Saturday, 3 December 2016

On the Alexandrian Height

In September 1849, Peter Christen Asbjørnsen suddenly departed Fredriksvern as quartermaster aboard the corvette The Eagle, headed for the Mediterranean Sea. Rumours began to circulate that he was on the run from creditors again, but his purpose was to survey the sea bed, and observe and collect samples of the animal life in the region; and he had an ambition of writing the first Norwegian sea novel (an honour that eventually went to Jonas Lie, some thirty years later, when he published Rutland in 1880). Whatever his reasons for joining the crew of The Eagle, Asbjørnsen kept a journal for the duration of the voyage. As a result, when the ship returned in May 1850, Asbjørnsen had recorded his experiences (including an audience with Abbas I, Wāli of Egypt), his observations of his surroundings and the crew, and—most interestingly, as far as we are concerned—the tales that members of the crew told each other.

The frame narrative that surrounds the legends in “On the Alexandrian Height” has been developed from Asbjørnsen’s journal, and is intended to exemplify the kind of discussion that could lead to an exchange of tales among his shipmates. The prospect of celebrating Christmas in foreign climes is enough to make even these tough men homesick. The tales they tell each other, despite having nothing to do with Christmas, help them deal with their yearning for more familiar surroundings at this festive time of year.

There are four legends embedded in the frame narrative: the witch who climbed into the heavens, the nisse as farmhand, the ship’s nisse, and the neck who disrupts the King of Ekeberg’s wedding. It is a good selection of Norwegian folklore, featuring many of the more prevalent subterraneans from Scandinavia.

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