His works

Gunnar Gunnarsson's reputation and talent are immortalised, however, as his books include true and lasting classics of world literature. He authored some 20 novels, a myriad of short stories, several plays and considerable poetry, in addition to newspaper articles on various issues. Works by him have been published in around 20 languages, with Advent appearing in the greatest number of translations and copies.

Mig dreymdi draum, þegar ég var ungur. Ég gekk eftir götu og í hallinu 
hinum megin við götuna lágu bók við bók og ég vissi að þessar bækur 
voru mitt verk. Ég reyndi að lesa í þeim, ætlaði að læra þær í snatri, 
en vaknaði af ákafanum og mundi ekki orð af því sem í þeim stóð.

First books

Gunnar Gunnarsson issued his first books of poetry at the age of only 17: Vorljóð (Poems of Spring) and Móðurminning (In Memory of Mother), published by Oddur Björnsson in Akureyri in 1906. The verses, in the neo-romantic style, are clearly the work of a novice poet, although some display features that foreshadow the author’s later great literary achievements. The young poet has a strong perception of nature, and depicts the environment with clarity.


Gunnar laid the foundation for his most popular story, Aðventa (The Good Shepherd) with a short story, Den gode Hyrde, published in 1931 in the periodical Julesne. The story was based on an account by Benedikt Sigurjónsson, known as Fjalla-Bensi (Mountain Bensi), of his adventures rounding up sheep from the uninhabited upland grazing areas east of Lake Mývatn in north Iceland.

The full story of The Good Shepherd was first published in Leipzig in 1936, in the Reclam Universal-Bibliothek series, entitled Advent im Hochgebirge, in the category Meisternovellen. The story was published in Danish in the autumn of 1937, and has now been published in at least 12 languages around the world, and invariably sold well. The largest print-run was in the USA, where it was a Book of the Month Club gift book in 1941, and sold in several hundred thousand copies.

It has continued to be reissued every few years by Reclam in Germany; since the end of World War II, over 400,000 copies have sold there. Thus it is probable that over a million copies of the book have been sold since it was originally published nearly 70 years ago.

Walt Disney is said to have shown an interest in making a cartoon production of The Good Shepherd, and spoke to the author on the telephone. When Gunnar asked what he would be paid, Disney is supposed to have remarked that he was more accustomed to himself being paid for his services. At this Gunnar hung up. His experience of the film industry had soured him previously, after seeing the free adaptation of his Guest the One-Eyed as produced by Nordisk Film Kompani in 1919.


Gunnar's story of Chaplain Eyjólfur and of the crimes of passion committed by Bjarni and Steinunn, based on true events, was first published in Denmark in 1929. The following year it was published in Dutch, German and Swedish, and other languages followed, although the book did not appear in Icelandic until 1938, translated by Magnús Ásgeirsson.

Svartfugl (The Black Cliffs) was universally praised by both critics and the reading public. In a survey of Denmark’s leading authors, who were asked what novel of 1929 had affected them most, The Black Cliffs topped the list. The book was also at the top of the Danish bestseller list prior to Christmas 1929, outselling books by Karin Michaelis and Sigrid Unset, as well as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

The first criminal novel

The Black Cliffs is sometimes called the first genuine Icelandic crime novel, with the investigation of a crime comprising the storyline. The book works, however, on many other levels, giving insight into the time when it was written as well as the period in which it is set. The story poses questions on the nature of power, religious belief and various other timeless issues: issues which are as relevant today in an age of terrorism as during the inter-war years of the early twentieth century.


The story of Uggi Greipsson is based upon Gunnar’s own life, but according to the author the laws of fiction played a larger part than reality. The account of Uggi’s childhood is unique in Icelandic literature, and it is often suggested that the work should be placed on a par with the childhood memoirs of Gorky and other literary giants.

Kirken på bjerget (The Church on the Mountain) was in fact not only popular in Scandinavia and Germany. When it was published in the USA in 1938, the first volume, Ships in the Sky, moved straight into sixth place on the New York bookstores’ bestseller list. It was also universally praised by critics.
Translated by Halldór Laxness, The Church on the Mountain was first published in Icelandic from 1941 to 1943. This translation was republished in 1951 in one volume, illustrated by the author’s son Gunnar.


The novel which brought Gunnar Gunnarsson fame and fortune in Denmark was Borgslægtens historie (Guest the One-Eyed), the story of Ormarr Örlygsson and his family. It was published in five volumes by Gyldendal between 1912 and 1914. By the time the third volume was published, it had achieved great popularity. While Gunnar later regarded the novel as the imperfect work of a beginner, it was thanks to Guest the One-Eyed that he was able to devote his energies to writing, fulfilling his dream of a literary career.

Guest the One-Eyed was filmed in 1919, the first Icelandic novel to be converted into a film. The idea for the film came from Gunnar Sommerfeldt, a well-known Danish actor and director, who travelled to Iceland with a film crew for Nordisk Film Kompani in early August 1919. The author travelled widely in south and west Island with the film crew, which required 40 horses and a lorry for transport and thus attracted considerable attention. They filmed at the historic site of Reykholt in Borgarfjörður, at the Gullfoss waterfall and the Geysir hot springs, at Keldur in Rangárvellir, where an ancient farmhouse was still standing, in the upland pass of Kaldidalur, at Hvítársíða and elsewhere. In mid-September they returned to Reykjavík, where they erected a film set on Amtmannstún. Filming was completed in mid-October. Premiered at Christmas 1920, the film was a big hit, and had been the most expensive production that Nordisk Film had ever made.

Guest the One-Eyed has been translated into many languages, and was reissued many times in Denmark during most of the twentieth century. For many years, it was a popular confirmation gift to youngsters.

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