the Advent season, for some twenty-seven years, by hiking alone to the high mountains to retrieve sheep that had not been found at the autumn in-gathering. Not exactly alone, however, for each year he is accompanied by his faithful friends: his dog Leo ("Pope Leo"), and his bell wether sheep, Gnarly. (To my surprise I learned that the etymology of bell wether is a sheep with a bell around its neck and/or a castrated male sheep.) This year Benedikt's journey is not quite the solitary pilgrimage that he anticipated, for a rough, inconsiderate group of men from a nearby farm join him in order to take advantage of his skill and generosity. A series of raging snowstorms bring Benedikt, Leo and Gnarly to the point of frozen starvation, but throughout the journey Benedikt finds that kindness given returns to him. His musings are philosophical...

A journey like this is a sort of poem with rhymes and splendid words. In the blood it turned into a poem and, so to speak, you could learn it by heart like a poem. And besides some impulse drove a man back here again and again to see if everything remained unchanged. And it was unchanged--strange and unattainable and at the same time friendly and intimate and indispensable.

On his journey, much of it alone with Leo and Gnarly, Benedikt ponders the mysteries of life and death. He considers the responsibility of love: he must care for his animals not only in their lives, but also their deaths. When the time comes, and his animals are no longer able to function, he will have to end their lives.

After all, to a certain extent, all animals were sacrificial beasts--but was not all of life a sacrifice? When it was lived in the right manner? Was not this the key to the riddle, that the power of growth is a power within...
The appealing quality of Benedikt is that he sees beyond himself and understands his connection to simple animals, to other people, to things he can't see or know:

...there was the prospect within the next few days of saving a few sheep from death by hunger, and so of being useful to his own parish and, as well, to all mankind and to all the universe.
This is a simple first I thought might be a children's story. But it speaks more to an older audience: people who have loved, have lost, have hoped, have learned to see beyond themselves. Written at a time when it seemed that the whole world was in danger of holocaust, this short book offered then, and offers now a touching dose of hope.


Professor Batty said...

My! How esoteric! I like Benedikt's approach to the great mysteries better than I do Steinn Elliði's. Where on earth did you unearth a copy?

Rose said...

It was a first edition copy, sent to me from Indiana via...BookMooch! You know, the same place that I got Letters from High Latitudes? I'm hoping to get more of Gunnarsson's books some day. Actually, I see via WorldCat that VCU has The Black reading list gets longer.

Professor Batty said...

Are you really currently reading FIVE full-length novels at once? My brain wirls at the thought of it.

Rose said...

Different moods, different books!