Thursday, 22 September 2016

Warnings and Spirits

The following text by Jonas Lie was published in his first volume of fairy tales, Trold—Et tylft eventyr (Troll—A Dozen Tales), in 1891, and has never previously been translated.

Warnings and Spirits

There was a kind of strange yellow light, as after rain, so one could see everything–stone and scree, so newly wet and close. The base of the mounds still lay in shadow.

A hag in a red skirt and a loose grey headscarf stood in the doorway on a green knoll, and called over to Tarand in the bank. There was a sound like the echo of someone chopping wood over there early in the summer morning. Then there was talk over in the mountainside, and the mounds came to life. Folk came in and out. It was from the subterranean church–the preaching–and the air was filled with an organ that let loose from all its pipes.

Beneath all this was still silence–so that one might hear everything.

Now some parts of the mountain cracked, away in the crown, so there were great, black crevices.

“It is the war,” it said audibly.

And there fell a stiff, silent horror across the valley.

An ugly gygre put one bare, swollen foot out.1 Its black bushy head showed above the ridge, so that it scraped and thundered and cracked in the forest.

“The great mountain trembles,” hissed the gygre hoarsely, and released with a roar a great dirty yellow stream down the scree.

“Now she is afraid, Gyri Gygre,” it screeched viciously in a mountain peak. The mountain wall cracked completely in two, with a gust as of pent up plague.

“It is the war,” it said again, from down in the valley, strangely audible; “it is roiling, out in the reefs; and the orcas and the seals are going ashore.

And all the subterraneans chattered amongst themselves, and could be heard so clearly in the wet, yellow morning light. During the silence, the organ blew and howled wildly from all its pipes in the air, and conjured powers up from the earth; and the parson preached incessantly with distant words.

The spirits should go out and stand guard; and create visions; and turn sparks to fire, and evil vapours to to delirium; and lay impassable terrain and bottomless mire before the enemy; and make the inclines steep, and the road markers to lead them astray, and the streams contrary; and cause the juniper to twist, and thorns and bushes and pines to turn their branches against them.

“And shout a warning, shout a warning!” barked a wild gygre’s voice across the valley.

Perhaps intended to be impressionistic, as Lie’s writing became in the 1880s, this text strikes me as a proto-surreal, dream-like sequence. It reveals a faith that the events of the world we know are predicted, forewarned, even caused in the subterranean world. Just which war was being foreshown is not clear. It could be the growing conflict between Sweden and Norway that culminated in the dissolution of the union in 1905, or the increasing international tension that eventually inflicted the Great War on the world, or even something as benign as the rise of Modernism, as signalled by Knut Hamsun in his seminal articles and lectures on psychological literature (Lie's Realism was of the kind Hamsun wanted to do away with).2

Whatever the intent, the idea is, as Arne Garborg notes, quite compelling as a metaphor.

“‘Warnings and Spirits’ gives with uncanny power the wild atmosphere that at times grips mankind, and pits them against each other in murder and destruction; it is the dark fear over the world, when enchantment is fully released, and a haze of blood rises up and eclipses the sun.”3

Notes

  1. A gygre is a female jǫtunn, a Norse-mythological giant. 

  2. “Hamsun publicised a literary programme that revealed strong opposition to the existing literary authorities and norms; first in the article ‘From the unconscious life of the soul’ (1890), thereafter deepened in the three controversial lectures, ‘Norwegian Literature,’ ‘Psychological Literature,’ and ‘Fashionable Literature,’ held on a tour in 1891, the aim of which was to prepare the ground for a new, psychological literature.” (Nesby, Linda Hamrin. “The Sense of Decadence in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger,” translated by Simon R. Hughes, in Dilettant, Dandy und Décadent. Hannover-Laatzen: Wehrhahn, 2004.) 

  3. Garborg, Arne. Jonas Lie: en udviklingshistorie. Kristiania: Aschehoug, 1893, p. 291. 

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